When you volunteer abroad in Costa Rica, you’ll have the opportunity to explore your host nation and enjoy its exotic environments – including a wealth of fantastic beaches where you can hone your surfing skills. Whether you’re new to the sport or a pro, Costa Rica’s year-round waves and warm waters make for the perfect surfing setting; experience the thrill of the waves and the wind in your hair during your volunteer trip.
Surfing became popular in Costa Rica in the 1980s and has continued to gain momentum as a beach sport ever since. Its relative newness within the surfing world means that Costa Rica’s best surfing hotspots are uncrowded in comparison with more established areas like southern California and Hawaii, so surfers have the luxury of space when practicing out on the water.
There are numerous beaches ideal for a spot of surfing in your free time during a volunteer abroad break; in fact, regardless of where you stay, you’ll be within a couple of hours’ of a beach - because it measures just 51,100 km² (roughly the size of West Virginia), Costa Rica can be traveled from end to end in several hours. Of course, you won’t want to miss out on the prime surfing spots, though – keep reading for our pick of the top seven best beaches for surfing in Costa Rica.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
The coastal town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Limon is well-known for its glorious shores. Powdery black sand and exotic vegetation makes this a popular beach with tourists and locals alike, many of whom visit to chill out on the sand or take a dip in the warm Caribbean Ocean. Similarly, surfers flock to the bay to ride the renowned waves, many keen to follow in the footsteps of famous Costa Rican surfer Gilbert Brown – a Puerto Viejo native.
There are a variety of beaches throughout the town and surfing conditions vary – some sandy spots are suitable for beginners while others are ideal for those with advanced abilities. Beginners should head to Playa Negra, where conditions are safe for novices to learn the basics. Intermediate surfers can often be found at Playa Cocles, which is also where national championship surfing events are held. The most advanced surfers head to Salsa Brava to tackle the more challenging conditions and get their adrenalin pumping.
Throughout the town there are numerous surfing schools, which offer lessons for surfers of all abilities. If you’re just starting out, or wanting to brush up on your skills, it’s worth checking out the surfing schools online, along with reviews, before making a booking.
The locale’s cultural history is as big a draw as its reputation for being a surfer’s paradise; here you’ll see a diverse slice of the population, from local ticos and Afro-Caribbean residents to members of indigenous tribes like the Bribri. Located close to some of Costa Rica’s best spots for biodiversity, Puerto Viejo is in prime position for an extended weekend that takes in sites of ecological interest, including Cahuita National Park and Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
The small town of Cabo Matapalo is something of a hidden gem, located at the outermost point of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Not many visitors travel as far as the southern Pacific coast and as a result Matapalo is known for its remoteness, jungles, beautiful beaches, amazing surf points and great scenery, thanks to its closeness to Corcovado National Park.
Unspoiled and secluded, the beach at Matapalo is uncrowded and idyllic; the sand is clean and soft and the water is clear. Bordering the beach to the rear are forests of palm and mango trees and along the road leading to the beach visitors often report seeing the local monkeys at play. There are few people and little noise, which gives the bay a paradise-like ambience. As well, the conditions are ideal for surfing entirely free from distraction or onlookers.
Along the beach are several surfing spots, varying in difficulty. Both beginners and more advanced surfers will find suitable areas to practice, however, with the Pan Dulce section ideal for novices with its small, gentle waves. Well-seasoned surfers will find plenty to keep them busy, including the large swell at the Backwash and the challenging wave walls at Hog Hole – just be aware of the large rocks in the ocean here.
Further afield, there are numerous other great surfing locations; just a short boat ride away you’ll find Punta Banco, so you can spend an entire day out on the water when you’re taking a break from volunteering!
A popular resort city, Jaco is the best-known surfing spot in the whole of Costa Rica. The beach here is 4 km in length and popular all week long with locals and visitors alike, so expect lots of company during your surfing session!
The waters around Jaco are warm and the ocean floor is sandy, so there’s no need to be extra cautious about rocks. There are numerous surfboard rental shops and it’s easy to purchase surfing lessons from one of the providers based on the beach.
Beginners are advised to stick to the southern end, where the waves are gentle for learners. In the northern section, the conditions are more challenging – especially at high tide. You’ll find left and right-hand waves, with the best swell direction from the south and south-west. When evening falls, Jaco becomes a hub for wild nightlife, so continue the fun into the small hours or head home if you’re not keen on the party atmosphere.
Jaco is close to Carara National Park, where you can trek through dense rainforest and admire indigenous wildlife, including the rare scarlet macaw – an at-risk species. Also close by is Rainforest Adventures – an ecotourism landmark where visitors can take a thrilling zip-line ride through the jungle, explore the butterfly and frog garden, and climb up waterfalls for stunning views of the cascading water and the surrounding jungle.
Located on central Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio is undoubtedly Costa Rica’s most famous tourist destination. The national park is known for its beautiful beaches, serene atmosphere and biodiverse landscapes, which encompass a varied array of environments and ecosystems. Sandy beaches, rainforest and coral reefs can all be found in the park, which spans approximately 680 hectares and houses hundreds of bird species, monkeys and reptiles.
Within Manuel Antonio there are a variety of beaches where surfing is popular; just north of the park’s entrance is a great sandy beach ideal for surfing beginners, while one kilometer north is Playitas - which translates as ‘little beach’ - a popular hangout for intermediate and more advanced surfers. At Playitas, you’ll need to watch out for the rocks at low tide; both beaches have the best surfing conditions at high tide.
There are numerous surfing instructors and schools based in the area and most lessons are held at the beginners’ beach. Head towards the town and you’ll see stands along the road for the available surfing classes, or do some research online before you travel to ensure you receive the experience you’re expecting when you arrive.
After a morning in the water, spend some time on dry land and explore the national park, which is one of Costa Rica’s best-loved natural attractions. Follow the hiking trails that zig-zag throughout the park to admire coastal, mountainous and jungle settings, and look out for the native wildlife, including green iguanas, capuchin monkeys, toucans, woodpeckers and a variety of snakes. Within the park you can have a go at scuba diving, sea kayaking and snorkeling, which will also give you the opportunity to see some of Costa Rica’s underwater biodiversity, such as dolphins and migrating whales.
Santa Rosa is a national park within the Guanacaste province of north-western Costa Rica. Part of the Area de Conservación Guanacaste World Heritage Site and within the larger Guanacaste Conservation Area, Santa Rosa shot to fame in the movie Endless Summer II, which showcased famous surfing destinations around the world.
Known for its challenging features, like Witch’s Rock (Roca Bruja) and Ollie’s Point (Potrero Grande), Santa Rosa offers world-class surfing opportunities for the not-so faint of heart. Fairly isolated, the beach here is most popular with surfers as opposed to tourists, and you could have quite a lot of company in the water when the surf is up.
An exposed point/rivermouth break, the conditions at Santa Rosa are consistently good and the water is warm all year round. The main swell season runs from April to October and conditions are best between December and April – the dry season. Whatever time of year you visit to volunteer in Costa Rica, however, you’ll be able to surf at Santa Rosa, just be on your guard for hazards like rocks, sharks and crocodiles, although no attacks have been reported!
You can admire the beauty of your surroundings while out on the open waves but it’s worth spending some time exploring the park after your surfing session, too. Home to ten unique habitats, Santa Rosa has forests, marshlands and mangroves, more than 11 species of mammal - including tapirs, various monkeys and cougars - and over 250 different types of bird; take a canopy tour through the treetops and see how many you can spot.
The town of Montezuma at the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula is a popular destination for budget-conscious volunteers looking to experience Costa Rica at its most rugged. Home to awe-inspiring waterfalls, tranquil beaches and winding rivers, Montezuma is also moving rapidly up in the popularity stakes as a surfing hotspot.
Within the vicinity are several areas suitable for surfing, the most popular being Playa Grande. The beach can be found about 30 minutes north of the town on foot and there is a shack here hiring out boards for anyone who doesn’t want to carry their equipment on the hike. At the beach, you’ll see many students receiving surfing lessons, as well as confident surfers out on their boards alone.
Surfing conditions are best at mid to high tide and the waves are consistently good for beginners. Other popular surfing spots in and around Montezuma include Los Cedros, where you may find children’s surfing contests taking place, and Reyes, which is fairly secluded and only popular with the more die-hard surfers. Conditions here are great for surfing no matter the tide level but beware the rocks on the walk out to the water.
Nearby is Santa Teresa – one of Costa Rica’s best-known surfing destinations and party town. Because of its proximity to Montezuma, you could visit Santa Teresa as part of a trip to Montezuma.
Attracting locals and tourists alike, Pavones on Osa Peninsula in south-western Costa Rica is a surfing mecca. This quiet settlement is surrounded by farmland and tranquil fields, with the main attraction being the glorious beach and impressive waves.
Renowned as having one of the world’s longest lefts, Pavones is ideal for intermediate to advanced surfers, who will have the chance to stand on their boards on the swell for up to two minutes at a time in the best conditions. High tide is the ideal time to ride the waves; at low tide, the walk out to the water can be slippery as a result of the exposed rocks. On the other side of the bay there are several breaks and opportunities for other watersports and activities, like offshore fishing.
Between April and November is the best time to visit Pavones, when the southern swells are most frequent and produce some of the nation’s biggest breaks. Because of its sheltered position, however, Pavones’ waves can be random – at times, the surf only produces small, waist-high waves, and when word gets out that conditions are good you can expect lots of surfers to turn up and make the most of the moment!
Naturally beautiful, Pavones is home to lush forests ideal for a relaxing hike when you’re looking to wind down after the exhilaration of surfing. Of course, you can always simply admire the surrounding scenery from your surfboard, as the beach itself is pristinely beautiful and backs on to lush vegetation.
Frequently making top ten lists of the world’s best surfing destinations, Costa Rica is becoming more and more of a mecca for surfers. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just testing the water, surfing can be a great way to experience the beauty of nature while getting your adrenalin pumping. Take some time out from your volunteering duties to get under the skin of this beautiful nation and enjoy the many and varied experiences to be had in the surf off the Costa Rican coast. Want to learn more about what you’ll see and do when you volunteer in Costa Rica?