The Essential Itinerary: Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Experiencing “pura vida” in one of the world’s five Blue Zones — plus surfing, yoga and the ultimate fairytale ending

  • Published Jun 03, 2024
  • Updated Jun 04
  • 2,311 words
  • 10 minutes
Writer Madigan Cotterill takes off into the sunset with Horizonte Horse Experience. (Photo: Horizonte Horse Experience)
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Calm your mind, paddle with your chest up and don’t look down. I reflect on my surf instructor Shaka’s wise words as I wait patiently for my next victim: the perfect wave. 

It’s just after 6:30 a.m., an ideal time to surf as the sun has yet to peak, and only a handful of people are on the beach. My legs dangle in the water as I straddle my bright blue surfboard and take in the moment, enjoying the stillness and admiring the rosy glow of the sunrise. I think about what I plan to do later: yoga, search for shells, maybe a hike through the nearby nature reserve of Cabo Blanco. Then I see it: my wave.

Early mornings are a perfect time to take in Santa Teresa's beautiful beaches.
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I turn my board to face the shore, change my position from straddling to lying face down, and slowly begin to paddle. Looking over my shoulder, I watch the wave grow. My heart skips a beat as I question whether I might have underestimated its size, but my timing is just right. 

I paddle as hard as possible, in long strokes until I feel the white water touch my feet. I wait about two seconds, then pop up to stand and dance across the surface. I angle my board to run parallel with the wave, a skill I have only recently mastered. I surf for about 20 seconds until the wave dies down and I fall into the water. Then, it’s time to catch my breath and get ready to do it all again.

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, is a surfer’s paradise. With world-class swells, year-round waves and breathtaking sunsets, this laid-back beach town in Puntarenas Province (located about 150 kilometres west of the capital, San José) is the place to surf and experience “pura vida” (a slow-paced, relaxed lifestyle). The expansive stretches of sandy beaches create an ideal environment for beginners, while the high swells and point breaks create a playground for pros. But if surfing is not for you, don’t worry; there are plenty more things to see and do in this tropical paradise.

Costa Rica’s Blue Zone 

Santa Teresa is centred along one street, which runs about three kilometres parallel to the beach. Surf shops, beachfront restaurants and boutique stores line the main strip while howler monkeys and tropical birds play in the trees. It’s the perfect balance between civilization and nature.

Sunsets in Santa Teresa are when locals and tourists come together to enjoy the best that nature has to offer.
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“The vibes are just right here,” says Shaka, a surf instructor and the owner of Santa Teresa Extreme Center. “It’s probably because of the good energy.” Born and raised in Santa Teresa, Shaka explains that the town is built on a bed of quartz, a crystal that is said to regulate one’s energy. “That’s why we are all so happy,” he says. Perhaps it is also part of the reason why locals live longer.

Situated along the Nicoya Peninsula, Santa Teresa sits in a designated “Blue Zone,” meaning people here tend to live longer and healthier lives compared to the global average (the average lifespan here is 85, compared to 77 worldwide). The popular Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones suggests that the region’s calcium-rich water, family-based living and dedication to the pura vida lifestyle are a few of the possible explanations for why locals typically enjoy longer lives.

With activities such as surfing, horseback riding, scuba diving, hiking and yoga at your fingertips, it’s easy to see why Santa Teresa is one of the most well-loved beach towns in Costa Rica. And then there are the countless cafes, restaurants and boutique stores. 

Here are a few ways to experience “pura vida” in Santa Teresa — and make the most of your Costa Rican vacation.

With long stretches of sandy beach, Santa Teresa is incredibly walkable.
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Bright sun and glistening sand creates gorgeous beaches that extend for kilometres.
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Day 1 

8 a.m. | Breakfast at The Bakery 

Ask any local in Santa Teresa where to go for the best breakfast, and the answer will almost certainly be The Bakery. It may not be your typical Costa Rican meal of gallo pinto, plantains and eggs, but the croissants, cookies and cheesecake selection will surely satisfy. I have a rule of not returning to the same restaurant more than once while travelling, but I visited The Bakery three times during my two-week stay in Santa Teresa — it’s that good. Open every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., this popular spot also serves up a variety of hearty salads and tacos, as well as sandwiches made with freshly baked bread.

The Bakery's "Gorgeous Salad" with kale, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, sliced almonds, avocado and more delicious superfoods.
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The myriad of delicious baked goods to choose from at The Bakery.
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12 p.m. | Learn to surf 

A visit to Santa Teresa is incomplete without being humbled by the ocean and a three-metre piece of fibreglass. I first learned to surf in Tamarindo, another famous Costa Rican surf town about four hours north of Santa Teresa. However, having been out of practice for a few years, I decided to take a surf lesson to brush up on my skills. Dozens of surf shops line the streets, with all levels of boards available for rent, from soft-tops for beginners to shortboards for the pros. After a quick recap of how to “pop up” on a board and ensuring my footing was in the correct place, my surf instructor cleared me to start catching some waves. Just like riding a bike, it took a few days to get back into it, but by the end of my stay, I was dancing across the surface, catching green waves (waves that have yet to break) and feeling like “one with the ocean.” 

Surfers walking the beach at sunset.
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Santa Teresa has many surf camps, schools and stores. I recommend Nalu Surf School, Santa Teresa Extreme Center, and Somos Surf Shop.

7 p.m. | Eat like a local 

Every town in Costa Rica has a “soda.” These are small, mom-and-pop open-air restaurants that serve traditional Costa Rican cuisine — think ceviche, gallo pinto, casado (a mix of multiple foods) and, of course, my favourite, patacones (fried plantains). Sodas are typically family-owned, cheap and serve generous portions for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Over the past few years, I have spent quite a lot of time in Costa Rica, but Santa Teresa’s most popular soda, Soda Tiquicia, has the best patacones. Golden brown, crunchy and served with a large helping of guacamole (you can also opt for beans and cheese), this deep-fried delicacy pairs perfectly with grilled fish and a cold drink. As Shaka would say, “The vibes here are immaculate.” From visiting families with young kids to elderly locals chatting over bottles of Imperial (a popular Costa Rican beer), Soda Tiquicia is an excellent choice for authentic cuisine.

The exterior of Soda Tiquicia.
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Soda Tiquicia's mouth-watering patacones (tostones) with guacamole.
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8 a.m. | Get in the water 

There is no other place I feel more at peace than several metres below the surface of the water, surrounded by schools of fish, bubbles and, yes, even sharks. Life underwater is like being in another world, with alien-like creatures (octopus) and prehistoric-looking species (lobsters) hidden between the volcanic rock formations that make up the bottom of Costa Rica’s Pacific. I swim parallel to the rubbly sand with my arms crossed (a technique that helps control buoyancy), ears alert and eyes constantly scanning the rocks around me for any signs of a “mysterious shape” floating through the water. It’s oceanic manta ray season in the area, and I am diving with Iguana Divers, a female-owned and operated dive centre that has been in the area for more than a decade. Unfortunately, it’s an El Niño year, meaning the water is warmer than usual. Typically, mantas prefer the water to be about 24 C. During this particular dive, the water was 28 degrees.

A scuba diver moves past colourful coral.
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Reef shark encounters with Iguana Divers.
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As I watch reef sharks glide between rocks and smaller fish swim in unison, my ears pick up the faint sounds of humpback whales singing to one another in the distance. I look around, hoping to spot them. Only after we surfaced was I told they would have been at least 10 kilometres away. But as luck would have it, we did get the chance to see a male humpback surface for some breaths of air, showing off his tail fin before diving back beneath the waves.

Iguana Divers offers several diving options, from a PADI Discover Scuba Diving experience to the PADI Divemaster course. The dive centre also offers boat excursions for wildlife viewing, snorkelling and whale watching. Plus, the centre is a Responsible Manta Tourism Operator that also focuses on community engagement through beach cleanups and works with park rangers from the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco (RNACB) to protect the area.

The fresh and bountiful produce Inside Santa Teresa's Green World Store.
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Noon | Enjoy the local produce

One of the best parts of travelling is the food. Spend some time grocery shopping and indulging in some of the local produce. With a focus on eliminating plastic waste, Green World Store is Santa Teresa’s place to go for all things organic, local, and fresh. It’s also a bulk store, and customers are urged to reduce plastic waste by bringing their own jars to fill up on nuts, seeds, loose-leaf teas, soaps, and shampoos. 

Arguably, one of the best aspects of shopping locally, especially in a tropical country, is the access to fruits and vegetables that would otherwise have to travel thousands of miles to reach Canada. These products taste better and are much cheaper — I definitely had my fair share of mangoes and papayas while here.

5 p.m. | Drinks at Banana Beach 

Drinks in hand and feet in the sand, what more could you ask for? What about an epic sunset, live DJ, fire shows and a dance party? Open every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Banana Beach is the place to go in Santa Teresa for a social scene. This beachfront hotel, restaurant and bar attracts more tourists than locals (so it is pricier), but it draws a crowd. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Banana Beach also has surfboards for rent and is conveniently located steps from one of the area’s best surf breaks. Expect lots of action and special events like food festivals, surfing competitions and pop-up markets. Yes, Banana Beach caters to a fun night out, but there are also delicious non-alcoholic drinks on the menu, including fresh juices made with turmeric, moringa smoothies and electrolyte-filled coconut water served right from the coconut.

The popsicle mocktail at Banana Beach.
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Banana Beach during the daytime - a great place to lounge and sip drinks on a hot day.
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9 a.m. | Brunch at Eat Street

Call me a millennial — I have definitely had my fair share of avocado toast. In its most basic form, this dish consists of two main ingredients: avocado and bread — a solid combination. However, if you choose your avocado and bread wisely, add some protein, a few greens and a drizzle of balsamic glaze, you have a five-star meal (in my opinion). At Eat Street, a conveniently located open-air restaurant, the avocado toast tops my list as one of the best I’ve had. 

Open from morning to night, this ocean-friendly business is set in a square of three pimped-out shipping containers and serves everything from homemade baked goods and mouth-watering acai bowls to vitality boosters created to reduce inflammation, support digestion and relieve stress. In the evening, you can find more common “street foods” like tacos, burritos, ceviches and falafel.

Eat Street's open-air concept invites tourists and locals to come together and enjoy fresh, high-quality meals.
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Avocado toast and a poached egg from Eat Street.
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11:30 a.m. | Total body relaxation

Close your eyes, drop your shoulders, unclench your jaw and inhale through your nose…hold for the count of three and then exhale through your mouth with a big sigh, releasing all tension in your body. 

Start your morning by saluting the sun or end a fun-filled day with a guided yoga class. With breathing exercises, guided meditations and various asanas (yoga positions), Believe Surf & Yoga‘s daily yoga classes cater to all levels. During the 11:30 a.m. kundalini class, I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshed I felt after an invigorating chanting session and various postures with yogis worldwide. Scheduled throughout the day, all classes at Believe incorporate the principles of yoga philosophy and enable guests to take a moment and “breathe.” 

Believe Surf & Yoga is also a hostel and surf camp, offering private rooms and dorms.

Believe Surf & Yoga's studio where classes and workshops take place throughout the day.
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Horizonte Horse Experience creates unique and one-of-a-kind interactions between guests and horses.
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4 p.m. | Ride into the sunset 

I like to think I have done many “cool things” in my life…but galloping into the sunset on horseback might be in my top five.

A few days before I departed for Costa Rica, I was scrolling through TikTok and stumbled upon a video of a woman horseback riding along the beach. It looked like a scene from a movie: the perfect “golden hour,” wind blowing through her hair and waves crashing in the distance. When I realized the video was taken in Santa Teresa (thank you, algorithms), I knew I had to experience this fairytale myself.

Enjoying a Santa Teresa sunset on horseback.
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Established in 2004 by Miguel Jimenez, Horizonte Horse Experience is a unique adventure. Over the years, it has expanded to encompass 40 horses, three cowboys and three cowgirls, including Michelle Lundh Rodrigo, a Swedish/Spanish rider who now calls Santa Teresa home. “I don’t call this a tour,” she says. “I call it an experience.” Horizonte focuses on the connection each guest has with their horse. “They each have their personality. I feel like they lose this when compared to other tours. Our horses have a little bit of fire, good fire!”

I had never “galloped” on a horse and did not think I would be moving as fast as the woman I saw in the video. But after a short class on “galloping for dummies,” I had my horse Hugo’s reins in my hands, speeding down the beach. Smiling ear-to-ear, I couldn’t believe what I was doing. Horizonte’s goal is to foster a deep connection between the horse and guest, enabling them to learn riding skills and appreciate the beauty of these magnificent animals. 


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