The Americas

Surfing in Costa Rica: living the dream

May 22, 2019

We arrive at Playa Grande, yet another stunning slice of paradise on Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline.

A quick gaze up and down the beach reveals a fast surf break. Peak after peak of the same. Expert surfers making critical take-offs, catching barrel after barrel. Riders shooting across the face of the wave like bullet trains.

It’s day four of our Costa Rican surfing adventure. We’ve had a couple of days to fire up our surfing muscles and settle back into the surfing groove, but this? Are we ready to take on this?

No pressure

Our guide says it’s no problem to find another beach. If we’re not comfortable, we can move on. No y problema!

There’s no pressure, except from within. I’ve surfed far tougher conditions than this. I may have been younger and fitter but this trip is about regaining my surfing mojo.

I can feel the adrenaline start to pump through my body. I hate to admit defeat before I’ve even had a go. We suit up and head out.

Out in the line-up I notice more women surfers than anywhere I’ve ever been. Good, strong female surfers, absolutely ripping. What’s going on, I wonder?

I strike up a conversation with one of the group and discover the women are all part of a Barrel Clinic. Learning to surf fast, unforgiving waves. I don’t feel so bad. Or wimpy. It IS challenging out here.

I catch my first wave but it doesn’t settle me down. I’m on edge for our whole two-hour session. I manage to catch a few good waves and wish someone had been there to capture me on film. To prove that I’d actually done it.

Another stunning day in Costa Rican paradise. Sizing up the action at Playa Grande.

My Costa Rica surfing dream

Surfing in Costa Rica had been a long-held dream of mine.

A fellow adventure traveller I met in Peru years ago ignited the desire. She’d grown up surfing in California with her dad, now lived and skied in Colorado and came to Costa Rica every year to get her surfing fix.

Costa Rica always sounded so exotic. For me, it was like wanting something without really knowing what it is. The lure of faraway lands.

And so, in 2019, JJ (my partner) and I, finally made it happen.

The week-long surfing came at the end of our mountain biking adventure. It was the easy part of our trip, a wind down after the challenge of our coast to coast bike ride from the Caribbean coast on the east to the Pacific coast on the west. You can read all about our most adventurous mountain bike trip ever.

Playa Tamarindo: glorious days and deliciously warm water.
Iguana Surf is on the main road of Tamarindo.

Our Iguana Surf camp experience at Tamarindo Beach

We’re not beginner surfers so we signed up for an Intermediate package with Iguana Surf at Tamarindo on Costa Rica’s north west coast. This meant we had a private instructor for our week-long stay. We could have surfed independently but we wanted the benefit of local knowledge as well as transport to surrounding beach breaks.

We couldn’t fault the Iguana team for their friendliness and the relaxed vibe. In typical surfing style, they were super chilled and way too cool for school 😎 The team had an international flavour which included local Costa Ricans, hotshot French surfers and Americans. As intermediates, our instructor didn’t really offer much instruction, he was more of a facilitator.

As you can see the waves were pretty small and scrappy but we had loads of fun. It was just beautiful being out in the warm water.
Looking a bit salt-encrusted after a surfing session. People are often surprised when I tell them I ride a short board. Well, this is a 5’10” board, the shortest I’ve ever surfed so, it’s never too late to try something new 🏄‍♀️

We surfed at five different beaches – Playa Tamarindo, Playa Grande, Casitas, Playa Avellanas and Playa Langosta. To reach Casitas we had to catch a boat taxi across the river mouth, which looked shallow and easy enough to walk or paddle across, but it’s a popular hangout for crocodiles. Good to know.

It was great to mix it up, explore nearby areas and discover that the beaches here felt and looked a lot like Australia. One difference: there were no sharks to worry about, just a few crocs lurking nearby. 

On Playa Tamarindo, just down from our accommodation, there’s a prominent crocodile warning sign – a big fat croc lives about 20 metres from a restaurant and where people sunbake. 🐊 C R A Z Y!

Our typical surfing day in Tamarindo

Our days in Tamarindo followed the same pattern: wander down to the surf school, head out for a two-hour surf session, pig out at a late breakfast, then collapse in air-conditioned comfort to read a book and have a lazy afternoon recovery nap.

While we surfed in the mornings (depending on the tides), we often didn’t get out of the water till close to midday. The sun is super hot by then and combined with the physical exertion of surfing, we were pretty tired.

We managed a few strolls around the back streets of the neighbourhood, ambled down to happy hour on the beach to watch the sun go down, found some dinner and that was our day.

A bit too close for comfort for my liking.

Surfing conditions near Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Surfing is ultimately dependent on conditions and these varied considerably. Overall they were far from ideal, from small and scrappy, to unfriendly straight handers and fast-moving barrels. We’d apparently just missed a really big swell and to be honest, after our tough bike ride, we were grateful for the mostly tame conditions.

You can obviously set your own pace, catch as many or as few waves as you like. I wore my Garmin activity tracker in the surf and could see afterwards just how many waves I’d caught. It added up to a lot of paddling.

The surf school has plenty of different boards you can try. I surfed a 5’10”, the shortest board I’ve ever ridden for a bit of fun. Generally, the smaller waves were more suited to a mid-length board and I surfed a 7′ board.

The biggest challenge surfing in Tamarindo is the crowds. It’s a popular tourist and learn-to-surf destination in Costa Rica so the beaches can get very crowded and competition for waves can be fierce. If you’re looking for deserted breaks where you can surf in solitude, then Tamarindo isn’t the area for you.

How cool is this satellite map of one of my surfing sessions from my Garmin watch? You can see I caught a lot of waves, riding them in and paddling back out.

How to decide where to surf in Costa Rica

There are surf camps peppered up and down Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. We settled on Tamarindo Beach in the north west of the country. There are two big surf schools here which regularly popped up in our online searches – Iguana Surf, which we chose, and Witch’s Rock Surf Camp.

Iguana won out for a couple of reasons. It was cheaper. It provided two hours of surfing every day as part of the package compared to four hours at Witch’s Rock. We felt four hours a day would be too much – surfing is exhausting if you don’t do it every day.

Plus, the rooms had fridges, an important consideration if you want to self-cater food and alcohol. We certainly didn’t want to eat out every meal. 

And finally, there was a lot more sales pressure from Witch’s Rock. Even though the staff were super friendly throughout all our interactions they kept pushing to get me on the phone to pay a deposit.

What’s Tamarindo like as a town?

Is Tamarindo touristy? Hell yeah! 

It’s a beautiful beachside town full of foreigners, mostly Canadians and Americans, who come here to escape the big winter freeze up north. It has a very relaxed, casual vibe and while there is some upmarket accommodation, the emphasis is on informality. 

In our condominium complex, which is owned by North Americans, there were several retired or semi-retired couples who come to Tamarindo and Costa Rica for a few months every year. Our condo was very new, extremely well fitted out, with a large bathroom, kitchen, aircon and a shared swimming pool and barbecue. I would highly recommend it.

The beaches in Tamarindo are beautiful, the water is deliciously warm, the sunsets are stunning and beachside happy hour a daily ritual. There are dozens of shops and excellent restaurants to choose from and beyond the main road many of the streets remain unpaved, dirt roads. 

For us, Tamarindo felt like a mix between Bali and Hawaii on a much smaller scale.

Double trouble and a case of lost in translation. During 2-for-1 happy hour we ordered 2 drinks and look what arrived! 🍹🍹🍹🍹
Happy hour on the beach to soak up the sunset.
Sunset on Playa Tamarindo on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast.

Our favourite restaurants

Tamarindo caters very well for tourists with a great choice of restaurants, cafes and bars. These are our favourites:

Antichi Sapori Sicilian Cuisine: a wonderful, small Italian restaurant with only a few outside dining tables. We loved the food and the brilliant, friendly, charming host. We came back to eat here a second time during our week in Tamarindo. Can’t speak highly enough about our experience here.

Green Papaya Taco Bar: fabulous fish tacos, you sit at swings in the outside dining area. We dined here twice.

Noguis for sunset happy hour:  it’s two for one drinks, so be warned – if you order two drinks, you’ll get four. Happy dayz.

Tamarindo Night Markets: unbelievable food stalls, we regretted having dinner before we went. Also a great opportunity to buy local gifts and souvenirs. Every Thursday 6-9pm.

Our verdict on surfing in Costa Rica

It’s a long way to get to Costa Rica from Australia. We could have had similar surfing experiences much closer to home. If you’re a hard core surfer there are plenty of fantastic breaks up and down the coast, however I wouldn’t travel all the way to Costa Rica just for surfing.

Our trip wasn’t just about surfing though.

We mountain biked across the country from the Caribbean to the Pacific, one of our most adventurous trips ever. We explored national parks, met the local wildlife and visited one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes. 

We enjoyed a side of the country many tourists don’t get to experience – the rural villages, the coffee, banana, sugarcane and pineapple plantations, the dusty backroads, the lush tropical rainforests, crossing the Continental Divide. We didn’t meet one other Australian on the entire trip, except at the airport on the way home, so we felt a long way from home and were grateful for the overall experience. 

Trip notes

We stayed at Iguana Surf Condos which were a short walk from the beach, close to several supermarkets and dozens of restaurants. Our hosts were extremely welcoming, friendly and helpful. We’d definitely stay there again.

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