Surfing in Costa Rica: Secrets from a local surfer

September 20, 2018
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Costa Rica’s known for great surfing spots like Jacó, Hermosa, Tamarindo, Grande and Salsa Brava, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. That’s where I started surfing, and they’re the most popular among locals and visitors, but us locals still keep a few spots secret, especially those who like ripping waves in the privacy of their own backyard.

As a Costa Rican who’s been ripping local waves for the past nine years, I’ve surfed them all.

I think.

According to my mom, I went nuts the first time I set foot in the ocean, but because we lived in San José, I couldn’t get a board and start surfing until I was 17. I didn’t know anything about the sport. I didn’t have a car or a network of fellow surfers.

I bought myself a $150 LSD board with plastic fins and a Kommunity leash and pad and learned how to paddle, duck dive and float. I couldn’t get into a good pace until I got a car years later. My main spots were now just 90 minutes and $30 worth of gas away.

A secret spot in the central Pacific (Manuel Martínez / The Tico Times)

Then my network of local surfers started growing. My girlfriend’s best friend’s boyfriend was this Italian guy who shaped boards in Santa Teresa. He took me to his favorite spot and then pointed out the fact that I needed a board that fit my body better.

I found the perfect match at a shop in Tamarindo, and I could totally feel the difference after my first session. I no longer was the slowest paddler, and I got the first taste of a right and left-hander.

Now I’m 26 and have two boards, a 6’0” Denga with large Future Fiberglass Fins from a local surf shop in Santa Teresa, and a 6’2” Carton with FCS Medium size fiberglass fins from a legendary Jacó shaper. Both these boards both have a volume between 30 and 35 liters and they’re a couple of rockets. I’m hoping to get more barrel time and, with a lot of hard work and patience, land my first aerial tricks.

I spend most of the time surfing in Hermosa or Jacó, but I’ll occasionally road trip out to Guanacaste, the Southern Pacific, Limón or Santa Teresa to rip some waves.

When I go to these places I have friends that guide me and point me to some sweet secret spots and amazing locations I never would’ve thought existed so close to home.

I’ll start you off with some of the more popular spots.

Difficulty will vary from spot to spot, and you should choose where you feel more comfortable and likely to surf. Jacó, Tamarindo and Puerto Viejo are the three most important surf towns.

Not only will you be able to connect with the ocean and its waves, but there’s also plenty of food and nightlife that won’t let you down.

Jacó, in the Central Pacific, is the best spot to learn and start getting used to duck diving, paddling, floating, and getting in sync with the ocean. It has a beginner’s level of difficulty, yet when the proper swell hits its coast waves up to 7 feet and you will be able to rip lefts and rights.

Noe Mar McGonagle
Noe Mar McGonagle came in third in the Men's Open after a close final at the 2016 ISA World Surfing Games in Jacó, Puntarenas. (Courtesy: Alfredo Barquero/Costa Rica Surf Federation)

The best time to surf Jacó will always be the mornings when there’s little to no wind, yet the tide must be in sync too. Afternoons tend to be windy and this has a negative effect on the waves. But when the elements are properly aligned, the afternoon session can become extremely fun. The best tide to surf Jacó will always be two hours before high tide peak and the next two hours after.

Tamarindo is a great option for beginners as well. It has several surf schools for those interested in knowing the basics. The waves are mostly small to medium-sized and perfect to practice and learn this magnificent sport.

If you’re with friends who aren’t ocean-driven, you will have multiple options to get grub or a fresh beverage and enjoy the view. If you enjoy nightlife, then Tamarindo will serve a wide menu of options to go out partying with your friends and some locals.

Playa Grande is one of the most popular spots on the northern Pacific coast. It’s known for its recurrent offshore wind, sunny days and its extensive right-hand waves. Playa Grande, like Hermosa, can change from one day to another. Sometimes it has small waves and is perfect for the family.

If you come during summer and get a solid swell, there’s a high chance you’ll even find some shade in these blue-water barrels. It’s literally right next to Tamarindo and if you don’t want to drive your car a few miles, you can pay a couple of bucks for a boat ride that will take you across the estuary that divides these two beaches.

Costa Rica's 2015 National Surfing Champion Jason Torres gets air off a wave at Playa Hermosa's famous "La Curva," which is located within the Punta Mala wildlife refuge. (Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times)

Hermosa, also known as the National Stadium of Surfing, is one of the most popular spots throughout the country. You can find this spot in the Central Pacific just five minutes away from Jacó. Legends like Kelly Slater have surfed it: he said it’s one of his favorite surfing spots in the world. Local legends like the Muñoz brothers (Carlos and Alberto), Alvaro Solano and the McGonagle siblings (Noe and Leilani) will use it as their training spot.

If there are no waves anywhere else, go to Hermosa. Regardless of the swell forecast, Hermosa will always have waves to offer. Its difficulty level can change from amateur to pro from one day to another. If you have never surfed before in your life, Hermosa is not recommended for you. You might get surprised by a massive set at any time, and you wouldn’t be the first one to break a board in this epic spot.

Some board carnage from Playa Hermosa (Manuel Martínez / The Tico Times)

Salsa Brava, the spicy sauce, is also not recommended for just anyone. Located in the beautiful southern Caribbean coast, this coral sanctuary will pump you full of adrenaline and possibly give you a harsh date with sharp coral. This spot requires specific conditions for the beast to wake up, but when it does, only the bravest and most skilled can ride it. This spot can be found in front of Puerto Viejo’s downtown, and some local insight is required to get to the lineup, as you will have to paddle around the beautiful yet sharp Caribbean reef.

If you are a barrel junkie then this will be your mecca, and you can get to choose between a right or a left. Just make sure to go fully committed or else pay the price of this mythical spot.

If you are planning your next surf trip to Costa Rica, then you are in for a treat.

Not only are there multiple spots with diverse types of waves, but you can also find plenty of surf shops to buy everything from a brand-new board to a wax bar. After hitting the water and ripping waves you will be able to lay back and enjoy a cold one while watching a multicolored sunset. Make sure to respect the environment, the local scene and the priority in the water, and you are in for one remarkable experience.

Coming soon I will talk about two magical spots that have a lot to offer: Cóbano and the Southern Pacific, with some insight from local surfers and shapers. See you next time and till then, see you in the water.

 

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