Surfing Costa Rica: Nicoya Peninsula 4×4 Road Trip

Surfing Costa Rica Nicoya
Costa Rica Surfing Road Trip
Nicoya Penninsula, Costa Rica

Surfing is unpredictable, and forces you out of your comfort zone. You only have a few seconds to decide if you’re going to commit to that wave quickly barreling down behind you.

If you guess wrong, or hesitate, the results might not be pleasant. But if you guess right… the natural high of riding the power of the ocean is pure bliss. An addiction that makes surfers take a beating & come back for more.

Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula reaches out from the northwest region of the country, separated from the mainland by the Gulf of Nicoya.

With a long coastline and many remote uncrowded beaches, it’s an excellent surfing destination. Especially because it’s a meteorological sweet spot for generating Pacific ocean swells.

Renting a sweet 4X4 expedition truck from Nomad America that included a rooftop tent for camping, I explored the peninsula driving through jungle rivers and over rough backcountry roads.

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Best beaches in Costa Rica
Playa Guiones Beach
Surf shop in Nosara costa rica.
Juan Surfo’s Surf Shop

Nosara Costa Rica

My first stop in Nicoya was the small town of Nosara, where I spent a few days just getting back into the groove of surfing, as I hadn’t ridden waves in a while. Surfing is one of my favorite sports, but it’s a lot harder than it looks!

The town of Nosara has become a popular place for expats from the United States and Canada to settle down, claiming a small piece of paradise for themselves.

The surf is decent year round, and a large beach called Playa Guiones boasts plenty of waves for people of all skill levels. I spent 3 days surfing around Nosara, and seriously didn’t want to leave.

I can see why so many expats decide to move here. It’s exactly what you’d expect a lazy jungle surf town to be like. Monkeys in the trees, yoga classes, dirt roads, and a healthy-living vibe.

There are a few different surf schools and shops nearby, like Juan Surfo’s. They provide both board rentals & surf lessons.

Surfing in Costa Rica
Surfing Playa Guiones
Playa Guiones Beach
Not Very Crowded in December…

Surfing Playa Guiones

Playa Guiones is particularly special because it’s such a large beach. At 4 miles long, you can walk along endlessly and take your pick from different surf spots, so it never feels super overcrowded.

The area is also a national refuge, which means developers can’t build on the beach itself. So from the water, looking back to shore, it just looks like a wall of jungle in front of you.

You can hang out in little homemade “surf-shacks” with roofs made of palm fronds, hiding from the sun to re-hydrate before heading back into the waves for more surfing.

Waves are pretty gentle at Guiones, so it’s a wonderful location for beginners who are learning to surf. It’s a nice wide sandy beach break… no rocks or coral reef to worry about crashing into.

River crossing in Costa Rica
Crossing Rivers in the Jungle

Costa Rica’s 4X4 Coastal Road

After a few days of surfing around Nosara, I loaded up the truck and started driving South along the coast on Route 160. Pulling off down rough and muddy backroads to check out different beaches.

My mission was to drive a particularly rugged off-road track that hugs the coastline from Nosara to Santa Teressa. It can only be accomplished in a proper 4X4 truck, and it’s only possible during the dry season.

This is because there are 3 big rivers you must drive through on this route (Ora, Bongo, and Ario). Fjording rivers in a 4×4 truck is a lot of fun! But it can also be a little hazardous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

How To Drive Across A River

  • Know where your vehicle’s “water line” is (maximum depth)
  • Walk across the river first, to ensure it isn’t too deep
  • Pay attention to the entry & exit points
  • Shift the truck into 4×4 Low
  • Drive slow and steady through the water, under 10 mph

If the water is too deep, it can flood into the cab, or even drown the engine (a snorkel helps prevent this). Strong currents can completely lift the vehicle off the ground, floating downriver until it reaches shallows again.

The route might not be as straightforward as you think either. The safest path could require driving upriver a bit before crossing, so it’s wise to watch someone else go first if possible.

Camping in Costa Rica
Truck Camping in Guanacaste

Camping Along The Way

I love campervan road trips. The ability to stop on the side of a road, a parking area, or at a campground while you travel really gives you a lot of freedom as a photographer. Great for surfing remote breaks too!

The Toyota FJ Cruiser I rented from Nomad America comes equipped with a rooftop tent, off-road suspension & tires, cooking gear, hammocks, folding table & chairs, solar shower, retractable awning, and more.

Renting an expedition truck in Costa Rica isn’t super expensive, especially the smaller 4x4s which start at $55 a day. Plus, no need to spend money on hotels/hostels when you have a tent on your roof!

Split between a group of 2-4 people it’s a great deal, and a true off-the-beaten-path adventure in Costa Rica.

Surfing Santa Teresa
Smaller Days Can be Fun Too!
Santa Teresa Costa Rica
Welcome to Santa Teresa

Surfing Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa is another expat surf town on the Coast Rican Pacific coast. It’s a bit more crowded than Nosara/Guiones, but still a great place to ride some waves.

While not nearly as big as the surf town mecca of Tamarindo in the North, Santa Teresa has been growing and is popular with backpackers. Proper hotels and B&Bs have sprung up too.

If you’re a surfer, or want to learn, it’s a fun place to hang out for a few days.

There are two main beaches in Santa Teresa, Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa. Popular surf breaks in the area include Suck Rock and La Lora.

Costa Rica beach sunset.
Costa Rican Sunset at Playa Barco Quebrado

Costa Rica’s Surf Season

The rainy season on the Nicoya Peninsula is August – November, when many surf schools are closed. Early December is a great time to visit, as it’s not so crowded with tourists yet. After Christmas tourism starts to pick up, and clean consistent surf can be had from December – April.

How To Get There

Car

If you’re coming from San Jose, there are two main routes for visiting the Nicoya Peninsula. You can drive around the Gulf Of Nicoya on Route 18, which takes about 5 hours.

Or you can take the Punta Arenas Ferry across the water to Nicoya, and then drive North along the coast. The 4×4 coastal road from Nosara to Santa Teresa takes about 3 hours, provided you don’t get lost (which is easy to do).

Bus

There’s a daily bus to Nosara from San Jose at 5:30am departing from the intersection of Avenida 5 and Calles 14/16 (Alfaro Terminal). Another option is to take one of the more frequent buses to the Nicoya Peninsula, then change to another for Nosara. More details here.

Where To Stay In Nicoya

Renting a truck from Nomad America allowed me to camp for most of the trip, occasionally stopping at a guest house for a hot shower. However if camping isn’t for you, here are some other options:


HOTEL
Nicoya Budget Hotel
Mamma Rosa
I spent one night here to take advantage of AC, wifi, and a hot shower. It’s location is perfect, with a trail directly to the beach.

Check Prices / Read Reviews

HOSTEL
Key West Luxury Hotel
Salina Santa Teresa
This is a sweet looking hostel right next to the beach, quirky design. Here you’ll find Surfboard rentals, surf lessons, yoga and more.

Check Prices / Read Reviews

Costa Rican Surfing Paradise

Basically road tripping down the coast of Nicoya Peninsula is an awesome surfing adventure, and won’t break the bank either. Especially if you team up with others to rent an expedition truck with a roof-top tent.

I honestly felt like I was was driving around Jurassic Park in that thing, waiting for a T-Rex to burst out of the jungle and chase me.

Bouncing around on rough Costa Rican back roads, powering through mud holes, and exploring every hidden beach I could find! ★

Watch Video: Costa Rica Road Trip


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Travel Planning Resources For Costa Rica

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Find cheap flights on Skyscanner. This is my favorite search engine to find deals on airlines. Also make sure to read how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Car Hire is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent apartments from locals on Airbnb. Read more about how I book cheap hotels online.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Costa Rica
Suggested Reading: Monkeys Are Made Of Chocolate

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Surfing road trip in Costa Rica. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Surfing road trip in Costa Rica. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about surfing in Costa Rica? Are you planning a trip? Drop me a message in the comments below!

THANKS FOR READING

Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and useful tips from my journey.
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41 thoughts on “Surfing Costa Rica: Nicoya Peninsula 4×4 Road Trip”

  1. Hey Matt!

    I really enjoyed this post! Costa Rica is high on my travel bucket list (considering I want to visit all countries and dependencies… someday).

    Makes me want to give it a try, only I have two small children. I’m a little curious about the safety there. My kids are totally used to adventure travel as we have our own adventures where we live, but I hesitate doing stuff like this when we’re abroad because I care for their safety, of course. Is it safe enough to take the whole family?

    Thanks!!

  2. Costa Rica is one of my favorite places! Absolute paradise. Making me wish I was there right now.

    I actually crossed a mangrove during high tide in Tamarindo on my last visit there…I would advise against it due to all the crocs. Also Playa Avellanas is a sweet surf spot in Nicoya!

  3. Thank you Matthew for share this great post. Costa Rica is a real natural paradise!
    I did the same coastal road 4 years ago and was amazing! Next time you must experience the North plains and the Arenal Volcano area, the zone is perfect for travellers who seek natural adventures and want to connect with nature. Pura vida !

  4. Looks like a great place to take a vacation IN APRIL. Sun, surf, palm trees and I’m sure there will be something to do there.

  5. Hey Matt, me and my friend rented the exact same truck for two weeks and visited all the places (and many more) you’ve mentioned in this post. You really manage to nail our experience as well.

    However you forgot to mention that the male to female ratio in Nosara is completely bombalistic! When the sun sets not only surfers go to the beach to catch a good time, but also female yoga tourists who will be sitting on the beach just waiting for the surfers to come up.

    So if there’s any married men here, whose women are going to “a secluded yoga paradise in the jungle”, I can promise you it will be plenty of stretching… ;)

    Best regards from Sweden

  6. Santa Teresa sounds really cool.
    I love Huanchaco, Peru. It’s a really small surfing town that’s only 15 minutes via car to Trujillo which is now gaining on a million people.
    There are great places to stay if you like beach shack type places.

  7. Hey Matt!

    Some very compelling reasons to go for a visit! I love the camper van, too bad we can’t seem to get the FJ Cruisers in Canada anymore! I love your blog and I’ve always loved the way you are able to capture the atmosphere everywhere you go.

    I’ve recently just started my own blog and I’m starting to plan for my upcoming travels, this might just make the list!

  8. This looks amazing. I’m hoping to make it down to Central America this summer, although it’s supposed to be the rainy season. I know CR is one of the most expensive countries down there, but it looks so beautiful. I’m trying to work on my surf game, and this looks perfect. :-)

    • Hey Dave, yeah Costa Rica can be more expensive than other Central American countries, but compared to other countries around the world, it’s still a great deal. It also helps to get off the beaten path a bit.

  9. This is great! I can’t wait to learn how to surf myself and hopefully ride the same waves in Costa Rica. I definitely need to add this to my list!

  10. I loved this post. I have tried my hand at surfing myself, in the Atlantic, but with only moderate success. I would love to travel to the Costa Rica and host events there

  11. Incredible pictures, Matt! Your photos of the Costa Rican coast remind me of my trip to Rio de Janeiro…but the beach at Nosara looks a lot less crowded than Copacabana! The sight of that blue sea surrounded by palm trees has made me itchy to get back on the road!

    • Still haven’t made it down to Brazil yet! I hear they have other kinds of spectacular sights to see on those beaches… :-)

  12. I live in Costa Rica, although in the Central Valley, since I work an office job. I’ve never been to Guiones, but that pic of you crossing the river makes me wanna go! Santa Teresa is definitely one of my favorite beaches here, and the night vibe is really amazing. I’m glad you adventured through my country. Great place!

    • Check it out Steve! Driving along that wild coastline was a ton of fun. I can’t get enough of Costa Rica, always something new to see.

  13. Wow! this seems to be so adventurous. Costa Rica is an amazing and a trip like this definitely adds up to the fun.

  14. Matt,

    We’re you able to return the car at a different location from where you picked it up or did you have to drive it back to the same spot? Excellent blog. Thanks!

    • It depends on the rental agency I think, and where, but with Nomad America yes you can arrange a drop off or pickup at a different airport.

  15. Looks like great time. Hauling a surfboard on a airplane must be a hassle.
    Any plans for an adventure that might include a wilderness style trip? Wilderness camping, canoeing, fishing? Lots of mud, bugs, swamps, moose, wolves, evil squirrels that steal food and scold you at the same time would seem to me, to be the ticket. I know a place…

    • Well, as a matter of fact, I am planning an epic long-distance canoe trip this summer… and catching the biggest fish in the region!

  16. Hi Matthew,

    Awesome dude!

    Seeing images and reading about Costa Rica warms my heart. Love the place to death.

    Not a surfer but goodness is the Nicoya Peninsula gorgeous. We lived in Playa Potrero for a few weeks in 2013. Awesome spot, peaceful beach and sleepy Tico community with expats peppered in their too.

    The interaction between humans and nature is amazing in CR. Green country with respect for wildlife, and since hunting is banned many animals don’t have an intense fear of humans so you see these guys doing as they do in plain view.

    Thanks for sharing :)

    Ryan

  17. The sunsets are so beautiful! I would love to visit Nicoya Costa Rica someday and learn how to surf there. The beaches look so amazing and it would be so much fun to drive across the river.

    • You should Becky, this area of Costa Rica is an excellent place to learn. Nice mellow waves, plenty of room to spread out. The off-road driving is excellent too! I was just waiting for a T-Rex to start running out of the jungle, chasing down my truck. LOL.

    • You can put these tents on all kinds of trucks! Pretty cool way to go car camping, and saves space keeping it up on the roof like that.

  18. I love reading your blogs! I am eagerly waiting for your Moroccan experiences since I am planning to travel this year. Can’t wait :) Keep travelling!

  19. Wow, Costa Rica looks nice! I like the photo, too. The photo of the SUV going through the water looks a bit scary. I’m planning my next trips in Central and South America is the near future. I will go on a horseback riding vacation in Mexico later this year, and one next winter in Nicaragua, maybe another one in Ecuador if time and money permit.

    • It felt a bit scary, I was worried I’d drive the thing into water that was too deep. You really have to be careful, and know where the correct place to cross is. Otherwise it could become a very expensive mistake…

  20. I’ve been hearing reports about crocodiles attacking surfers. Did you see any crocs or any signs that it’s being addressed?

    • Didn’t see any crocodiles in this area of Costa Rica (Nicoya), but I’ve heard stories too. Sounds like it’s a problem around Tamarindo, further North.

      The crocodiles in my video are from Rio Tarcoles, a different area of Costa Rica. That river is full of them!