Panama Vs. Costa Rica Surfing: Which is Right for you?

April 21, 2023

Are you planning a surf trip to Central America, and can't choose between Panama and Costa Rica? We're here to help. While Panama and Costa Rica both offer stunning landscapes, an abundance of wildlife and great surfing, the two countries have a few big differences. 

Keep in mind, like every country, every person is different. When planning a surf trip, understanding what's right for you, your level of surf, budget and your travel style is key to getting the most out of your surf vacation, anywhere you go. When choosing between Costa Rica and Panama the biggest difference to note is probably development and infrastructure. A place like Playa Venao on Panama's Pacific Coast is what Nosara CR was 20 or 30 years ago.

Before you decide on Panama or Costa Rica, take a few moments to jot down what you're looking for in a surf trip. Think about the type of experience you're seeking, the type of wave,  whether it be barrels, knee high rollers or something in between. Also think about getting there, the people you'll want to connect with and the things you want to do, other than surf. Choosing between these two Central American surf destinations heavy hitters can be tough, so getting clear on what you're looking for can really help narrow it down.  

Now here's what you need to know when it comes to Panama vs. Costa Rica surfing!

Panama Vs. Costa Rica: Waves

Both Panama and Costa Rica are home to some of the best waves in the world. In Costa Rica you have Tamarindo, Puerto Viejo, Jaco, Santa Teresa & Pavones. And in Panama you have Santa Catalina & Playa Venao & Bocas del Toro, to name just a few. It's hard to say one country offers better waves than the other with world class waves like these. That being said, it's not always the quality of the waves, but also the consistency and accessibility that counts when it comes to actually surfing waves.

A person looking at the wave breaking in front of her.

Costa Rica and Panama's Pacific Coast sees consistent South Western swells from April to October There are definitely some smaller swells in Jaunary. What's special about Panama is that the country also gets the Caribbean surf season from November until March in places like Bocas del Toro. With two coastlines Panama has the potential to offer waves all year around. While Panama's public transit might be a bit behind, the interior of Panama has far better infrastructure compared to smaller towns in Costa Rica. 

Panama Vs. Costa Rica: Getting around

Outside of Panama City public transportation is a bit unorganized, whereas in Costa Rica things are more structured. In Panama you need to be flexible and willing to go with the flow.That being said, transportation in Panama is generally safe and cheap. So, while it might take you half a day to get to your destination, you will get there, and probably for a fraction of the price that it might have cost in CR.

Price tags aside, Costa Rica has things pretty figured out. Depending on where you are going in the country, you can find a lot of local information on buses, and travel routes along with other people traveling to the same places. Of course, while this is great when you're looking to get there, it makes for a more crowded lineup when you do finally get in the water. 

TIP: If you're looking for turn-key travel there are surf camps that offer private, round trip airport transportation according to your flight schedule. Many surf camps offer all-inclusive options that might actually end up saving you money and travel anxiety. At Beach Break Surf Camp we offer affordable accommodations and surf camp packages that include private transport. BBSC is located on one of the best surfing beaches in Panama, with top notch amenities and chill vibes, friendly lineups. 

Three transport vans parked in front of the Beach Break Surf Camp

Panama vs. Costa Rica: Cost

While Costa Rica has a reputation for being the most expensive destination in Central America, The truth is Panama isn't as cheap as it once was. But while the cost of living has gone up in Panama, the cost of vacationing in Panama is still cheaper than Costa Rica. With many years in the tourism industry Costa Rica offers a lot more options than Panama for surf camps. These accommodations range from hostel style to luxury private villas, if you want the best of the best, it's going to cost a pretty penny in Costa Rica. 

Two surfers walking alongside the beach with the sunset in the backdrop.

While rustic hostels with shared accommodations will cost about the same price in either country, the cost of resort-like accommodations in Panama are typically cheaper than in Costa Rica. It's safe to say if you're looking for a little bit of luxury (pool, private villa, and beachfront resort) it will cost less in Panama.

TIP: Choose a surf camp that offers transparent pricing. When you know what is included in your accommodations and what you will need to budget extra for (board rentals, lessons, meals etc.) you can ensure you'll get the most out of your trip. Working with a resort that has taken an all-inclusive approach can mitigate any unexpected costs. It also allows you to try out different gear, and activities you may not have if they were not included. If prices are not listed on the surf camp's website be sure to ask about pricing and availability. 

So which one's for you? Costa Rica or Panama

Once you leave the bustling metropolis that is Panama City, Panama's coastlines are still very underdeveloped. Panama's surf breaks are mostly hidden among dense rainforest at the end of dirt roads, tucked away in local communities. 

A gorgeous photo of the rising sun behind the clouds at the beachfront in Beach Break Surf Camp in Panama

Since Costa Rica has been invested in surf tourism for a long time, there is a lot more information on surf breaks, infrastructure and accommodations. With more tourism comes larger developments with the intention of attracting foreign tourists. This development gives Costa Rica a different vibe than most of Panama. There is a lot more going on, from a variety of shops, restaurants and events. In Panama things are a bit more laid back, while beach communities like Playa Venao have grown, they remain small and authentic.

Since Costa Rica has strict beach development laws which help ensure that the natural beauty of the coastline is preserved, it can make finding cool beach bars with sunset views a bit of a hike. When you consider the actual quality of the road, Panama likely offers superior road infrastructure and more access to real beachfront experiences. Ultimately, both countries offer unique experiences and have their pros and cons. It just depends on what you're looking for in your travels.

So, are you looking to chill with other surfers while honing your skills? Or, are you after that solo trip to ride the wave of a lifetime? Waves like Pavones in Costa Rica or Paunch in Bocas del Toro Panama need a solid swell to work, and can bring a competitive line-up when it's firing. Santa Teresa in Costa Rica and Playa Venao in Panama are more beginner - intermediate beach breaks. 

Conclusion 

If you're debating Panama vs. Costa Rica for your upcoming surf trip, know there's something for everyone in both of these countries! Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each country against each other can help you figure out the place for you, but figuring out your spot depends a lot on your surf & travel style, not to mention what you're looking to take away from the trip. The best way to figure it out is to give it a try!  

While each country has their perks (Panama offering chill vibes and empty lineups & Costa Rica a lot more info and infrastructure) authentic experiences awaits in both of these countries. It's just a matter of connecting the dots! If it turns out Panama is the place for you, BBSC can help you plan a surf trip that is tailor fit for your level of surf and adventure.

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