Are you into SUP? If not, you should be. Stand up paddleboarding is a growing sport around the world, gaining popularity everywhere. And Central America is no exception. With its tropical beaches, islands, rivers, and lakes, Central America is a stand up paddlers paradise. In this article, we look at the best spots for stand up paddleboarding in Central America. This article contains affiliate links, where we make a small commission if you buy anything after clicking, at no extra cost to you.
Over the past few years, you may have noticed a curious new sight on your local stretch of water. Someone standing on what looks like a surfboard with a paddle in hand, moving around all cool, calm, and collected. You’ve just seen a stand up paddleboarder.
Stand up paddleboarding (or SUP, as everyone calls it) isn’t new.
Like surfing, the sport originated in Hawaii with, well, surfers. Back in the day, a few surfers in Hawaii began using paddles to get out into the line up easier. Lo and behold, a new “thing” was born. (Actually, the original, pre-European contact Hawaiins always used paddles to get out to the best waves. Surfing as we know it began with paddles, and later generations of surfers just copied the originals.)
“Unlike surfing,” says Torben Lonne, the founder of watersports website DiveIn, “To practice stand-up paddleboarding you don’t need to look for places with strong winds and world-class waves to have a good time; in fact, quite the opposite.
“Given that all external factors you need to practice SUP are calm waters and the light of day, it makes it a really easy sport to practice in almost any significant water body.”
It might not surprise you to learn that Central America is perfect for SUP.
The region is – and always will be – a surfers paradise, of that there’s no doubt. But SUP is growing strong in a region with the best, most beautiful beaches, lakes, and rivers in the world.
With year-round warm weather and waters, there’s always a place to get your SUP groove on in Central America.
Let’s take a look at some of our favorite spots for stand up paddleboarding in Central America. We’ll also introduce you to some of the SUP enthusiasts around the region:
Glovers Reef Atoll (and San Pedro), Belize
It’s difficult to name one single spot in Belize for stand up paddleboarding. Quite frankly, the whole country is one big SUP hotspot. Well, the bits of Belize on the Caribbean Sea, anyway. Plus some of the jungle rivers inland.
The reason for the perfect SUP conditions in Belize largely come down to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that lies offshore. It’s the second-longest barrier reef in the world, and provides the calm conditions perfect for SUP. Plus, of course, the added bonus of warm waters and plenty of tropical fish.
“Perfect for beginners and experts alike, Glovers Reef offers over 50 square miles of shallow, protected lagoons, brimming with coral reefs, tropical fish, and secluded white sand tropical cayes,” says Boys.
“San Pedro is a gorgeous destination located just 15 minutes by boat from the barrier reef,” she says. “This town offers unparalleled landscapes, a great restaurant scene, and incredible turquoise Caribbean waters perfect for learning how to paddle board.”
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Lee Beal runs Kayak Guatemala, an adventure tour operator on the lake. He’s lived on the shores of Lake Atitlan since 2005.
“Lake Atitlan has much to offer paddleboarders,” he says. “It’s the perfect blend of nature, culture, and adventure. Many sections of the shore line are untouched by human hands and have a huge variety of bird life.
“Thirteen Mayan villages are scattered along the shoreline, and a slow paddle past offers an insight into their unique culture. Local fishermen ply the waters in unique dugout boats, often paddling while standing up. They may be the original inspiration for our more modern boards. The lake is so large, that a circumnavigation is a five-day adventure.”
Remember the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef we talked about earlier in Belize? Well, the same system makes the Bay Islands of Honduras perfect SUP hotspots. The island of Roatan stands out in particular.
“First, the water is warm and mainly flat inside the reef allowing for beginners to get their “sea legs” in a somewhat protected and friendly environment. Not too deep and usually no waves to fight through, which is huge to a beginner,” he says.
“Second, because of the water conditions, Roatan also allows a more experienced paddler the opportunity for excellent distance paddles. For example, the distance between West Bay and West End on the water is about 4 km, and many of our avid paddlers will do that both ways everyday.
“Third, the adventure or destination type SUPer can find many interesting spots around the island to paddle, with a variety of interesting shipwrecks, mangrove tunnels, deserted beaches, cays or bays to explore. Some use boards to find snorkel spots on the reef, that only a boat could otherwise take them to. Also, from the vantage point of a paddleboard, spotting various fish, rays, or turtles is pretty easy.”
Playa El Sunzal, El Salvador
With some 320 km of Pacific coastline packed with incredible breaks of all shapes and sizes, El Salvador is deservedly associated with surfing. In fact, surfing is government tourism policy for a post-pandemic El Salvador, and the ISA World Surfing Games will take place this month in Playa El Sunzal.
But El Sunzal is also an up-and-coming SUP spot. It’s also used to international competition, being the site of the 2019 ISA World SUP and Paddleboard Championship.
El Sunzal is a soft, rolling right-hand point-break and its sloping walls are great for SUP, longboarding, and learning to surf.
“It also has a very big channel with calm water, which is excellent for beginner SUP and paddlers,” says Mauricio Tevez from Surf and Trips El Salvador. “Imagine waking up, sipping your morning coffee, then launching your SUP into the same tropical waters as a world championship!”
Lake Nicaragua, Nicaragua
But one of the most unique SUP experiences you’ll ever have will be on Central America’s largest lake, Lake Nicaragua, around the Isletas of Granada.
“I had one of my all time favourite paddle boarding experiences on Lake Nicaragua,” says SUP enthusiast Roshni from The Wanderlust Within, a UK-based travel blog.
“We spent an afternoon stand-up paddle boarding around the isletas of Granada at sunset. The tropical setting had perfectly still waters, with Volcan Mombacho looming in the distance and plenty of wildlife surrounding us, including parakeets, turtles and howler monkeys.”
Lake Arenal, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is the capital of Central American adventure sports and it also has a vibrant, growing SUP community. You can find ocean, river, and lake SUP locations all over Costa Rica.
Lake Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s best spots for some freshwater SUP action. It’s Costa Rica’s largest lake (albeit partly artificial, from the construction of the Arenal Dam in 1979), lying in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano. Paddleboarders on the lake can enjoy year round perfect conditions amid spectacular scenery.
Christine Larson is the co-owner of the Desafio Adventure Company, a tour operator based in the Arenal area. Originally set up as a river rafting company (the area is famous for this sport), Desafio now runs SUP tours on Lake Arenal.
An avid SUP enthusiast herself, Larson loves how much the sport has taken off on Lake Arenal.
“It’s wonderful to get out into the middle of the lake, either on your own or with a friend, and just soak in the nature surrounding you,” she says. “There’s a sweet spot in the center of the lake where you can see the volcano in a way no-one on land can… all the textured details of the rocks. It’s amazing!”
Isla Culebra, Panama City, Panama
Panama offers one great SUP spot that all the other Central American countries lack: The opportunity to paddleboard in a capital city, with gleaming skyscrapers and a stunning skyline as your backdrop.
Of course, Panama has other places too – tropical beaches, glorious lakes, and secluded bays on both Pacific and Caribbean sides. But there’s something about getting a good SUP workout done in the heart of the city. You can go out in your lunch hour if you want!
Torben Lonne from DiveIn loves Panama City for paddleboarding, and heads over to Isla Culebra on the Amador Causeway whenever he’s in town.
“Isla Culebra is one of the most famous spots in all Central America to practice SUP,” he says.
“It’s surrounded by paddle clubs where you can get guided tours and SUP classes for beginners all the way to professionals. Clear and calm water is what you’ll find in Isla Culebra, which along with almost year-round sunny weather makes it a truly special place for stand-up paddleboard enthusiasts.”
These are our favorite SUP spots in Central America, although theoretically, if there’s a body of water, there’s a place to paddleboard.
There’s no doubt we’ve missed many places.
Most of the locations listed above – and certainly the businesses we’ve mentioned – will rent out SUP paddleboards. But if you’re a true SUP enthusiast coming to Central America, you’ll want to bring your own down.
If you don’t own a paddleboard yet, make sure you get one that suits your individual needs. Outdoor experts The Adventure Junkies offer some invaluable tips to help you choose the right touring paddleboard for you.
Dave from Roatan PaddleSports in Honduras often hears about SUPers in Central America who end up taking the sport seriously enough to buy their own board.
“For some paddling in Roatan is merely a photo op. However, we know many who paddled for the first time here with us who went home and bought a board or two.”
Whether you’re an experienced SUP/paddleboarder or a novice, hoping to learn this special sport in the tropics, we hope we’ve given you some idea of the best places to check out.
What are your favorite SUP/paddleboarding spots in Central America?