A monument to the local surfing culture in Praia do Norte
Once known only to Portuguese surfers, Nazaré has been placed on the international map of major surfing destinations, after viral images of American surfer Garrett McNamara riding the world’s biggest wave in 2011 were shared on social media and broadcast on news networks like CNN and the BBC. Overnight, Nazaré became one of the most popular big wave surf breaks on the planet, and today it attracts thousands of visitors seeking to ride or witness a natural wonder and the power of nature.
The surfing exhibition in Nazaré's 16th-century fort
It’s no longer a quiet town outside the summer season, with hotels and restaurants now full for half of the year. The big wave surfing season spans from October to February, when the Atlantic swells hit the coast at full throttle. It happens at Praia do Norte, the beach on the northern side of town, and the best place to watch and photograph the spectacle is at the São Miguel Arcanjo Fort. The 16th-century monument overlooks the beach and houses a surfing museum which includes surfboards left behind by many of the athletes who’ve dared to surf these waves. On arrival, surfers and spectators are welcomed by an arch reading “Welcome to the Biggest Waves in the World.”
Photo of a record-breaking wave in Nazaré, in the surfing exhibition
The gigantic waves are often as tall as a 10-story building, and are caused by an underwater canyon. Five kilometers (3 miles) deep and 200 km (125 miles) long, this canyon ends just before Nazaré’s shoreline, and the record-breaking waves happen in late autumn and winter. That’s when the daredevil surfers come to town, as well as many spectators who want to take the most spectacular photos of their feats. Only the bravest and most experienced should consider surfing here, however. Probably only about 100 people on the planet are prepared or have the courage to surf waves as high as 30 meters (98ft), and it takes years of experience.
The fort which houses the surfing exhibition and from where spectators watch the surfing competitions
McNamara’s record-breaking wave was 24 meters tall (78ft) and lasted for 24 seconds. Six years later, his record was broken, also in Nazaré, by Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa, who surfed a 24.4m- (80 ft-) tall wave. It is believed that in 2018 yet another record was set, this time by Portuguese surfer Hugo Vau, but this achievement is yet to be validated. If that comes to be proven correct, the wave (known as “the big mama”) was 35m- (115ft-) high.
Amateurs and pros may prefer to ride the smaller waves of Praia da Nazaré, the beach in the center of town. It’s also known for world-class surfing and bodyboarding, and there are places by the harbor where equipment may be rented.