Surf trips abroad are always a great adventure. Surfing spots you’ve never surfed before, experiencing a different culture, and being amazed by the landscape and animals. One of the most popular places in Central America is Costa Rica. This country has great surfing all year round, but is surfing in Costa Rica safe?
Costa Rica has lots of great waves for all levels of surfing. Ask locals about the potential hazards before entering the ocean, and always read the warning signs. If you surf within your abilities and don’t do anything stupid, surfing in Costa Rica will be safe.
Whenever you’re planning a holiday abroad, doing some research can save you from lots of misery. What kind of clothes should you bring, how is public transport, how safe the country is, which spots should you avoid? Keep on reading to find out about the safety of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is ranked as the number 39 safest country, which is much safer than many other surfing destinations, the United States included. Petty theft and scams do happen to tourists, but life-threatening situations are very uncommon.
Let’s be honest. There is not one country in the world that doesn’t have crime. However, it’s a bigger problem in some countries than in others.
However, Costa Rica has been rated the safest country in Central America and the Caribbean. It’s also the only county I have been to that doesn’t have an army.
Tourists started to come to Costa Rica around 1987, and their stories spread like wildfire.
Costa Rica went from around 329.000 tourists in 1988 to more than 2 million tourists each year since 2008.
Of course, when there are many tourists, some might suffer from a criminal act. However, most crimes in Costa Rica are petty theft.
Having your car broken into, getting scammed, being pickpocketed, or having your belongings stolen when left unattended are the most common crimes that tourists have to deal with.
Besides the dangers caused by people, there are also other hazards which (surfing) tourists should beware of. These hazards have everything to do with the flora and fauna of Costa Rica.
There are plants, and animals that you might not know existed or from which you didn’t realize that they were dangerous.
Therefore it’s recommended to be careful and listen to advice from locals.
However, to put everything in perspective, as I said before, according to the Global peace index Costa Rica is the safest country in Central America and the Caribbean.
In the index from 2021, Costa Rica was ranked as the number 39 safest country in the world.
By comparison, Indonesia ranks at 42, France at 55, and the United States at 122.
When surfing in Costa Rica, you should watch out for the common hazards like riptides, changes in weather, ocean floor, and conditions above your ability. Besides the common hazards, you should also watch out for wildlife like crocodiles and sharks.
Surfing never comes without risks. Although surfing is not necessarily an extremely dangerous sport, it can turn very dangerous when you don’t know the hazards.
Surfing in a different country is a great way to hone your skills and enjoy a well-deserved holiday.
That said, you’ll be surfing spots you are not familiar with, in a country where you might not understand the locals and where the rules and habits might be different from what you are used to.
I’ve categorized the most common dangers of surfing in Costa Rica in a list below, so you know what you might be up against.
Like anywhere else in the world, most surfing hazards originate from the ocean.
A few of the main ocean dangers for surfing are:
There are many beaches with dangerous currents in Costa Rica.
While experienced surfers will be able to see where these currents are and how to deal with them, you should be extremely careful as a beginner.
Riptides are the number one reason why people drown at beaches.
Since many beaches in Costa Rica are without lifeguards, you have to be extra sure that you know what you are doing.
Surf spots constantly change. Therefore a spot can be great for beginners one day, but for experts only the next day.
The position of Costa Rica allows for a big swell to hit the coastline. This can result in big, fast, and powerful waves, which should not get underestimated.
While big swell can be predicted, freak-sets can appear out of nowhere. These occur all around the world and also in Costa Rica.
A freak-set is a set of much bigger waves than the other waves that day.
Costa Rica has a variety of ocean floors (seabeds). You’ll mainly find sand and rock floors on the Pacific, with a few reef floors scattered around.
The Caribbean, however, consists primarily of reef and rock floors.
The rock and reef ocean floors at both coasts are often regarded as the more dangerous spots, but the sand floors can also pack a punch when the waves are big.
Most people tend to be scared of sharks when going for a surf. However, there are more animals you should watch out for.
Here is a list of the most dangerous animals you could come in contact with while surfing in Costa Rica.
The American Crocodile lives in most rivers in Costa Rica.
Although they are freshwater species, it’s not uncommon to find them in the ocean. They use the sea to travel from one river to the other.
However, the most common place where surfers encounter them is near or in river mouths.
The bull shark is one of the most dangerous types of shark. They like murky water and sometimes swim upstream in rivers for several miles.
They hunt during dusk and dawn, which is also the best time of day to surf.
Although stingrays are not life-threatening, it still hurts when they sting you.
These animals are mainly hovering over the sandy ocean floors, so they mostly pose a danger when walking through the ocean.
Costa Rica knows two seasons, wet and dry. The Pacific coast has the best waves during the wet season. The Caribbean coast during the dry season.
(Click here to find out which side of Costa Rica is best for surfing)
For those who have never experienced tropical rain, it’s incredibly powerful, and it’s a lot of water!
Therefore it’s important to keep an eye on the sky when surfing during the rainy season. The rain can hinder your sight, causing you to drift off and possibly get lost.
The Costa Rican beaches are home to many different animals. From pesky ants which sting to loud stealing monkeys and reptiles.
Most of the animals on the Costa Rica beaches are very interested in the food you brought!
Unfortunately, besides the wildlife, there are also the thieving lowlifes who go to the beach to enrich themselves with other people’s belongings.
Last but not least, like most other beaches, Costa Rican beaches have low and high tides.
Unfortunately, the people at the beach aren’t always aware of this and might lose some of their belongings in the rising tide.
The first step to surf safe is to stay within your abilities and to gather information about the spot before entering the water. Asking locals or lifeguards is a great way to learn about the spot and the conditions. Once you know what you might encounter, you can prepare for it.
Surfing at places you’re not familiar with comes with additional risks. Most surfers can pinpoint each and every rock or reef at their local surf spot.
However, when you surf a new spot for the first time, you’ll have to figure out which hazards are there and where they’re located.
The list below offers solutions to the dangers of surfing in Costa Rica, a few basic rules to stay safe in the water, and some personal advice to aid you with your surfing trip.
Honestly, there are just two things you should know concerning currents. How to spot a current and how to deal with a current.
Lots of more experienced surfers can use currents to their advantage. This is because they know where they are and how to use them.
Riptides are easiest to see from above (a cliff, sand dune, or hill).
When looking at the ocean, you’ll see parts where the waves don’t break as frequently, where the water might look darker or carries more sand.
You might even be able to see the water moving towards the ocean. These are riptides!
When you decide that you have found yourself a good spot to catch a wave, look back at the shore and find an object that helps you remember where this spot is (for example, a tree, statue, rock, or building).
This way, you can easily find your location after surfing a wave. You’ll also notice when you’re moving alongside the beach when you’re in a current moving you.
Riptides are like escalators for surfers. You can quickly get behind the waves while using very little energy.
Since there are not as many waves breaking, you won’t have to duck-dive as much.
Once you are far enough, just paddle parallel to the shore until you’re out of the riptide. Never paddle or swim against the current. You’ll get tired and possibly drown!
An easy rule; when in doubt, stay out!
However, when you find yourself amidst big waves, either stay behind them and ask someone else to get you help (when needed) or keep a good eye on the ocean and paddle back towards the beach between the sets.
Once you’re past the breakpoint, you can use the whitewater to reach the beach. Just hold on to your board and hold your breath!
Although most beginner spots are at sandbars, this doesn’t mean that rock and reef ocean floors don’t produce good beginner waves.
However, if you don’t feel comfortable surfing a certain type of ocean floor, many websites and apps will tell you which kind of ocean floor goes with which spot.
I personally use the Magic seaweed (MSW) app.
This app shows you how the waves will be (7-day forecast) and tells you some information about the surfing spot.
Let’s start with the dangerous ones.
If you see a shark, don’t panic. Let the other surfers know and make your way back to the beach (without panicking).
Big chance the shark is not dangerous or interested, so there is no reason to freak out.
Suppose you see a crocodile, paddle!
Crocodiles are no picky eaters and would attack you if they’re hungry. Luckily the crocodiles in Costa Rica inhabit the rivers.
They occasionally use the ocean to move from one river to the other, but their eyes are not used to the saltwater, and they don’t go to the sea to hunt.
However, you should be careful with crocodiles when surfing in river mouths.
Then there are the not-so-dangerous animals.
Ensure that your food is in a portable cooler or some bag from which the animals can’t steal. Be especially careful at beaches with monkeys.
They might steal more than just some food!
Tip: don’t put your bag too close to the water. You might lose it once the tide comes up!
Make sure to use sunscreen in both seasons, but mainly during the dry season.
Surf in the mornings during the rainy season. Most days it’ll start raining in the afternoon.
If you surf in the afternoon, keep an eye on the sky to see what’s happening.
Make sure that you know the surf etiquettes before entering the water. That way, you keep it safe for yourself and others.
Respect the locals, and stay within your abilities.
The other surfers might make it seem very easy. This doesn’t mean that it actually is. Just take it step by step. One day you’ll surf waves like that too.
If you’re a beginner, the dry season still produces plenty of waves at the Pacific coast. Unfortunately, surfing in the rain is not the best way to learn.
The popular beaches are great places to learn the basics, but once you don’t need lessons anymore, find some of the much less crowded beaches.
If you’re a more experienced surfer, the rainy season has great waves and fewer tourists.
You’ll experience lots of rain in the afternoon, but the prices are lower and the waves better.
Although surfing will always come with certain risks, surfing in Costa Rica is considered safe. You can, of course, make it as dangerous as you wish, but this is the case in most countries.
Crime-wise, Costa Rica is safer than the United States. Therefore a surfing holiday in the States will be more dangerous.