Costa Rica is one of the first countries in Central America to welcome tourism. With good reason, as it’s arguably the most beautiful, vibrant, and full of exotic plant and animal life, second only to Panama.
With that said, foreigners have been coming to exploit said country decades before the rest, surfers are no exception. The legend of Costa Rican surf lore and history is one of the first overly exaggerated stories one hears as a young grom, bringing wild images of magical waves coming straight from the shores of Valhalla, to break undisturbed and peel into perfectly groomed cylindrical oscillations of blue and turquoise. Parrots and monkeys lazily move through the palms, sloths and iguanas sleep away the day. Pirates gold lays in open treasure chests nestled in the sand on undiscovered beaches awaiting your arrival, nothing else but ice cold beers and sun-kissed palapas. For the most part, this is not entirely inaccurate.
If you want to surf Costa Rica, which I don’t necessarily recommend, here is my list of 5 overrated spots we visited. What you choose to do with this information is entirely up to you. No bells and whistles, no exaggerations, pure journalism.
From north to south, they are the following.
1. WITCH'S ROCK. We drove to this ungodly place from the border of Nicaragua, strangely alluring and practically unavoidable as you drive through Santa Rosa National Park to get to Liberia. We wisely decided to stock up on food and water, and doubled back to the park. Visions of Pat O’Connell running down up and down the beach in a high speed frenzy, Wingnut buried in the longest tube I’d every seen at that point, on that nearly fatal day of watching Endless Summer 2 for the first time. These scenes were running through my mind as we approach the trail head.
Long story short, the road is 11k to the beach. It took us nearly 4 hrs, and we spent the night on the road as we started around 3pm thinking we would make it by sunset. We got there in the morning, suited up and ran down the trail, dodging vultures, giant garrobos, and deadly thorn bushes just in time for the on shores. I’m not gonna lie, it looked really bad. Like an un-ridable closeout beach break, completely below average. I almost turned in my much needed hat, as the sun is brutal and the black sand is burning hot to touch. Bring sandals.
The next day, conditions changed. Also the next day, we found fresh jaguar tracks on the trail, which became a theme for the rest of our stay. They were everywhere. Don’t forget to lock your doors and don’t let the monkeys see where you hide your keys. Those guys will break in to your car and steal all your wax and sunscreen. Trust me that stuff is really valuable and completely unobtainable on site. It’s miserably hot, there’s nothing to do. There’s no wifi, you’re lucky if there’s even shade. It’s a desert. With dead trees and crocodiles. We barely made it out alive.
2. TAMARINDO. Nice town, with a cute little river mouth/estuary set-up. Deceivingly friendly looking, crowded line up of bikini clad long boarders and young long-haired local surf instructors chasing and being chased by gently rolling peelers. The famed right hand river-mouth barreling sandbar had been blown out by some hurricane before we got there, so only remnants of that historic era remain. In the shape of knee-high closeouts breaking in ankle deep water way out in the middle of the river mouth.
No reason to go there even if it was good because crocs roam this estuary and river mouth like it was 5th avenue. A lady was walking her dog down the beach into the picturesque lagoon, and a giant croc came out of no where and scooped them both up like they were fresh tamales. They searched for weeks never found anything. Doesn’t stop anyone from surfing, the sandbar has reshape itself into an imaginary left hand point, much closer to the beach.
At high tide there is no beach, but luckily you can just walk next door to Joe’s grab a cold one and watch the sunset sitting at the bar overlooking the lineup. Live music on the weekends.
We stayed in the parking lot, which was good and bad. Good for us because we were a stones throw from the line up, bad for some friends of ours who had a window broken and nearly got robbed. Some other guy in a rental left it a little to long and they got his passport, cash, etc. Friendly locals. They won’t kill you, just don’t leave your belongings unattended and pay the parking lot attendant. Nice town, expensive avocados.
3. BOCA BARRANCA. I’d been raring to see this spot since I was teenager, after seeing a picture of Joel Tudor hanging 5 in contest, on a knee high peeler with a curiously murky brown color. The Rabbit Kekai longboard event happens here for years, so I thought that must mean something. Turns out, its still that exact same murky brown color.
Long and painstakingly slow, the first half is relatively clean looking. Then there’s a rudely defined line of boiling bubbly froth, that you surf through, into the disturbingly brown water that looks like the river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just a little more orange. I got one all the way to the beach, super stoked I didn’t fall, came out of the water right next to a dead dog floating in the shallows. Vultures tearing it apart. Gruesome sight. The Barranca river originates in San Jose, I heard bodies came floating down the river from time to time.
Pretty local spot as there’s nothing on the map close by for tourists, just the wave. We scored a swell here, it was fairly decent. Paddling out at low tide is brutal because it’s a cobblestone set up, hardly any sand when we were there and the stones are covered in barnacles that are extremely sharp and highly poisonous. Wear reef booties with socks is recommended. Also a spring suit as the river water is cold. High tide there’s no waves. Beer O’clock typically around then. Bring a longboard. A really long board.
4. DOMINICAL. Dominical is one of the few spots I’d been to, my memory of it was big walling peaks at high tide, tubing with morning off shores and an out going. Ten years later, it was basically the exact same, just the palm trees were taller and cover in green moss. The biggest difference was when I was there the first time, the river mouth was closed so it was relatively tame, current wise.
I paddled out this time, seeing good waves in the familiar brown river water down the beach, suddenly noticed I was getting sucked into the river water. All the while it was flowing the opposite direction. Water moves in mysterious ways, it took me half an hour to paddle 20 yards back to the edge of the river/ocean. I got sucked back in 3 different times, the local surfers looking at me like I was crazy. Got some good ones by myself, luckily. Waves in Dominical are nice, best in the morning, mid day, and the evening.
Avoid the river mouth even if it looks good. It packs a punch, and as with all river mouths in Costa Rica, there are most definitely crocodiles. And giant tree trunks floating out to sea.
5. PAVONES. We finally made our way to Pavones, despite constant breakdowns, thanks to a couple of locals who towed us half the way there. Even more grateful to another one, who lets us stay at his place and called his electro-mechanic to help sort out our issues. He escorted us the final stretch, which is a long tortuously bumpy dirt road.
Pavones is an Incredible wave but requires a swell with a very specific combination of direction, period, wind, and tide. Basically, a miracle has to happen. It also has to happen mid week because on the weekends, waves or no waves, all the city surfers come from San Jose to surf or just pray for surf. If you happen to score on the weekend, you’ll be surfing with 100+ frothing Costa Ricans, or guys from who knows where that you think are Costa Ricans and you defer to them in a gesture of good manner and respect, then you overhear them talking in perfect English with a California accent.
If you do happen to get one, it will probably close out. And if it’s a decent size, will drag you half way down to Candy Corner and you’ll have to paddle back against the current, tide, and wind, in the pouring rain. Best to just get out and walk because the view’s insane, but it will drive you nuts because it looks like every wave is a runner and every guy is getting the ride of his life and you paddle out again, wait for 3 hrs, and get another close out. Don’t go here unless you are physically, mentally, and emotionally stable. Bring a good paddling board and an extra set of arms.