Tamarindo vs Nosara: Which Costa Rica Surf Town is Better?

Tamarindo vs Nosara
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Tamarindo vs Nosara is a rivalry that’s been going for some time now. These are two of the top beach towns on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. That’s a whole region of pretty glorious beaches and lush jungles that spills into a fantastically pristine Pacific Ocean around 4.5 hours’ drive west of the country’s capital in San Jose.

More than anything, both towns have risen and risen to become veritable meccas for surfers. They each offer their own array of reef breaks, river mouth breaks, sand bars, points – you name it. On top of that, they’re now replete with surfer hostels, surf camps, après surf bars, and more board rental outlets than you can shake a howler monkey at (definitely don’t do that, though!).

In this guide to Tamarindo vs Nosara, we’ll run through five of the key points about each place, ranging from the general vibe to the ease of travel and even the nightlife scene. The aim? To uncover which one is best for you this year. Let’s go…

Tamarindo vs Nosara: Getting there

Nosara beach
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Despite the fact that both Tamarindo and Nosara are on the same stretch of coastline, in the same province, and on the same peninsula, the first is noticeably easier to reach than the latter. That’s mainly down to the fact that Tamarindo is well linked by paved roads all the way to the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, also known as Liberia Airport (LIR), which is now the main gateway to western Costa Rica as a whole. If you drive yourself after touching down at LIR, it’s possible to be checking into your surf hostel in just 1.5 hours total. There are buses running the route too, but they usually take over 2.5 hours in all, because there are extra stops along the way. You can also get bus links in from San Jose, the capital, which has a larger airport and more international flight connections from Europe and North America especially. Transfers from there are run by Alfaro coaches, cost around $10 per person, and take about 5.5 hours in all.

Getting to Nosara is trickier than getting to Tamarindo, but not by too much. Liberia Airport is, again, the closest arrival point from the air. The trip south from there goes over some winding coast roads through the Costa Rican coastal rainforests. They are spectacular but can be hard to drive, taking about 2.5 hours in all. For buses, there are links in from San Jose, with average journey times in the region of 4.5-5.5 hours, and others from Liberia or Nicoya town. If you’re planning on driving yourself this far south into Guanacaste, it might be better to get a 4X4. The roads quickly turn to tracks and you’ll want to be able to navigate the mountain passes inland to explore properly. That’s all part of the fun!

Winner: Tamarindo. It’s closer to both San Jose and Liberia, the two major arrival points for this part of Costa Rica.

Tamarindo vs Nosara: The general vibe

Tamarindo surf
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Tamarindo now has a rep as the liveliest surf and party town on the Costa Rican west coast. It’s positively inundated with travelers during the high season months of May, December, and January. Most of them are young, backpacker types on the hunt for some good Pacific waves and wild nights. They’re rarely disappointed, as Tamarindo now spreads out along the whole south end of a wide bay by the side of the Tamarindo River to offer Mesoamerican BBQ grill houses, hedonistic reggae-cocktail bars, and rowdy surf hostels with a touch of spring breaker energy to them. To put it simply: This is about as close as it’s possible to get to Cancun in Costa Rica.

Nosara whisks you further south down the Nicoya Peninsula. That’s a region that’s still largely untapped by modern tourism and the dominance of nature reserves has helped to keep both development and logging at bay, though that may well change in the coming years (fingers crossed it doesn’t!). More than that, what really sets Nosara apart from Tamarindo is the fact that it’s not really a single town at all. It’s actually a series of smaller destinations strung out along a medley of beaches and bays and inland villages. That means you’ll always be able to find somewhere to kick back and relax, and the general feel of the place is far more easy-going. AKA: Instead of pumping beach bars, you’ve got Robinson Crusoe beaches.

Winner: Nosara, but we’ve just got a soft spot for these more undiscovered parts of Costa Rica. Some people will prefer the energy of Tamarindo.

Tamarindo vs Nosara: The surf

Surfing in Tamarindo
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The surf in Tamarindo is nothing short of legendary. In fact, it’s arguably the most famous surf town in Costa Rica, which is a country that’s now totally packed with fantastic surf towns, from Santa Teresa to Jaco. So, what sets this one apart? Truth be told, the surf isn’t that epic. It’s more the fact that there are loads of surf schools and hostels, not to mention some of the most accessible beginner breaks in the region. Those include Playa Tamarindo, where uber-mellow lefts and rights roll in on NW swell directions. More advanced surfers are often left twiddling their thumbs here in a way that they wouldn’t further down the coast, but there’s still something on offer in the form of Pico Pequeno (a submerged reef that works on high tides) and the challenging reefy of Henry’s Left (a shallow rock left that’s a goofy shortboarder’s dream).

Nosara, because it’s stretched out across a series of different bays and points, brings in far more variety on the surf front. We’d actually say that it’s a superior surf town than Tamarindo for the purists. Despite the reputation of its compadre, there’s just no beating the mix of tubes and whitewash that comes with Playa Guiones and Playa Garza. Both of those are huge, long bays, with endless peaks that suit all levels – low tide for pros and high tide for crumbly learner breaks. The region also has some excellent point-break rights that can be very glassy when the offshore winds get blowing, but they’re a local secret so you’ll need to ask in the Nosara surf shops or surf camps.

Winner: Nosara

Tamarindo vs Nosara: The beaches

Beaches in Tamarindo
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There are glorious beaches up and down this section of the Costa Rican Pacific. Tamarindo’s main playa is the place to start in the northernmost of these two surf towns. It’s right by the town itself, or, we should say, the town is right by it, since the beach is the reason there’s even a resort here. Either way, the point is that Playa Tamarindo is only a short walk from the hostels and the beach bars, offering soft powder shaded by stooping coconut trees just meters from most beds. Playa Langosta is the place to go when you want to escape the buzz of the main town. It’s a touch to the south of Tamarindo, has a more family-friendly vibe, and offers the best sunset shows in the area. Then there’s Playa Grande. That’s a top surf spot but you will have to navigate some crocodile-infested rivers if you want to get there (be very careful). The upside is that it’s usually very empty and is a known nesting site for leatherback sea turtles.

Nosara, meanwhile, occupies a pretty stunning part of the Nicoya Peninsula. Here, the rainforests creep right up to the shoreline and the bays widen to offer huge scythes of golden sand washed by the waves. For us, there’s no question that they host the superior beachfronts, the best of which is the duo of Guiones Beach and Pelada. Those two are separated by a rugged headland that splits the oncoming swells to create lovely surf breaks on both sides (more on those above). Pelada is the better of the two for swimming and snorkeling, thanks to out-at-sea reefs that keep the waves low and the visibility up. You can also head further north to the eponymous Nosara Beach, which has a hint of black sand and an amazing estuary area (again, watch out for the crocs!).    

Winner: Nosara. Again, there’s more variety, and way fewer people around!

Tamarindo vs Nosara: The nightlife

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Tamarindo reigns supreme on the nightlife front. There’s just no way that the humble village center of Nosara can compete with what’s now widely considered to be one of the most happening surf towns in Latin America, up there with Puerto Escondido in Mexico and Montanita in Ecuador. Yep, the nightlife in Tamarindo is pretty raucous, although most will start the evening with some chilled beers in a sunset bar down on Playa Langosta. Then, the action moves to the main beach road and Calle Cardinal, which are dotted with all sorts of establishments. You can pick between Asian fusion cookhouses or cool craft beer joints like Jolly Rogers. Later on, consider dropping into Rumors for chill hop and EDM nights, or Pacifico, which hosts regular ladies’ nights and DJ ska events.

If you pick Nosara, be ready for something a whole load more relaxed. This town doesn’t have a single center, so there’s a chance you’ll just be too far to walk to a pumping nightlife spot. You probably won’t ever be too far from a beach shack that serves cold beers with the sunset, though, and crowds always gather on Guiones Beach and Pelada with a brew to watch the light fade. There are one or two options if you’re keen on a bit of hedonism down here, too. Check out K-Rae’s Irish Pub and Inn, a jungle finca with a curious Victorian-styled Gaelic pub, and Bambu, a big disco built in the Thai style, with rickety bars and karaoke. Both are fun but actually not that near the beaches.

Winner: Tamarindo

The verdict

Tamarindo vs Nosara isn’t an easy one to call. The truth is that these two towns are very different, but they also have loads of similarities. For example, there are gorgeous Pacific beaches in both Tamarindo and Nosara, and epic surf, only one’s less busy and more untouched, while the other offers hip surf bars right by the where the waves roll in. It all really comes down to what you want from that trip to Costa Rica.

We’ve no doubt that backpackers who want to meet, mingle, and party with other surfers and adventure travelers will prefer Tamarindo. It’s 100% the wilder and more hedonistic of the two places. However, Nosara would be our pick for anyone looking to taste the famous wild side of Costa Rica, wake to the sounds of howler monkeys, and laze on more remote and undeveloped stretches of sand.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.