Far on the tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, away from airports and city lights, is Santa Teresa. And while this jungle-backed beach town is remote, it is anything but dull. Hip restaurants, shared workspaces, beach parties, and a growing population of young expats make it feel like the next big trend. In this post, we’ll tell you why Santa Teresa has stolen so many hearts and help you plan a visit.
Santa Teresa is far from most other destinations in Costa Rica. And that’s all part of the draw. It is located on the southern part of the country’s northern peninsula, the Nicoya.
This area had little development in the past but has experienced a big boom over the last half-decade. With international coverage from media giants and visits from celebrities, like Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, it’s no wonder why.
Just a couple of years ago, the roads getting here were dirt and sometimes very rough. But new pavement has made the journey a lot easier.
Those flying into San Jose (SJO) can plan on about 5.5 hours. This includes a 70-minute ferry ride across the beautiful Gulf of Nicoya. Travelers arriving in Liberia (LIR) have a slightly shorter trip at 5 hours, with no ferry needed.
Once you reach Santa Teresa, you’ll notice that a lot of people get around on foot, motorcycle, and by ATV. ATVs are very popular because of the dirt roads. Rental cars are too (see our discount on a recommended company here).
One main road runs from the fishing village of Mal Pais through Playa Carmen, Playa Santa Teresa, and finally Playa Hermosa to the north. The majority of businesses are located in Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa. This entire area is known as Santa Teresa.
The highlight in Santa Teresa are the gorgeous beaches. The town is built up just a short walk from the palm-tree-lined sand. Homes and rentals also dot the steep hillside just behind the main road. These offer gorgeous ocean views.
Santa Teresa is well-known for surfing, but the rough waves and rip currents can make swimming more of a challenge.
Besides surfing and sunbathing, Santa Teresa’s beaches serve as the main gathering place, especially at sunset. From around five in the afternoon until well after the sun touches down around six, it seems like the whole town comes out. Small and large groups gather on the sand, surfers catch their last waves of the day, and everyone tries to get that perfect sunset pic.
Playa Carmen is the main beach in town and usually has the most going on.
There is a good beach break here, which attracts mid-level and experienced surfers.
Up by the road, restaurants and shops are abundant. Closer to the beach, there are fewer places to eat and drink, but they draw crowds, especially at sunset.
In addition to some small walking paths between shops and restaurants, there is one road at the main entrance of town (known as El Cruce/the Crossing) that leads to Playa Carmen. This allows you to drive closer and park near the beach.
Playa Santa Teresa
A bit north of Playa Carmen is Playa Santa Teresa. This area has been built up recently so has its own section of restaurants, hotels, and shops. Access to the whitish-sand beach is a little trickier since private residences, hotels, and jungle stand between it and the main strip. Look for a small dirt road across from El Facon Grill & Bar.
Not to be confused with many other beaches in Costa Rica with the same name, Playa Hermosa (Beautiful Beach) is a must-visit when staying in the Santa Teresa area.
Even though it is popular with beginner surfers, this beach feels more remote than others. There are lofty palm trees, sun-faded driftwood, and plenty of space to find some privacy.
Playa Hermosa is located about 10-15 minutes north of Santa Teresa’s main strip.
Other Activities in and Around Santa Teresa
Since swimming in Santa Teresa is hard with the crashing surf, many people like to cool off in the area’s tide pools. There are several rocky spots around town that leave shallow pools during low tide.
One is known as the Santa Teresa tide pool. It’s a giant pool that is deep enough to snorkel or swim in.
You can find it between Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa. When the road gets close to the shore, you’ll see a parking area on your left near some rocks (El Peñon). Continue a little farther and there is another pull-off with some shady trees to park under. The large tide pool is visible from the parking area, and just a short walk away. We recommend water shoes since the rocks are a bit sharp. Here is a map with the approximate location.
Another cool spot to hang out at are the Mal Pais tide pools. These are smaller but there are more of them. Because of their shape, dipping in can feel like you have your own personal hot tub.
Check out our post, Mal Pais Tide Pools and Natural Hot Tubs, for all the details.
Tortuga Island Snorkel Day Trip
A trip by boat to Tortuga Island is perfect for a day of fun or relaxation. This island in the Gulf of Nicoya has a beautiful white-sand beach and calmer, clearer water. There are beach chairs to lounge in, and you can rent snorkels, kayaks, or do banana boat (inflatable) rides.
Tour operators often have a package that includes some of the island’s activities like snorkeling, plus a BBQ lunch.
Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
For those looking to get off-the-beaten path, Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve is the hiking spot for you. This was one of Costa Rica’s first conservation areas. It protects both land and marine zones from development, so there is usually plenty of wildlife like monkeys and birds.
A portion of Cabo Blanco abuts the southern end of Mal Pais. While you can visit one of the Reserve’s beaches from Mal Pais (known as Secret Beach), you’ll have to drive across the peninsula to the town of Cabuya to access the hiking trails. It’s about an hour away. This is a fun day trip, though, if you are looking for a hard hike.
Read our post, Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve: Rugged Hiking on the Nicoya Peninsula, for directions and more information.
Day Trip to Montezuma
In the same direction as Cabo Blanco is another laid-back beach town called Montezuma. There are a few activities here worth checking out. These include a large waterfall, zip-line course, and more scenic beaches. The small town also has its own array of little shops and restaurants.
Check out our post, Montezuma: A Bohemian Beach Town, to plan a visit.
Restaurants in Santa Teresa
Because Santa Teresa has become such a popular destination for tourists and expats, the restaurant scene is one of the best in Costa Rica. Here are some of the places we have enjoyed.
Banana Beach Restaurant
This happening beach bar usually has a healthy crowd with outdoor tables and loungers set up right off the sand. It has a mix of casual food like burgers, pizza, and sandwiches as well as some more elaborate entrees. But really the atmosphere is the biggest draw. Located right on Playa Carmen. Check out their Facebook page for info on live music and events.
This newer option in town serves up some serious BBQ and other tasty comfort food. The sports-bar atmosphere at Kooks is perfect for a casual lunch or dinner. As a bonus, they have craft beer on tap. Try the brisket and giant onion rings; you won’t be disappointed. Located on the northern end Playa Carmen’s main strip.
No visit to Santa Teresa is complete without a stop at the Bakery. This well-known restaurant and bakery has been around for years. They serve fresh breads, decadent baked goods, sandwiches, coffee, juices, smoothies, and much more. Check out their Facebook page for the full menu.
Located at the first entrance to Playa Hermosa, this French-inspired café is perfect for a surfer’s breakfast or a relaxing lunch. The atmosphere at Couleur Cafe is really cute and colorful, with many of the tables set up under a shady tree. We have always enjoyed our food here.
For great sushi and a nice ambiance, check out Nami Sushi along the main road in Playa Santa Teresa. The small dining area is comfortable and elegant with candles lit and soft music playing. We enjoyed the variety of rolls they offered. Each one tasted light and fresh. You can find their menu on Facebook.
Green World Store
While not a restaurant, this health food store on the main strip in Playa Carmen has all the makings for a great meal. Green World Store is fully stocked with organic produce, homemade breads, bulk food items, healthy snacks, kombucha, and grab and go bites as well.
Hotels in Santa Teresa
When picking accommodations in Santa Teresa, it’s important to understand the area’s layout. The main part of town, Playa Carmen and extending up to Playa Santa Teresa, is the busiest. Here, you will be closest to restaurants and amenities.
This area also can be louder, though, especially near the main road. There are many inexpensive hotels and hostels along this stretch, perfect for those looking to party.
If you prefer a quieter stay, opt for Mal Pais or Playa Hermosa. These locations are much more off-the-beaten path and tranquil. The surrounding hills also will take you away from the busyness of the main drag.
Hotel Nantipa – A Tico Beach Experience
For a luxury experience, we recommend Hotel Nantipa. This boutique hotel is right on the beach on the northern end of Playa Carmen. Although this part of town can be busy, the property is spacious and far removed from the hustle and bustle. Hotel Nantipa has 15 suites and bungalows, many with ocean views. Their onsite restaurant is right on the sand. Also has a large pool with a lovely garden. $350-600/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Banana Beach Bungalows
Also on Playa Carmen within walking distance to many amenities is Banana Beach Bungalows. This is a good mid-range option. The property has seven bungalows that can hold 2-7 people. If you’re looking for a social scene, it’s a great option as their beach bar/restaurant is extremely popular. $150-250/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Zula Inn Aparthotel
For an aparthotel, there’s Zula Inn. They have a handful of basic, but equipped, cabins. Each has a kitchenette, A/C, shower with hot water, and outdoor porch with sitting area. The property has a small, but nice, pool. Adjacent to the pool is a rancho with a large table, lounge area, and communal kitchen. Studios and one- and two-bedroom units are available. $85-200/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Lua Villas (Playa Hermosa)
For a quiet escape, check out Lua Villas in Playa Hermosa. This is a small property with stylish Balinese-style villas, studios, and apartments. It has a modern pool and is only a three-minute walk to the beach. $100-175/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Meli Melo
A well-liked budget option just a short walk to the beach in Playa Santa Teresa is Hotel Meli Melo. Rooms range from simple doubles for $60, to family rooms with a terrace for $100. All have A/C and access to a shared kitchen. People love the friendly owners. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Vista de Olas (Mal Pais)
If you’re looking for views, we recommend Hotel Vista de Olas (View of the Waves). It has seven colorful villas set in the quiet hillside in Mal Pais. Some have an outdoor shower overlooking the jungle. The hotel has a nice infinity pool and swim-up bar, perfect for taking in sunset. $180-250/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Indigo Yoga Resort (Mal Pais)
For the yogis, there’s the laid-back Indigo Yoga Resort in Mal Pais. They offer aerial silk classes and yoga lessons right onsite. Accommodations consist of comfortable rooms and apartments, some with A/C. The property has a lot of mature trees, which draw wildlife like monkeys. Staying here gets you close to the amazing Playa Cuevas (Secret Beach) and Mal Pais tide pools, right across the street. $70-180/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
With consistent surf breaks, jaw-dropping sunsets, tasty eats, and a social vibe that lets you reimagine what life is all about, there’s no wonder why Santa Teresa is Costa Rica’s next hot spot. Just don’t forget, it’s still a jungle out there. Take care of it, so that it stays that way.
Have you been to Santa Teresa? What was your favorite part? Leave a comment below.
Looking for more information to help plan your trip? Check out these posts:
Taking the Puntarenas-Paquera Ferry – All the info you need to plan your trip across the Gulf, includes buying tickets, boarding the ferry, and more.
Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – Make sure to pack everything you need for your stay in Santa Teresa. This town is far from any major stores!
FAQs About Moving to Costa Rica – So you want to take the plunge and stay in Costa Rica indefinitely? Check out these frequently asked questions to help you get started.