The southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula feels like another world compared to the hustle and bustle of the tourist hubs in Costa Rica. This part of the country is known for its rolling green hills and lush surroundings thanks to the abundance of rivers and underground water streams in the area.
It’s not an area overcome with mass tourism yet, but in recent years, Santa Teresa, Costa Rica and its neighbours, Mal Pais and Montezuma, have welcomed their fair share of visitors.
At first, it was mostly avid surfers, who needed very little to enjoy life on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Then followed the backpackers, who played a big role in placing Santa Teresa on the map as an off-the-beaten-path destination in Costa Rica.
With backpackers came hostels, b&bs, restaurants, and shops, and just like that, the Santa Teresa area, once a little fishing village, had flourished into a destination that visitors now struggle to say goodbye to.
Planning a trip in the time of COVID?
Keep in mind that information found in this article may have been impacted by travel restrictions and other closures. Double check opening hours, tour providers and hotel status before you go.
Don’t leave your home without Travel Insurance!
Best Time to Visit Santa Teresa
Dry season (December to April) is probably the most popular time to visit Santa Teresa, which does mean more tourists and higher hotel prices.
In our opinion, the ‘green season’ (rainy season) is the best time to visit Costa Rica and Santa Teresa, when the rains make the vegetation even more vibrant.
How to Get to Santa Teresa in Costa Rica
Santa Teresa is slightly off the beaten path, but it’s not that difficult to get to. It’s about 150 km (93 miles) from San Jose International Airport. If you rent a car at the airport, take Route 27 to Puntarenas, where you can take the ferry to Paquera. The ferry schedules vary depending on the season, so be sure to check out the ferry timetable before you go. The entire journey takes about 5 hours.
Book the Best Car Rental in Costa Rica
Renting a car in Costa Rica can be one of the most challenging parts of your visit! Unfortunately, car rentals in Costa Rica often come with significant hidden insurance fees, result in many frustrations at pick-up. The experience has ruined many trips and ballooned trip budgets for friends, family and followers. After years of not having a good solution, we finally found an honest car rental company that we proudly recommend to our readers.
We recommend booking with Vamos Costa Rica – a local car rental company that offers fantastic service and NO HIDDEN FEES and get 10% of your rental rate plus FREE additional driver, FREE child seat and other perks and benefits when booking through our link below!
Book early as rental car availability all across Costa Rica is currently lower than demand!
You can also take the Transportes Cobano bus, which leaves from Downtown San Jose twice a day and brings you to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa. The bus drops you off at the ferry and you go on as a foot passenger. The bus also goes on the ferry and picks you up on the other side. Just be sure to keep your bus receipt!
There are also private/shared shuttles from most of the major tourist destinations in Costa Rica. It’s even easier to reach Santa Teresa from Liberia Airport since there’s no ferry involved. Just follow Route 21 down the Nicoya Peninsula, which takes just over 4 hours.
READ NEXT: Monteverde Costa Rica Ultimate Guide
Things to do in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
At first glance, Santa Teresa may appear to be rather remote and unexciting. That’s how we remembered it from our first visit back in 2016. But once we gave Santa Teresa a chance, we found it to be an exciting destination full of activities.
Relax on the Santa Teresa Beaches
Just as you’d expect from a coastal town, there are plenty of beaches to choose from in and around Santa Teresa. Due to rougher seas and lots of surfers, the beaches aren’t known to be great for swimming, but there are a few bays and nooks on the shoreline where taking a swim is definitely possible.
Playa Santa Teresa
Playa Santa Teresa is a wide, long beach with soft white sand with the sea on one side and jungle on the other. It’s one of the most popular spots in Santa Teresa. Check out the local dive bar “La Lora Amarilla” for dance and music events throughout the year.
Playa Carmen lies between Santa Teresa and Malpais. Its wide, sandy beach is great for soaking up the sun or catching a few waves. Bear in mind that swimming in Playa Carmen (and Playa Santa Teresa) is not recommended, as the waves and currents are very strong.
Santa Teresa North
The north end of the main beach is slightly rockier but makes for a very picturesque landscape. This is one of the more scenic beaches in the area and a lovely place to go for a sunset stroll. Go at low tide and enjoy the large tidepool, which is perfect for bathing and snorkelling.
If you take the road towards Samara and Nosara and turn off to the left, you’ll find Playa Hermosa. The name means ‘beautiful beach’ and it’s clear to see why! Wide, sandy, tropical beach lined with palm trees.
READ NEXT: Best Beaches in Costa Rica
Surf in Santa Teresa or Mal Pais
If you are a surfer or someone who wants to take up surfing, you’ll find no shortage of things to do in Santa Teresa! This region is known for different breaks and a constant swell all year round. Most hotels and shops dotted along the main road in town offer surfboard rentals and surf lessons.
Santa Teresa is also home to one of the most legendary surf breaks in Costa Rica known as “Suck Rock,” located in front of the Red Palm Villas Resort. Next, to Suck Rock there is “La Lora”, known as one of the most consistent beach breaks.
Playa Santa Teresa, Playa Carmen, and the nearby beach in the town of Mal Pais all offer world-class surfing opportunities for surfers of all skill levels. Beginner surfers will particularly love Santa Teresa Beach, especially during dry season when the waves are much calmer. Meanwhile, the rainy season sees way bigger waves, absolutely perfect for hollow breaks.
The gentle surf along Playa Hermosa makes it a great spot for teaching surf newbies. Not into surfing? No problem. There is no shortage of fun Santa Teresa activities aside from surfing.
Visit Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve is Costa Rica’s first protected area established back in 1963. The reserve encompasses 1,172 hectares of humid tropical forest and a rich jungle and marine ecosystem. The Reserve is also home to many seabirds, including brown pelicans, laughing gulls, and ospreys.
If you’re lucky, you may also catch glimpses of some of the wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, armadillos, anteaters, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, porcupines, and coatis, to name but a few!
Cabo Blanco is located a short drive away from Santa Teresa and offers a few great hiking trails, ranging from 1km to 8kms. It’s an excellent place for a day trip.
Check out Montezuma Waterfalls
Take a short drive (about 40 minutes) to the nearby town of Montezuma for an easy 1km (0.6 miles) hike to the famous Montezuma waterfalls. There are three waterfalls to visit: the upper falls, middle falls, and lower falls.
The upper falls are actually the smallest, which makes them a great option for those with kids. The middle falls are about 12 meters high and are actually quite hidden between the upper and lower falls, making it feel like a hidden gem when you come upon them.
The lower waterfall is the largest and most popular, with its 25-meter drop-off and a nice pool suitable for a refreshing dip after a long hike.
Bring a bathing suit and some snacks and you can spend a whole day hanging out by the different waterfalls, cooling off in the waters and just enjoying nature.
Experience Montezuma Canopy Tour
Montezuma Canopy Tour offers an alternative way to see the Montezuma Falls. The Canopy (aka zip line) is owned by SunTrails and consists of 9 cables and 11 platforms suspended high above the rainforest.
You can fly high over the rainforest and finish your tour at the upper falls of the Montezuma Waterfall – so be sure to bring your swimming gear so you can take a refreshing dip afterwards!
Zip Line Tour departs daily at 9:00, 13:00, and 15:00.
This activity bears a 4 Leaf Sustainable Certification, so you can be sure that your tour will be responsible.
Visit Curú Wildlife Reserve
Animal lovers cannot miss an opportunity to visit Curu Wildlife Reserve in Santa Teresa, the country’s first private wildlife refuge. This paradise covers about 1,496 hectares of forests, mangroves, beaches, and marine habitats. With its high biodiversity, you are guaranteed to spot monkeys, coatis, scarlet macaws, white-tailed deer, and hundreds of other species of tropical and migratory birds native to this region.
You can visit on your own or organize a guided tour. The reserve is open from 7 AM to 3 PM.
Practice Yoga in Santa Teresa
Surfing and yoga seem to go hand and hand in most places, and Santa Teresa is no exception. Starting out as a small bohemian coastal town, there is no shortage of yoga classes and centers throughout Santa Teresa and the Nicoya Peninsula.
We recommend you partake in Santa Teresa Yoga at Anamaya Resort. We like them for their awesome facilities and patient instructors. They are part retreat center and one of our favourite yoga retreat centers in Costa Rica.
Visit Tortuga Island
Tortuga Island is located off the southeastern shore of the Nicoya Peninsula and has all the hallmarks of a lush, tropical paradise. White sand beaches, green jungles, and calm, crystal clear waters are ideal for snorkelling.
It is only accessible by boat, but there are plenty of full-day tours leaving from Santa Teresa, Puntarenas, or Montezuma every day. It’s not uncommon to see dolphins along the way. Once you are on the island, spend some time lounging on the beach or exploring the island’s many trails.
Catch a Sunset
The Pacific Coast boasts some of the world’s best sunsets. So, find a beachfront restaurant or nab a patch of sand at Playa Santa Teresa for the daily light show.
You won’t be alone either.
Playa Santa Teresa and other beaches in the area start filling up come evening time. Catching a glorious sunset is simply a right of passage for anyone spending time in beautiful Santa Teresa.
Where to Eat in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
With a stacked roster of delicious restaurants, eating was by far our favourite pastime in Santa Teresa. When it comes to culinary delights, this town is small but mighty.
- Earth Cafe: Serving up delicious breakfasts and lunches, Earth Cafe in Santa Teresa offers tasty yet healthy bites. The cafe is an ideal lunch spot after a day on the waves with colourful poke bowls, fresh seafood, and smoothies.
- Burger Rancho: Another one of our favourites was Burger Rancho, offering a great selection of gluten-free dishes, burgers, and seafood specialties.
- The Somos Cafe: This former travelling Airstream is now permanently set up among lush trees and a sun-soaked patio. The Somos Cafe menu is made up almost entirely of house-made foods sourced from the surrounding areas.
- Zula: Curb your Israeli food cravings with Zula. They offer the best falafel and hummus in town and sometimes have live music.
- Papaya Lounge: Built into the side of a rocky cliff, Papaya Lounge offers some of the best views around. It’s part of the boutique hotel, Hotel Moana, and boasts a menu crafted from local ingredients.
- Kojis: We visited Santa Teresa’s iconic Japanese restaurant, Kojis for dinner one night and were impressed to learn that all their food is locally sourced. And if you’re hoping to mingle with Santa Teresa’s celebrity residents, Tom Brady is known to be a Kojis fan.
- Drift Bar: Vegetarians, head straight to Drift Bar! Most restaurants in the area offer veggie options but Drift specializes in them. They also have an on-site art gallery and extensive cocktail list.
Breakfast in Santa Teresa
For breakfast, we opted to eat at a local soda, because no matter where in Costa Rica we are, we can never say no to a great traditional breakfast of Gallo Pinto, eggs, and fried plantains.
If you happen to be staying somewhere with a kitchen, or just want picnic supplies and snacks, head to Green World Food Store. This gem sources from local farmers, and stocks mostly organic and natural goods.
For helpful tips for travelling Costa Rica as a vegetarian or vegan, click here.
With some of the best sunsets on the Pacific, having a sundowner cocktail is a must on your visit. There are lots of beachside bars, with some even hosting full-on beach parties. Banana Beach Restaurant is probably the most popular spot to flock for a nightcap but we prefer a more peaceful setting.
Where to Stay in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
The Ultimate Eco Hotel in Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa town and the surrounding areas from Malpais to Playa Manzanillo are a haven of boutique hotels with an emphasis on sustainability. The best part is that they’re not all high-end luxury suites so visitors on any budget can book their dream vacation.
- Cuatro Vientos: These beautiful bright suites are steps from Playa Mal País and offer apartment-style accommodations. Cuatro Vientos is ideal for travellers on a tighter budget, being within walking distance to town and providing facilities to cook your own food. They’ve implemented several sustainable initiatives to reduce consumption and support the community. Rooms at Cuatro Vientos start at USD $70 per night.
- Canaima Chill House: The Canaima Chill House is an “eco-chic hotel” nestled in the jungle oasis, just 500 meters (547 yards) from the beach. It combines rustic charm, eco-design, and luxury with spacious suites, an outdoor hot tub, swimming pool, bamboo hanging beds, massage services, and a sun terrace. Rooms at Canaima Chill House start at USD $96 per night.
- Dreamcatcher Hotel – Atrapasueños: Steps from the beach, the Dreamcatcher Hotel – Atrapasueños is a picturesque retreat. Complete with an outdoor pool, spa, and wellness centre, the property is all about embracing nature. Enjoy tranquillity while still being close to lots of shops and restaurants with rooms starting at USD $235 per night.
READ NEXT: Best eco-hotels in Santa Teresa
How Much Time do I Need in Santa Teresa?
Should you add Santa Teresa to your Costa Rican itinerary? We’d say do it if you have the time. Come for surfing or surf watching and expect to spend your days relaxing.
Where to go Next?
Nosara is another beautiful beach town known as one of the best surf destinations in the world. The best breaks, stunning, wild beaches surrounded by jungle and wildlife, it’s easy to see why Nosara has become a bit of a haven for expat surfers.
The area comprises five beaches: Playa Nosara, Playa Garza, Playa Pelada, Playa Ostional, and Playa Guiones–where the majority of the restaurants, yoga studios, surf shops, and hotels are located.
Off the beaten path somewhat is the beach town of Samara and one which is definitely worth a visit. There’s a good selection of restaurants, boutiques, yoga retreats, and plenty of tours and activities to do in the area.
It’s quieter than other beach towns in Costa Rica and perfect for a bit of R&R. Come to unwind, soak up the sun, laze under the palm trees, and just enjoy the Pura Vida on Playa Sámara.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Take the Puntarenas Ferry to Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s one of the top tourist attractions in Costa Rica. Its 1,983 hectares are home to countless creatures, such as sloths, howler and white-faced monkeys, toucans, and iguanas. It’s a great place for walking/hiking enthusiasts with 10 different trails to explore.
While you don’t need one, we do recommend hiring a guide, to really understand the amazing biodiversity of the park and see all there is to see!
If the sleepy surf town vibe of Santa Teresa was a little too laid back for you, you might prefer the bustling beaches of Tamarindo. It’s a bit out of reach for day trips, but the nearly 4-hour drive is well worth the trek.
Tamarindo offers an endless list of activities and tours from horseback riding to ATV tours and everything in between. The area has some excellent ziplining, snorkelling, and fishing, along with streets lined with shops and restaurants. Tamarindo also makes for a great home base for exploring the Guanacaste region, known as the Gold Coast of Costa Rica.