When my family and I decided to spend over a year traveling around the world, we didn’t initially plan to surf and study Spanish for two months in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. We were headed to an event with friends for two weeks on the north-west coast and had a month to explore beforehand, so I got to work doing research about what we might want to do in the meantime.
We kicked off our world tour with a few days Panama City (loved it!) and a week in Bocas del Toro, which was a weirdly depressing and challenging spot despite its promise as a Caribbean paradise. After that, I had planned for a mini-tour of Costa Rica including sleeping in treehouses in the southern jungle, road tripping up the west coast, and experiencing the hot springs and Arenal volcano from an eco-farm. Instead, we fell down a rabbit hole in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica and nearly stayed forever.
Santa Teresa is not for everyone
The Costa Rican dry season, known as “summer” to Ticans, runs mid-November-ish through April. During these months in Santa Teresa, so much polvo (dust) kicks up from the mostly unpaved road that you may need a face mask while driving your ATV.
During “winter” the welcome rain turns dust to barro (mud) and the roads become all but impassable on the best days. The rainy season also brings out the mosquitos, which slower than other mozzers still enjoyed dining regularly on our blood.
There are no big box five-star resorts in Santa Teresa, and the closest flight (on a tiiiiny plane) drops you off in a field that’s a 45 minute whiplash ride from town. What’s more, unless you're a surfer or yogi or just love the beach and jungle there’s really not much to do here. And if you stay long enough (just like anywhere, I suppose) you start to see and feel the small town dramas and larger socio-political issues festering under the surface of the Pura Vida (that’s Costa Rica’s motto/standard greeting which literally means Pure Life).
If I haven’t scared you off yet…
You should know that Santa Teresa is one of my favorite places in the world so far despite (and probably because of) all of this. So much so that we strongly considered buying a house in Playa Hermosa (the northern-most beach of Santa Teresa) and enrolling our kids in the local bi-lingual school. In a world of Instagram-selfies and Trip Advisor fueled tourism, this town has managed to stay mostly unspoiled with a delightful international edge to it’s distinctive Costa Rican vibe (at least for now).
Arriving in Santa Teresa
We hopped off our tin can (actually a Sansa Air Cessna Caravan) that flew us on a fist clenching one hour journey from San Jose to Tambor and were met at the tiny airstrip by a driver sent by our Airbnb host.
Julio was to become a trusted guide and friend in Costa Rica, but for now, he was a welcome, smiling face who deftly drove us over windy, bumpy, nauseating roads to our little home for the next week all the way patiently correcting our horrendously inadequate Spanish.
Santa Teresa Costa Rica is community near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s essentially centered around a dirt road that runs parallel to the beach for four miles north after Mal Pais to Playa Hermosa. Our first home in Santa Teresa was a nice little apartment near the northern part of town, walking distance to cafes and restaurants, surf shops, and most importantly – the beach.
Falling in love with Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
It was late when we first arrived, so our first visit to the beach wasn’t until the next day. To be honest, from photos online I really didn’t expect much from the west coast beaches of Costa Rica. They mostly looked like meh-colored sand, unremarkable water, and some palm trees (but admittedly I’m a bit of a beach brat).
So imagine my surprise that this beach – still not much visually different than my imagination – almost immediately managed to captivate me under its spell. I hadn’t even hopped on a surfboard yet, and I felt like this place and I was somehow inextricably linked.
My amazing adventure surfing Santa Teresa
I learned to surf a few years after arriving in California – summer of 2003 – when my best friend surprised me with a couple of lessons. That summer I lived and breathed for paddling out and riding waves. I got in the water every single day regardless of whether the sea was flat as a lake or angry with giant sand-churning waves that fiercely devoured anything that came near them. My indoctrination into surfing was a baptism of fire and I loved every second of it.
I met my husband that year when he moved into the upstairs apartment of the building that I had chosen because it was walking distance from the surf breaks in Venice Beach. We bonded over our longboards and got married on Zuma Beach less than a year later. We continued to ride out our shared passion for surfing, but soon after that birth of our first son the shifts of motherhood uneventfully extinguished my surf stoke.
When we arrived in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica it had been EIGHT years since I'd paddled out.
On our second morning in town, we had big plans – we had signed up the kids for surf lessons with Amit from Del Soul Surf School. Bloke and I planned to rent boards and get to work on our derusting our surfing skills. As luck would have it, both Bloke and the kids woke up with a tummy bug. I was the only one fit to surf.
I'd been waiting to rekindle my passion for surfing since we started planning this trip plus I wanted to escape the contagion our my household. So I rolled up to Del Soul on my own, was swiftly ushered on the back of a motorbike with a tan and confident-looking surf instructor named Luna. Helmetless and without a chance to protest, she whisked me down off to Playa Hermosa where the waves were apparently tamer.
You probably don't know this about me, but I have a strict no-motorcycle policy that my mother managed to successfully ingrain in my mind since an early age. I was pretty sure I was going to die before even getting a toe wet. We wove around ATVs, trucks, and other motorbikes down the dusty, potholed road. Yet miraculously, we arrived at our destination relatively unharmed. While Amit, Luna, and the other instructors started their lessons, I was handed a surfboard and told to have fun.
I took a deep breath and paddled out.
As I stepped in, the Costa Rican waters surprised me with their welcoming warmth (and later the consistently great waves).
Playa Hermosa is a beach break, meaning that the waves break in different places and varied directions on depending on the conditions – as opposed to a point break that consistently creates waves in a particular direction due to reef or rock. A beach break means there's more room for surfers to spread out but also makes the spots for catching waves less obvious.
This was a perfect sunny day with nice rolling sets, and I felt determined to catch at least one wave. Yet after what seemed like hours (and was probably only 30 minutes) I still hadn't managed to score a ride. I wasn't ready to give up, but I was definitely beginning to recall how physically and mentally challenging this sport actually was.
Meeting The Lion
As I paddled about, from a few yards away I saw a handsome Costa Rican with a dark and sun bleached mane of curls. He waved and shouted in my direction, “Señorita! Señorita, paddle out, por favor!”
Well if you know anything about me, I'm not usually one to make instant buddies with random strangers, even if they are charming and easy on the eye. Also, surf culture in Los Angeles is notoriously unfriendly, so I my initial feeling was to give him a classic Emily scowl and paddle in the other direction. But a little voice in my head scolded, “You're in Costa Rica! It's Pura Vida, Emily. Be nice!”
Fine, I conceded to the mini-me in my brain. I paddled out, smiled at Costa Rican Surfer Dude and politely asked why he asked me to paddle out. What followed was a friendly refresher course in surfing 101 with none other than, Ismael Araya, the Lion Surfer. I even managed to ride a wave or two. Stoked.
The locals know Ismael as a beloved surf instructor and legend. A few years ago, he nearly lost his life and his legs in a motorcycle accident. Determined to live his best life, he rehabilitated himself almost entirely by surfing and his infectiously positive and insightful attitude. Ismael currently reigns as the Costa Rican National Champion for adaptive surfing.
Our accidental meeting that day began a two-month mentorship and friendship with this incredible soul and my entire family. Every morning we'd load up our boards and roll down the street where we'd meet Ismael who greeted us with enthusiasm and a smile. As we drove down the street he'd yell, “BIG UP! LOVE AND RESPECT!” to nearly everyone we passed, and they responded with bright faces and evident love. On the water, every surfer I met attested that our instructor could read the swell better than anyone, and he would skillfully push us into (and later coach us into) perfect waves. Our abilities and confidence grew quickly and far beyond our expectations.
It should be noted that showing up as an outsider to local surf breaks can be met with varying degrees of welcome. However, as Ismael's little ducklings (patitos), we were tolerated if not always warmly welcomed as we often caught wave after wave under his watchful eye.
In the company of Ismael I not only rekindled my love for surfing and sharpened my instinct and skills, but I also became a better, more open-hearted person.
When we weren't surfing or recovering from surfing by sleeping or eating all the gallo pinto (traditional Costa Rican rice and beans) and delicious food from our favorite local eateries, we studied Spanish. Every Monday thru Thursday our smiling and patient teacher, Augusto, from Perfect Sunset School, and Lily (the kids' lovely teacher) would roll up to our Airbnb and work on advancing and polishing our Spanish.
Studying Spanish with my husband has been a fun adventure. Though British, he speaks fluent Portuguese. I have eight years of academic Spanish under my belt. Together we make one fairly decent Spanish speaker.
When we arrived in Central America we both felt confident that we could communicate – at least ordering in restaurants and asking for directions. In retrospect, we knew nothing but were having a lot of fun, and locals usually appreciate you trying.
At varying points over the two months, I felt like I was really improving and also never going to really get it – though I'm told this is the way of truly learning to communicate in another language. If we had stayed a few more months, I think we could have really felt a mastery. Even now, my one regret in leaving Latin America to continue our travels is losing this jagged momentum, and I can't wait to resume my studies after traveling around the world.
I began to see how this could quite simply be my life.
Do a bit of work.
Sunset surf (or just hang with new friends).
But one day in late June our wifi had been out for days (makes running an online business challenging) and the storms of this year's unusually heavy rainy season had rendered the ocean unsurfable yet again.
We heard Los Angeles calling and knew it was finally time to go home.
After one last epic surf, with full and heavy hearts we said goodbye to our new family and friends. We hopped in Julio's van to begin our journey back to California – at least for a while.
When to go
Costa Rica is magical at any time of the year and different people will tell you different things about when is the best time to visit Santa Teresa. If wet season (May-October) happens to be mild you will get to enjoy the beaches with fewer crowds and only short daily showers. Some, though not all, of the restaurants and shops, close during the rainy season too.
If you want to avoid the mud and mosquitos and don't mind crowds and dust, stick with the dry season (November-April) but do try to avoid the highest tourist times – over Christmas/New Years holidays and Easter week (Semana Santa).
How to get around
Unless you are crazy enough to drive in (and I definitely don't recommend this for your first time or maybe ever) or you're taking a bus, you're going to need a driver. Take my friends and family advice and call Julio and tell him Emily and Antony from Los Angeles sent you…
Julio: +506 8813-3686
Once you're tucked into your hotel or Airbnb, you're definitely going to need wheels to get around. Bikes and walking might cut it if you're staying close to the beach and food and have zero interest in going anywhere else, but we definitely needed wheels.
During our first one-week stay we rented an ATV, much to the glee of my husband and 10 year old son. Turns out a single ATV is not a great vehicle for a family of four. On our next trip, Julio helped us to arrange a 4 wheel drive car from Budget, which was extra handy since their customer service via phone was not great. They dropped it off at our Airbnb and picked it up the day we left – super easy. Just be sure to get the extra insurance. Trust me. Mud, dust, rivers, potholes. You need it.
Where to stay
We stayed in two separate Airbnbs, the first for a week in Santa Teresa and second in Playa Hermosa. For us, airconditioning and wifi were non-negotiables. At the time of our stay our first rental failed at the internet, so we mostly hung out at Selina down the street.
Our second house in Playa Hermosa – Casa Spindrift – we booked for two months. The area is quiet and great for families. It was well priced, a reasonable walk to the beach, and had a nice pool that would have been heavenly during the dry season.
If you are planning more of a luxury getaway vacation, I would definitely check out Pranamar, which has great yoga classes and beautiful beachfront bungalows.
No matter where you stay, keep in mind, Costa Rica is very much a developing nation. Theft happens – all the time. It sucks, but it's true. So never leave anything of any value anywhere unless you don't really want it. That includes flip-flops on the beach. Lock your house. Lock your valuables, and use common sense while walking around at night.
What to eat
Oh food. As a foodie, you can bet that I have some things to say on the topic. For starters, Costa Rican food is not crazy adventurous. The usual Costa Rican restaurant – called a “Soda” will sell Platos Típicos consisting of Gallo Pinto (rice and beans) with some cooked and raw veggies, and your choice of protein. For extras, you can sometimes add cheese, which is a dense block similar to Indian paneer or Greek halloumi or maybe some avocado.
Simple and delicious but you may grow tired of this dish if you stay long enough.
Luckily Santa Teresa is brimming with surprisingly good and diverse restaurants. This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it should get you started. 😉
The Green Store – The first is not a restaurant at all, but the small but decent organic grocery store where you can stock up your casita with nearly everything you need – from free range meat and eggs, local butter and goat cheese and yogurt to fresh produce, dry goods, and natural body products. They even have colloidal silver – which we went through over a quart warding off tropical tummy bugs. They have a good juice bar outside too. Get the ground coffee in the red foil package. It's the best. Also, they don't have regular milk for coffee so you'll need to get that at a “Super.”
Ritmo Tropical – Located on the edge of Santa Teresa on the way to Mal Pais, this Italian Restaurant makes great pasta dishes and arguably the best pizza in Santa Teresa – essential grub for surf-induced starvation. One of our favorites is the chicken parm. They make great drinks too.
Cafe Social – On the way to Playa Hermosa you'll find this wonderful little cafe where our family spent many a'morning. We were delighted by their perfect coffee, fresh pressed juices, healthy but hearty breakfasts, and melt in your mouth baked goods (some gluten-free too!). We also loved the aircon. 😉 Try a media luna (a sweet dense croissant) – a perfect post-surf treat – just don't blame me if you can't stop eating them.
The Bakery – Ask anyone where to get a good breakfast in Santa Teresa and they're sure to mention The Bakery. As you might expect they have amazing bread and pastries, but you can also enjoy healthy salads, savory breakfast and lunch, and perfect coffee.
FishBar – We had two fun date nights here – one in the middle of a torrential downpour lightning storm. Yummy fresh seafood and great drinks.
Burger Rancho – Decent burgers, though please don't ask me if they're grass fed. Good spot to take the kids.
Selina – Need wifi? Aircon? Want to hang out in an Urban Outfitters catalog and feel hip and trendy? Come here. Super friendly staff, comfy seating, cold drinks, and decent snacks.
Tiamat Lodge – THE spot in Playa Hermosa where you can consistently count on decent food all day long, wifi, air con, and good company. You can't miss it on the road to the beach. You can also rent surfboards or a room here too.
Couleur Cafe – A perfect breakfast/lunch shack on the beach road to Playa Hermosa. If you're lucky enough to catch this place open (he closes during slow season) you're in for a treat.
Al Chile Viola – We loved this restaurant for date nights. Yummy food.
Horizon – This hotel and yoga studio serves up a delicious healthy breakfast with killer views.
Umi Sushi – When we discovered this place, it was settled that we could stay in Santa Teresa forever. Fresh sushi, tasty poke bowls. What more do you need?
Ginger Cafe – Good little outdoor breakfast spot with Tipico breakfasts, good coffee, and wifi.
Wok Station – Asian-fusion takeout – check!
Koji's – Everyone will tell you this is THE date night spot. We were a bit bummed that the server didn't want to speak Spanish with us, but it certainly doesn't disappoint when it comes to a romantic vibe and great food.
Casa de Mar – Had a great bon voyage dinner here with our Spanish teacher. A meat lover's delight.
Vista de Olas – From what everyone told us, this is THE place to watch the sunset and have drinks. We never went, but apparently we should have.
Chicken Joe's – This was our friends' favorite dinner spot for a casual rotisserie chicken and side for their family of three. We never managed to make it there, but I'd take their word for it.
What to do (besides eat)
SURF – Santa Teresa Surf School – Whether you are an absolute newbie, an experienced shredder who just wants a local guide to the best breaks, or somewhere in between – do yourself a favor and surf with Ismael. You're welcome.
SPANISH – Perfect Sunset Spanish School – Don't be one of those people that comes to Costa Rica and insists on speaking in English just because you can. If you don't know more then hola and adios or you are looking to advance your skills, the folks at Perfect Sunset can help. They offer everything from hostel stay surf/yoga/Spanish stays to in-home Spanish classes.
YOGA – Pranamar Yoga – I rekindled my long-dormant yoga practice with Nancy in a beautiful dreamlike jungle setting. From Playa Hermosa you can walk there on the beach. Magical. There are plenty of other studios and teachers in Santa Teresa, but as someone who had done a TON of yoga, I can tell you that Nancy is special.