Cruising Costa Rica’s Coast
Itinerary: Santa Teresa > Montezuma > Manuel Antonio National Park
Sun, sand and surf - in February. Yes please.
After a few soggy days in the rain and cloud forests, I was relieved to go to the coast to dry out in the sun. I didn’t know as I was leaving Monteverde that I was coming up on my favorite part of my Costa Rica trip: Santa Teresa.
For one, just getting to Santa Teresa was scenic, taking the ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya on a beautiful sunny morning with blue skies all around. The travel was a little complex (three buses, one boat, one taxi and a few extra steps having gotten off the bus too soon…) but worth it. Santa Teresa is a one-dirt-road surf town with most folks getting around on foot or ATVs and the less-common car caked in dust. You’ll see many with bandanas to avoid breathing in the cloud of dirt that invariably hovers throughout the day.
But just a few strides from the road (protected from dust by a thicket of trees) is Zeneidas Surf Garden, a hostel with a surf-camp feel, and just beyond that is the beautiful Santa Teresa beach. As I will later come to realize, what makes Santa Teresa special is how secluded and serene it is, with chill surfers and relatively few tourists. The perfect setting for sunsets and long walks on the beach. My second day I took out a board (only $10 for a few hours or $20 for the day, and you can rent right on the beach) to remind myself just how bad at surfing I really am, especially compared to the local talent. Great fun though!
Then onto Montezuma, a short distance south from Santa Teresa. While much less dusty with paved streets, Montezuma didn’t quite have the same draw for me. The public beach is quite small, and the town is not particularly distinct. It was nonetheless very relaxing, with the sound of the ocean as a backdrop to my days and nights.
I did the short hike/scramble to the Montezuma waterfall, a short distance from the town center. The waterfall has three main tiers, four levels, the first of which is pretty easily accessible. From there, the trail requires rope assist and occasionally all fours, but you’re rewarded with a little more breathing room, and access to three more falls and two more natural pools for swimming - and jumping! The leap from the third level into the second pool is a fun 40-foot fall. (A zipline company owns property alongside the falls, and you’ll have to pay a small amount to use their trails, but they’re certainly less challenging than the free public route.)
From Montezuma, I made my way to Manuel Antonio. If Santa Teresa is a well-kept surfer’s secret, Manuel Antonio is a flashing neon light, a beacon for tourists far and wide. The public beach on a weekend is an absolute zoo, with locals and visitors vying for space to prop up umbrellas and lay out towels. The national park allows for a little more breathing room, but only just. Like Monteverde, the name of the game is spotting wildlife, so it’s a common occurrence to see 10 people with iPhones crowding around a monkey looking for a handout. (After the excitement of your first monkey wears off, you learn to carefully guard your bags from their prying hands - raccoons too!)
People and sneaky animals aside, the park is truly beautiful. Walking through the canopy, you’re insulated with an ebb and flow of insect vibrato, a humming paired pleasantly with the sound of waves crashing on the shore. This chorus is occasionally punctuated with the somewhat menacing sound of the howler monkey. Being pretty terrible at I-spy-cool-animals (I should really hire a guide…), I enjoyed listening to the fauna and walking among the lush flora. I did however get to see a sloth, agouti (related to guinea pigs), monkeys (howler, white-faced, squirrel), and various spiders, lizards and other little guys. No toucans though! Sad.
Manuel Antonio was my last stop in Costa Rica, apart from the journey back to San Jose for my flight to Colombia. It’s been a great two weeks, and a nice ease into year-long travel with English and dollars galore! Costa Rica certainly has a lot to see, and with it, a strong tourist draw and industry. Great place for getting outdoors and meeting people from all over the world.
Next Stop: Colombia!
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
Download Maps.Me and save yourself some unnecessary steps. This offline maps app is user friendly and very useful for looking up places on the go. You can download a whole country without killing your storage - don’t expect a lot of information on restaurants as you might have for Google Maps, but you should be able to find the necessities (bus stations, ATMs, hostels, etc.) and track your location with GPS. I thought I would just use the Google Maps offline feature, but unless you always remember to download your next city, you’ll get into trouble. Also, Google’s offline maps take up more memory.
Monteverde to Santa Teresa (Santa Elena > Puntarenas > Paquera > Cobano > Santa Teresa)
This trek was intimidating at first, but well worth the effort to avoid paying a $60 shuttle. Thank god for this Centrocoasting guide. Super helpful. Get the bus from the Transmonteverde bus station (by the big shopping center), where you can buy your ticket (1495 Colones, ~$3) if the office is open or just pay the driver directly - cash only for either. This is just a regular public bus that travels winding dirt roads, so 1) you probably won’t sleep on the three hour ride, 2) you’ll make a lot of stops with people getting off and on, 3) you’ll have to keep track of all your bags. The last stop is the Puntarenas station, which is not-so-conveniently located 15 blocks from the ferry - you can walk it in the heat or buddy up with a fellow backpacker to split the 2000 Colones (~$4) cab ride. Buy your ferry ticket from the soda near the dock (810 Colones), and enjoy the standard breakfast if you’ve got time.
The ferry was my favorite part - breezy, calm hour-long ride to Paquera. (Use the free bathroom on the boat before you get off!) When you arrive, find a bus to Cobano (the bus to Montezuma goes through Cobano) - you can just ask the guy putting luggage in the buses’s storage (1400 Colones). Best to get on the bus early or else you might spend the next hour-and-a-half standing and trying not to sweat on the person next to you. The Cobano bus stop is nondescript, but the bus will stop to let people transfer. Then finally, grab the bus to Santa Teresa (1000 Colones). Check out where your accommodation is in advance or use Maps.Me to track your location - there’s not really a town center, and the hostels can be kilometers apart (less pleasant walk on the dusty road).
Santa Teresa to Montezuma
I splurged on a $10 shuttle that takes you door-to-door, rather than make the bus transfer back through Cobano - it was air-conditioned, direct and worth every penny. You can coordinate shuttles with the hostel front desk - scheduled a few times each day.
Montezuma to Manuel Antonio
This is basically the Monteverde > Santa Teresa trek in reverse. Ask your hostel what time the bus to Cobano/Paquera arrives (picks up by the public beach/soccer field). If you’re lucky, you can get on the direct bus to Paquera and not have to transfer at Cobano (1800 Colones). Then it’s again the 810 Colones ferry ride and 2000 Colones cab ride to the Puntarenas bus station, where you can board the bus to Quepos, the launchpad for Manuel Antonion (2445 Colones). This is a plush bus ride compared to all the others before - free WiFi, comfy seats and window curtains. It’s also a stunning drive along the coast; you get a drive-by tour of Jaco, a popular beach town, and might even spot crocodiles crossing over the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. From Quepos, you can grab the bus to Manuel Antonio (runs often) and simply pull the stop cord whenever you pass your accommodation. But before you do that, stop at the ticket office and buy your return bus pass for wherever you’re headed next - seats are assigned on some buses, and they fill up!
Manuel Antonio to San Jose
(Again) Buy your ticket in advance! I caught the bus from the Manuel Antonio bus stop, which was walking distance from my hostel, but you can also catch it from the Quepos station. Another lovely bus ride with A.C., window shades, WiFi and paved roads. Bonus: you can use the bus’s WiFi to order an Uber when you arrive in San Jose.
- Santa Teresa: Zeneidas Surf Garden — Perfect location with beach access and surfboard rentals, and a short walk from great food options, local market and going-out spots. Not huge on security (no keys, no in-room lockers), but great open spaces and great surfing crowd from all around the world.
- Montezuma: Luna Llena Hotel — One of my favorite places so far; tucked into the trees, this is a nice oasis overlooking the ocean. Be prepared for stairs!
- Manuel Antonio: Beachpacker Hostel —This hostel has a great location with beach access and a short walk to the national park, but the facilities leave something to be desired. Beware of ants (don’t be me and leave any food in your bag unless you want to come back to a barrage of biting bugs).
- San Jose: TripOn Open House — Much cooler than my first stay in San Jose with a laid back hangout atmosphere and great bunks with lights, outlets and huge lockers.