This Laid-back Beach Town in Costa Rica Has Beautiful Beaches, World-class Surfing, and Stunning Sunsets

Santa Teresa is the perfect place to surf, do yoga, and relax.

A view of a crashing wave from in the water, standing in the wave, facing the shoreline of a tropical beach.
Photo: californiabirdy/Getty Images

Santa Teresa, a laid-back beach town on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, has been on my list of places to visit for quite a while. I've long felt drawn to its palm-fringed beaches, surf culture, and pura vida spirit. So, when COVID-19 restrictions began to lift as my son's first birthday loomed on the horizon, it felt like it was meant to be. To me, travel is the greatest gift. Instead of a birthday party, I thought it would be a good idea to take my son, Miles, to Santa Teresa for an entire month — and with the stars seemingly aligned, we did just that.

Outdoor dining and being on the beach in Santa Teresa
Courtesy of Lindsay Cohn

We arrived at night. After four and half hours in the car, we pulled up beside a convenience store on a dusty, unpaved road, and our driver said he couldn't go any further. In the dark, we navigated up a rocky hill and down a sharp gradient to our holiday accommodation, Nala. It was a short — albeit difficult — trek, and a bit jarring with a baby strapped to my chest. Was this the only entrance? Could I possibly get used to the route? It would all have to wait until the next morning.

As the sun came up, things looked and felt different. The light streamed into the giant windows that covered almost the entire length of the living room. While we'd rushed to get the pack and play set up the evening before, and then conked out ourselves, I could really take it all in now. Our one-bedroom apartment was modern and beautifully designed, with concrete floors and clean-lined furnishings. I stepped out onto the balcony, which faced the pool and lush garden area, checked out the on-site yoga shala, and took a dip — all before breakfast. The hike up the hill felt far less treacherous than how I'd remembered the way down the night before. (Spoiler alert: I did eventually get used to doing the round-trip route multiple times a day.)

A surfer in the water during sunset in Santa Teresa
Courtesy of Lindsay Cohn

This is a good moment to pause and mention some logistics about getting around. Santa Teresa has one main road that runs parallel to the beach. It's not entirely paved and gets quite dusty in the dry season. Most locals and visitors whiz around on ATVs or four-wheel drive vehicles, primarily SUVs. But due to the cost of renting a car for a month, and the fact that my husband and I weren't comfortable putting our one-year-old on an ATV (though we did see many babies and toddlers riding around completely unfazed), our method of transport was walking.

We strolled along the rough road for about five minutes until reaching The Bakery, a lively all-day cafe that serves coffee, fresh juices, Israeli dishes, and — as you probably guessed from the name — all sorts of delectable sweet and savory baked goods. One tropical fruit cup, a cast-iron skillet of shakshuka, and a baby-size portion of scrambled eggs later, we had found our go-to breakfast spot. Another can't-miss morning eatery, Ani's blends the most delectably thick and creamy smoothie bowls. Miles especially liked the Costa Rican breakfast for kids.

After our little dude's morning nap, we splashed around in the pool and attempted to laze on the hammock, which, as it turns out, is less leisurely with a soon-to-be toddler. The afternoon followed the course of most others, with many carefree hours on the beach. We played in the powdery sand, took Miles into the ocean, explored the tidal pools at low tide, and watched the surfers. While neither my husband nor I surfed — despite my best-laid plans to take a lesson during our visit — just seeing Ticos and travelers taking on the famous waves proved to be a joyful endeavor.

Lounge chairs at Nala and ceviche from La Cevicheria in Santa Teresa
Courtesy of Lindsay Cohn

Santa Teresa has a very international culinary scene, with lots of Israeli food, as well as Italian, sushi, and, of course, Costa Rican fare. We dined at Angelina Santa Teresa our first night and returned multiple times for the roasted veggie plate, penne with arrabbiata sauce, and convivial atmosphere. If you're craving pizza, I suggest heading over to Amici Santa Teresa. The wood-fired pies are crispy and made with fresh ingredients. Oh, and don't sleep on the grain salad with herbs and cashew cheese.

I lost count of the number of times we patronized La Cevicheria for both lunch and dinner. In addition to the signature ceviches, the menu includes poke bowls made with yellowfin tuna caught in neighboring Mal Pais, as well as a different fresh juice every day. (Don't ask me to choose between the watermelon and passionfruit.) Our favorite beachfront restaurant was without a doubt Uma Santa Teresa. I recommend reserving a shaded table facing the ocean via WhatsApp and sharing an assortment of Mediterranean small plates, the whole grilled snapper, and Greek salad.

For a fun date night on the few occasions we got a babysitter, we loved El Corazón, a lively, open-air restaurant up a hill on the jungle side of the road. The vibe, food — which spotlights plants in interesting and mouthwatering ways — and expertly mixed cocktails are all seductive. Ask almost anyone (including me) where to get the best sushi in Santa Teresa and you'll get the same enthusiastic response: Koji's. Diners savor nigiri, sashimi, and crudo made by a Japanese chef using only the freshest, locally caught fish. It's a divine example of how cuisine can cross borders and honor what's available without forsaking traditional techniques.

Lunch on the beach at Uma in Santa Teresa
Courtesy of Lindsay Cohn

The world-class swells are the reason many people visit Santa Teresa — well, that and the beach, but those two are inextricably linked. As mentioned, I didn't get up on a board, though I did talk to many folks fresh off some epic rides, and they had stellar things to say about Del Soul Surf School and Pura Vida Adventures. Surf and yoga retreats are popular here. However, you don't need to commit to a week of waves and downward dog to find some zen. Doing yoga facing the ocean at Hotel Tropico Latino's open-air shala is lovely. Non-guests are also welcome to practice at Horizon Hotel & Yoga Center and both Selina outposts.

I make it a habit to pack light, which leaves me with plenty of space in my suitcase to bring back some souvenirs. That was particularly fortuitous on this trip because Santa Teresa has plenty of fabulous boutiques. Guided by the design philosophy that swimwear should be stylish and functional, Dkoko focuses on sporty yet sweet bikinis and one-pieces. Next door, La Maga sells colorful printed bucket hats and consciously crafted soap. I bought some refreshing rosewater facial mist and hand-poured candles at Calm & Co. As a family, we frequented Green World Store to stock up on the most delicious organic produce — especially fresh papaya, mango, and caimito — and a Costa Rican cashew butter that I still dream about daily.

The terrace with plunge pool and bathroom at Hotel Nantipa in Santa Teresa
Courtesy of Lindsay Cohn

Over the course of the month, we didn't feel compelled to do much beyond enjoying the beach and local businesses in town. That said, there are some extraordinary day trips in the area — from Isla Tortuga to Montezuma — as well as deep-sea fishing adventures and after-dark tours of bioluminescent Paquera Bay. One day, we took a taxi to Mal Pais (a 10-minute drive away), walked to a secluded cove to swim and explore the tidal pools, and had lunch at Tierra Mar. You can walk the entire way from Santa Teresa to Mal Pais — probably not with a baby in tow, but it's doable otherwise. To the north of town, Playa Hermosa is a beautiful beach where dolphins frolic in the waves and the sunsets are spectacular.

Pool and villa exterior at Nala and lunch from Manzu in Santa Teresa
Courtesy of Lindsay Cohn

We decided to cap off our trip with a few nights at Nantipa, a sustainable-minded boutique hotel that's wrapped in lush foliage and perched on one of the prettiest parts of the beach. The stand-alone bungalows offer privacy and indoor-outdoor living, courtesy of sliding glass doors and leaf-shrouded patios featuring plunge pools and hammocks. The proximity to La Cevicheria and Uma Santa Teresa certainly didn't hurt either. However, the property's beachfront restaurant, Manzu, very much holds its own. Reserve one of the low-slung tables in the front, order fish gallos and a rum daiquiri or fruit smoothie, and watch the surfers come in as the sun begins to set — it's a perfect snapshot of what Santa Teresa is all about.

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