San Mateo: A Local Town with Eco-Communities

Perched in the hills above Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast is the charming town of San Mateo. This traditional locals’ town has a nice mix of countryside and tropical forest, with a small, but vibrant, downtown. In recent years, San Mateo has become popular with expats with the addition of some eco-communities and private schools. The town is within a reasonable drive to nearby beaches, the San Jose metropolitan area, and SJO Airport. In this post, we’ll tell you more about San Mateo.

San Mateo Costa Rica


San Mateo is located just 30 minutes inland from the port of Caldera (Puntarenas) on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast. SJO Airport is about a one-hour drive, and downtown San Jose can be reached in less than 1.5 hours. Popular tourist beaches near Jaco are 45 minutes to 1 hour away.

While small, San Mateo is just five to ten minutes from a larger town called Orotina. Here, you’ll find many shops, banks, and services. 

Downtown San Mateo
Downtown San Mateo near the park

Weather and Climate

At roughly 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level, San Mateo is hilly but not quite in the mountains. The town keeps warm-to-hot temperatures year-round but does cool off nicely at night.

Daytime temperatures typically range from the low 80s to 90s °F (27-32 °C) and cool off into the low 70s °F (21-23 °C) at night. During the height of the dry season (March), temperatures can reach 100 °F (38 °C).

Landscape San Mateo
Tropical surrounds

Expat Eco-Communities

While some foreigners are attracted to San Mateo for its authentic Costa Rican charm, others have been drawn in by alternative lifestyle opportunities at eco-communities.


Ecovilla, a development focused on sustainability and a mindful community, is the biggest eco-community in the area.

The 494 acre (200 hectare) property dedicates only 22 acres (9 hectares) to home construction. The remainder is used as green space or allowed to regenerate naturally. Residents gather for community bonding events, markets, hiking, swimming, and yoga.  

Alegria Village

Alegria Village, also in San Mateo, has a similar approach.

Their 170 acre (70 hectare) community is centered around a permaculture farm and food forest. Their vision is to be a place where all beings thrive. This development is also highly focused on building bonds between its tight-knit and like-minded residents.

Private School Options

For private schools, there is the Real World School (formerly Casa Sula). This is a community school that emphasizes personalized, curiosity-driven, and project-based learning for kids ages 3-18. The Real World School is located inside Ecovilla.

Outside the eco-villages, near downtown, is the Journey School. This school has a unique outdoor classroom and focuses on agriculture and sustainability (pre-K through 12th grade). They also have locations in Tamarindo, Arizona (USA), and will open soon in Uvita (August 2024).    


There are a few local attractions in San Mateo to enjoy. Plus, its position near major highways makes it a nice base for day trips to the coast, mountains, city, or other nearby towns.

Choco Tour Costa Rica

Located a few minutes outside downtown San Mateo, this chocolate tour aims to teach you the history of cacao from a culinary angle. From tasting ancient Mayan drinks to making your own treats, this tour will elevate anyone’s love and appreciation for chocolate.

For more about our experience taking the tour and how to arrange one yourself, read our full article, Choco Tour Costa Rica: A Chocolate Tour with a Culinary Twist.

Choco Tour San Mateo
Raw cacao at Choco Tour Costa Rica

Rivers/Natural Pools

When it gets hot in San Mateo, many locals head to the nearby rivers to cool off. There are several swimming holes in and around town. Some deeper pools have been carved out by prior gold-mining activities, while others have been formed by mother nature.

One easy to access spot is the Rio Machuca near the Route 3 bridge. Here is a map of the small public parking area. You also can reach a different part of this river near Poza Blanca Lodge. There is a small parking area at the end of the road.  

Rio Machuca near Hotel Poza Blanca
The river near Poza Blanca Lodge

Waterfall Catarata El Encanto

Just a 20-minute drive from San Mateo is Catarata El Encanto (the Charming Waterfall).

This little-known attraction near Esparza is off the tourist trail but totally worth a visit. The impressive cascade drops 23 meters (75 feet) along a wide rocky cliff. Below is a refreshing natural pool for swimming and a tranquil river for picnics.

To learn more, including the best times of year to go, read our full article, Catarata El Encanto: Esparza’s Charming Waterfall.

Catarata El Encanto
Catarata El Encanto in January

Buen Camino Bike Park

If you are into mountain biking, this is your spot.

Buen Camino Bike Park is a 316 acre (128 hectare) property with an extensive trail system. Along the professional-grade course, you can find jumps, bridges, viewpoints, and lots of tropical surrounds.

Day passes are $25. There is a restaurant onsite, and they also have simple accommodations (see section below). Bike rentals are available for those traveling. 

Beaches a Short Drive Away

San Mateo is only about 30 minutes to one hour from several beaches on the Pacific coast.

Playa Caldera, near the port of Puntarenas, is the closest. This beach isn’t the most scenic but has a fun atmosphere with lots of street vendors selling shaved ice treats called Churchills.

For prettier beaches and nice water for swimming, head to Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca. These beaches, about 50 minutes away, fill up with locals from San Jose on weekends and holidays but can be very nice at off-peak times.

Playa Mantas near Jaco
The beautiful Playa Mantas, about 50 minutes from San Mateo

Jaco, one of Costa Rica’s most built-up beach towns, is just over one hour away. For more about the Jaco area’s beaches, read our full article, Jaco Beaches: Where to Swim, Surf, and Just Relax.

Restaurants in San Mateo

The town of San Mateo is small but there are a few good restaurant options. Here are some that we have enjoyed.

Soda Aurora

This traditional food restaurant is located next to the town’s main church and park. It is a great place to sit and absorb the local culture. Dishes like casados (rice, beans, a protein like fish, beef, or chicken, and side salads), arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp), and even hamburgers are served up by the friendly staff.

Soda Aurora is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Lunch Soda Aurora San Mateo
A casado at Soda Aurora

Restaurante Frenesí

Located next to the soccer field, playground, and skate park is Restaurante Frenesi. This is another typical food restaurant. The large menu has everything from ceviche, soups, and salads to rice dishes, steaks, seafood, and pasta. Our family especially enjoyed their ice-cream food truck parked outside for dessert. Open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.

Bar y Restaurante La Tranka

For casual food or a cold beer, head to Bar y Restaurante La Tranka. Located a little outside town on Route 131, this restaurant has a relaxed feel and solid typical food options. We really enjoyed our rice dishes and seafood soup. Service was friendly and attentive.  

Rice with shrimp at Bar La Tranka
Arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp) at Bar La Tranka

Love Organic Market & Kitchen

If you need to pick up some specialty foods in San Mateo, Love Organic Market & Kitchen is the place to do it. They have nuts, grains, breads, cheeses, yogurt, fresh organic produce, and many other health foods.

Accommodations in San Mateo

Many people visiting San Mateo choose to stay in vacation rentals. This can be nice, especially for longer stays where you can cook for yourself and enjoy more privacy.

If you are just passing through or making a short visit, here is a list of some hotel options. 

The PAD at Buen Camino Bike Park

Set on a hill with spectacular views is the PAD. These simple two-bedroom villas and studio cabins are part of the Buen Camino Bike Park, a large property with mountain biking trails. Rooms are also available to those not visiting for biking. A shared area has a small pool. Onsite restaurant and bar. $80-125/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.

PAD hotel Buen Camino Bike Park
Room at the PAD at Buen Camino Bike Park

Hotel Poza Blanca Lodge

This nine-room hotel sits perched on the riverbank of the scenic Machuca River. The rooms are well kept and comfortable. There are a lot of birds and animals on the property. With a pool, playground, and games, Hotel Poza Blanca is great for families. The onsite restaurant, Restaurante Cabernet, serves traditional Italian dishes and pizza. $130-250/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.

The Retreat Costa Rica – Wellness Resort & Spa

For an upscale stay, check out the Retreat Costa Rica. Located between San Mateo and Atenas, this hotel and wellness center is ideal for those looking to escape stress, heal from within, or just be pampered in the spa. The small hotel has 18 modern rooms with valley or distant ocean views. The hotel includes three meals a day. Their restaurant is primarily plant-based and uses all organic, local ingredients, with most of the produce being grown on the property. $400-800/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.  

The Retreat Atenas
The Retreat Wellness Center and Spa


San Mateo has been known as a traditional small town in Costa Rica. While it still has that charm, it also has carved out its own niche with eco-friendly communities. If you are looking for one or the other, or maybe both, San Mateo may just be the right fit.

Have a question about visiting San Mateo? Leave a comment below.

Looking for more small local towns? Check out these posts:

San Ramon: Close to Culture – Just 45 minutes away from San Mateo is the larger local city of San Ramon.

Nuevo Arenal: A Lakeside Town – With a mix of expats and locals, good restaurants, and lake views, Nuevo Arenal is a springlike destination worth checking out. 

Bajos del Toro: Costa Rica’s Land of Waterfalls – If you want to visit waterfalls, look no further than Bajos del Toro.