Surfing Nicaragua is the stuff of legend. The waves are big, the beaches are wide, the beers are cool and the barneys are basically nowhere to be seen.
It evokes the early days of the California surf scene, when a renegade spirit still dominated the sport and gear know-how was a word-of-mouth tradition. Here, surf camps dot the long, sinuous Pacific Coast and a Central American surf safari par excellence awaits.
Getting your bearings
Waves break year-round in Nicaragua and are best on the Pacific coast. Experienced riders should time trips according the swell and aim to get here from March through September. San Juan del Sur is the long-time surf capital of Nicaragua, and it has the partying pedigree to show for it. It’s also a good spot to gear up, hire out local tour boats to take you to hard-to-reach breaks and spend a few days cruising the colonial streets. Ironically, there’s only one half-decent break right in town. Unless you’re shelling out for daily boat charters, the real action happens in the little surf colonies north and south of here.
South of San Juan, Playa Remanso has a good beach break for beginners, with Playa Tamarindo just south offering up long left and right breaks. It’s also home to the lovingly playful Playa Hermosa Ecolodge (playahermosabeachhotel.com). On the other hand, you could head north, stopping off first at Playa Maderas and its gnarly reef break. Other worthwhile northern surf spots include Bahía Majagual and Arena Blanca.
If you continue on up the coast, you’ll find consistent waves as long as development doesn’t block your access. Playa Popoyo is the king of surf towns around the Central Pacific Coast, but most areas have local board rentals, surf cabins and schools. The good waves continue all the way up through El Salvador from here.
Bring, buy or rent?
If you really love your stick, bring it down. It can cost anywhere from US$50-200 to do it. The online hub of surf info Magic Seaweed (magicseaweed.com) is a great resource for baggage rates to help plan this out (they have good beta on Nicaragua breaks as well). If you'd rather skip that process, you could consider buying a board when you get here and selling it when you leave. San Juan del Sur and Popoyo are the best spots to buy boards. Rentals are often pretty dinged up, but perfect for beginners. Expect to pay $10-20 per hour (negotiating better rates for weekly rentals).
Picking your board
If you're just getting started, start with a simple soft-top board. They don’t look as cool as ‘real’ surf boards that are traditionally made with a foam core and fiberglass outer shell. But they are easier to carry to the beach, float you like a mother, and are often cheaper than the glassed boards. They are also really stable, meaning you won’t fall off the board every time a wave rolls through the lineup (and won't get wacked in the face with a hard edge when you do fall off). Generally, rental shops will have a selection of these 'sponge' boards, short and longboards, boogie boards and maybe even a few stand-up paddle boards to rent.
Most beginners will start with a longboard (better for less steep waves), while more advanced riders may move to shorter boards. Bigger, heavier surfers tend to go with a bigger, thicker ride. Funboards are a good option for intermediate riders – all the utility of a longboard with more maneuverability. Fishboards are another option for intermediate riders looking for quick takeoffs, some of the bounce of a short board, but more stability and easier paddles out.
For a fun treat, try a stand-up paddle board. They’re fun even if the waves aren’t breaking. You can unleash your ‘rhino chaser’ – your big wave longboard – on some of the bigger breaks up north. If all else fails, you can rent a boogie board and just play on the beach breaks.
Extra Nicaragua surf essentials
Water temps here are around mid-20oC (75oF) most of the year. This means you probably won’t need or want a wetsuit, but in December to April water temps can drop, making an optional wetsuit top like the Rip Curl Dawn Patrol (ripcurl.com) a good idea. You’ll probably want a rash guard top just in case. Billabong (ballabong.com) has some nice options. We only wish they offered more neon! You can pop one on for long sessions to protect you from the sun.
A good leash is essential to keep the board attached to your foot. Dakine (dakine.com) has a ton on offer. You can bring your favourite surf wax with you – even though they sell it in most spots. Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax (sexwax.com) has been around since 1972 (and you gotta love the name). For first timers, the wax goes on the top of the board to make it more grippy, not the bottom.
Things people often forget to bring are sunscreen – yes, they sell it, but it can be like twice the cost as back home. Bugspray. Ditto for price, plus local quality sucks. Also bring along a pair of long-sleeve pants and a long-sleeve shirt, for bug protection, heading to churches in the colonial villages and looking nice come party night.
Playa Maderas © Mike Vondran ( CC BY 2.0)
A number of companies will build complete surf safaris. Unfortunately, with all the development on the coast, many of best breaks are no longer accessible from the road. You either need to hire local pangas (open-cockpit dorries) to get you there or consider doing a complete package that includes lodging, boats and sometimes all-you-can-drink beer. Most safari packages include three sessions a day at hard-to-reach breaks, plus sometimes a sunset ride on the local break right out your door.