Every day is a new surf adventure in Costa Rica, where there are so many great beaches it can be hard to choose which one to visit first. And while many surfers travel to Costa Rica to try their hand at its famous, year-round waves, nobody knows the ins and outs quite like a local. For an insider’s take on the ultimate places to surf in Costa Rica, we tapped veteran surf instructor and adventure guide, Henry Aguilera. The native Costa Rican, from Dominical Surf Adventures, has been riding waves with his fellow Ticos for no less than 35 years. He now teaches surfing on the same beaches where he learned the sport aged 15. He narrowed down his top five surf spots – listed here from south to north, and let us in on his view of what constitutes the “real Costa Rica.”
If you’re seeking out major waves, Playa Pavones can satisfy even experienced riders. Said to spew breaks that can carry you a full kilometer (0.6 miles) in about three minutes, surfing here is an experience on par with some of the best of Australia or South Africa. Unquestionably one of the best beaches in Costa Rica for its constant stream of great waves, Aguilera also loves Playa Pavones for its location. The southernmost beach on our list, the beach is central to life in this small town, where everything revolves around the soccer field, the beach, and surfing. Six hours from San José, three hours from Dominical, and close to the Panama border, it’s worth the trip.
SURF PRO HENRY AGUILERA SAYS: “The amount you can surf on one wave here is about the same as you can surf in an entire hour in other places. It’s kind of magical. When there’s a swell, it’s always constant, creating a lot of waves. This place, in my mind, explains the satisfaction we get from surfing.”
If you’re up for an expert-level challenge, head to Playa Hermosa, where waves can reach a whopping 13 feet. Its world-class waves are best surfed with a high rising tide between April and November, which is why in 2009 and 2016, Playa Hermosa and connected Jaco Beach respectively hosted the ISA World Surfing Games. We suggest seeking out El Almendro, a large almond tree on the beach that marks the spot of one of its most popular breaks. Hermosa is the beach of choice for many travelers staying in Jaco, a town that Aguilera refers to as a “surf city”, with an abundance of restaurants and where everything is nearby and accessible. While Playa Hermosa and Jaco are very close by each other, the Jaco breaks make suitable surfing for all, especially beginners.
AGUILERA SAYS: “Jaco is a really good place for surfers that don’t have a whole lot of time to travel around. Land in San Jose and if you have a couple days on your hands, go to Jaco. Why? Beach breaks. If the waves are too big at Playa Hermosa, Jaco is great for beginners.”
Look across the bay from Pavones, and in the distance, you can just about make out the presence of a remote village surrounded by jungle and ocean. That would be Matapalo, and you’ll quickly learn it’s a whole lot more than a sleepy town at the entrance of Corcovado National Park. A community dedicated to eco-friendly habits and conserving wildlife makes this piece of Costa Rica a nature-lover’s paradise. And for surfers? One of the best beaches in Costa Rica, with three locally adored point breaks to suit any skill level. First, Pan Dulce, gentle and good for beginners; next, Backwash Point, great for longboarding and those who are a step up from beginner level; and finally, Matapalo Point, where the best conditions for intermediates and experts are at mid-tide with a west/southwest swell.
AGUILERA SAYS: “Playa Matapalo is not easy to get to, and it’s fairly isolated so you probably have to camp or rent a house nearby and bring your own supplies. It’s worth the trek because you get the real Costa Rican experience.”
On the southern tip of Costa Rica’s westernmost peninsula, Playa Santa Teresa is a beginner’s beach town with a modern hippie vibe. Hailed as the next Tulum by The New York Times, the town is loaded with locals and expats that came for a surf trip and never left. For some of the best surfing in Costa Rica, you’re looking at white sand with a hollow and consistent beach break, meaning you can hurtle through a tunnel of water on your board, with the only way out straight ahead. Find a spot towards Cabinas Playa for good surf without the crowds that culminate at Malpais further south.
AGUILERA SAYS: “Santa Teresa is a very hip place right now. With its white sand beaches and an international restaurant community, it’s great for beginners that also want to enjoy the area.”
Dominical is Aguilera’s hometown, so we knew he would have lots to say about it. The beachfront town in Bahía Ballena has delicious, healthy eats at restaurants like Costa Paraiso, Por Que No?, and Mono Congo, plus surf lessons, paragliding, or kayak tours on the river or ocean. In short, this breezy town has all the adventurous type could ask for. For surfers, it has one of Costa Rica’s most consistent beach breaks, swells from all over, and waves all year long. With a combination of jungle, ocean, and mountain, Dominical has a unique topography, with horseback and hiking trails leading to picturesque waterfalls where you can jump in for an afternoon swim.
AGUILERA SAYS: “I love being in Dominical because it’s so pretty. We have the mountains, and just across the road, there is a river for kayaking and whitewater rafting. Here, it’s like time has stopped. You have the feeling of being in the real Costa Rica because it’s not commercial and it’s not touristy. It’s very relaxing and laid back. I’m a surfer, so I love that the water is super clean; that’s why I’m here.”