“Smoke and ash from field-clearing fires curled up here and there
in the middle-distance like riptides; the air smelled like burning wood
and diesel fumes, and reminded me of every Central American trip I’ve
ever taken. It was comforting and also a bit exhilarating. I’ve scored way
more good waves to that acrid smell than I have to plumeria and gardenia.”
- Matt Warshaw, Surfer Magazine, November 2004
At the risk of sounding cliché, Costa Rica is a surfer’s paradise. You have seen it said in the magazine
ads and you have probably heard it out in your local line-up. With little qualification, you are hearing it again
here. Costa Rica has a zillion breaks with waves coming from all directions on two coasts. You don’t need
a wetsuit and the hazards are minimal. People are friendly. Comfortable lodging and food are plentiful and
reasonably priced. There are populated breaks for those needing company or an audience, and they are
usually bordered by empty breaks within eyesight or a couple of kilometers. And when you really want to
get remote there are plenty of world-class waves accessible only by boat or long hikes through tropical
rainforest. Everything a surfer needs is in Costa Rica.
Friendly, Safe, Beautiful
Some still think of Central America as a place of highway ambushes, military violence, mass graves,
torture, poverty and especially unpleasant prisons. Those thoughts are best saved for other places,
because Costa Rica is a beautiful, peaceful democracy known as “the Switzerland of Central America.”
For good reason: The standard of living is one of the highest of the Americas. The education and literacy
rates are high compared to other countries of the Americas, and the economy is stronger. The people are
happy, friendly and well mannered. But exercise normal good judgment and caution as crime has been
on the rise, including violent crime, but mostly in the bigger cities.
Friendly, safe, beautiful, warm water, and all the other wonderful things about Costa Rica conspire to hide
the biggest danger: The surf. Drowning is a regular occurrence at Costa Rica beaches, but unlike the
occasional murder, it rarely makes the news. There are from 50 to 70 reported drownings each year.
While most of the drownings are not surfers, the fact remains that unless you are an experienced surfer
and a strong swimmer you should take extra caution. The better beach breaks, reefs and rivermouths all
have dangerous rips and undercurrents, and there are almost no lifeguards to be found, even at the most
crowded tourist beaches. So beware, and be a strong swimmer, or wait for small surf to venture out.
For the novice, here’s some standard advice on how to avoid the most popular cause of drowning: “Rips.”
Riptides, rips, or rip currents occur at most beaches with waves. The experienced surfer spots them
easily as the brown, sandy, rippled water interrupting an otherwise uniform blue/green shoreline. When
waves break they push water up the beach, which then needs to return to the sea. Sometimes, the
returning water gathers together forming a sort of river heading back out to sea, a rip current. Swimmers
get caught in rips and dragged out past the breaking waves where the rip dissipates and releases its
victim. Inexperienced swimmers drown because they don’t understand how rip currents work, so they
panic and try to fight their way back to shore. Even experienced surfers drown after being caught in rips, so
they’re not to be taken lightly. The best thing to do when caught in a rip is to relax and let it have its way
with you. It will eventually release its grip, at which point you swim in letting the breaking waves lend a
hand by washing you ashore. Don’t try to swim straight in as you’ll be swimming back against the same
rip that dragged you out. Instead, swim laterally, parallel to the shore to get around the rip (and hopefully
not into another), and in. If you are a strong swimmer you can try swimming laterally out of the rip before it
takes you all the way out. But it’s not always the best use of your energy.
There is good news about rips. Experienced surfers know that the quickest way to paddle out to the lineup
is in the rip itself. It’s the express lane.
People unfamiliar with Costa Rica invariably ask about needing vaccinations, malaria and other scary
diseases made infamous by the tropics. Yes, there’s malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis and even
leprosy lurking about these parts, but the infection rates are very low, and most are dropping lower, with
the exception of dengue, which is growing. Malaria, for example, dropped from about 5,150 reported
cases in 1998 to 1,400 in 2001. And leprosy has dropped from 10 to 20 annual cases to none since 2000.
Tuberculosis and AIDS cases have been growing, the former being curable and the latter preventable.
But the one to worry about these days is dengue, which is on the rise especially on the Caribbean side,
but there was a recent outbreak in Liberia in Guanacaste as well. In 2007 cases reported in Costa Rica
jumped 150%. In the Limon area of the Caribbean coast it’s worse, up 600%. All told, there were over
50,000 treated cases of dengue fever in 2007. The dengue virus is carried by mosquitoes, so avoid
stagnant water and ponds, especially during early mornings and evenings, and use protection.
(Mosquitoes, like sharks, feed at dusk and dawn.) Symptoms range from fever and pain behind the eyes
to the more serious and potentially fatal hemorrhagic dengue, with added symptoms of constipation,
abdominal pain, circulatory failure, easy bleeding and bruising. The infection rate increase was severe
enough for the mayor of Puerto Limón to cancel the annual Carnaval celebration due to concerns of
exposing thousands of out-of-town visitors and the increased trash creating more mosquito breeding
When to Go
When is the best time to take a surfing vacation in Costa Rica? Anytime. Since Costa Rica is bounded on
one side by the Pacific, where it picks up anything from southern hemisphere to wintertime northwest
swells, you will get waves so long as there has been a decent-sized storm somewhere in that ocean. And
if not, check the other side of the country, the Caribbean, where it catches swell from the same weather
that brings cold fronts down the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. in the winter, and swells from hurricanes that
move into the Caribbean window in the late summer and fall. Regionalized, it goes like this:
The Pacific Northwest (Guanacaste and Nicoya Peninsula): Picks up swell year-round. The summer gets
bigger with the larger, more frequent southern swells. The summer is also the rainy season, which at
times makes it difficult to impossible to reach some breaks. The winter is dry. It gets good offshore winds
from December through April; winds that can blow steadily for days on end. February and March generally
have the strongest offshores, but every year changes. Winter is also when swells come from Northern
Pacific storms. The north swells are generally smaller and weaker than their southern counterparts. Best
months: May through September for size, December through April for conditions. September and October
to beat the crowds.
Central Pacific: Best in summer with the Southern Hemisphere storms because it generally faces
southwest and the Nicoya Peninsula helps block northwest swells. Offshores often until mid-morning,
followed by onshores until an evening glass-off (although it really doesn’t get all that glassy). Best
months: April through September.
Pacific Southwest: Generally the same as the Central Pacific with some exceptions. Rainier overall. Best
months: April through September.
Caribbean Coast: Best in winter (December through February)—when the cold fronts come down from the
north into the Caribbean—and late summer (July/August). If you are looking for big, juicy surf, get to the
Caribbean coast in the winter when it is most consistent. Or if it’s flat on the Pacific and the surf reports
don’t offer anything promising, head to the Caribbean; you may get lucky.
Wave Height Seasonality - Average Pacific Wave Face Heights
Data Source: Sean Collins—Surfline/Wavetrak. Mexico/Central America forecast is available every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1-900-976-SURF or at
714/310-976 SURF. To subscribe go to Surfline.com or call 1-800-940-SURF.
So there are basically two seasons in Costa Rica: wet and dry. The dry season corresponds roughly with
the northern hemisphere winter, and the surf is, on average, smaller on the Pacific coast and larger on the
Caribbean. The wet season has been dubbed the “Green Season” by the marketers and corresponds
somewhat with the northern hemisphere summer. Now for the confusing part: Although it is in the
northern hemisphere, the Costa Ricans call what we call the winter, “summer,” and what we call the
summer, “winter.” That’s because it’s cooler in the rainy season.
A final note on when to go... It’s more expensive December through April. Tourists avoid rain. It’s also
more difficult to secure lodging, which means it’s harder to roam at will. Avoid Easter Week (Semana
Santa) altogether as all of Costa Rica vacations at the beaches that week, and it’s now become a popular
college Spring Break destination, too. Airfares often start dropping shortly after the Easter madness. (To
check ahead on holidays see www.earthcalendar.net.) The rainy season is cheaper and less crowded,
and you can often negotiate room rates even further than the published off-season rates. The absolute
cheapest time to go is between Labor Day and Halloween.
On the Caribbean side tides have little affect on the surf, as there’s not much variance. But on the Pacific
coast the tides can make a huge difference, with swings to ten feet and more. Sometimes you will surf an
overhead break at dawn for a couple of hours get out, have breakfast, go back and it will be totally flat. Or
waves will appear from nowhere in an hour or so, and disappear just as quickly. One example of this is
seen at the reef right in front of the Tamarindo Diría, Pico Pequeño. On a full-moon high tide the place
looks like a mushy, outside beach break. On low tide it can look like a hell-reef. (On my first trip there I was
warned not to go out on low tide. The warning was backed up by a story about a guy who face-planted the
reef. Fortunately, he and his buddies were doctors.) You can find tide tables on the Web at www.crsurf.
com or www.centralamerica.com.
International calling can be confusing what with the different prefixes, country codes, area codes and even
different codes for mobile phones. Then, just when you think you got it down, any given country can
change the whole system, like going from seven digits to eight. When in doubt about calling Costa Rica,
try checking HowToCallAbroad.com (not a broad; abroad). It is easier than consulting the phone company.
Car Rental Warning
We've been getting emails complaining about Costa Rica car rental company Tricolor. In the past, we
received very good cars and service from Tricolor, but things have changed.
The most recent email said that their credit card was double-charged, and when they complained they
were billed another $900. The whole thing started bad as when they picked up the rental car it was already
low on gas. We posted the actual complaint on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Please visit those pages
or email us with your experiences.
Excerpted from The Surfer's Guide to Costa Rica & SW Nicaragua, available at SurfTravelGear.com.
The Surfer's Guide to Costa Rica - Background
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