Surfing in Nicaragua
The century-old sport of surfing originated as a local tradition and has been about to disappear, but not only was it saved but it even has turned out to become a sport practiced throughout the world. From the tropical island region in the Pacific it has spread to virtually all countries in the world that provide a place to practice.
Sandwiched between two vast oceans Nicaragua certainly has surfing possibilities to offer, and it is not without reason that the country is becoming more popular as a surfing destination. In this Special we provide more information about the sport itself, along with detailed information about the surfing possibilities that exist at the Pacific side of Nicaragua.
More experienced surfers might want to skip the introduction and head directly to the part titled "Surfing in Nicaragua" where more details can be found about the different surf spots in Nicaragua.
A brief history of surfing
The first written records that made reports of surfing were made during the visit of James Cook to the Pacific in 1779. It was Lieutenant James King who wrote about this surface water sport when visiting the islands of Hawai’i where indigenous people rode the waves on long, hardwood boards. Surfing was interwoven with Hawaiian culture for many centuries, and although it was practiced by both the elite and commoners, it was seen as a king’s sport, with chiefs – often mastering the sport – having their own beaches to practice. Within Hawaiian culture and legends there were many songs and stories (there was no written language in Hawai’i at that time) about surfing and it was seen as main pillar of Hawaiian culture.
The sport was practiced on long boards that measured between 12-24 ft (3.7-7.3 m), with chiefs using longer board than commoners, and islanders either lay down or stood upright when riding the waves. The sport had much of a sacred aspect, and practicing it was in a way limited with the chiefs setting rules and limitations for the sport.
Around the turn of the 18th century much was about to change in Hawai’i when Europeans started to arrive at this volcanic island chain. The indigenous population decimated, traditional religion was replaced by Christianity by Calvinistic Christian missionaries and many of the local cultural aspects were soon lost. Missionaries discouraged Hawaiians to practice surfing, and the sport rapidly lost its popularity and its prime position in Hawaiian culture. However, despite foreign influences that culminated with the U.S. annexing the islands in 1898 as their own territory, Hawai’i never completely lost this ancient tradition. In fact, it were these same foreigners that made an end to many other traditions who caused a revival of the surfing sport.
In the beginning of the 19th century surfing was being practiced by foreigners as well, and the fame of a few of them spread throughout the world, spreading the popularity of surfing along with them. But it was the Hawaiian Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku (August 24, 1890 – January 22, 1968) who popularized the modern sport of surfing by holding surfing exhibitions and using his fame as Olympic swimmer to promote this sport. In certain countries like Australia the sport caught on almost instantly and became a great hit.
In the 1950s and 1960s the sport grew rapidly and a whole surf culture currently exists with its own customs and habits. Surfing has gained worldwide attention, and schools and shops exist in most countries that have surfing possibilities. Television shows, clubs, websites, hotels, and even entire neighborhoods are nowadays dedicated to this sport. Other derivative sports like windsurfing and kite-surfing have also come into existence. Surfing, however, remains popular in its traditional form, with only equipment and techniques evolving over time.
A lot of information about the history of surfing can be found in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawai’i. This museum holds millions of artifacts, documents, and photographs about Hawai’i and other Pacific island cultures. The photos in the video all come from this museum.
The earliest surfboards were heavy, wooden longboards that measured up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) and weighed 100 pounds (45 kg). Surfboard design has evolved over time and a large variety of different shapes, sizes, materials, and qualities can be found in current boards.
In the 1970s the shortboard was introduced to the main public. These boards, measuring 5-7 ft (1.5-2.1 m) are generally thinner, have a more pointed nose, and are not as wide as longboards. The advantages of these boards include better maneuverability and higher velocity. Longboards still offer other advantages, including more chances of catching a wave and a shorter learning curve, which makes that nowadays both board types are in use. What uniformly changed is the weight of the board, with most surfboards weighing between 5-15 pounds (2-7 kg).
Most surfboards are made from polyurethane foam, but other materials are also used, including wood. Boards are covered with fiberglass cloth and coated with resin, which makes them slippery when wet. Surfers therefore apply wax to their boards before going out to the sea.
Many other board qualities affect its performance. Boards have one or more (up to four) fins that provide stability and add speed to the board. The nose can be pointed or rounded, and tails also come in different shapes. The edge and bottom surface furthermore vary in every board. Current trends in board design are towards creating a high variety of shapes and styles, trying out new techniques and thus speeding the process of surfboard evolution.
Every board has a leash that can be tied to the surfer’s ankle, in order to not lose the board when the surfer falls off. Prices of surfboards vary roughly between US$300-600, and boards last between 3-5 years, depending on usage.
Although the surfing sport is often seen as leaving a small ecological footprint, traditional surfboards unfortunately do not decompose and the petrochemical plastics contaminate the environment when the boards end up at dumpsites. Chris Hines from Surfers Against Sewage developed a plant-foam based alternative that will be on the market soon, and hopefully this type of product will become standard in the industry, thus significantly lowering the contamination caused by surfboards.
Learning to surf
There are several ways one can start learning to surf. Taking surf lessons is one option, but in Nicaragua there are few places where surf class is given. However, surfing is a sport that is mostly learning by practicing, and fortunately there are enough places in the country to practice. Obviously a beginner is preferably accompanied by an experienced surfer when trying to surf for the first time. For safety reasons the most important preparation is to be informed about the local conditions, so always ask locals about the beach and the ocean’s characteristics.
The most difficult part of surfing is to stand upright on the board and to remain standing. It can take long before this is mastered, but again practice is the most important element. The chance of success of a beginning surfer mostly lies in the determination and patience. It does not only take a while before knowing how to ride the waves, but it can also simply take a while before a good wave comes by. Part of surfing is waiting in the sea, waiting for the right wave to come in. Affection to the sea and good swimming skills are other important aspects. It could take a couple years before a beginning surfer really knows how to ride the waves, and from that point on the goal is to improve the technique and ride bigger or more difficult waves.
In San Juan del Sur there are surfboard rentals and surf classes, making this beach town a good place to explore this sport. Prices for board rental are US$10-15 per day, and classes cost US$10-15 per hour.
How surfing works
Surfing is about riding the ocean’s wave. In order to understand how surfing works, it is important to know how waves are created. Ocean surface waves are the waves that occur at the surface of the ocean, visible to the naked eye. Surfers want for large, breaking waves that provide plenty of opportunity and time to ride them. These kinds of waves are created by distant winds, with three factors affecting the size: wind speed, distance the wind has blown over, and length of time the wind has blown. It is the wind’s energy that causes the water mass to move, and when this moving water mass hits the shore it tends to form a breaking wave as the bottom becomes shallower. Instead of being formed by regular winds, the waves can also be developed by tropical storms and by stable wind systems. These long-wavelength surface waves are more stable and clean, as the water has traveled thousands of kilometers, and this is the best kinds of waves for surfing. However, the strength of the swell depends on the atmospheric conditions and can not be calculated much ahead of time.
When the water mass reaches the shore, the type of wave that is created depends mostly on the seabed. The wave breaks because the water at the bottom can not travel as fast as the water at the top, and the top therefore collapses.
For surfers the wave high, long-lasting, clean waves are the best. “Clean” means that the water is not choppy and seabed materials remain at the bottom. Under certain conditions these materials are stirred up and the water becomes sandy or muddy, making surfing less pleasurable.
The conditions that affect the waves are partially fixed, depending on the beach’s characteristics. The seabed structure for example is different at every beach. Other aspects depend on the local weather, like local wind conditions, and these vary every day. For surfing offshore winds are highly important to have clean water and better waves. Sometimes surfing is also possible with inshore winds, but generally offshore winds are necessary to do good surfing.
Riding the waves is all about timing. In order to get to ride a wave, to surf, surfers position themselves somewhere offshore, floating on their board, waiting for the waves to come in. Once a good wave comes in, they jump on their board and try to ride the wave until it ends. With bad luck the surfer falls off his board rather rapidly, and the wave is lost, but sometimes surfers are able to ride out a wave until it reaches the beach.
Surfing in Nicaragua
Several Central American countries are famous for their surfing, but so far Nicaragua has not yet drawn this same level of attention. However, this is not due to lack of good surfing sites but rather due to the limited information and knowledge about the area. Experts who do know the country and the surf sites are very enthusiastic about the possibilities, and it is not unlikely that Nicaragua will be recognized as a prime surf destination in a few years. The current advantage is that most beaches are not crowded and only the most well-known areas can be somewhat congested. However, compared to other countries Nicaragua still remains a rather unexplored and calm surf destination.
Nicaragua possesses a couple unique characteristics that make it an ever more interesting surf destination. In the south-central part of the country Lake Nicaragua covers a surface of more than 8,000 square kilometers, created a huge, flat area where wind can constantly blow. And almost year-round it does. As a consequence, the southern Pacific side of Nicaragua receives almost constant offshore winds, and unlike virtually all other Pacific destinations the wind does not change during the day and water is clean and good for surfing sometimes all day long. This wind is known as the Papagayo Wind and it is praised by surfers who come from all over the world to experience the local waves. Because of these winds the warm surface water is mixed with colder water from below, adding nutrients and causing a whole chain of reactions including increased algae growth, improved feeding grounds for smaller fish and ultimately resulting in the presence of marlin and sailfish, all due to the Papagayo wind. There are certain locations where the Papagayo is combined with a good wave, making several sites very interesting for surfers. Several beaches in the department of Rivas in the municipalities of Tola and San Juan del Sur have even achieved international fame for having these qualities! Internationally, Popoyo Beach in Tola is the most well-known surf site in Nicaragua. More about this and other beaches can be found in the comparison tables below.
Other conditions that make Nicaragua an interesting surf destination include the wildlife that can be seen. Marine turtles, dolphins, and even whales can be seen when surfing the Pacific beaches. Traveling in this area is also a great activity, with many of the beaches being hidden by tree-covered cliffs forming stunning bays.
When to surf
Nicaragua is a year-round surf destination. Good waves can be found at many sites but some places can be better visited during certain parts of the year. As can be read above, the best swell is caused by tropical storms, which occur mostly during the rainy season. From April until November there are higher and steadier waves.
Many spots in southern Nicaragua are best at high tide, while others further north are better at lower and upcoming tides. Arguably the best wind direction is offshore, as it makes waves "stand up," but few surfers would argue against a day with flat-calm winds and good waves. It is normally not possible to surf at any given time during the day, but in southern Nicaragua, however, the offshore Papagayo winds often make it possible to surf from sunrise to sunset . More to the north the Papagayo effect diminishes but even Carazo and Managua still benefit from it. The northernmost departments of the country (León and Chinandega) do not benefit from effects of the Papagayo winds but the outstanding waves of the north and the lack of morning wind makes these departments best for sunrise surfing.
Tide schedules can be found on several websites, including the website of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER). More information can be found at www.ineter.gob.ni.
Surf beaches in Nicaragua
Below follows an overview of the different beaches in Nicaragua and their specific characteristics. The Caribbean side of the country is also said to have some good surf conditions, but much less is explored at this side of the country. We therefore currently focus on the Pacific side, but please feel free to report any experience surfing at the Caribbean side of the country.
Accessibility: this beach can be easily accessed by public transportation.
Difficulty: relatively tranquil waves providing a good setting for beginners.
Accessibility: very hard to access, no public transportation.
Difficulty: tough waves, spot for experts.
Beaches in the department of Rivas
15 minutes in taxi or shuttle from San Juan del Sur
|Other info||Famous for its very constant waves|
One-hour bus drive from Rivas
|Other info||Known as the best waves in Nicaragua. Reef break.|
|Ambiance||Quite some people|
Private access, public access only by boat
Beaches in the department of Carazo
Beaches in the department of Managua
|Ambiance||Few surfers but more tourists|
40 minutes in bus from Managua
|Other info||There are restaurants on the beach. During the weekend people from Managua like to visit Pochomil.|
|Ambiance||Very few people|
|Other info||Great beach to learn how to surf. It is good for long board surfing.|
Beaches in the department of León
|Ambiance||Few surfers but more tourists|
30 minutes in bus from León
35 minutes in bus from León
(Around 35 minutes from the city of León, heading south to the Izapa junction)
|Other info||Puerto Sandino was recently recognized as a great surf destination by a Brazilian magazine, and several international websites take the site into consideration for its good waves.|
Beaches in the department of Chinandega
20 minutes in bus from Chinandega
|Other info||There are restaurants and hotels in the area|
|Ambiance||Quite some people|
Popularity of surfing in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is just starting to become known as a surf destination. Locals have only started to surf in the country some 10 years ago, which is not long ago compared to other countries in the region. It is estimated that there are some 150 active Nicaraguan surfers. Internationally Nicaragua is receiving more and more attention, and the more surf hotels and surf shops are being set up.
Due to the increased attention, the first surf contests have also taken place. With some 75-100 participants the winners are selected by a jury, judging the performance of the individual surfers. Outstanding performance, especially for its age, is shown for several years in a row by Rex Calderón, a 14 year old surfer who often wins the first price in national contests. This exceptionally young winner is expected to soon also thrive on Central American level.
Increased popularity will also lead to more knowledge about the best surf spots. There are most likely many other beaches not mentioned in this article, and we invite our readers to contribute to this Special. Be sure to report other beaches here to expand and improve this Surf Special. We also welcome other comments or feedback.