It was the breathtaking beaches and consistent surf of Costa Rica that won my heart and started my addiction to travel. Costa Rica has become like a second home to me, after seven trips to the Nicoya Peninsula I have made many friends, learned much about the culture and had the chance to surf and explore a lot of the coastline. After much consideration I have compiled my top five beaches in Nicoya. I’ve ranked them based on wave quality and consistency, crowds, and overall vibe. Heading to Costa Rica for a surf? Don’t skip these spots!
5) Playa Avellanas
Playa Avellanas should be a stop on anyone’s itinerary whether you are a surfer or not. The long, wide open beach offers plenty of places to relax and soak up the sun or hang a hammock in the trees and take a nap. White sand beaches give way to crystal blue water with few rocks or reef heads, making for great swimming. The famous Lolas restaurant and bar is right on the beach. A perfect spot to grab an Imperial and some grub and watch the sunset while the local kids play soccer or rip apart the evening surf. Be sure to stop by and say hello to Lola the magical pig.
For surfers, Playa Avellanas offers plenty of wave options. The more experienced can enjoy heavy lefts that break over a reef on the South end of the beach called La Purruja, an A-frame slab at the river mouth called El Estero and the massive right hand point break to the North, Little Hawaii. On solid North swells Little Hawaii can reach 20 feet! For those just learning or with a little less surf experience there are plenty of mellow, sand bottom peaks in between La Purruja and El Estero. Playa Avellanas is in a perfect location for both North and South swells and with a variety of breaks, you can find a wave on almost any tide.
The only downside to this beautiful beach are the crowds of tourists attracted to Lolas and the droves of surf schools littering the water during smaller swells. If you are like me and are immediately turned off by crowded beaches and line ups, try visiting in the off-season/rainy season, May through November.
4) Playa Grande
The Northern area of the Nicoya Peninsula is a major target of the over-development I mentioned earlier. Its proximity to the airport makes it ideal for the tourist industry. I have watched the little town of Tamarindo explode with resorts and fast food joints over the decade I have been visiting Costa Rica. Many will recommend visiting Tamarindo but I urge you to stay away and explore surrounding areas such as Playa Grande.
Playa Grande is about 20km North of the hustle and bustle of Tamarindo and boasts a tranquil, contrasting vibe to the tourist mecca. Grande is a sleepy little surf town with a big (Grande), beautiful beach, fun, consistent waves and plenty to explore as it is smack in the middle of the Las Baulas Nature Preserve. You can take a kayak tour through the 1,500 acre estuary or, if you’re there from October to May, watch a leatherback turtle lay her eggs!
Best on a mid to high tide, the wave at Playa Grande is claimed to be one of the top in the country. Facing North/Northwest, Grande loves Northern hemisphere swells and can get really big and hollow on the right conditions. There are two breaks, the main peak to the South and a smaller secondary break in front of hotel Las Tortugas as well as a good white water section on the inside for beginners. It is no secret how good Grande gets. The crowds can be hectic and locals get aggro towards gringos who get in the way or don’t show respect.
3) Mal Pais
Don’t let the name fool you, Mal Pais (Bad Country) is a stunning, rocky beach near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Unlike nearby Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen, Mal Pais has not seen much development and keeps its laid-back, small village vibe.
Mal Pais generally refers to the areas between Cabo Blanco and Manzanillo and includes a plethora of surf spots from reefs and points to slabs and beach breaks. El Carmen and Santa Teresa are fun beach breaks on mid to high tide with Santa Teresa holding a more makeable, but heavy wave on low tide. For the more experienced surfer, Mar Azul breaks over a rock slab and produces, thick, rippable lips.
A short drive away in a capable 4×4 is the reason Mal Pais places on this list, a little not so secret spot around the tip of the peninsula called Lajas. On the right swell this right-hand point can break for 300 yards! It is by far the longest wave I have ever surfed. But thats all I’ll say about that. If you want to find this beauty you’re going to need to make some friends.
2) Playa Negra
Playa Negra holds a special place in my heart as I got to call it home this past winter. Located just 10 minutes South of Avellanas, Playa Negra is a beautiful black (Negra) sand beach. Negra currently boasts a good balance of the traditional Costa Rican pueblo vibe and modern Western conveniences. There are a few great surf hostels and some excellent restaurants such as Kon Tiki and Cafe Playa Negra. Hotel Playa Negra is a quaint collection of bungalows right on the surf break. The hotel bar is a great place to grab a beer and watch the surfing action, and don’t miss the Sunday night jam sessions on the beach in front of the hotel hosted by my friend Geronimo. Anyone and everyone is invited to hang out and participate in the music!
The wave at Playa Negra is a barreling right-hand reef break. When it’s good, many consider it the best wave on the Nicoya Peninsula. Negra likes North – Northwest swells and is best on mid to low tide but watch out for the reef when the tide is at its lowest. The reef break is very tide fickle, meaning you have to catch it on mid to low or it turns into a slow, rolly mush burger as the tide gets higher. Adjacent to the break at Negra is Sandy’s, a closeout beach break great for beginners to learn to surf or to take a beating on a body board.
When the tide starts to fill in and the reef break at Negra gets mushy you can try another break around the bend to the South called Callejones. You must be either lucky or very tuned into the tides to catch Callejones breaking though. It only breaks for about an hour or so a day on a mid-incoming tide. Not enough water and the reef is exposed, too much water and the wave doesn’t even break.
Playa Negra can be a very crowded line up as there is only one take off zone and tons of locals and tourists alike love to surf there. Surf Callejones to escape the crowds but be weary, it is a locals’ spot and they can be protective if they see too many gringos surfing there.
1) Playa Marbella
I’ve had some of the best surf sessions of my life at Marbella. This chilled out surf village is located about 30 minutes north of popular Nosara in between Playa Manzanillo and Playa Ostional. Many locals consider Marbella the last undeveloped traditional pueblo in the area. Marbella is a surfers’ paradise as there are epic waves and usually limited crowds both in the water and on the beach.
Marbella is a spot meant for the more experienced surfer. Waves can get huge and break close to shore on a shallow sand bar, creating some excellent barrels. Marbella takes North and South swells and usually holds a bigger wave than nearby beaches such as Negra or Nosara. Often times when winds are onshore or unfavorable elsewhere, Marbella will still have offshore winds! There are peaks for everyone scattered up and down the beach but you will find the locals and better surfers either at the North end where there is a solid A frame or the left point break to the South. The point break needs a bigger swell and is better on a lower tide.
Marbella is surprisingly uncrowded but it is one of the local’s favorite spots when it gets good. Respect the locals and stay out of their way. Most Ticos are very friendly but I have seen the evil unleashed when they are dropped in on by a gringo. Try waiting until around low tide to paddle out. For some reason most of the locals get out at low tide, leaving the line up empty while heavy, spitting tubes break super close to the beach.
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