Surfing is beautiful. A careful balancing act allowing a surfer to be artfully carried across the surface of the water. Simple movements that propel the surfer along the wave, a gorgeous display of grace and control. Then there is the wave itself. Cast against grand horizons, small mountains of water rise out of the belly of the ocean only to crash over themselves before crumbling back into the rhythm of the sea. An endless loop of creation and destruction happening just beyond the palm trees and sand.
It is no wonder why people of all ages, classes and creed are constantly in search of the best place to ride or witness the awe of surfing. The hunt for new waves becomes consuming.
“The thing about surfing is every place has something different to offer,” says Ben Reed, a professional surf photographer for five years and avid surfer for 19. “I think that’s why we keep traveling to new places. To see what else is out there.”
Ben is from Camden, North Carolina and has been all over the world in search of great surf. For him, the best sessions came from the warm, uncrowded waters of Nicaragua. That makes sense, considering where he is from, the well-known stretch of superb surf along the East Coast known as the Outer Banks. Spanning the majority of northern coast, a tiny stretch of land separates the Atlantic Ocean from the North Carolina Sounds. Loaded with various beach breaks, Outer Banks (OBX in the parlance) is known for both fickle conditions and crowds. Beach breaks take place along coastlines where the swell pumping from the ocean to land is not obstructed by anything except the rising bottom of the beach. Because the sand and rock along the ocean floor shifts from time to time, so do the corresponding waves. Ever-changing conditions above and below a wave makes it increasingly difficult to ride and challenging when battling a crowd in the sea.
Nicaragua’s southeast coast is littered with amazing reef breaks, most of which barrel hollow centers, and are formed to perfection by their unique amount of offshore winds. Reef breaks are created by an underwater mass, like a rock shelf or large head of coral, that juts upward from the sea floor toward the surface, causing the wave to begin crumbling over itself and often provide barreling waves. Offshore winds blow from the beach to ocean, creating a smooth glass-like surface and a consistent shape as wave breaks from side to side. In Nicaragua these winds can be expected in excess of 300 days a year due to their phenomenal Papagayo Winds. Perfectly shaped waves breaking along an entire coastline, that can at times appear to be completely abandoned—sounds good, right?
Jhony Corzo, 2017 ISA World Surfing Games champion, says his favorite place to surf is Hawaii, whose famed breaks at Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and Pipeline attract so much attention that the crowds on the water can create a world-class level of danger. The payoff, however, is unmatched anywhere else in the world.
“The waves are amazing with all types to practice on, the color of the water is magic, the food is super good, and the best thing is that the people are nice and there always cool vibes,” says Jhony.
Jhony is from one of Mexico’s most famed beach breaks, Puerto Escondido (aka the Mexican Pipeline), and though Mexico offers a large variety of beach, reef and point breaks between its Baja and mainland coastlines, the breaks of Hawaii offer up something of a legendary allure. Hawaii’s North Shore is considered the proving grounds for surfers. Despite The heavy crowds notwithstanding, the North Shore is known as the Seven Mile Miracle, because of the amount of world-class waves in such a small vicinity.
So whether you are an explorer in search of abandoned beauty, a hungry enthusiast eager to prove your abilities worldwide, or a little bit of both (like myself, a seven-year traveling practitioner) the following list is for you.
Coastlines for Learning
The first place on any list of places to ride or watch waves be ridden in fashion. Sure, you will deal with crowds. Some will be skilled, some beginners, but most will fall somewhere in the middle. The benefits? Variety! Southern California offers a little bit of everything, and there is no better way to get better at surfing than to paddle out and put in the effort. Southern California offers perfect waves for first-timers as well as seasoned contest professionals.
Ben’s tip: become a local. “It’s hard to beat having local knowledge of the winds, waves, crowds, etc. I don’t like famous spots because they’re usually too crowded.”
I agree. Having lived and surfed in Southern California for a number of years, it pays to pick a few breaks and become a local. It is absolutely possible to pick a break (or two, or three) and become a local. You best understand the nuances that will make that wave great, and you will earn respect from the other regulars in the water. But remember, respect gets respect. Learn the proper etiquette and earn your place.
Gold Coast Australia
Eerily similar to Southern California yet an even more culturally embracing surfing environment, and adorned with countless breaks that offers endless challenges and new opportunities.
Jhony’s tip: “The best place to learn how to surf is where the waves are super small and you can surf without getting in other people’s way.”
Author’s note: There is much more than meets the eye with regard to proper surf etiquette. Before you paddle out, make sure to watch and learn the order of the ocean as well as the surfers. There is no quicker way to a worse surfing experience than paddling out where you are not comfortable or unfamiliar.
Mainland and Baja Mexico
Once you are ready for a little uncharted exploration, explore the varied coastlines of Mexico’s mainland and Baja peninsula. Home to many infamous spots, many of Mexico’s finest surf breaks are not located in commonly visited locations. While making your way from wave to wave while traveling along the coast, be sure to explore territories slightly less traveled as well as research where you are heading next. Mexico is very much the wild west when it comes to travel surfing. One day you may run into trouble with locals in the area, another day find yourself completely without a serviceable section of rideable water, but more often than not you will find yourself enjoying great waves in mostly uncrowded areas.
Don’t be afraid to get lost. I’m not saying be ill-prepared, but I am saying explore with caution. The best surf sessions of my life have come from the happy accidents I stumbled upon with friends in Baja. Sometimes we surfed waves that were less than impressive, sometimes we came across waves and swells that felt gifted to just me and my companions. Either way, we always found a destination worthy of our journey.
Adventurous Budget Destinations (Central America’s great waves without crowds, or tourist safe havens)
Once touted as the uncharted oasis for an easy getaway on the cheap, Costa Rica has become the Central American hub for surfing expeditions, and offers up miles upon miles of coastline with world-class waves in warm waters, while remaining just enough off the beaten path to keep the lineups less crowded than the aforementioned coastlines.
Ben’s tip: The best way to avoid crowds is to “surf spots in third world countries, or somewhere that has cold ass water.”
As a product of the Pacific NorthWest, I can vouch for the lack of crowds in cold waters. And third world countries regularly provide amping waves without hordes of boards in the water to weave between. Explore more and reap the rewards.
Still a diamond in the rough, Nicaragua offers much less crowded waters, but also less predictability on land. As the second poorest country in Latin America, Nicaragua can offer extraordinarily cheap accommodations if you are up for a slightly rougher and more rural setting. Though it may seem a bit gritty as you make your way from the inner city to the remote coast, the natural phenomena that are the Papagayo Winds will make for unmatched surfing conditions daily. An all-round unique experience.
Ben’s tip: “Don’t pack expensive shit. It will probably get stolen at some point. Unplug, leave your electronics (except phone) at home. Less is more.”
When arriving in remote areas, recognize how much you already stand out with surf and travel luggage.
Panama is no slouch when it comes to a great offering of adventure and elite conditions. With warm waters and reeling reef breaks covering its Central American coastline, Panama presents endless opportunities for an amazing surf session in a foreign land. Finding yourself off the beaten path often leads to the best treasures but, unlike for most enthusiastic travelers, surf stories are only truly believed when the tales are back up with photographic proof. But word to the wise, pack camera gear wisely. I’ve had thousands of dollars worth of equipment stolen on multiple occasions, and what’s worse than having your camera stolen, is still having to lug around all the now useless heavy lenses. If you don’t need to bring a ton of professional equipment, don’t. Making memories is what it is all about, and a point and shoot camera can easily accommodate while fitting conveniently into your pocket.
Island Paradises — High prices and aggressive crowds, but undeniably beautiful and challenging surf.
Home of the infamous Cloudbreak, Fiji truly offers a surfing scene unrivaled compared to anywhere else in the world. Located on the remote island of Tavarua, two waves break more picturesquely than arguably any others. Once upon a time this island was reserved for the ultimate insiders with secret knowledge or those able to pay for private sessions. Today you can get there with a slightly smaller fortune and without exclusive reservations.
A piece of advice, expecially if you this far: surf the place like you won’t get another chance. I can tell you from experience that second chances don’t always come around.
When money is no longer a concern but absolute perfection is demanded, charter a surfari to the Maldives. Yes I just said that. The Maldive Islands are home to some of the world’s most remote great waves. The Maldives surf experience is something that can hardly be matched in levels of exotic excitement — it’s the Maldives for Heaven’s sake: sitting on a beach here would be hard to match for exotic excitement. But actually riding those waves, in this unspoiled paradise, will be remembered for a lifetime.
Ben’s tip: “Sometimes it pays to have someone else do all the leg work of planning the trip. I’ve done both. If I get to know a place really well, I’ll more than likely plan it. But if I am going somewhere new, I’ll let the pros (such as worldsurfaris.com) handle it. It can save a lot of headaches.”
I have experienced both positive and negative travel outcomes from professionally booked trips, so I say take things into your own hands if you have the confidence and knowledge. Otherwise, why not get the greatest experience possible for a few extra bucks? Book a trip!
The Mecca, the Holy Grail — Hawaii is the epitome of world-class surfing. Regardless of what kind of surfer (or surf spectator) you consider yourself, until you have seen Hawaii’s North Shore in all its glory, you simply have no idea what you are missing.
Jhony advises bringing your own board and accessories. My least favorite memories from surfing abroad is when I wasn’t able to surf abroad. If you know you are going to a world-class destination, bring whatever gear is required for you to enjoy it to the fullest. Why even paddle out to Hawaii’s proving grounds if you don’t have the goods you’re comfortable with to get into the lineup alongside the world’s best? Often times being prepared means little more than proper packing. Don’t wing it while traveling the (surfing) world!
A final note: Take your time. Surfing is not just a hobby, it is a passion. No matter what else you do well in your life, your surfing will only get better by spending more time surfing. With that said, don’t push yourself past your limits, don’t assume anything, people or places, and, most important, keep paddling.
Photos courtesy of Ben Reed: www.benreedphoto.com