The biggest wave ever surfed was in Nazaré, a popular sea side town situated at the Atlantic cost of Portugal. In summer it attracts mostly Portuguese holidaymakers who seek out the broad beaches and calm blue waters. In winter the town is the backdrop to massively gigantic waves that only the most professional surfers dare to ride. In 2017 the Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa showed balls of steel by surfing a 24.4 meter high breaker, the biggest wave ever surfed as recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. Surfing these waves is literally a game of life and death, and to watch these daredevils at work is truly spectacular. The natural phenomenon is unique and fairly unpredictable, so I was lucky to be able to witness it. Read this travel story to find out more about the giant waves of Nazaré and how and when to see them.
I had visited Nazaré previously in August and back then the town was busy with beachgoers. My partner and I had strolled through the old town’s narrow streets, had lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants, and went out to the lighthouse where a small fortress houses an exhibition about the local surfing culture. From the lighthouse you are able to see the town’s two beaches, one lying to its north and the other to the south. There weren’t many surfers out there in summer. The south beach was completely packed with holidaymakers and the north beach had a modest swell and few visitors.
I had heard about the giant waves of Nazaré, but this summer scene did not reveal anything extraordinary. How different it was when I returned late November…
The beaches of Nazaré: August versus November
It was actually in the week before my last weekend in the country that I heard that massive waves were being predicted for the Friday and Saturday. Every year the World Surf League organises the Nazaré Challenge, a surf competition that attracts the biggest names in the sport. Pretty much only the true professionals can participate in the competition because the waves are immensely powerful and they rage at dangerous speeds. The season runs between October and March, when winter storms out on the Atlantic potentially create the perfect conditions for the sport. However, no one knows far in advance when these perfect conditions come into effect. The Nazaré Challenge is usually announced only days in advance when a committee that studies ocean weather conditions gives green light for the competition to kick off. This means that the real surfing diehards that want to compete on the monster waves have to be on stand-by throughout the winter and will have to hop on a plane the moment the Challenge is announced. In the week before my last weekend in Portugal a big winter storm had been raging close to Greenland, and the experts declared that the giant waves would soon hit as a result. I was lucky to be living in Lisbon at the time, which is only a 1.5 hour drive away. I had to work on the Friday of the event, but on Saturday morning I set off along the Atlantic coast towards the north, because also on the day after the Challenge huge waves were still to be expected. What an opportunity!
On the way to Nazaré I decided to make a quick stop in Azenhas do Mar, a very small and sleepy seaside village that had been on my Portuguese bucket list for a while because of its picturesque views. As I got out of the car and stepped into the drizzling rain I could already hear the roaring sound of huge waves crashing onto the shore. I hadn’t even reached Nazaré yet and already there were some of the biggest waves I had ever seen here!
I went for a walk around the town. It seemed completely deserted. I didn’t meet a soul except for a grey cat desperate to be petted (at your service!) There wasn’t much to do in Azenhas do Mar, so after admiring the view and the waves a bit longer I drove off towards my destination for today, feeling excited about what I would be witnessing there.
The cause of the exceptionally high waves of Nazaré is a natural phenomenon: the Nazaré Canyon. It is an underwater gorge that is 5 kilometres deep and 230 kilometres long, making it the biggest canyon in Europe and deeper than the Grand Canyon. It lies in a divergent direction from the cost and dramatically narrows at it reaches the north beach at Nazaré. The tip of the canyon almost touches the point where the town’s lighthouse stands looking out over the Atlantic. As the ocean water rages through the depths of the canyon towards the shore, it is funnelled through an increasingly smaller channel, and ultimately it is pushed up and forward in the shape of a professional surfer’s wet dream and everyone else’s nightmare: the monster waves of Nazaré.
Approaching the town’s center it seemed even busier than it had been during my previous visit in August, when the town was teeming with tourists. Cars were parked everywhere, even in streets far away from the beach. For sure I was not the only one eager to see this sight. I was lucky to find an empty spot that someone had just vacated at the edge of a parking lot near the north beach. The north beach is where the biggest waves hit, and the best place to see them is at the lighthouse. I walked through a carnival-like zone full of pop-up businesses: food trucks selling fish snacks and hot chocolate, the trailers of tv news networks with satellite dishes and cables running in all directions, vendors selling surf gear, t-shirts and sweaters with a Challenge logo print and other memorabilia. The ground was muddy because of the rain of the past days but luckily right now the air had cleared a little. Arriving at the lighthouse I saw that it was full of people, and they were all facing the direction of the north beach.
I followed their gaze and saw the incredible waves. Wow, what a spectacular natural phenomenon! And it wasn’t just the sight that was breathtaking, it was also the thunderous sound of the water crashing that vibrated in my chest like a low frequency bass in a club. I could see a few tiny specks in the ocean that were actually surfers with their boards. I saw them hovering behind the break, waiting for the perfect moment to jump up on the crest and either get wiped out and die or get seriously injured, or successfully ride the wave.
These were professional surfers who had been competing in the Challenge the day before and who could not get enough of this unique occasion. During the Challenge the surfers actually have to peddle in themselves all the way from the south beach, which must be an exhausting activity, let alone then riding these insane waves.
Today, without the strict rules of the competition, they were being brought in with the help of people on jet ski’s. The jet ski guys are also there to provide immediate assistance when a surfer falls: he or she must be taken out to the beach as quickly as possible before the break of the next wave that would just bury them under tonnes of sea water. When the surfer is safe, the jet ski ventures back out to try to capture their lost boards. Even watching how the jet ski drivers managed to operate in these conditions is a fascinating sight.
I literally stood watching for hours, took a lunch break at one of the town’s simple restaurants, and then hurried back to watch some more. It started to rain, but that didn’t matter. Watching the waves and the surfers was hypnotising. The waves just dwarfed the surfers; the force of nature was so real and so threatening. I held my breath when some of the daredevils disappeared into the barrel only to emerge excruciatingly long seconds later. Some would end their crazy ride with a flip or a jump, probably born from a mixture of adrenaline and a sense of euphoria from completing the ride. The people watching around me would gasp collectively and applaud after every successful attempt, even if surely the surfers wouldn’t hear the gesture of appreciation due to the raging sound of the water all around them.
Only when it was close to getting dark and most surfers had gotten out of the water did I get back to my car and drive back to Lisbon, feeling content to have witnessed this unique event and thinking to myself: “that was pretty swell, dude.”
See this epic sight for yourself! How to see the giant waves of Nazaré
So as I explained, you're going to need a combination of patience and luck to be able to see the big waves and especially the Challenge. There has to be a meteorological perfect cocktail out on the Atlantic for the big breakers to form. Unless you live close to Nazaré and are within a day's reach you have to be willing to buy a last-minute ticket the moment the waves are announced, or you have to stake out in Portugal and wait for it (hit or miss).
The season runs from October to March and the big waves can potentially hit multiple times during this period; on average there are 1 to 6 days of big waves per month. Your best chances are in November and December. When the waves are predicted to be really huge, that's when the Challenge is announced (typically a few days in advance - it may even be announced more than once per season but generally it takes place once per year).
You can check this helpful website for current predictions of dates with big waves, forecast and a live webcam. The World Surf League website publishes the announcement of the Challenge whenever it is made.
The best place to watch the waves and the surfers is at the lighthouse, which sits in between the south beach and the north beach. If you are heading there by car, put your navigation on 'Praia do Norte' or 'Farol do Nazaré'. You can pay the two euro entrance fee to the lighthouse fortress which gives you the best views from its roof, but you would have to come early to secure a spot there. Alternatively you can sit or stand anywhere on the north side of the lighthouse cliff.
You'll want to bring some rain gear and wear warm water proof shoes, because when the waves are big it is likely that the weather is not at its best and it can rain. Probably the ground will also be very muddy. You might want to bring something to sit on (a small camping seat or even a plastic bag) and a thermos with a hot drink and some snacks, although there are several food trucks in the area where you can buy some food and drinks as well.
Nazaré has an array of (mostly seafood) restaurants and plenty of accommodation options, although on the day of the Challenge it may be fully booked.
Any questions or do you want to share your own experience? Leave a note in the comments, we'd love to hear from you!