Montezuma, Costa Rica
Unlike Hawaii, Costa Rica does not have enormous, jaw-dropping waves, but it does have consistent head-high surf at any time of the year. The rainy season is during the summer (and fall), so the best time for surfing is generally December through April.
Both coasts offer prime surfing locations, but the Nicoya Pennisula (in northwestern Costa Rica) is a surfing mecca, and Montezuma has become legendary for both beginners and experienced surfers (although the shallow sandbar where beginners go is a bit of a walk from the town). On reggae nights, the entire town comes out to Chicos, which is the only real bar in Montezuma. The party continues late into the night, where surfers, locals, hippies and tourists spill out onto the beach and bonfires sprout up as well as people demonstrating their skills with glowing poi balls (juggling ropes) that illuminate the cool, soft sand.
Many of the hotels and hostels are beachfront, and hammock-filled palm trees are never more than a few barefoot steps from your door. It’s easy to forgo a room in lieu of a peaceful night spent in the sand listening to the waves rolling in.
Many surfers also head up the road a few miles to Malpais and Santa Teresa for full-moon parties and fewer crowds (not to mention “better” waves). Back on the mainland, Dominical is refreshingly off the tourist trail.
Pavones, Costa Rica
True adventure seekers should make the journey to Pavones, on the southern tip of the Osa Pennisula (just near the Panamanian border), but be aware that it is not easy to reach (several hours on unpaved roads). And, during the rainy season, roads can wash away and rivers can flood leaving surfers stranded.
The sleepy, uncharted town is home to the second longest left break in the world and is an epic ride that you can repeat day after day. The wave breaks on larger swells, so (unlike other areas) April through September is the best time to catch it. There are several open-air restaurants where toucans may occasionally stop by, as well as a handful of bars including the more “upscale” La Manta, where surfers lounge in hammocks and watch surfing videos on the giant screen above the bar.
Besides the surf and the food, there’s not much to do in town besides wander the beach for shells and pebbles, or watch some sublime sunsets. At times, you won’t see a soul and it is soothing to know that places like Pavones still exist. A surfers' hangout in Santa Catalina, Panama — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
Santa Catalina, Panama
After Pavones, the surfing trail winds south along the coast of Panama with several under-the-radar spots for explorers, but Santa Catalina is the place to be not only for the surf, but for some surreal diving with reef, bull, hammerhead and whale sharks. Like Pavones, much of the surf here is for “the pros," often the same people who participate in the U.S. Open of Surfing competition and the like.
The town has frequent power outages; during these times, residents and travelers flock to Jamming Pizzeria, where the wood-fire oven glows late into the night. Now that the word has gotten out about the surf, plenty of shops and surf hotels have cropped up – including cliff-side lodging with unreal views. Be sure to leave the board behind at least one day to visit Isla Coiba, the protected national park (and home to a prison). The result is an “Escape from Alcatrez” meets “Jurassic Park” moment and is well worth the long, bumpy ride there.
The only problem with any of these surf spots is that it’s all too easy to let the days melt together and stay longer than planned – or never leave.A cliff view of rolling waves; Santa Catalina, Panama — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan