We love the water. We love to be near it; walking by it, gazing lovingly at it and playing in it. We’ve been known to spend time underwater with snorkels, and on the surface in boats, kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards.
Although we had each tried surfing once, we are not surfers. Yet we are drawn to surf towns. There’s something about the vibe. As a general rule, the surf towns we’ve visited tend to be small with no major resorts. The vibe is super chilled and the coffee and craft beer terrific. Yoga and massage studios abound, and there’s great fresh food to be had. The focus is on unwinding and enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Breathing slows, and we become attuned to the rhythm of the surf.
We had never met a surf town we didn’t love. That is, until we went to Costa Rica. In this lovely country, we began to feel like Goldilocks, as each town we visited just wasn’t quite right.
After much research, we selected Santa Teresa as the first place to visit, kicking off our month in Costa Rica. Online reviews raved about this funky surf town and we made our way to the remote spot by jet, small plane, and finally bumpy taxi. Traffic was intense even though we were visiting during the shoulder season.
Santa Teresa’s beach is as beautiful as all those guide books indicate. The challenge is reaching it. The “town” is actually a collection of hotels and businesses spread along a stretch of jungle road running parallel to the coast. Unless you are staying at one of the few, very pricey beachfront resorts, you will spend a lot of time navigating jungle trails for 400 metres or so from the road to the beach. This can be very tricky after observing one of the famous sunsets! Don’t even begin to think about the critters that creep and slither along those same trails.
Getting around is also a challenge. Your hotel could easily be 10 kilometres from the restaurant you wish to visit. Either get used to walking great distances, or join the masses and rent an ATV for up to $90 USD per day. The ATVs make short work of the distances and are very practical given the condition of the road. They are also the best way to reach some of the hotels and villas on the hillside. The challenge is that they are no fun for the pedestrians forced to share the road with these noisy dust makers. The locals all use motorcycles or SUV’s and all supplies are trucked over the hills to town. This makes for one very busy main, and only, road.
Taking the beach route is much nicer, but will definitely be time consuming. Walking from our hotel to the Crossroads area took an hour along the beach but it was lovely. However, we could not do it every day. We love to walk everywhere, but the distances and the roaring traffic made it impractical. The “Crossroads”, where the road leading through the jungle to the rest of the peninsula meets the coastal road, is where the majority of restaurants, the bank and a few shops can be found. If you are lucky enough to be staying right in this area, you might enjoy yourself. Especially if you are a serious surfer. The waves are unforgiving for the rest of us!
Bottom Line: For pro surfers who will just spend all their time in the waves, this is perfect. For the rest of us, perhaps not so much. While the beach is beautiful, Santa Teresa is a nuisance to reach and travel around. There is no real “town” as such and the traffic on the only road will make you feel like you are in a busy city. After three nights, we moved on.
We hired a taxi initially to take us from Santa Teresa to Mal Pais, where we considered checking into a different hotel. One look from the taxi’s windows and we realised Mal Pais was even more spread out and isolated than the rest of the Santa Teresa area. After a very amusing exchange involving our few words of Spanish, our driver’s few words of English, much miming and a calculator’s display for clarity, we negotiated a reasonable price to carry on to Montezuma.
It was a treat to roll into this pretty town after a wild ride through the jungle and past hilltop communities. Montezuma is much more of a town proper, with hotels and businesses clustered around the streets near the active harbour and stretching gently up the hills. Accommodations are more affordable here and walking around is certainly a breeze. On the downside, the businesses are all tourist focused and it seems that everyone here works in the tourism industry. In high season, this little town is likely bursting at the seams. It was difficult to get any sense of the town’s character with everything geared to the North American tourist.
To be fair, it’s not really a surf town although we did see folks hiking with their boards to coves further afield. On the other hand, you can swim here and play in the more gentle waves! On the edge of town is a cool set of waterfalls, and there are various coves within an easy walk that you can have all to yourself. This was also our first encounter with a turtle sanctuary and while there were no babies to see while we were visiting, it was still fascinating to chat with the volunteers.
Bottom Line: Pretty and walkable, we enjoyed Montezuma for three gentle nights, but it still was not quite what we were looking for. We next hopped a water taxi to zoom across the Gulf of Nicoya.
This community certainly has the vibe down. There is a hub with a great coffee shop, organic veggie store, yoga studio and hair salon. As with everywhere in Costa Rica, you can also buy great and inexpensive fruits and veggies from the local stand.
The area has a fantastic, aging hippy population big on the arts. Community theatre and local music nights abound. You could stay in one of the small hotels right in Dominical, or camp near the beach. Accommodations are simple, but the restaurants offer sophisticated dining that is not cheap. Although the town is set back from the ocean a titch and focused more on the river, it’s not that hard to walk around and get to the surf. About that – experts only once again.
We weren’t that taken with the hotels in town, nor the fancy resorts in the hotels so we stayed in a fun little place in Dominicalito, the next bay over. Here we could saunter down to the deserted beach and wander as we pleased.
Bottom Line: We chilled here for five nights and really enjoyed hanging out with the locals, as well as the dog who adopted us for our stay. Yet still the town was not quite right. By this time we had a rental car so off we went again!
We understand that the Jaco we met in November is completely different from the one you might meet in high season. As it was, we found it to be an ok place for such a large city. Like Montezuma, the businesses were all focused on tourists but on a much larger scale. There’s quite the strip here of bars, shops and such, that gets crazy come spring break. High end condos behind secure gates abound. The South Beach area has a softer vibe, softer sand and is less crowded. Services are limited though, so we really needed that rental car to buy provisions. Most of the area has a wicked undertow and rocky beach so not that great for newbie surfers, although there was a school at the south end and folks were having a blast.
Bottom Line: It’s a big tourist city, not a surf town. Off we went to return to the Nicoya Peninsula!
We landed in Samara, a scant 50 kilometres up the coast from where we started in Santa Teresa but like much of Costa Rica, you can’t get there from here. There is no real road between Santa Teresa and Samara, you have to go back over the hills and around for several hours. Apparently you can travel along the beaches during the dry season, but you will still need to cross three rivers, wading in first to see how deep each one might be. Oh and don’t forget that all Costa Rican rivers may contain crocodiles. Yep, the route we took, stopping to explore along the way made more sense! Next time we’d just take a bus from San Jose or Liberia directly to Samara. Yes there should be a next time, Goldilocks finally found the right town.
Samara is a true community set on a gorgeous crescent beach. Beachfront restaurants and resorts and are tucked amongst the palms that fringe the bay, and the town rolls up along several streets before petering out in the nearby hills. We found the great coffee, great food, yoga studios and organic vegetable stores, plus we found a real, functioning town. A fully fledged grocery store sat beside the concrete supply yard. Hardware stores and business centres indicated that people lived and worked here. Two language schools ensured a steady supply of students from around the globe, bringing an international buzz to the air. As most students used the home stay option, everyone felt more like short term locals rather than tourists. The football field and elementary school at the centre of town were more signs of a functioning community. Football and free education for all are the foundations of Costa Rican life.
Best of all, surfing was possible for even newbies like us! For experts, the waves pick up at certain times, or you can travel to a few nearby spots (yes there are roads from here to there!) to get the big waves. There’s even bus service to the renowned Nosara area.
We ditched the rental car, signed up for Spanish classes and let the next two weeks unfold. Within a few days, we were bumping into people we knew at the market and greeting folks on the streets. And we learned to surf. Seriously.
Goldilocks can now enjoy surf towns for more than just the coffee and yoga.
In Costa Rica, the phrase “Pura Vida” is used to mean many things. Loosely translated as “excellent” or “all good”, it literally means “pure life”. Surf towns embrace Pura Vida, and you can’t go wrong hanging out in one of them.
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