A Traveler's Guide to Pura Vida at Playa Santa Teresa
Playa Santa Teresa Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica is not only every surfer’s paradise, every yoga lover’s dream and every beach bums get away. It has something for every traveler. One of the world’s top dream destinations I’d say. It is the place you plan to stay for a few days but then end up staying for a few weeks, months, or forever. I don´t know if it is the amazing waves the endless beaches, the wild jungle, the mystical mountains surrounding this place or just the pura vida (living life to the fullest) lifestyle and happiness that fills Santa Teresa. I never wanted to leave. I kept telling myself, just one more day, just one more week. Even though Santa Teresa is really small somehow you never get tired of it. After the sunrise surf I could just sit for hours with my morning coffee or cold pipa (fresh coconut) watching the same scenery and there was always a new plant, an animal or creature to discover. After I would bring my yoga mat to the beach, to sit and just listen to the waves roar, enjoy the cooling breeze in the air and feel the rays of the Costa Rican sun on my skin. Because of my early mornings I would always have plenty of time for a small adventure to see some beautiful waterfalls or the tide pools perhaps before the afternoon siesta and sunset surf. Evenings here can be as wild as you make them. I had evenings where I was knocked out in bed before 8 pm and then there were nights filled with coco locos (coconut and rum) and great DJ´s until the morning hours. Santa Teresa just has everything for everyone.
Playa Santa Teresa
When to visit
Any time is a good time, depending on what you are looking for. The weather (and the water) are warm year-round. The dry season begins in mid-December and lasts through April. The green (wet) season typically runs from May through mid-November. During the green season, travelers can often expect clear mornings with afternoon showers. But expect and prepare for rain. And we´re talking real rain here, tropical, heavy rain. The average high temperature is 88-92°F.
How to get there
The roads to the southern Nicoya Peninsula are notoriously rough so prepare for a bumpy ride. Travel by ground from San José takes a long time, between 5-6 hours, especially during wet season (May – October). The smoothest and most exciting way to reach Santa Teresa is via plane, flying into Tambor. The most common domestic route is a 40-minute scheduled flight from San Jose Domestic Airport, which you find just a few minutes’ walk from San Jose International Airport. These little planes fly low and gives you an experience of a lifetime and a great aerial tour on the way. The planes can only carry about 10 people, which should give you an idea about the size of it. This also means that luggage is restricted and if you plan to bring a surfboard it needs to be a short board. Check the size limitations with the airline before booking. The air fair price is usually around 100 USD/90 EUR.
If you want to go straight to Santa Teresa from your international arrival you don´t need more than an hour between your flights.
Santa Teresa beaches
Santa Teresa is famous for its gorgeous long beaches. The town of Santa Teresa is built up just a few steps from the beach. Besides world class surfing and sunbathing, Santa Teresa’s beaches are the main gathering place, especially at sunset. At sunset small or large groups gather on the sand, surfers catch their last waves of the day, and everyone tries to get that perfect sunset insta pic.
Playa Carmen is considered the main beach in town and that´s usually where you find the most commotion. The beach break is good and attracts mid-level to experienced surfers. There are plenty of restaurants and shops. Playa Carmen begins at the main entrance of town known as El Cruce/the Crossing. There´s a road down to the beach and plenty of places to park near the beach.
Playa Santa Teresa
A bit north of Playa Carmen is Playa Santa Teresa. It has its own section of restaurants, hotels, and shops. Access to the pristine white sandy beach is a little trickier since private residences, hotels, and jungle stand between it and the main strip. But there are plenty of entry points if you look and it’s well worth it.
Playa Hermosa (Beautiful Beach) is a must-visit when staying in the Santa Teresa area. It feels really cast away-ish with lofty palm trees, driftwood, and most importantly, plenty of privacy. You can stay here a whole day without seeing anyone. It is however popular with the beginner surfers, but it is always nice with a show in the waves.
Playa Hermosa is located about 10-15 minutes north of Santa Teresa’s main strip.
Things to know
- The Santa Teresa area runs along one main road, which mainly is a dirt road, from the fishing village of Mal Pais through Playa Carmen, Playa Santa Teresa, and finally Playa Hermosa to the north. The majority of the businesses are located in Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa while Playa Hermosa is mainly known for the good surf.
- The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica is one of only five designated Blue Zones (geographic areas in which people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else) in the entire world. Isn’t that something. Clearly, the people here have figured out a key to life here. Could it be their pura vida lifestyle perhaps?
- In Santa Teresa sunset is almost a ritual. Being so close to the equator means that the time of sunset only varies by about 30 minutes throughout the year. Around 5pm every day the main street of town empties out and the beach becomes the main spot. I´ve seen a lot of sunsets around the world, but the spectacle that Santa Teresa has to offer is really something and a true highlight to each day!
- While you might think renting a car is a great way to get around, I urge you to think again. A quad (ATV) or moto (motorcycle) is the best for navigating the dirt roads, mountain hills, and river crossings as you explore the local areas.
- Be prepared that during dry season it is dry. And dusty. And during wet season it is wet. And muddy.
- There are three ATMs, however, it is pretty common that they run out of US dollars. Or that they just don’t work. Most places accept credit cards. But arriving with some cash in your pocket is recommended. If nothing else, you can use them to pay tips.
- Santa Teresa isn´t cheap and it is small. This means you should book your accommodation well in advance if you plan to come during high season.
Things to do
Because of the amazing surf, swimming in the ocean isn´t the easiest in Santa Teresa. The waves are rough and crashing on the shore making any entry a less than graceful event. Luckily there are several rocky spots around town that leave shallow tide pools to cool off in during low tide. Some are small and jacuzzi like and some are actually big enough to swim around in. The Mal Pais tide pools are plenty and small and you´ll feel like you have your own personal hot tub. One of the bigger ones around is the Santa Teresa tide pool, a giant pool that is deep enough to snorkel or swim in. You can find Santa Teresa Tide Pool between Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa. When the main road comes close to the shore after you have passed playa Santa Teresa, you’ll see a parking area on your left near some rocks. After the parking area you need to continue a little farther where you´ll see some large trees. The large tide pool is visible from there, and just a short walk away. The rocks are pretty sharp and water shoes/booties are recommended.
The island can be reached from different places on the mainland and is approximately a 45 min bus ride and a 1 hour boat ride away from Santa Teresa. Isla Tortuga/ Turtle island is really a picture perfect paradise with blinding white sandy beaches nestled in lush green jungle. The water is turquoise and filled to the brim with marine life, making it perfect for snorkeling or scuba diving. We even spotted dolphins and a humpback whale on our way to the island!
The ticket price is usually around 70 USD/60 Euro. There are plenty of day tours to tortuga island with either catamaran yachts or speed boats and I would say there isn´t a very big difference between them, so just choose the one closest to you.
On the island the main attraction is soaking up the sun on the beach or different water activities like snorkeling, freediving, jet skies and banana boat rides. There are also plenty of hikes through the jungle that you can make. One day is definitely enough to explore the whole island, but if you want a quiet getaway, you can spend several days here. Be prepared that there isn’t really anything except relaxation going on here.
There are plenty of places to do yoga in Santa Teresa and regardless of if you choose to bring your mat to the beach for a solo practice or hit one of the yoga shalas you will quickly become addicted to the calming surroundings. One of my favorite places to practice is the shala at Pranamar Villas or at Casa Zen https://www.zencostarica.com/schedules. Both places have beautiful open-air spaces amongst the palm trees, just steps away from the ocean. They offer several classes daily with a variety of teachers. There are also plenty of yoga retreats and the one offered by Pranamar Villas in collaboration with Vajra Sol Yoga Adventures, leaves nothing else to wish for. Prepare for a relaxing, strengthening week of yoga, surfing, delicious food, and new friends.
Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve is the perfect off-the-beaten path hiking spot. The nature reserve was the first one in Costa Rica, created in 1963. It protects both land and marine zones from development, so you´re almost guaranteed to see plenty of wildlife.
The nature reserve consists of a thick tropical forest and the hike is quite challenging. Wear proper footwear like hiking shoes or sneakers. During wet season some parts of the trek gets muddy and you´ll need to cross some rivers on top of rocks. As long as you stay on the rocks you´ll be fine, but there´s of course the risk of getting your feet wet. After a long day of trekking through the forest you´ll reach the most stunning beach, known as Secret Beach.
Be sure to arrive at the reserve no later than around 10 am and even earlier if it´s really hot. The trail to the beach is around 5 hours back and forth and the park closes at 4 pm.
Entrance to the nature reserve is 12 USD/11 Eur. Bring plenty of water, it is hot and the trail is long. And if you´re aiming to reach the beach, which you should, be sure to bring swimwear and sunscreen.
Montezuma is a laidback beach town located on the very southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula, about 45 minutes away from Santa Teresa. If you don´t plan on staying there, at least make sure to make a daytrip to this hippie town. This area of the country is more remote and hence lacking in good infrastructure, making Montezuma a little difficult to get to. Therefore, even though it is an amazing place, it is not overly crowded. Montezuma has plenty of quiet, secluded beaches, thick tropical forest, and wildlife with several species of monkeys, butterflies, and birds to be spotted.
Montezuma town is a vibrant bohemian community, made up of like-minded expats and locals.
Montezuma’s most popular beach, Playa Montezuma is located just north of town. About 15-20 minutes’ walk away from Playa Motezuma is a spot marked with dozens of makeshift rock sculptures called cairns and also a small waterfall. There are some caves for the adventurous ones. If you continue another 45 minutes by foot through the jungle you reach Playa Grande. It is a long, beautiful beach and one of the best in the area for surfing.
I would say one of the most popular activities in Montezuma are the Montezuma waterfalls with a set of three cascades that have something for everyone. Some come here just to relax and the more thrill-seeking types jump and swim in the falls. You can easily spend a whole day here. You can reach the waterfalls either by a hanging bridge or by walking up the riverbed.
The riverbed is slippery and rocky and I suggest wearing other footwear than flipflops as you might end up slipping and breaking a toe like I did…With proper footwear like sneakers, sandals or water shoes, the hike is stunning.
Santa Teresa is filled with restaurants and each restaurant is better than the next. Since there are plenty of expats living here there are excellent restaurants with cuisine from all over the world. The prices are comparable to the US or Western Europe, but oh boy is the food ever so delicious!
Everyone knows The Bakery, everyone talks about The Bakery and everyone meet at The Bakery. Open from early morning until 10 pm they serve the most mouthwatering breakfast dishes and “it-is-worth-gaining-some-pounds-for-cakes” and healthy juices. My absolute favorite, regardless of time-of-day, is the spicy tuna sandwich with fresh seared tuna on a toasted challa bread with spicy mayo and Asian salad. For something sweet there´s no other option than the pistachio cronut or the dulce de leche croissant like thing. I have no idea what it is but it is filled with salty dulce de leche, chocolate, gold flakes and God knows what ells but one thing is for sure, it is hella delicious.
Uma is a beachfront family-owned Mediterranean Chef´s restaurant and you can really feel the love in every bite. The local expats all talk about the food of Liron, the chef and matriarch of the family. Each item on the menu is well thought through and perfectly executed. Nothing leaves the kitchen unless it is up to par with Liron´s standards. It is the perfect place for sharing food, with a selection of house tapas, fingerlickingly good starters (don´t miss out on the ceviche, the talk of the town) and perfect mains with something for everyone. Make sure to visit on your first day in Santa Teresa, because you will want to come back plenty of times before your vacation is up. It is a popular place so make a reservation or show up early!
Next to Uma you find Banana Beach, perfect for a fresh lunch or afternoon cocktails. It is well known but I must say the food doesn´t match the atmosphere. Some dishes on the menu really hit the spot, like the jalapeno poppers or fresh tuna burger, but even though I put it under restaurants I would say this is more the place you go to for the vibe, music and sunset drinks.
Just like Uma I visited Katana more than once during my travels to Santa Teresa. They serve some of the best Asian cuisine in the area, the service is great and the vibes perfect before hitting one of the bars or parties in Santa Teresa. Don´t leave without trying the tuna Sashimi, the Shrimp Har Gao and the crispy chicken buns. Top it off with a Kissy Suzuki cocktail with tequila, mescal, fresh lime juice, orange liquor, hibiscus and habanero and you have yourself a great start of the evening!
How do you plan to experience the pura vida at playa Santa Teresa? Let us know in the comments below.
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