Home Dominican Republic Guide to surfing in Cabarete (Play Encuentro), North Coast – Dominican Republic

Guide to surfing in Cabarete (Play Encuentro), North Coast – Dominican Republic

by Simon

As previously mentioned, the Dominican Republic wasn’t on my immediate list of destinations. However due to the travel restrictions felt across the world at the moment, options were limited.

After a bit of research on countries that were open and then filtering down of countries with surf, the Dominican Republic had somehow bubbled its way to the top of the list. General surf research later (and a decent amount of time watching drone footage on Youtube) and my flights were booked. Crystal clear Caribbean water awaited me.

I ended up staying at Playa Encuentro for 3 months, at a family run hostel called Surfbreak a mere 5 minutes walk to the beach and 10 min walk from the main surf breaks. With 3 months’ experience under my belt – here’s a guide to the various surf spots in Playa Encuentro and the North Coast of the Dominican Republic in general. Hopefully these surf tips are useful for anyone looking at surfing in Playa Encuentro.

Where to stay

Playa Encuentro is a small surf beach flanked by the larger towns of Cabarete and Sosua, roughly 5-10 minutes drive in either direction. It’s in the district of Puerto Plata and only 35 minutes from the international airport in Puerto Plata (although it can be over and hour depending on traffic).

When I was researching the area I was initially looking at staying in Cabarete. Thank god I didn’t do that! The logistics of staying in Cabarete without a car and wanting to surf Playa Encuentro would have been a real killer.

If you’re coming to Playa Encuentro to surf, I would highly highly recommend that you stay somewhere in Playa Encuentro. The surfing window is short and if you have to get up, pack the car, drive 10 minutes to the beach to check the surf you may end up wasting more time than you would originally anticipate. Clearly if you don’t have a car it means having to somehow get in a GuaGua (the local minibuses) with a surfboard – which I saw nobody doing for 3 months, or paying for a motoconcho (a motorbike) to take you there each way. It’s way too much hassle and could become quite pricy.

I stayed at Surfbreak but there are lots of options available. El Encuentro surf lodge is a little more up market but still popular. There are local landlords and AirBnB options around Playa Encuentro as well so you shouldn’t have a problem finding accommodation. Depending on your taste, I’d budget around $700 – $1000 a month for a room. Not the cheapest, but by no means the most expensive.

Fickle Forecasts

This is one of the main reasons I recommend staying in Playa Encuentro. Forecasts can be fickle and inaccurate across the planet but I don’t think I’ve ever surfed a place where the forecasts offer such little value. They’re not completely useless….you can tell when a swell is arriving and get a general view of what the surf is going to be like.

But…

The amount of times that I walked down to the beach and the surf was completely different, for better or worse, than the forecast truly amazed me. The only way to to check the waves was to see them for yourself.

There is a webcam that you can view on Surfline, but this only shows a small portion of the breaks so if the swell is a certain direction you may not be able to see another break coming to life!

Magicseaweed is my go to forecast platform in the UK and Europe but it is generally considered to be the least accurate in the DR (and the Caribbean/Central America). Instead, most people used Surfline or Surf Forecast.

DON’T be put off by forecasts of 20mph winds every morning. The wind will come, but generally speaking the mornings had very little wind.

When to surf in Playa Encuentro (Surf season & time of day)

The surf season in Cabarete and Playa Encuentro is during the Winter months and stretches from October to April although the best swells usually arrive from December to March. I was there from December to early March and we had periodic swells arrive throughout this period.

Almost without fail, the only real time to surf in Playa Encuentro (and in the North Coast of the Dominican Republic in general) is the morning. During the swell season it generally gets light just before 7am (first light is about 6.50am) which is what I aimed for. If you manage to haul yourself out of bed to get down to the beach for 6.45am not only will you get the first 45 minutes to yourself, you’ll also likely see some very spectacular sunrises. Here’s a few examples:

amazing sunrise Cabarete
Surfers at sunrise
Surf drone shot
Dawn surf playa encuentro, Cabarete

You don’t have to surf in the morning just to get some sweet pictures of sunrises.

You have to surf in the morning because of the wind.

Oh the wind. It’s one of the most limiting factors about surfing in the Dominican Republic. It’s a pretty windy place. That’s why it’s so popular with kite surfers and windsurfers alike. Not so great for surfers.

The wind is relentless. Come 9.30am/10am the waves start to get blown out – often earlier, so if you want to surf the best conditions I suggest that you set your alarm and get your arse out of bed.

In 3 months I managed to snag myself 3 sunset sessions and probably the same amount of afternoon sessions. The rest of the time the wind was simply too strong (side onshore). It was fine at the beginning but after a month or so it started to wear on me. I don’t have a problem with surfing in the morning but it did get quite frustrating being cubby-holed into a 2 hour period everyday.

Sometimes the wind is persistent throughout the day and night. When this happens, even if there’s only light a light breeze in the morning the surf can still be quite messy.

Oh how I grew to hate the wind. Maybe I should have picked up kiteboarding because the people I knew that did both were frothing all day long!

Playa Encuentro Surf Spots

The main beach at Playa Encuentro has multiple surf breaks, all within a few hundred metres.

As you stand on the beach in front of Buena Onda surf school, looking from left to right, you have:

The Left & Destroyers

As the name would suggest, the left is a left hander wave breaking across a piece of reef jutting out into the sea. It needs a North swell to really work and there are two main peaks, the inside peak barrels from a steep A-frame take off whereas the second peak is the more user friendly take off, although watch for the rippers coming round the section from the inside!

Mid-tide is usually best, as is the case for most of the breaks at Playa Encuentro.

I hated surfing lefts even though I’ve spent my fair share of time in Bali. This left is different, aside from the inside barreling section, the rest of the waves is reasonably mellow and great for learning cutbacks and turns.

Destroyers is on the other side of The Left and breaks in front of a rock that can jut out at low tide. Apparently it’s a really good wave but I never plucked up the courage to surf it!

Main Peaks & The Right

Directly in front of the surf schools are the main peaks. This is where the majority of people tend to surf so it can get pretty crowded after 8am.

The peak closest to The Left is a right hander that takes off from two defined peaks. The outside peak has a small take off area and wedges up, although if you pick the right waves you can ride a right hander almost all the way to the beach. There is a another peak to take off from but the section is often very fast to make, although again if you pick the right one you can get a much faster, walled up ride. We referred to this as ‘The Right’ but I think it’s usually just called the Main Peak.

As you move East (only about 100m) there is another main peak that breaks left and right. I found this one to be either too crowded or too fickle compared with the other waves. Having said that, this seems to be the most popular wave for local rippers doing 360 airs. Maybe in a few years…

Bobo’s Point

Moving further East (right as you look out to see) you come across Bobo’s Point. I was under the impression that it mainly goes right, but apparently it can also go left.

This really comes to life when the swell is larger and turns more North. It was my go to when Coco Pipe was either closing out or was too intimidating!

You can get some really fast walled up rides before it inevitably closes out or dies out on the inside section.

Coco Pipe

This is the most famous break at Playa Encuentro and where I tended to surf most days. If it’s breaking it’s usually the best wave in the area (at least it was for me).

Best at mid-tide you want to look out for a palm tree without its top (i.e just the trunk) on the beach. If you sit directly opposite that, you know you’re at Coco Pipe.

Coco Pipe tends to have more power and steeper waves than the other breaks at Playa Encuentro so you need to know what you’re doing. Getting caught inside can be pretty gruelling and often involves a sideways paddle to the channel between Coco Pipe and Bobo’s Point. Not ideal considering that clean up sets are pretty regular there!

Despite it’s attractive name, I didn’t see many people make it out of barrels at Coco Pipe. Regardless, when the swell is right it offers both lefts and rights, although the right is probably the better wave.

I spent a number of weeks starting off at the Right and then ultimately paddling all the way to Coco Pipe as I searched for more powerful waves. By my final month I would just get in at Coco Pipe and save myself the paddle. Even at 3ft faces, you can still get some decent turns in and it holds double overhead.

Crowd Factor

Everyone wants empty line ups. The reality is that if you can Google it, it isn’t going to be empty.

I briefly mentioned above that past 8am and the Main Peaks tend to get too crowded. That tends to be the case for all of the break in Playa Encuentro. Early birds catch the waves.

There was an American guy that often paddled out in the dark at 6.30am so that he could get the first 40 minutes or so all to himself. Hats off to him – I tended to go at about 6.50am and still got the first hour or so uncrowded.

On the smaller days there are some defined channels which allows learners to get out to the breaks. I don’t have a problem with learners surfing, after all nobody was good at surfing from day one. We all have to start somewhere. However, this is one of the reasons I avoided the main peaks. Coco Pipe is generally off limits for beginners so if you’re looking to escape the crowds then head over there.

I don’t know what else to say. Surf spots are crowded. People like to surf. The earlier you go, the more empty waves you’ll get.

The crowds are also condensed because of the wind. Everyone knows that the really the only time to surf is pre-9.30am so that doesn’t help. Having said that, it was never crazy crazy busy probably because the DR isn’t known as a world-class surf destination. It’s way worse in Costa Rica.

Learning to surf at Playa Encuentro

The waves at Playa Encuentro break onto a reef, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to surf there. The reef stretches about 100m from the beach, so there’s a lot of space on ‘the inside’ to learn to surf in the white water.

There’s also multiple surf schools offering lessons. I would recommend Buena Onda surf school, run by Antonio and Fabio. They’ll supply you with boards, boots to protect your feet from the reef and sunscreen if necessary!

The period (time between each wave) is relatively short in the DR so people were getting quite tired in the white water. I’d advise getting out to the main peaks as quickly as possible so that you’re not constantly fighting against the current and white water.

Have fun!

The Area

Playa Encuentro itself is particularly small. There’s a few shacks on the beach offering food and coffees, alongside some chill out spots, a volleyball court and slackline for those that are that way inclined.

If you don’t fancy carrying your board down every morning, you can also leave your board at Buena Onda surf school – they charge around $35 a month for this service and open in time for first light.

Playa Encuentro is a sleepy area though. Restaurant options are limited – the best being the food trucks on the main road. That’s not the end of the world though because you can hop in a GuaGua and be in Cabarete in less than 10 minutes where there are lots of food options.

Watch out for the sea urchins!

Where the reef meets the beach there’s a ledge around 5 m wide. Beware, this ledge can be full of sea urchins!

Most of the time the water is clear enough to pick your way along the reef before jumping in. However, when there’s a big swell or tide with more water moving around it can be a little trickier.

I had the unfortunate experience of standing with all my weight on a sea urchin.

It took a couple of hours of digging around in my toes with a needle to get all of them out – they aren’t massive spines but they do get themselves pretty deep in there. If you can I would strongly advise that you bring a good pair of tweezers and needles. If you’re surfing in Playa Encuentro for long enough you’re going to step on one. Just be prepared.

Other surf spots on the North Coast

The whole of the Amber Coast of the Dominican Republic is littered with surf spots. A well-known but fickle break is La Preciosa, about 30 minutes East of Rio San Juan and just over an hour and a half from Cabarete. Apparently it needs a big North Swell to work – we drove there twice to check it out and it wasn’t working. It’s an incredibly beautiful beach so worth a visit if you are in the area!

Closer to Playa Encuentro there are two spots to the West – El Canal and The Spot. These are accessed via Perla Marina and involve a 10-15 minute walk along the beach. I only managed to surf El Canal which is a long left (it does go right) from a very clear peak. It’s deceptively powerful….there were maybe 15 people surfing it when I was there and 4 people snapped there leashes!

On the other side of Cabarete, near the river mouth is a spot called Mañanero. It’s a bit of a pain to get to unless you have a car so I didn’t manage to check it out. It’s super exposed to the wind so you have to go early morning (like everywhere) but I know a few people that checked it out and they said it was a heavy and often barreling beach break. It’s often bigger than Playa Enceuntro as well.

As I said, there’s loads of spots. La Boca is another one that I didn’t get to see and when we went all the way East to Las Terrenas there’s a right hand point break ay Playa El Coson that looked like it would be amazing on a good swell.

It’s well worth exploring the area, especially if you have a local to show all the spots.

An honest review

As per the video, the big question is whether I would go back and surf Playa Encuentro.

The water is spectacularly clear. There isn’t any real localism and on the whole the people are incredibly nice.

But I don’t think I’ll be hurrying back.

The wind is just too relentless. You could surf most of the time and glassy mornings were regular. It’s just that the amount of days with good swells and low winds were very intermittent.

When it’s good, it’s incredible. Plus I had lots of fun mornings and my surfing improved dramatically over the 3 months. Furthermore, if you kite or wind surf as well then it’s going to be a paradise for you.

I don’t.

The biggest problem that Playa Encuentro has as a surf destination is the consistency. I’ve been in Costa Rica now for 3 weeks and we’ve had more solid days of surf than I had in 3 months in the DR. So as purely as a surf destination…there are better places. If you want a second opinion, check out this article from The Free Surfer.

It’s not all about surfing though. The Dominican Republic as a whole has an incredibly diverse array of things to see and do. A weekend trip to Las Terrenas was a real highlight for me and I didn’t even touch the South of the island. I certainly don’t regret my time in the DR and looking back on it I’m sure I’ll have fond memories of my first 3 months as a digital nomad.

If you’re looking to surf a little whilst also exploring a Caribbean island then the Dominican Republic is a pretty darn good choice. But if you’re there just to surf, I’d look at the Pacific coast of Central America first.

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