A surfer’s breakdown of Central America

Blessed with Caribbean and Pacific coasts, cheap living, warm water and awesome waves, Central America offers something for every surfer, on every level, on every budget.

Here, we take a closer look at five nations that every surfer should visit.

Costa Rica

Surfers on Costa Rica’s Santa Teresa beach. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Costa Rica

Uncrowded, clean, politically stable and with incredible waves, Costa Rica is hard to beat as an all-round surf destination. There are four recognized surf regions: the north, Central and South Pacific coasts and the Caribbean.

In the north, head to Playa Naranjo, more commonly known as Witch’s Rock. It’s one of the best breaks in the country and has guaranteed offshore winds between December and March.

A short distance from the capital of San Jose, the Central Coast is a livelier vacation, but still boasts world-class waves such as Boca Barranca and Hermosa Beach. The South Pacific Coast has the largest remaining stretches of Pacific coastal rainforests as well as Pavones, Costa Rica’s longest left.

The Caribbean side is perhaps even more beautiful and less developed. The waves can be fickle, but Mexican storms can provide incredible waves in some of the bluest water in the world. The best bet here is Puerto Viejo, also known as Salsa Brava, the surf epicenter on that side of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua

Surfers kick back and watch Punta Miramar reel off in the sunshine. Photo: Courtesy of Miramar Surf Camp

The bad news first: Nicaragua is one of the more difficult South American locations to get to. Once there, transport is far from reliable and danger lurks for the careless.

However, all these facts are compensated many times over by the quality of the waves, the 300-plus days of offshore winds, the affordability of the accommodations (everything from hostels to surf camps and luxury resorts), the lack of crowds, the lush beauty of the landscape and the bath-like water.

The wet, or green, season, from April to November, is primetime for surf, with the beachbreaks of Playa Colorado, the cobblestones of Popoyo, the tubes of Punta Miramar and the left pointbreak of Manzanillo all incredibly consistent and well set up for surfers of all levels.

Panama

The incredible colors of Panama’s Caribbean Coast. Photo: Courtesy of Red Frog Beach Resort

Panama is most closely related to Costa Rica in terms of the Central American surf experience, even if it is slightly less exposed to the North Pacific swells. On the flipside, the infrastructure, transport and safety is unparalleled in the region, and unlike Costa Rica, there is still a bit of mystery surrounding the surf potential.

A good place to start is Santa Catalina, a six-hour drive south of Panama City on the Pacific, which is one of the country’s best pointbreaks. Playa Venao on the Azuero Peninsula’s southeast coast is another favorite, while the Central Pacific surf spots of Playa El Palmar and Malibu are other Panamanian classics.

The Caribbean coast’s hotspot is Bocas del Toro, best in the dry season in the early months of the year when huge waves are available in the right conditions. Elsewhere, the biological diversity of the country is a huge selling point, while the uncrowded waves, clean water and consistency make Panama an underrated gem (although probably not for long).

El Salvador

Surfers return satisfied from another point session in El Salvador. Photo: Courtesy of Fernanda Infanti/Flickr

The brutal civil war left El Salvador’s south-facing coasts largely untouched for all of the 1980s and most of the ’90s, but now the country’s mix of points and beachbreaks are finding increasing numbers of visitors and devotees. The smallest country in South America needs south summertime swells to light up its myriad headlands, but when it comes alive the entire coast provides some of the best right-hand points in all the Americas.

The best known is Punta Roca near La Libertad, just 25 miles south of the capital of San Salvador, but the nearby waves of La Bocana and Sunzal offer less punch and fewer people. The farther south you move away from the capital, the fewer crowds you will face and there is still a chance for real surf exploration for the brave (or the foolish).

On that note, when traveling in El Salvador, caution is needed. The war is over, but poverty, and the associated crime, remains a huge issue for the country. Also, rocks are ever-present, so booties are the first thing to pack.

Mexico

The sun sets on another day at Zippers in Cabo San Lucas. Photo: Courtesy of WSL

An obvious choice, granted, but with 9,000 miles of coastline, Mexico has every type of wave for every type of surfer. From towering beachbreaks the size of skyscrapers to 300-yard thigh-high peelers, it really is a surfer’s must-go.

If the waves weren’t enough (and they are), we can pile on the beautiful weather, a rich cultural history and delicious food to a surf recipe that ticks every box.

The Baja coastline is a starting point, with Southern Baja’s warm-water hub of Cabo San Lucas a favorite now for half a century. On the mainland, Puerto Escondido (home of the aforementioned skyscrapers), Sayulita and the Manzanillo area of Colima provide consistent and hollow waves.

That’s just a starter, and obviously a paragraph isn’t going to cut it to cover a surf area so vast and so full of potential. The best bet is just to book a flight and see for yourself.

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