Santa Teresa in Costa Rica holds a special place in my heart. I first visited all the way back in 2011 when it was a dusty dirt strip with a scattering of cafes and bars. Of course, progress marches us ever onwards and this laid back beach town has sprung up with a whole host of new restaurants, hotels and even a new road. But what hasn’t changed are the things that draw people to this far-away southern point of the Nicoya Peninsula – epic surf, world-class yoga retreats and sunsets that might well bring a tear to your eyes. Perhaps Santa Teresa will be the next Tulum (in Mexico) or perhaps its hard to reach location will keep it just that bit out of most visitor’s reach. I hope so. There is something special about this jungle-cloaked beach town and I, for one, would like it to stay that way.
In this guide, I’ll share with you everything you need to know about Santa Teresa in Costa Rica including the best beaches, things to do, where to stay, where to eat, when to visit and how to get there. At the end, I’ve also included a map of Santa Teresa to help you plan your trip.
Where is Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa is located in the Nicoya Peninsula, a finger of land that stretches off the west coast of Costa Rica’s mainland. Within the peninsula, you can find Santa Teresa on the southwest coast, west of Montezuma and north of Mal Pais. It’s located 115 miles from San Jose and can be reached by a combination of car and ferry. There is a longer route over the top of the peninsula via Liberia if ferries aren’t for you. More details on how to get to Santa Teresa below.
Santa Teresa town is a strip that runs around 2.5 miles from north to south encompassing Santa Tesesa Beach in the north and Playa Carmen beach in the south.
Beaches in Santa Teresa
The beaches are by far the biggest draw in Santa Teresa, where one stretch of golden sand merges into another, all cut into a jungle backdrop. Here’s the lowdown on the main and best beaches in Santa Teresa and nearby.
Playa Santa Teresa
There are two main beaches in the town of Santa Teresa – Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen, and they run into one another. Which is the main beach? It kind of depends where you stay. Those who stay closest to Playa Carmen often end up considering that the main beach. Likewise with those staying near Playa Santa Teresa. Both have plenty of bars and cafes to support the need for a drink or bite to each. Playa Santa teresa is a wide beach that is perfect for sunbathing. The beach has a stunning jungle backdrop and is a great spot for the famous sunsets. I found this beach a little less crowded than Playa Carmen.
Playa Carmen is a short stroll from the main bustle of the southern end of town and is perfect for sunbathing and for catching Santa Teresa’s stunning sunsets. Thanks to its central location, you will get some crowds but it’s a wide beach and has a beautiful jungle palm backdrop. Playa Carmen has a fair current and decent waves making it great for more experiences surfers.
Meaning Beautiful Beach, Santa Teresa’s Playa Hermosa really has earned her crown. The palm fringed backdrop, wild-driftwood and fewer people make you feel like you’ve escaped the masses. Yet you only need to amble just a touch further north of Santa Teresa beach, around 15 minutes to get here. It’s a good spot for beginner surfers thanks to the beach breaks, weak rip tides, cushiony sand, and lack of rocks. Here you’ll find plenty of organised lessons and instructors.
Around 20 to 30 mins from Santa Teresa, 8km north, you’ll find Playa Manzanillo. Most people don’t bother to head this far since there are so many beautiful beaches on Santa Teresa’s doorstep. However, if you’re a beach bum determined to hit every stretch of sand, or want more solitude, add Playa Manzanillo to your list. Take a bike or ATV to get there.
Can you swim in the sea in Santa Teresa?
Mostly, the sea around Santa Teresa is too rough for swimming. There are strong currents, rocks in places and big waves, meaning you’re not going to get the kind of gentle bath-like waters you can expect somewhere like the Greek Islands. This is pretty universal anywhere you see promoted as a surf town around the world – Puerto Viejo’s Salsa Brave in Costa Rica, Oahu‘s North Shore in Hawaii and around Cape Town in South Africa. You can visit the tide pools for a dip (details below) or make sure your hotel has a pool if you want to take a dip.
Things to do in Santa Teresa
So, apart from spend time on the beach, what are the best things to do in Santa Teresa?
1. Learn to Surf
Santa Teresa is a world-renowned surf spot. With pretty consistent waves and a variety of types of surf breaks, you’re going to be able to get some good surfing no matter what your level. Santa Teresa is the first time I picked up a surfboard and although I wasn’t a natural (I couldn’t pick up a beer the next day my arms were so sore), the beach way friendly, the water not too intimidating and the guide was really patient. I mean, he had to be. If you’re an expert, head to playa Carmen. If you’re starting out, head to Playa Hermosa. If you want to learn to surf, consider booking a surf hotel or hostel where lessons are included.
2. Take a Yoga Class
On my first trip to Santa Teresa, I was there for the beach and surf – yoga wasn’t really a thing, or at least not in the huge way it’s permeated the town. And, as a yoga lover, I’m thrilled about this addition. You can’t get a more picturesque scene for deepening your breathe, going with your flow and connecting back to yourself. You don’t need to be an experienced yogi to enjoy the classes – there are group classes and courses for every level. If you want to commit, find accommodation that includes classes. Or just drop in for one of the many beach yoga sessions. I travel with a Manduka eKo Lite mat which folds up no bigger than a beach towel. I take it everywhere with me. You might also like my Costa Rica Packing List.
3. Beach Hop
Santa Teresa town is well placed for access to several stunning beaches. There are two within walking distance – Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa. The rest need a bit of effort to get to but are worth it because the crowds thin. See my beach recommendations above. Want to see some black sand beaches? Head to Cahuita on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast
4. Water sports
If you don’t want to surf or lie on the beach, you can still enjoy Santa Teresa because there are many different water sports to enjoy. Stand up paddle boarding is one of my favourites (though balance is a challenge near the break!). You’ll also find options for kite surfing, scuba diving and sports-fishing.
5. Shop and dine in Santa Teresa Village
Santa Teresa is really just one long strip of road that is exceptionally well located for the beach. In itself, it’s not all that pretty. However, the businesses that have cropped up are what makes it easy to get stuck in Santa Teresa. Of course, being in Costa Rica, you can expect some award-winning coffee in the cafes, there are yoga and surf shops galore to feed the fanatics of both sports (I struggle to leave the yoga shops). And then there are plenty of really good restaurants.
6. Day trip to Montezuma Town
The cute town of Montezuma was the original upscale resort town on the Nicoya Peninsuala and makes for a great day trip from Santa Teresa if you want to explore a bit further afield. In one day you can visit the Montezuma waterfall, Montezuma beach and wander around the small towns cafes and restaurants. It takes about 30 minutes to get to Montezuma from Santa Teresa
7. Montezuma Waterfall
One of my favourite things to do in Costa Rica is go on a hike through the jungle to a waterfall. After getting hot and sticky, strip down to your bathers and jump into the (often pretty cool) water. And there is such an experience on the doorstep of Santa Teresa at Montezuma Waterfall. It’s actually a series of three waterfalls with a small hike to get to the main event. Expect a picture-worthy cascade of water. Tip: for a less crowded waterfall, head to El Chorro. But be aware it’s only visible during the rainy season and isn’t as dramatic as Montezuma Waterfall.
8. Day trip to Mal Pais
This sleepy fishing village makes for a really nice escape from the strip and the crowds on the beach. Step back in time a bit and enjoy the nearby beach of Mal Pais without the masses. There isn’t a huge amount to do in Mal Pais so you might want to add it as a stop en route to somewhere else in the peninsula.
9. Go Horseback Riding
Does it get any more romanic than taking a horseback ride on the beach? If you’re in Santa Teresa for honeymoon (it’s a great destination for it), you might want to add this to your list of things to do. Or what about going riding in the jungle? I’m more of a jungle adventure person than romance, but I was in Santa Teresa on my own and with friends. Ollie’s Adventures is the go-to outfit for booking horse riding. Mostly because they run great tours and care about their animals – the horses get vacation time! You can book a ride on the beach, in the jungle, in the mountains and at sunset.
10. Explore Santa Teresa by ATV
Razzing around on an ATV is an activity all in itself, as well as being one of the best ways to explore Santa Teresa. Even if you don’t rent an ATV for your whole trip, take one out for at least a day and explore. Find hidden patches of sands and explore the jungle and beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula. There are plenty of rental places in town.
11. Playa Mar Azul Tide Pools
When the tide gets low, the rocks around Mal Pais are perfectly set for creating personal tide pools. Since swimming is mostly off the menu in the sea around Santa Teresa, heading to the tide pools is a much safer option. You will want transport to get there as the pools are en route to Mal Pais, about 3 miles away from Santa Teresa. That’s aboug fifteen mins away by car. Make sure you check your tide times before you go and pack a pair of water shoes to remove the pain of scrambling over the rocks to get in and out of the pools.
12. Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
Sad to say it but all that development around Santa Teresa has decreased the local wildlife. Fortunately, Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve on the southern portion of the peninsula protects land and marine species and since Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of biodiversity, you should take the time to go wildlife spotting. The park is part of the Tempisque Conservation Area and includes 3,140 acres of land and 4,420 acres of sea. There are some great hiking trails within the reserve, which is the best way for spotting wildlife. My best tip for Costa Rica if you like wildlife is to pack a pair of cheap, light travel binoculars like these ones. What should you look out for? Howler Monkeys, Capuchin white-faced Monkeys and Iguanas are the most popular spots. There are also boobies (which are birds, just to be clear). Tip: check out Curu Wildlife Reserve if you’re looking for even more wildlife in Santa Teresa. Or what about adding Tortuguero National Park to your itinerary in Costa Rica?
13. Zipline over Canopy Mal Pais Del Pacifico
Zip-lining over a jungle canopy is a not-to-be-missed experience in Costa Rica and the ability to do it near the beach (rather than the cool mountain region of Monteverde) is a bonus if you ask me. Canopy Mal Pais offers ziplining over its farm with hundreds of trees to see below. One of the lines is 500 metres long.
14. Tortuga Island Day Trip
There’s something special about Tortuga Island, off the east coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. For me it was the pure white sands and sparklingly clear sea. It’s also a great relief to finally be able to swim and relax in calm water again. In fact, the water here is so clear, Tortuga Island is perfect for snorkelling. Don’t worry, if you’re not a sit on the beach kind of person, or want a leg-stretch, there are also hiking trails. See if you can spot the wild pigs. The best thing to do is book a day trip when you arrive in Santa Teresa. There are plenty of places in town selling day trips that include snorkelling and lunch.
15. Sunsets watching
The hour between 5pm and 6pm when the sun sets over the sea is utter magic in Santa Teresa. It seems like the whole town flocks to the beach, the surfers paddle out to sit on their boards and, in what feels like a spiritual moment, the crowds stand in awe as the sun sets in bright orange and golden hues over the water. Go the very first night you arrive and, I promise, you’ll be back night after night.
16. Beach Bonfires
Santa Teresa isn’t a party town, as such but there are plenty of chances to kick back with a beer. As well as sunset cocktails and happy hour at the local beach bars in town, Santa Teresa has a great beach bonfire culture. Bring your own beer, huddle around a bonfire and make some new friends.
I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer but I think it’s a shame that the food in Santa Teresa has become so international. Don’t get me wrong, it tastes ace, but with so much wellness going on (surf and yoga retreats), and given the Nicoya Peninsula is one of the world’s Blue Zones (destinations where people live super long lives, like Sardinia in Italy), it’s a shame there isn’t more Nicoya cuisine. Hunt it down in the local sodas. Otherwise, these are some of the most popular places to eat in Santa Teresa.
- The Bakery – there is no shortage of bakeries in Santa Teresa but The Bakery is the one to beat and should be your first stop if you’re after sugary baked goods. Their smoothes are also very good if you’re keeping the fake sugar low.
- Banana Beach – brilliant beach bar with live music and events. Food is pretty western (pizzas and burgers) but the spot is perfect on Playa Carmen Beach.
- Couleur Cafe – although it’s pitched as a French cafe, it’s more Costa Rican than French but the breakfasts and fresh fish are great. I love the shaded outdoor seating.
- Drift Bar – a delight for veggies and vegans with a fully vegetarian menu. Their smoothies are a meal in themselves.
- Kooks Smokehouse – head to Kooks if you want BBQ and craft beer with a sports bar vibe. A very popular spot in town.
- Manzu – part of popular hotel Nantipa, you get sunset views on the beach as well as stunning dining. Definitely upscale eats.
- Nami Sushi – you’re sat on the Nicoya Peninsula so why wouldn’t you seek out sushi. Actually, the poke bowls (a Hawaiian invention) are my favourite here.
- Koji is another sushi shack, popular with surfers, if you’re wanting to add more rolls to your diet.
- Soda Pura Vida – eat local at least once and Soda Pura Vida is the place to do it.
- Zula – I have fond memories of eating my first ever shakshuka in this Israeli restaurant and I’m thrilled to see its still going strong. The hummus is to die for.
Where to Stay
Location. Location. Location. It really is everything in Santa Teresa. So, before you fall in love with a particular hotel, check where it is. The main strip between Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa is busiest and you’ll therefore have more road noise. However, if you want to party or are looking for cheap hotels and hostels, this is the area to be. Want something more tranquil, stay more south, towards Mal Pais. Just make sure you have a rental car or ATV to get around. These are some of the most popular hotels in Santa Teresa.
- Banana Beach Bungalows – with a beach bar and bungalows to retreat to after hours, you get a good blend of fun and relaxation in the heart of Playa Carmen.
- Escencia Hotel & Villas – not only is this hotel well located, there is an awesome spa and sun terrace.
- Fuego Lodge – My kind of place with a focus on yoga – they have an outdoor yoga shala and also with a swimming pool
- Hotel Nantipa – Suites, bungalows and ocean views are on offer at Nantipa, making it perfect for a luxurious stay. There’s also a cute pool which can’t be overestimated in an area where it’s rough to swim in the sea. And Ayurvedic spa treatments to full indulge.
- Selina Santa Teresa South – Selina is so fancy you can barely call it a hostel (plus it has private rooms anyway). Great for socialising. this used to be Tanquil Backpackers ‘back in the day’ and boy what an amazing facelift.
Best Time to Visit
Santa Teresa, like most of Costa Rica has a tropical climate. This means its warm year round. You do, however, want to pay attention to the difference between dry season and rainy season because wet beach days aren’t as much fun.
Dry season: Mid-December to April – this is the time to visit if you’re looking for long, hot, dry sunny days of beach lounging.
Rainy season is May to Mid-December – is the best time visit if you want to surf because the winter rain brings great swells and barrels. It’s known as the green season thanks to all the green flora the rain brings with it.
Best time to visit Santa teresa to surf: great news, there is pretty consistent swells year round, so you will always be able to surf in Santa Teresa, and dry season will be easier for beginners.
How to Get to Santa Teresa
From San Jose
Santa Teresa is located 115 miles from San Jose and it takes around 5 hrs 30 to get there by a combination of road-ferry-road. First you must travel from San Jose along the Pan American Highway to Puntarenas Port. From there, catch the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry to Paquera on Nicoya Peninsula. Finally, you can catch a bus (or continue with your rental car) to Santa Teresa. You can book ferry tickets in advance. The ferry takes just over an hour – around 75 minutes.
Alternatively, you can fly from San Jose Airport (SJO) to Tambor Airport (TMU). Flights take 30 minutes and you’re then only 1 hr away from Santa Teresa by car.
Personally, I love the ferry. There was an actual Costa Rican stag do on my ferry when I crossed, with beer swilling and party music. It was possible to escape it (leave the bar area), but isn’t it nice to see real local life in action? Oh, and the glittering seas of the Gulf of Nicoya, of course.
Liberia is another popular international airport in Costa Rica. From there you can get to Santa Teresa directly by car, no ferry needed. The distance is 135 miles and takes around 4hrs 15 mins.
If you’re in Costa Rica travelling around without a car, you should check out the shuttle services. They’re an excellent way to get around – a bit more expensive but far faster and more convenient than the public bus. You get door to door pick up/drop off and transport in a comfy mini-van. Santa Teresa Travels Shuttle has great services from many popular tourist spots in Costa Rica including La Fortuna, Monteverde, San Jose and Manuel Antonio (to name a few).
How to get around
By foot or bike: How you get around Santa Teresa depends on what you want to do and where you stay. If you’re located in the centre and just want to surf, do yoga or chill, you can get around by foot. You can also hire an electric or manual bike if you want to save yourself from hot, sweaty walks.
By car or ATV: If you want to explore beyond Santa Teresa, e.g. to Montezuma Waterfalls or the tide pools, you’ll want some sort of motorised transportation. Cars are the obvious mode of transport and roads have certainly improved since my first visit to Santa Teresa. However, ATVs are incredibly popular and in some cases can actually be better because, outside the main beach areas, the roads become dirt tracks pretty quickly. Check where you’re going to visit before you decide and choose the kind of wheels to suit your trip. If you do go for a rental car and want to explore, opt for a 4×4. Be aware, the closest fuel is around 30 minutes away from Santa Teresa at Cobano Service Station.
By tour: Some places like Tortuga Island and Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve are best visited by taking a tour.
Map of Santa Teresa
Here’s my map of Santa teresa and the locations mentioned in this guide.
So, that’s my guide to Santa Teresa. Got any comments or questions, leave a comment below.
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