Exploring the Caribbean side of Costa Rica & Panama, and finding waves no one talks about…
It was July, and we were in Pavones: home to the “best waves in Costa Rica”, and the longest left-breaking wave in the world, so legend has it. Our expectations were high, we had arrived in the dark with our surfboards, unprepared for the lack of services but looking forward to the famous wave. Pavones is a cute town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and a place where talk constantly revolves around the subject of waves (my kind of people).
We went out there early on our first day, but after paddling more than I ever had in my life, I barely even caught a wave, let alone the 60 second paradise ride that everyone talks about. What I did get was a stern telling off from a local who called me (it seemed like an accusation) a ‘beginner’ in more than one language because I fell off whilst attempting a duck dive. That was enough to weaken my already wavering spirit, and I washed up out of the sea frustrated and confused. Note my experience in Pavones is not in any way the ultimate perspective of the place: we didn’t get lucky, the water was packed (it was vacation time) and all in all we didn’t really stay long enough to find out how good it was. What I was really interested in before leaving the little surf town, was what the surf would be like at my next stop.
So, I asked a local at our hostel how the waves were on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, to which he responded:
“If you can’t surf here there’s no way you’re gonna be able to surf there”, arms crossed definitively.
“Are you sure there are no waves?” I asked back, incredulous.
“Aside from Salsa Brava, which has almost killed the few who attempted it, no not really”.
Hmm. Some part of my gut wasn’t ready to agree. I didn’t know how the surf would be on the Caribbean coast, there wasn’t much info at all about it online (apart from Salsa Brava clearly being one to steer clear of), but still, I was ready to find out. My spirit for surfing told me to follow my heart, not word of mouth. I was glad I did.
A surfer catching Pavones famously long wave
Bocas del Toro: Spoilt for Choice
The first I heard about the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro was of palm-tree lined hidden beaches, clear water with the occasional starfish seen lying on the ocean floor, hammocks strung along the waters edge and fresh coconuts abound. I didn’t hear much at all about surfing, and my primary preconception was that there were not really any waves. Bocas del Toro taught me that some of the world’s best waves don’t reach word of mouth. I hadn’t really imagined myself surfing straight off of a dingy, onto a cleanly breaking reef break which lies beside a Caribbean island, until I reached this little archipelago. There were so many breaks to choose from, and all you have to do was wave at a passing boat from which ever island you are based on and tell them where you want to surf. Take your board, enough money for the boat ride and nothing else, because the driver is going to leave you right at the peak of the wave.
Surfing off of a dinghy at Bocas del Toro’s La Punta
Another thing which impressed me about Bocas del Toro surf was how friendly and open the locals were (in stark contrast to my experience in Pavones). I received so many open smiles and curious looks on arrival at La Punta, a reef break of generally 4-6ft waves parallel to Isla Caraneros. Rather than hostility or the ‘locals only’ attitude which can be so tiring, everyone seemed more than willing to share waves and give each other space. I even got a congratulation and “how did that go?” when I dropped into my first wave. The real test of local friendliness came when I accidentally fell off my board on a big wave and almost hit someone riding it, but instead of a telling off received a big friendly smile in response. The Caribbean spirit is definitely infused into the surfing attitude in Bocas del Toro, and it’s safe to say that the islands exceeded my expectations when it came to surfing. Some may recommend visiting for the island lifestyle, but I recommend visiting just for the waves and the pure positivity that the locals carry with them in their easy smiles. I didn’t make it to many of the other breaks, but La Punta (which can get to 10ft when a big swell hits) was a sweet introduction.
Walking to the dock to catch a boat from Bastimientos island
Note: there are also several beach breaks in Bocas del Toro, including Wicked Beach and Red Frog Beach both of which you can walk to on Bastimientos Island.
Puerto Viejo: Reggae and Surf Capital.
Having taken the decision to drop into Panama just momentarily, I went back up into Costa Rica, this time to explore the Caribbean further. Travelling up the coast to Puerto Viejo I was, once again, anticipating a laid back Caribbean lifestyle and didn’t have my hopes set very high for surfing. The lifestyle, I quickly noticed, was as reggae and rasta as can be, with red-yellow-green colours flying everywhere you look, the people super friendly, open and laid back. What really surprised me, however, were the fun, easy and accessible waves. On arriving and seeing several beach breaks with friendly, admittedly closing out but generally playful and most importantly surfable waves, I thought back to the conversation I had had in Pavones. If I had taken those words seriously, the only surf-able beach I would have found would have been Salsa Brava: the reef break, so called ‘Brave Sauce’ because of the ‘sauce’ (meaning strength) the waves gives you, and only really appropriate for very prepared professionals given the shallowness of the reef and the force of the wave. Instead, it wasn’t Salsa Brava which caught my eye but Playa Cocles, which brings a swell of around 3-5ft on a good day.
Shortly before I got smashed by a wave on Playa Cocles
I had a bit of a crazy experience my first day surfing the break of Playa Cocles. Very surprisingly, whilst less famous than the Pacific waves of Costa Rica, the waves break on the Caribbean with a lot of force. They also close out very rapidly, leaving just a narrow window to surf them. I went out when there when were was some swell, and managed to catch a 5-6ft wave just at its peak as it was breaking. It seemed somewhat of a miracle that I even caught the wave given the way it was closing out along it’s face, but I surfed along the highest peak of it which gave me the feeling that I was flying. Then, the breaking wave caught me with all of its Caribbean force, throwing me first into the air then down under the water so hard I actually hit the sea bed beneath me. One of the first times that’s every happened to me, it shocked me but thankfully didn’t cause physical harm. I would advise surfers on the Caribbean of Costa Rica to really be aware that the waves close out powerfully and very close to the shore, so time your take off carefully!
One of the many beaches at Cocles
One of the greatest lessons Pavones taught me, from my experience two months ago, was that I really like people-free waves. I’ve learnt along my surfing journey that people are often actually much more of a danger than anything else in the water, and so if you want to learn in a really relaxing environment it’s probably better to head to the less crowded areas. Bocas and Puerto Viejo offer both of these: beaches where the waves may not be perfect, but are definitely fun to play around on and offer enough space for everybody. I will probably return to Pavones one day with more preparation, but in the mean time, I will continue to enjoy the super underrated waves of Central America’s laid back Caribbean coast.