The best places to surf in Central America


Swell rolls in from the Pacific and Caribbean Seas throughout the region, offering everything from barrel rolls to beefy beach breaks every month of the year. Costa Rica is rightly known for its hedonistic surf towns lined with coconut-strewn sand, while Panama has archipelagos of tropical islands surrounded by reefs and tube waves that work in the rainy season. El Salvador, meanwhile, beckons with mighty A-frames right next to hippie beer shacks. And these are just the most well-known spots.

Our guide to the best surf spots in Central America has everything you need to find the best spots to catch waves for all levels, from beginner to pro.

Tamarindo, Costa Rica: mcombining hedonism and surfing since 1991

Surf, eat, party, rehearse: this is the routine in Tamarindo. The rise of this town has been nothing short of phenomenal since Bruce Brown and company dropped by during filming. Endless Summer II in the early 90s. Today, everyone wants a slice of the action – and it’s not hard to see why.

Tamarindo is anchored on Playa Tamarindo, a long arc of alabaster sand with peaks for all abilities – think beginner whitewash meets the perfect lefts and rights for intermediates to start ripping. The best surfers usually head to Playa Grande for the faster, deeper, right-hand break that forms on the Estero Estuary. Just watch out for the fangs in the water if you join us.

High or incoming tides tend to work best as a few of the named breaks rely on submerged rock reefs to work. Get up early to surf here if you can, as the morning crowds in Tamarindo are thinned out by hangovers picked up at thumping bars like Sharky’s and Crazy Monkey the night before.

Getting to Tamarindo: A transfer or public bus from Liberia airport takes no more than 2 hours. From San José airport, a bus takes about 5 hours.

Isla Bastimentos in Panama‘s Bocas del Toro Islands is an intermediate surfer’s paradise. © John Seaton Callahan/Getty Images

Bocas del Toro, Panama: crashing waves on brochure-worthy beaches

There are so many overwater bungalows in Bocas del Toro these days that it can sometimes feel like the Maldives in the Caribbean. But it’s all that happens above and below the water – boating, scuba diving and surfing – that makes this string of six populated islands, 50 coral cays and more than 200 mini-islets so special.

The variety of breaks accessible just a short boat ride from Bocas Town is truly impressive. (A boat will really be the only way to get around.) Beginners can go 20 minutes to Wizard Beach to find glassy 5-foot swells with barely a queue. Experts can go 15 minutes to Bluff Beach for sucking tubes with the power to break planks. The long Isla Bastimentos, meanwhile, is an intermediate surfer’s paradise.

The downside to surfing in Bocas del Toro is the relatively short season. December to early April is the sweet spot, when the constant offshore winds from the north and swells from the southwest combine. The rest of the year it’s a paradise for sipping coconut and snorkeling with water as smooth as a Panamanian hojaldre cake.

Getting to Bocas del Toro: Air Panama has direct flights from Panama City (Albrook airport) to Bocas del Toro. There are also water bus connections from Panama City.

Popoyo, Nicaragua: paradise for experienced surfers

Playa Popoyo in southwest Nicaragua is only 800 meters long, but it manages to pack more waves than you can shake a plate of gallo pinto at. It has earned its reputation as one of the toughest surfing destinations in Central America, as it manages a good size and offers a mix of point breaks and reefs that each pose their own challenges.

The star is Popoyo Main Break, a near-perfect A-frame that delivers fast but fun right and lefts at just about any tide. It’s nowhere near as heavy as the Outer Reef, which hits three overhead slabs for a range of genuine Evel Knievels. Goofy runners, meanwhile, should be sure to check out Stoney’s, a leftover spot reminiscent of Bali’s iconic Uluwatu.

A great way to tick the lot is to opt for a surf package with NicaWaves Surf Camp. Although their pad is only a five-minute walk from Main Break, their trips include up to three surf boat expeditions.

Getting to Popoyo: Private transfers from Managua take just over 2 hours. You can also take the public bus, but keep in mind that it stops just outside Popoyo itself, so you’ll have to walk the last couple miles or try to hitch a ride towards the water.

Green leaves catch the sunset light, with surf-friendly waves seen in the distance, at Popoyo Beach, Nicaragua
Popoyo Beach packs in big waves along its half-mile length © Eugene Voroniuk / Shutterstock

El Tunco, El Salvador: Surfing and Sunsets Galore

El Tunco is the best place in El Salvador to get the salt in your hair and ride the waves. More than just a surf town, El Tunco is also a party-friendly hippie paradise, with a resident crowd of Willie Nelson lookalikes and surf-mad locals.

There are four fantastic breaks grouped together on a 3km coastal strip, with options for all levels of surfers. Just getting started? Many outfitters offer lessons at El Sunzalito or nearby Playa San Blas, both of which have sandy bottoms and crumbly waves. The western end of the range has the El Sunzal point break, a right-hander suitable for improving intermediates. Then you get La Bocana, a fast and difficult left with some hollow sections.

Monkey Lala is the gathering place at golden hour. From here, you can watch the sun set behind the rocks of the famous El Tunco rock stack (which is said to be shaped like a pig) and watch the local teams tear up La Bocana.

Getting to El Tunco: Direct buses from San Salvador to El Tunco take about an hour and cost about 17 SVC ($2) per person.

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica: everyone hails ultra-consistent waves

It seems everyone and their dog (or at least their partner) are in Santa Teresa right now. A once sleepy stretch of rutted roads and fishing shacks at the end of the wondrous Nicoya Peninsula, it has been transformed into one of the most stylish places to wax the board in the land of Pura Vida – and Central America.

Don’t be too put off by all the more dressed-up visitors, though: Santa Teresa still has yoga camps clustered along its hillsides, the vibes on the waves are nice and relaxed, and the howler monkeys remain the morning wake-up call. Plus, the new interest has spawned some pretty nifty new surf camps and cafes – even Lapoint of Ericeira fame has opened up shop, complete with a sleek surf hotel centered around a swimming pool.

When it comes to waves, Playa Santa Teresa is a seemingly endless stretch of cocoa-tinged sand that is beach peak after beach peak. The scene is at its peak in the summer on SW swells, but has a year-round consistency that would make Roger Federer blush. To the north, Playa Hermosa offers to find more muscular waves to learn. Or head south to Mal País for harder reef breaks and points.

Getting to Santa Teresa: Direct public buses that cost around ₡7,600 CRC ($12) per person depart from San José at least twice a day, in 6 or 7 hours. Those in a hurry can take a propeller plane to Tambor and make the 35-minute transfer from there.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica: the place to go when the Pacific is flat

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean Sea comes into season when the waves die off on the Costa Rican Pacific. From December to March, powerful tropical storm systems sitting off the Colombian coast send steady southeasterly swells into bays north and south of the city.

The most famous spot of the lot here is surely the Salsa Brava. It’s hailed as Tico’s answer to the Hawaii Pipeline and features heavy, hollow barrels over shallow reefs bristling with sea urchins. Something a little easier is on offer at Playa Cocles, where you’ll find the local surf schools plying their trade between leaning coconut palms.

It is ritual to retire to Tasty Waves Cantina on Playa Cocles once you have completed a session. This wonderfully run-down reggae and dub bar serves up cold imperial ales, pub fare, and late-night entertainment on Tuesday nights.

Getting to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Autotransportes Mepe runs buses from San José about five times a day. There are also direct buses from Limón.

A surfer holding his board peeks into the pink sunset light on Nosara Beach, Costa Rica
The secret is out: Nosara has some of the best beginner surfing spots in Central America © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet

Nosara, Costa Rica: the best waves for beginners

After years of living in Tamarindo’s shadow, Nosara finally hits the big time. Regulars will bemoan the secret being out – but there’s no way such a major surfing destination could stay under the radar in Costa Rica, especially with its epic offering for beginners.

Playa Guiones is the crown jewel. A gentle curve of a bay that slopes ever so slightly southwest into the Pacific, it’s a swell magnet with a kaleidoscope of breaks forming on the ever-changing sandbars. Low tide can get crisp and big, but rising waters light up the goods for learners, bringing back glassy green waves and lots of whitewash.

The city? Think of Tamarindo 20 years ago. Big names like Selina are now on board, but you can also find guesthouses surrounded by jungle and inhabited by howler monkeys just steps from the waves of Guiones. The Sunset Shack and the Ride On Beach House are particularly well rated.

Getting to Nosara: Direct buses from San José take up to 5 hours, while buses from Liberia take around 3 hours. Transfers should be made in a 4X4 as some of the roads leading to Nosara are unpaved.

Playa Maderas, Nicaragua: an A-frame for many levels

Early risers and surfers at low tide will be rewarded with emptier queues in an area that can get crowded with one-day surf schools outside of SJDS and local crews. Alternatively, you can make puppy eyes for a local guide to see if they’ll reveal the secret spots between town and Playa Yankee, towards the Costa Rican border.

It’s tempting to stay in San Juan del Sur and travel to Maderas whenever you want to surf. But that would mean missing out on some of the fantastic new camps, like the Buena Vista Surf Club and its yoga deck perched above the coastal jungles.

Getting to Playa Maderas: First, aim for San Juan del Sur by taking the direct bus from Managua via Rivas. Then, head to Playa Maderas by taxi or, even more fun, by water taxi.


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