SANTA TERESA, Puntarenas — It almost feels like a commercial.
In front of the rolling shoreline there’s the wall of vivid palm trees that seem too evenly aligned to be real. A few thin clouds look brushed onto the otherwise lucid sky, while the shadowy outlines of distant surfers float through cylindrical waves. Even the nearly white sand, which is soft as foam, feels too perfect. You’re half expecting to look behind it all and see strings holding up the sun or cardboard sets propping up the landscape.
Here on the far reaches of the Pacific coast, on an August morning on Santa Teresa’s nearly empty beach, nature and seclusion combine to form a scene that looks too good to be true. Alongside the sandy stretches that include Playa Carmen and Malpaís, the tiny area brought in 120,000 tourists last year and was recently named the top destination in Central America by TripAdvisor.
In search of the defining characteristics that makes Santa Teresa so alluring, I recently set out for the beach town tucked away on the southwest end of the Nicoya Peninsula. With some of the country’s best surf, elite chefs and an active night life, the place is a gold standard among the country’s beach destinations.
Straddling the space between untouched and developed, Santa Teresa retains its fishing village charm without skyscraper resorts, but also lacks basic infrastructure like decent roads and clean drinking water. It’s become a popular hub for international expats from all over Europe and the Americas looking to escape civilized monotony in search of beachside tranquility.
As it attracts more crowds and businesses than ever, this postcard in paradise has entered an intriguing new era in which locals say they want to maintain Santa Teresa’s prevailing identity. José Pablo Delgado, president of the Malpaís and Santa Teresa Tourism Chamber, said the town’s challenge lies in figuring out how to manage the accolades, and subsequent masses, that have jolted a once-sleepy beach.
“Maybe it’s growing more rapidly than we can manage,” he said. “The time’s come where we have to sit down and think what we want for our future to be able to conserve it as it is so that it remains as the No. 1 destination.”
Skinny, wooden pillars hold up an elegant shack where there are no doors or walls in sight. In front, a tattooed man wearing sandals greets customers before taking them to their table, taking their orders and eventually clearing their plates.
Besides sometimes doubling as host and bus boy, Gary Gonzalez is the head chef at Pure Restaurant on Santa Teresa’s main road.
The organic and inviting feel of the place matches Gonzalez’s menu, which emphasizes local and fresh ingredients. A fisherman in shorts and a dirty polo shirt walks up to the bar with a green plastic bag and Gonzalez’s face lights up as he sees the day’s catch of jumbo prawns inside.
Pure has no print menus; the evening’s dishes are listed on a chalkboard so that they can be erased and replaced each day. After working all over the world in kitchens in France, Spain, the Netherlands and Colombia, the Puntarenas-born Gonzalez has been part of the Santa Teresa food scene for the better part of the past decade, when he worked at the Mexican restaurant Habanero. There, when cooking for celebrities like Matt Damon and Terrence Howard, he said he saw the different kind of traveler that Santa Teresa attracts.
“I don’t have anything against the backpackers but sometimes that makes it a little harder,” he said. “The people coming here come to spend.”
Gonzalez helped open Pure in January along with Bavarian-raised owners Betty and Michael Streik. During a recent visit to the restaurant, over a dinner of mahi mahi with pumpkin mash and creamy risotto, I told Gonzalez about my long, grueling trek driving the roads of Nicoya.
“Sure, it’s true that the roads aren’t good and this is something that is really bad for the town, but it’s always worth it when you get here,” Gonzalez said. “The roads are bad, but still a lot of tourists like going on four-wheelers.”
Looking back from my wood-carved table at Pure to the dusty main road, which is congested with ATV traffic during the day, I thought maybe I already found Santa Teresa’s ethos. While enjoying a great meal at an inviting, open-air locale on my second night in town, I found myself in a place elegant enough to host celebrities but down-to-earth enough to be inviting to locals.
Suddenly I remembered I had to get to another interview and motioned for the bill to Michael, who must have seen me jump up from my table. When he came to my table with the check, he smiled and said, “There’s no rush. This isn’t like the United States.”
“Just look at it”
When my rogue car alarm started going off for the second time in 12 hours, I went to find a mechanic in town. At the first hotel I went to on the block, two guys behind the front desk scrolled through their phones before admitting they didn’t know of anyone who could fix the wailing alarm.
At the hotel next door, a lady told me I was lucky my car stopped here because the town mechanic has his workshop and a restaurant on the same street. When I walked a hundred meters or so to the shop, I saw two men sharing a bottle of Ronrico white rum. I asked a waiter if the mechanic was available and he called to the table with the two men.
“Dad, this guy is having some car trouble.”
I explained the problem to the old man and we agreed we would most likely need to take out the entire alarm system. We walked down the street to where my car was abandoned and, after it temporarily locked up on us while blocking traffic from both directions in the middle of the road, we managed to drive it back to his shop.
“OK, I’m going to eat lunch and then take a nap,” he said. “Come back in a few hours.”
I shrugged and decided to go the beach. Under the half-shade I took out a book of Pablo Neruda poems and watched people surf. Distracted from my reading, I looked on as a pair of English-speaking girls ran into the water lugging surfboards.
A quarter of a million tourists come to the country each year with the primary motive of surfing, according to the Costa Rica Surf Federation, and many of them have their eyes on the golden shores of Santa Teresa. The stretch of shoreline is known for generating consistently good waves in both the dry and rainy seasons. And even for those tourists who aren’t surfers, there’s still a major attraction in the laid-back lifestyle of a surf town with clean beaches.
Delgado, who has been the area’s tourism chamber president for two years, said it has become critical to maintain the beaches’ sheer beauty as more visitors come.
“The tourist who visits us comes to experience our natural resources and because they want to see clean beaches and good waves,” Delgado said. “So it depends on how we can conserve our natural resources because if we destroy them, then nobody is going to come anymore.”
When I walked back from the beach to the mechanic’s shop, I saw a large mesh of cables and black boxes on the ground near my car. The surgery appeared to have been more extensive than I expected. When I asked the mechanic if that was just for the alarm, he nodded his head.
After I paid, he told me he was from Miramar, on the other side of the gulf. I then asked why he moved here and he gave a simple, matter-of-fact response.
“Well just look at it,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Along the beaten-up path
In protesting the deplorable conditions of Route 160 out of Paquera in late June and early July, many community members said the road proves costly for car repairs and is detrimental to their health. Delgado said the community’s frustration will continue to swell if the Costa Rican government doesn’t make good on repeated promises to repair the roads, as people want to believe that changes will come.
“We’re accustomed to these promises that aren’t always (kept) but they’re always believed,” he said. “We always believe in the promises but again we’re hoping that this time the government is going to help us.”
Through the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT), the government began repairs on the roads after public protests. But nearly two months later, the highway anywhere south of Cóbano’s town center remains in extremely bad condition. Even for those travelers who choose to fly in to the nearby Tambor airstrip, it still takes an hour to drive the beat-up road to Santa Teresa.
But seclusion is so often synonymous with paradise. Bad roads may damage vehicles, but they can also keep a place somewhat frozen in time. While development might beckon at some point, for now there are still those in Santa Teresa who prefer the roads unpaved. And talking to people in town, I kept hearing the phrase “Vale la pena” – meaning it’s worth the trouble to get here.
“Here we know that the roads are bad and that it’s a little far from the capital, but the final result once you get here is always going to be satisfaction,” Delgado said.
During the day, the closed, black door to the Tap House reads: “5:30 p.m. – Until.”
Martin Icigsons, 24, who surfs, parties and sells good beer and food, sits back on a lime-green bench with his arms propped up under the flashing lights of the bar he helped open in December. After moving from Israel with his brother Alan in 2012 at the recommendation of a friend who lived here, Icigsons said he’s already seen a lot of discotheques and bars like his open and close.
“It’s been made a little more boring for young people recently,” he said. “Young people look for these bars at night after surfing. It will all come back, though. Other bars will open. There will be other parties.”
With one of the newest bars in town, the Argentine brothers and a third business partner are working to stay afloat in Santa Teresa’s evolving party scene. While sitting at the bar at Tap House, I found myself wondering where all these kids’ parents were.
Waves of 20-somethings, invariably fit and good-looking, flowed in and out of the bar speaking a number of languages. And if one of them had a job or relationship that gave them any semblance of stress, you’d never have a clue by looking at them. While I drank a pale ale from Cabuya’s La Selva brewery during my late-night trip to the bar, it occurred to me that there was an innocent anarchy to this side of Santa Teresa that makes it feel somewhere between “Lord of the Flies” and “Dazed and Confused.”
As I walked back on the main road to my hotel past families dining late at restaurants or locals sitting out in front of their stores and homes, the once-blaring house music vanished under the faint sound of the waves.
“Santa Teresa has something special that’s difficult to explain,” Icigsons said. “It has a freedom about it. It’s full of young people, surfers, but also families, and locals, and people of the highest classes. It’s a mix of everything.”
Escaping is the hard part
There’s a calm in the hills above Santa Teresa. From the balcony of the Horizon Yoga Hotel’s restaurant, the Pacific Ocean looms narrow yet colossal over the row of trees partially blocking its view. Somewhere below the deck, a tranquil-sounding man leads a morning yoga session.
“Envision the branches and roots of a tree,” the voice says. “Become part of those roots. You’re one with them.”
To get to the hotel, you have to go up a steep hill off the road, and then walk a small path through a garden where cats lounge until getting to a door where lines of sandals remain outside on a mat.
Horizon has the feel of a place where happy-looking people wearing robes are going to welcome you in and offer you tea and 20 years later you’ll still be there with a full-grown beard and long hair. As good as my breakfast was, I wouldn’t mind growing old there. My meal of softly scrambled eggs, fresh fruit slices with pistachios and cashews, and a whole-wheat bagel with jam and peanut butter sounds simple enough, but all the subtleties were wrapped up so perfectly that it came to be one of the better breakfasts I’ve had in Costa Rica.
While I finished the green tea grown in the garden, I thought about the idea of “getting away from it all” that makes people quit their jobs and leave their homes to settle in this place. There is a certain ease in the air here, but the prevailing sense of calm isn’t one that makes a traveler fall into passivity. Yoga and surf culture dominate, while healthy food can be found at any corner. Adventure tours to nearby hot spots and horseback rides along the beach also keep people active.
After my breakfast, I got back in my car and headed for Montezuma. When I realized after a short time that I was going the longer way to the other side of the peninsula, I headed back on the roads that had already gotten the best of me before. Coming back north I arrived at a cross, where I could hook a right to take the shortcut to Montezuma or stay in town to take one last swim.
Back on the town’s main road, I passed Icigsons, who was driving toward the beach on an ATV with a girl on the back. I peered past Pure’s earthy hut and saw the mechanic and his son sitting at a table at their restaurant.
Soon I was back where I had started my first morning in Santa Teresa, on a beach shared with only a few surfers. The thought of staying longer and forgetting my other plans remained on my mind as I listened to the wind in the palm trees. It had taken me so long to get here, I tried to reason, why would I leave after three days?
There I was, dragged back to that enchanted coast, struggling to move on for a second time. Eventually I walked to the car and drove away. I may have left, but that dream of abandoning it all for Santa Teresa has yet to leave me.