The Secret to Surfing Uncrowded Central America

by Nicholas Bowditch

OK well not always uncrowded but certainly less people in the line-up than most equivalent breaks in Australia, USA or Asia.

Central America has been growing steadily as a surfing destination for some time now and the reasons are pretty simple: exotic locations, warm water, great food and perhaps most importantly, the relatively low cost of living for visiting Gringos.

Having travelled from Mexico to Panama (with and without surfboards) I have seen a lot of surf breaks - some great and some rubbish. However, the one thing that struck me wherever I went was the lack of both surfing infrastructure (surf shops, rentals, boat trips) and surfers!

When you get away from the well-worn surfing destinations (mostly in Costa Rica) you can find miles of beaches where you could literally surf for a week without lining up with another soul.

Costa Rica

Costa Rican breaks like the left-handed reef break Pavones or the famous Mal Pais near the little town of Cobano reap the lion's share of surf tourism in this region but they are nowhere near the best (or quietest) locales either in Costa Rica or Central America.

Close to Mal Pais, possibly the most consistent and most suitable for all levels of surfers is Santa Teresa. Unlike Mal Pais, Santa Teresa is accessible without any hiking, 4WD or boat trips and the Santa Teresa Surf Camp has accommodation ranging from sheltered hammocks for $6 per night right up to the Ocean Front Beach House that goes for $250 per night.

The Caribbean Coast also has some quality surf breaks including the potentially frightening Blue Kanka in the north or the "natural footers' dream" Salsa Brava, near Puerto Viejo.

The 'locals only' mentality, however, is alive and well at most of Costa Rica's better known surfing breaks, even if most of the 'locals' causing trouble are actually from California or Florida. The real locals who you will meet in the surf in Costa Rica (or anywhere in Central America) are generally welcoming, engaging and fun, particularly if you at least attempt to speak to them in 'Spanglish'.


While it's true that there are larger bow-waves from ships in the Panama Canal than at most Panamanian beaches, there are of course some great exceptions, most notably Punta Brava near Santiago. More of an expert spot than a beginner one, 'Punta' has a clean point break that is consistently pumping when everywhere around it is dead.

The Punta Brava Surf Lodge has singles, doubles, and cabinas as well as packages including airport transfers, accommodation, all meals, local surf guides and two boat trips to breaks every day.


For a long time, Nicaragua has had a reputation as being Costa Rica's poor cousin in terms of surfing and eco-travel - something that couldn't be further from the truth.

With the great majority of American surf tourism heading straight for Costa Rica's crowded breaks, Nicaragua's beaches sit quietly (and empty) just to the north.

The two best breaks are the idyllic Maderas near San Juan del Sur in the south and Manzanillo which can be accessed by boat trips departing Playa Gigante near Rivas. The French-run Momo Surf Camp on Playa Gigante receives mixed reports but has packages that include meals and two boat trips to breaks every day.

El Salvador

A lot of people have known about surfing in El Salvador for a long time but the country's internal strife, perceived high crime rate and civil war has kept it solidly under raps for everyone living outside the American continents.

La Libertad is home to several world class breaks including Playa La Paz and km59. Surf La Libertad is a great website that has several accommodation options from surf camps to much more flash lodging.


Guatemala? Surfing? Seriously??

Well, I am not exactly uncovering yet another 'New Pipeline' but if you want mellow waves in warm water, if you want to live like a king for about $20 per day, and if you want all of this basically to yourself, then look no further than El Paredon near Escuintla. Even better, the El Paredon Surf Camp has accommodation from just $2 per night.

Central America is a collection of stunningly beautiful countries that suffer from an almost universal image problem.

When you think Costa Rica you think eco-travel, rainforests, volcanoes and pristine surfing beaches, however you get a different image when you think of El Salvador (civil war), Nicaragua (Sandanistas and civil war), or Guatemala (well anything but surfing really).

These countries are something of a paradox: they are amazing tourism destinations because there are few tourists.

Many gringos remember when Costa Rica was the same, so get to Central America and chill out at your own break before the rest of the world finds out about it.

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