(Excerpts from The Surfer's Guide to Costa Rica & SW Nicaragua)
If you know nothing at all about surfing in Costa Rica, start your trip in Tamarindo. While Jacó is a bigger, busier resort with more surfers and surf shops, Tamarindo is a great way to get your feet wet, especially if this is your first Central America trip. For starters, it’s an easy surf trip, especially for beginners and families. There is a variety of breaks in walking distance from the wide selection of hotels and condo rentals, so you don’t need a car. But if you want to rent a car, you can get one right there in town. There are a bunch of surf shops carrying a great selection of rental boards, so you don’t even need to bring a board. Tamarindo is easy.
Tamarindo is also crowded and more touristy, and growing all the time. It has its own web site (www.tamarindo.com), take out delivery service (Tico ToGo) and even a Burger King. For the most part, the growth has been managed well by the local businesspeople and residents, but at times it seems it’s gotten out of hand.
There are more surf shops in Tamarindo than Malibu. They’re constantly popping up and moving around, so it’s difficult to stay current, but here’s the basic lowdown. The oldest and probably best known is Iguana Surf found across the road from the main beach. If you need a board to rent or buy – longboard, shortboard or softboard – their selection is pretty good. They rent by the hour, day or week, as do most of the other surf shops. They also rent bicycles, videos, sun umbrellas, tents, racks, kayaks, arrange estuary tours and even boat taxi services to the breaks that may have be unreachable due to muddy roads, like Avellanes or Playa Negra. They bill Iguana Surf as having “Everything you need to enjoy your stay,” and they do a pretty good job. Heck, they’ll even pull your car out of a ditch if you are stupid enough to back into one (thanks guys!).
Then there’s the Witch’s Rock Surf Camp Surf Shop, open daily from 6am to 10pm and featuring the legendary Robert August as their “Ambassador of Surf”. Loaded with gear and apparel, the WRSC Surf Shop is conveniently located right there on the main road as you come into town.
There are at least six other legit surf shops in Tamarindo, so you really don’t need to pack anything to have a great surf trip.
Tamarindo is big enough to have medical services, both here and nearby. In Tamarindo there’s the Pacific Emergencies, a private clinic open weekdays for walk-in visits, and having EMTs on call 24/7 (tel. 8378-8265). There’s also a public clinic in Villareal, a 15-minute drive from Tamarindo with 24-hour ambulance service (2653-0736). The nearest hospital is in Liberia. Local emergency services can get you there in about an hour.
Getting there: If you flew into the Juan Santamaria airport in San José and are renting a car, take the Interamerican Highway north and look for the sign for the Tempisque Bridge. After crossing the bridge follow the signs to Nicoya, Santa Cruz, 27 de Abril, then Tamarindo. Another route is to continue north from Santa Cruz to Belén and hang a left. It’s an easy drive with lots of signs. You can do it in about five hours, depending on traffic, stops and cops.
While the Juan Santamaria airport in San José is the most common way to arrive in Costa Rica, there are also airports nearer to Tamarindo. There’s an airstrip two miles outside of town with daily service from San José (45-minute flight) and other destinations on flights by SANSA and Nature Air. Private charter services are available too. And there’s an international airport in Liberia, about an hour from Tamarindo, with shuttle service and a bus that can take you to town. Liberia has become the best option, depending on where you are flying in from.
Back to San José…the Alfaro bus line provides daily runs from San José to Tamarindo. Buses leave at 11:30am and 3:30pm from the Alfaro Terminal in San José located near the intersection of Calle 14 and Avenida 5 in the Coca Cola neighborhood of San José (not at the airport). The trip takes about seven hours and costs about US$10.
Where to Stay Around Tamarindo
Where do you start? Tamarindo grows and changes so fast you can’t keep up with it. There are a number of great places for a surfer to stay comfortably or cheaply in Tamarindo itself, and more nearby. And if you want to style it, Tamarindo probably has more upscale hotels than any other resort in Costa Rica. So here are a few options, starting with one of the best surf “camps” anywhere.
The Witches Rock Surf Camp is an awesome choice. First, however, let’s clear something up. WRSC is no “camp.” And while I wouldn’t call it a resort either, no one roughs it here, but at the same time, it's pretty damn comfortable. Right on the beach in front of the surf. Great restaurant. Surf shop, lessons, tours...everything you could ask for. And the staff is great.
The Best Western Tamarindo Vista Villas is probably the best known hotel for surfers in Tamarindo, especially since hosting E’s Wild On many years ago. You’ll find it on your left as you come into town, just past the Pueblo Dorado and right across from Rivermouth. The Vista Villas combines location, ambiance, cleanliness, amenities and a great view of the surf to make this a great option for the surfer not on a budget. It’s got everything you need: Pool with a swim-up bar, great restaurant, a surf school, tours, Witches/Ollie’s trips, TVs and video rentals, kitchens in (some) rooms with a big fridge, lots of space, big bathrooms, patios with surf views and a poolside patio for gathering at day’s end to watch sunsets. The crowd here tends to be a bit older due to the prices, which have gone way up, especially in the busy season. There’s live music and karaoke at the poolside Monkey Bar on many nights, which has also become one of the hot spots in town and the place to have a drink with (i.e., buy a drink for) surf legends. The Vista Villas is good choice for families, couples or a dude trip (mostly older dudes), especially if you like the camaraderie of fellow surfers, as it’s a sociable place.
If romance is on the menu, check out El Jardín del Edén, the most romantic hotel in Tamarindo. It’s really a “Garden of Eden;” some rooms having great views of the surf from luxurious hillside rooms with nice, big patios and other features. Unfortunately, trees block the views from many rooms, so make sure you get a view in advance. They also offer good kiddie deals and cash discounts (like many), but in general, it’s on the higher-priced side. If money is no object, head straight to Cala Luna, which is outside town near Langosta. You won’t be disappointed. Another great “keep-your-romance” hotel is the Tamarindo Diría, and it’s right in front of the surf!
The popularity of Costa Rica as a tourist destination has grown to the point where there are now hundreds of condominiums and vacation homes for rent, at least in the busier areas like Tamarindo and Nosara. This is great, because renting a condo is a great option to a touristy hotel. There are lots of property management companies who rent condos in Tamarindo, or just search Airbnb or VRBO and you’ll have no problem finding a rental.
Tamarindo Rivermouth (El Estero)
This is the first break as you drive into town, accessible from anywhere in Tamarindo. Best on upcoming medium tide and a strong southwest or south swell. Rights and lefts. The rights peel from outside the rivermouth just off the reef and get fast and semi-hollow, especially with winter offshores. The lefts go into the rivermouth from the south, fast and semi-hollow, too. But it all depends on the sand bars, of course, and they’re good four out of five years.
Given its proximity to the hotels of Tamarindo, the rivermouth can get very crowded. But sometimes you can get it to yourself, because everyone else is at Playa Grande, Avellanes, other spots or hungover and sleeping in. Beware of the current during outgoing tides, especially low, because it can take you out to sea. Just north of the rivermouth is Casitas. It can be worth the paddle from the lineup (don’t cross in the estero) to get away from the crowd for some good rights and lefts.
Tamarindo Beach Break
Pretty typical beach break on the stretch between the rivermouth and the Pico Pequeño reef. Can get great, but that’s rare, and it’s often crowded regardless of how good it is, especially in the evenings when the locals and surf schools come out for the social surf hour, but you can still find the occasional peak to yourself, especially at the right time. Like all of Tamarindo, it doesn’t break when the swell is small and the tide is high. Best on mid-tide.
Directly in front of the Tamarindo Diría sits a small, lava finger reef. Off that reef breaks a nice right that ranges from mushy to tubey, depending on the swell and tide. Works best on mid-tide and it does need some swell. Low tide is sketchy due to the lava reef. Actually the tide doesn’t have to be that low, the reef is quite evident. It does not handle a crowd well, and there’s always a crowd – locals own this break. But if you stay at the Diría or one of the nearby beach hotels, you can watch it while having a beer and catch it just right – tide and crowd.
Rocky lava reef in front of the Zully Mar Restaurant. Mediocre at best.
Interested in an uncrowded offshore reef? Everyone who has ever surfed Tamarindo has gazed at the lefts breaking off the north side of the little deserted island out in Tamarindo Bay, and wondered why no one surfs it. Get to the right vantage point and you’ll see rights breaking off the south side of the island, too, but the lefts are much better. Just hop in a boat or paddle 20 to 30 minutes from the beach in front of Casa Cook’s and Capitán Suizo. (Don’t believe the websites that say it’s a 40-minute paddle. It’s not.) If you stay at Cala Luna or Sueño del Mar Bed & Breakfast the paddle is way shorter as they are out near the point. Breaks best at higher tides. Something else cool about Isla Capitán: At low tide the rights and lefts wrap around the island and break over a little reef into each other like clapping hands. And you can ride these waves into each other. Do it for fun on a low tide blown out afternoon.