The decision to travel to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica was a last minute one. We knew it was on the Pacific coast and therefore a bit of a trek. Then again, we had been in Costa Rica for a month and had not yet seen either coast.
We joined 12 others for an early morning shuttle from Ciudad Colón to Puntarenas. The drive was like any other along a national highway system. Cool, early-morning weather was afoot. The rain came just as we approached Puntarenas and was steady as we parted ways with our shuttle for the ferry.
On board we found seats along the side of the ferry, looking out onto the Pacific Ocean. Just as we set off, a group of schoolchildren came running along the coast, meeting with a small fisherman’s boat at the rocky coast. A few kids were escorted onto the boat and suddenly there was raucous applause. Something to do with the next day’s independence celebrations, we guessed.
The ferry ride across the bay was mostly uneventful. Cool rains continued, fog rolled along the water, and no whales were to be seen, though we suspect the surprising amount of garbage floating aimlessly on the surface might have kept living things away. The image ran just a tad contrary to the nation’s eco-friendly narrative.
Rains continued after hitting land about an hour later. We stood for about 10 minutes or so in the rain, waiting for a public bus to take us the rest of the way to Santa Teresa. Travel guides strongly advise against ever allowing your luggage into the undercarriage of a bus. But with everyone else obliging, I felt it would be a bit snooty and insulting if I were to demand my luggage be brought on board a crowded bus.
“Excuse me! Make way for the American! I must have my belongings in sight at all time, because I don’t trust you people!”
Unlike the shuttle to Puntarenas, our bus ride to Santa Teresa was a roller coaster on wheels. How a Greyhound-sized bus was making some of these tight turns along a road consisting of a questionable mixture of dirt and pavement was beyond me. Luckily I can sleep through storms that shake homes, so that’s precisely what I did until the bus started making stops near the end of our journey.
I must admit that I started questioning our decision to travel to Santa Teresa. My body felt increasingly disgusting with every passing minute, every drop of sweat formulating and drying. Was this worth it for just two nights or one full day?
We were the last stop for the bus, which was made even clearer when it pulled into a small shopping plaza alongside a pile of trash. An iguana seemingly searching for something within said trash captured our attention for a brief moment while others tried to figure out where to go from here. The answer was just a few hundred more meters down the road.
Like the rest of rural Costa Rica, there are no sidewalks. Just one mostly paved road with the occasional pothole. Interestingly potholes seem to be the only thing Tico drivers are willing to stop for. Not life, mind you. Potential damage to their vehicle, that does the trick. Speeding motorcyclists and ATV riders with their surfboard in tow had no problem following suit.
That said, my early impressions of Santa Teresa were positive. Beach towns have a negative connotation with me. I picture gaudy resorts completely barricaded away from locals who dare to live near a slice of heaven carved specifically for tourists.
To the contrary, Santa Teresa’s main road was dotted with a variety of sodas, shops, and perfectly normal hotels not unreachable by foot. Our hostel, Cuesta Arriba — a Lonely Planet recommendation, was no exception. In fact, I knew we made the right decision in coming as soon as walked up the hostel’s stone steps to reception, greeted by two Great Danes. The male was hilariously shy, completely unaware he could kill us should he choose.
The rustic flair of both the hostel and Santa Teresa was appealing. But there were more important matters to address. Those being stuffing food in my face so that I would have enough energy to run about on the beach like a puppy who found the secret stash of fruit roll-ups.
A standard Tico soda was literally just outside the entrance to the hostel. While there are no shortage of dining establishments in Santa Teresa, proximity won the first battle.
I went with the casado con pollo. Melanie reminded me here that the term “casado” refers to the marrying of salad, beans, rice and meat — the basic ingredients of the dish. Always a winning combination, in my book. Whoever thinks Costa Rica doesn’t deserve recognition for their food is a fool.
Eager to get to the beach, we followed a simple dirt path off the road toward the sound of crashing waves. Then, there it was. The Pacific Ocean.
I’ve seen oceans plenty of times, but they never cease to amaze me. To look out over the horizon and see nothing but waves ready to swallow you whole is something I hope coastal dwellers don’t take for granted simply because they see them all the time. These natural monsters deserve our constant admiration and respect.
The water was surprisingly warm upon first dip. No need to — and this is as nicely as I can put it — brace the boys for impact. It was like a lukewarm jacuzzi, really. Though the rocky floor made me a bit more timid than usual.
After bobbing around for a while, throwing my body at incoming waves and simply frolicking about like a small boy recently awarded a lifetime supply of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, Melanie and I went for a walk along the coast.
The beach itself was sparsely populated. It really felt as if we had discovered a hidden gem of Costa Rica. This was, after all, a holiday weekend. Maybe it wasn’t exactly high season, but one would think travelers would be all over this mecca of natural beauty. However I was perfectly content with the audience of locals and what few travelers were around. There’s never a need for portly couples sauntering around in Hawaiian tee-shirts, looking for an English-speaking server to freshen up whatever unGodly giant fruit drink they’re sucking down with swirly straws. The beach as is will suffice, thank you.
Speaking of the beach, you could stare at it for hours without realizing time has passed at all. The way the sun sparkles off the ocean, the clouds overhead that are almost certainly turning into animal shapes — it all keeps a creative mind busy.
Hours and a hot shower later, a majority of our group made way for a pizza joint, Pizza Tomate, down the road. Perfectly fine pizza, though we seemed to blow our server’s mind when requesting separate checks.
Next a chunk of us made way for a dive bar, of sorts, with the promise of karaoke. We could hear the music blaring through the metal doors. So you can imagine our surprise when we peeked inside, expecting a hulking bouncer, and instead found an empty dance floor. The only soul in sight was a bored looking bartender. That didn’t stop them from flashing an array of lights throughout the otherwise pitch black club.
I, however, was a few cervezas deep. So I grabbed Melanie’s hand and did my best to match the four swing dancing moves I know to the latin music. Meanwhile one of our fellow travelers inquired about the karaoke, which we were able to partake in once a few locals started to trickle in.
Though it became clear rather quickly that the Western idea of karaoke is very different from the Tico’s. We generally view karaoke as a masochistic opportunity to embarrass ourselves in front of strangers. We did just that through painful renditions of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” or my butchering of the Spanish language in Juanes’ “La Camisa Negra.”
This was followed by a Tico grabbing the microphone to sing a heartfelt rendition of Vicente Fernandez’s “Un Million Primaveras.” It also became clear at this point that the microphone seemed to be turned up a bit more when the Ticos sang. I stepped away during our group’s next song and could only hear the background music and the silence from a growing crowd of uninterested Ticos. Naturally we took our cue and exited stage right.
The next and only full day in Santa Teresa was blissfully uneventful. Sand, ocean, waves and repeat. We tried out the other soda nearby, which was inexplicably playing “Mes del Tíburon” (Shark Month) on endless loop for a crowd of surfers. Could you imagine watching a program on botched skydiving attempts before strapping on your parachute? Or “basic medical procedures gone wrong” in the lobby of the doctor’s office? Why the owners thought showing footage of swimmers getting munched on by sharks in a beach town was a good idea I’ll never understand. But they complimented my Spanish and the breakfast burrito was delicious, so all was well.
That night we organized a communal pasta dinner in the kitchen at Cuesta Arriba. I was as useless as ever in the kitchen, my skills better put to making the remaining cans of Imperial disappear.
It was strange that we already had to go back the next morning. Santa Teresa had the unique ability to make 36 hours feel like an entire week had gone by. Perhaps that’s the key to living longer — finding a place where time moves slower, giving off the perception of longevity.
And if it comes with a can of Imperial, casado and coast of Santa Teresa, all the better.