Hit the Jungle in Santa Teresa

1. Where to Stay

Canaima Chill House's suites are inspired by treehouses.Photo: Courtesy of Canaima Chill House

Find peace of mind at the Nautilus Residential Hotel (from $100), a Zen-like property with design-conscious one-bedroom apartments and two-bedroom villas. The place is situated about 650 feet from the beach, so you can walk to the ocean easily or gaze at the surrounding hills from a poolside seat.

Sleep in the jungle at Canaima Chill House (from $80), a boutique hotel built into the trees above the town and owned by a Spanish entrepreneur who gives surfing lessons ($35 for a 90-minute lesson, board provided). All eight, kitchen-equipped suites accommodate up to four people and come with open-air, hanging bamboo beds where you can hear nearby howler monkeys.

Listen to the waves at Hotel Luz de Luna (from $40 with kitchen), a collection of wooden bungalows situated in a verdant tropical garden just a minute away from the beach. Though it’s backpacker- and budget-friendly, it’s just as comfortable, if slightly less spacious, as nearby hotels, and there’s an on-site café that serves breakfast daily.

2. Where to Eat

Alma was built using reclaimed and sustainable materials.Photo: Courtesy of Alma

Sip fruit smoothies (approximately $3) and dig into vegetable burritos (approx. $6) at Zwart Café, an all-white space where the owner, a Canadian artist and surfer, hangs her whimsical neon murals and paintings. The breakfast and lunch spot draws laptop-toting expats and a few tourists who linger during the day over coffee and baked goods like brownies and granola bars (approx. $2), and it’s a good place to curl up on a couch with tall stacks of old magazines when you’re not out adventuring.

Eat organic greens and chicken from the owners’ sustainable farm at Mary’s (open for dinner only), a local favorite housed in a wooden hut shrouded by overgrown palm trees in the neighboring town of Malpais. Inside the lantern-lit space, nosh on fish tacos ($8) made with the daily catch or share brick-oven pizzas topped with fresh peppers, pineapple, or shrimp ($8-$11).

Enjoy the lively bar scene at Alma, an open-air eatery owned by a Chilean couple who developed the varied menu based on their world travels. Try the lemon-marinated Peruvian-style ceviche ($8) with tuna, mahi mahi, red onion and sweet potato ($8) and the Thai-influenced carpaccio of tuna or mahi mahi, drizzled with sesame oil ($9).

3. What to Do

Cabo Blanco National Park contains dense jungle you can hike through (left); uninhabited Tortuga Island offers snorkeling and a hill you can scale for views of the Gulf of Nicoya (right).Photo: Matt Pettengill, via Flickr (L); three sad tigers, via Flickr (R)

Coast through the jungle on a zip line tour along the Montezuma River ($65 including transportation). Over the course of two hours, you’ll cross nine lines, spot parrots and iguanas from 80 feet above the forest floor, and stop for quick dips in pools beneath tumbling waterfalls. Afterward, you’ll have time to browse the patchouli-scented shops in the hippy-backpacker town of Montezuma before heading back to Santa Teresa.

Wake up early to spend a full day snorkeling and hiking on secluded Tortuga Island, a 50-minute boat trip from Montezuma ($55 including transportation from Santa Teresa). En route, spot dolphins, manta rays, and humpback whales; on the island, join a guided snorkeling tour before a lunch of grilled chicken and fish is served with beer. You can take part in a second session in the afternoon, but the hike to the top of Tortuga is worth it for views of the Gulf of Nicoya and surrounding islands.

Hike around Cabo Blanco National Park ($6; open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed. through Sun.), the five-square-mile refuge that helped establish Costa Rica as a destination for eco-tourism when it was established in 1963. Grab a self-guided trail map at the park entrance before hiking down to the white-sand beaches Playa Balsita and Playa Cabo Blanco. For a more strenuous hike, take the 3-mile Sueco Trail, which leads from the reserve’s northern to southern tip.

4. Insider’s Tip

Hit the road to Malpais to buy the freshest cuts of fish.Photo: clarque, via Flickr

If you want to take advantage of your suite’s kitchen, skip the supermarkets in Santa Teresa and head to Malpais, a one-road town about a five-minute drive south. Stop by the small port at the southern tip where you’ll find fishermen selling their latest catch of tuna, wahoo, and mahi-mahi. Or, check out Product C in the Playa Carmen Mall, located behind Budget Car Rental, for cuts of fresh fish and prepared foods like ceviche and crab cakes.

5. Oddball Day

Kika hosts performers and dance parties after dark; Curu Wildlife Refuge is home to white-headed capuchins and may other species.Photo: Courtesy of Kika (L); chuck624, via Flickr (R)

Get out of Santa Teresa and spend a day exploring other parts of the Nicoya Peninsula. First, stop into Budget Car Rental in Malpais to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle ($70-$80 per day), which you’ll need to traverse the muddy, hilly roads. Before taking off, drop by Italian-owned Ginger Café (Route 160, 4 miles north of Malpais) for strong coffee (approx. $2) and French toast with fresh fruit (approx. $7); you can also pick up croissants (approx. $3) to snack on later. Then, drive one hour to see sustainable development in action at the Curu Wildlife Refuge ($10 entrance fee goes toward local workers and purchasing local goods for the refuge). The 69-year-old conservation project maintains a unique mix of initiatives, including coral-reef restoration and a spider-monkey rehabilitation program. Pitch in by helping to pick up plastic on the beach, and if you’re interested in more hands-on conservation volunteering, call ahead to see what projects may need assistance. Afterward, head back along the coastal road to Manzanillo and hit the beach, which is less crowded than the surfer-packed sands farther south. Costa Ricans from other parts of the peninsula come here on weekends to barbecue on hibachis underneath the shaded pavilion and play soccer at low tide — ask, and they’ll usually let you join in. Make your way back to Santa Teresa and settle in for the evening at laid-back Kika, a restaurant that features live music and dancing after dark. Grab an outdoor picnic table or a dining room booth and devour a plate of rich, fork-tender pork or sesame-crusted tuna (both approx. $15) with cold bottles of Costa Rican Imperial beer (approx. $2 each) before joining in the revelry.

6. Links

Santateresabeach.com doesn’t offer a lot of detail, but it has comprehensive listings of restaurants, surfing schools, house rentals, shops, and services.

Nicoyapeninsula.com is a straightforward resource for learning more about Santa Teresa and its surrounding areas.

Check out the official tourism department’s map that shows all of Costa Rica’s surfing beaches.

The Costa Rica Shuttle offers transportation between Santa Teresa and other parts of the peninsula and the country.

Hit the Jungle in Santa Teresa