Are you planning an epic surf trip? Or do you want to check out some new places to get into the ocean? Well, with two coastlines, warm water, and uncrowded beaches, Central America is a surfers paradise. Here are our favorite Central America surfing towns you should visit in 2020.
I love surfing and surf culture. I do. But I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very good. I mean, I can ride a board, but I would need a lifetime of lessons to come close to the type of surfer I once hoped to be. Living in this part of the world, I should be much better. But I don’t live at the beach and don’t have the time to get serious. I guess I’m destined to be a kook forever, which I’m okay with.
But if you’re more serious about your surfing than me (or if you plan to be more serious), then Central America offers some of the best surfing on the planet. I’m not exaggerating.
I’ll go further and also say the surf in Central America has also contributed in a massive way to the region’s economy and tourism industry. Surf tourism paved the way in this part of the world.
Surfers were in Costa Rica before the eco-tourists. Nicaragua and El Salvador would be bereft of many hotels and restaurants if it wasn’t for surfing.
Surfing has done wonders for Central America.
In Central American tourism, surfers are the pioneers, showing upon down here when the region was at war or mired in unrelenting poverty. Surfers were here when everyone thought you’d have to be insane to be here. But that’s surfers for you.
Now when we talk about surfing in Central America, we’re talking about five of the seven countries down here.
Belize and Honduras, not so much. It’s all about the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, you see. This coral reef, the second largest in the world, keeps the big waves well offshore. Because of this, Belize and Honduras have some of the best diving and snorkeling on the planet, but no surf.
That said, I’ve heard about a place called Long Caye in Belize that has surf, although I don’t know anyone who’s been. And Honduras must have some spots, somewhere, no? Again, I’ve never heard of any or of anyone who’s surfed in Honduras. I’m not sure either country is worth checking out for a serious surf trip.
So it’s back to the other five if you’re into some Central America surfing. But where should you go?
There are thousands of beaches and thousands of breaks down here. Some famous and some others secret. But I want to talk about specific surf towns in Central America. Not so much specific beaches, but the towns that have made – or are making – their names through surfing and surf culture.
A good surf town should always be about more than the surf.
Sure, surfing is important, central even, but a proper surf town should be a place where non-surfers can also enjoy. There’s not much worse – especially if you’re a kook like me – than a place where surfing is everything and all anyone does is surf or talk about surfing or watch surf videos.
A good surf town is more than that. It might have started that way, but it’s evolved or is evolving.
In other words, a good surf town is a place welcome to everyone from experienced surfer to novices to non-surfers and those who just like to hang out on cool beaches.
Here are our favorite Central America surfing towns. We’re not talking much about the actual surf conditions here, please note. This is a brief rundown of the towns themselves.
Guatemala Surfing Towns
We’ve said it before, but Guatemala isn’t the first place many surfers would think of traveling to. Most people come here and never see the ocean, preferring to hang out in Antigua or the Highlands. It’s nothing personal, they don’t know about Guatemala’s 300 km of Pacific coastline. Yet.
Allan Weisbecker wrote about surfing Guatemala in the 90s in his seminal book In Search of Captain Zero. He talked of surfing for days and seeing no-one else in the water, not once. Things have changed since then, but not much.
El Paradon, Guatemala is the perfect example of a surf town on the rise. Still tiny and home to fishermen and salt farmers, the surf scene is bringing opportunity here. Miles of black sand beach face south and these swells come straight up from Antarctica. Watch this place grow. Oh, and check out the nearby village of Sipacate. Good surf here, too.
Monterrico is Guatemala’s main Pacific resort town, filling up at weekends with tourists from Guatemala City. Don’t get too excited, though. It’s still small, and the surf is way better in El Paradon. But it’s a beach town and there’s some surf and that’s what we’re talking about here.
El Salvador Surfing Towns
If I was playing word association, if someone said “El Salvador” to me, I’d say “surf”. There’s nothing else that immediately springs to mind about Central America’s smallest country than surfing. I know there’s a lot more than that, but surfing is the first thing for me at least.
El Salvador boasts 307 km of Pacific coastline packed with surf. It’s one of those countries where surfers really have helped build up the tourist infrastructure.
El Tunco is small but popular. It’s one of Central America’s quintessential surf towns with all the culture and vibe that entails. Coming to El Tunco also means access to some of the best surf in the world, not only in the village itself, but in nearby La Libertad, El Zonte, and El Sunzal. Whether you surf or not, if you like a cool backpacker party surf town with killer sunsets, you’ll love El Tunco.
El Cuco is a tiny village in the east of El Salvador near where the Pacific Ocean meets the Gulf of Fonseca. The actual surf here is in Las Flores, right next door, but in terms of “towns”, El Cuco is what you get. More for beginners/intermediates than experts, this is a great place to learn and practice your surfing. You’ll find a bunch of surf camps happy to teach you. This place is one to watch in the future.
Nicaragua Surfing Towns
Nicaragua is a surfer’s paradise. It’s a perfect example of the power of surf tourism and how surfers created and shaped the tourist business along the Pacific coast.
During the political violence which wracked Nicaragua in 2018 and pretty much killed off a promising tourist industry, surfers kept coming. Many surfer-owned surf camps, hostels, hotels, and restaurants closed down, but many stayed open. And of those that did close, many are back.
It’s those offshores, you see. You can’t keep a surfer away from some of the most consistent year-round offshore winds in the known universe.
San Juan del Sur
Many will disagree with me and that’s fine, but San Juan del Sur is my favorite surf town in Central America. It’s been around forever since they used the Rio San Juan and Lake Nicaragua to cross the Isthmus before the Panana Canal existed. Mark Twain stayed here, but I don’t think he surfed. Nowadays San Juan del Sur is a glorious ramshackle collection of clapboard homes, hostels, high-end hotels, and bars/restaurants. The surfing ain’t bad either. Not on the main town beach, no. But from San Juan del Sur you have easy access to many top quality surfing beaches.
Gigante means “giant” which might well be someone’s idea of a joke. I guess they’re referring to Playa Gigante, the beach, which is huge. What you’ll find here are a few restaurants and bars, some hostels, and the exclusive Aqua Wellness Resort on the next beach to the south. To the north, you’ll find world-class surf at Colorado, Panga Drops, and Amarillo.
Up in the north of Nicaragua, near to the colonial town of Leon, is the village of Las Peñitas. You won’t find the hustle and bustle of San Juan del Sur here, but it’s busier than Gigante, especially at weekends. People love this place and often end up staying for a long time – my friend Ben from England ended up here for five weeks! Anyway, the surf is consistent and you won’t find crowds here. Non-surfers also have the much mellower Poneloya beach next door to chill on if they want.
Costa Rica Surfing Towns
Costa Rica is Central America’s ground zero for all types of tourism, including surf tourism. They’ve been coming here since the 60s and 70s and built the towns of Tamarindo, Jaco, and many others. Or at least made them into what they are now.
Surfing is so important to Costa Rica that the government has declared the date of October 19th National Surf Day and called it an “activity of economic importance”. These are not just words – it means that the official government tourism agencies can promote surfing and pump money into it.
Not that surfers need the government to tell them how good it is in Costa Rica, of course. We could name many more surf towns than the five listed below. But we don’t have all day, I’m afraid.
Tamarindo could be the capital of surf culture in Costa Rica. Once a hamlet of a few shacks at the end of an unpaved road, Tamarindo is now a major Costa Rican tourist town and it’s all because of the surf. Some dislike Tamarindo for its commercialism and call it “Tamagringo”. But love it or hate it (I love it), it’s a true surfing town.
Another “love it or hate it” place (and I love it, too), Jaco is also a major surfing center in Costa Rica, full of bars, restaurants, and hotels of all different qualities. Jaco beach itself is so-so, but right next door Playa Hermosa offers some of the best surf in the world and hosts international competitions. You’ve also got access to the beaches of Esterillos here, as well as one or two more discreet spots to the north.
Out on the Nicoya Peninsula, at the end of a (very) bumpy road is the community of Santa Teresa. For those who dislike the hustle and bustle of Tamarindo and Jaco and seek something a little more mellow, Santa Teresa is it. The place is growing though, don’t get me wrong. Some would say booming. Santa Teresa offers a cool hippy, yoga type of vibe to go with the surf and some of the best restaurants and high-end boutique hotels in Costa Rica.
Over on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, Puerto Viejo has the best, wildest, most hardcore wave in Costa Rica, if not Central America. I mentioned the book In Search of Captain Zero before. Well, Puerto Viejo is where he found Captain Zero and if you want a true rundown on surfing this wave, read the book. The town itself is awesome. No major development like you see on the Pacific Coast, it still retains its Caribbean character, although it is growing.
Down in the southern zone of Costa Rica is the surfing town of Dominical. And when I say surfing town, I mean it. Surfing is king here and the ocean doesn’t mess around. We’re talking big waves. But non-surfers also love it here. This is where you’ll find true jungle, with waterfalls and stunning scenery. There’s also the nearby Marino Ballena National Park. And there’s enough bars and restaurants in town to keep you busy.
Panama Surfing Towns
Like Guatemala, Panama is a relatively new kid on the block when it comes to surfing. It shouldn’t be though. Panama has the longest coastline in Central America and we bet you’ll see more surfing spots discovered and springing up in the future.
Bocas del Toro
Difficult to call Bocas Town in Bocas del Toro a surf town in that it’s a regional hub, built out of the 19th and early 20th-century fruit trade. But nowadays Bocas is a major tourist center for the Bocas del Toro islands of the Caribbean coast of Panama, near the Costa Rican border. You can’t surf directly from Bocas Town but you can stay here, enjoy the amenities, and surf beaches elsewhere.
Panama’s Azuero Peninsula sticks out of the bottom of the country into the Pacific Ocean and attracts all sorts of swells. The surfing here is phenomenal but what it lacks is many true surfing towns. We’re talking remote beaches here, with maybe a hostel that might one day become a surf town. Santa Catalina has a little more than that. It’s still small, but large enough for non-surfers to not feel uncomfortable.
And there you have it, our favorite Central American surfing towns.
Surfers who know their stuff down here will say we’ve missed a bunch of places. But remember, we’re talking about specific communities here, not beaches on their own. An amazing beach backed by a couple of hostels and a bar does not make a surf town, although one day it might become a great one.
So let us know what you think of this list. Have we missed anything out? Do you have any Central American surfing towns you prefer to anything we’ve mentioned? As ever, we’d love to hear from you so drop a line in the comments.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.