There are special places whose essence is not driven by modern amenities or convenience but, rather, a more primal and rustic style of living. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica – with its ample beaches and fishing village aura – has become one such location for expats seeking a more naturally connected existence.
From high-end developments to rustic beach towns, Costa Rica has a vast selection of real estate options. Places like Santa Teresa, in the southern Nicoya Peninsula, call to those who truly are seeking to embody a “Robinson Crusoe” spirit to find their own secluded ocean hideaway.
Santa Teresa, Costa Rica Is an Understated Gem
Santa Teresa, like most of the small fishing villages in the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula has not yet been caught up in the surge of development and modernization that had predominated much of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Linked by a single, unpaved road to Playa del Carmen and terminating at the hamlet of Mal Pais, this region is only now beginning to see signs of expat investment and construction.
From a population of a few hundred, the Santa Teresa-Mal Pais area has grown to a surf-bohemian magnet of 2,000-3,000 full time residents. Some “A “ list personalities, like Mel Gibson and Gisele Bündchen have purchased lots and built homes there; fortunately, the location is still largely pristine and not turned into a high-end tourist mecca.
The entire location is collectively known to locals as “Mal Pais” or “bad country.” The origin for this nickname is not the unpaved conditions of the roads but due to the rivers and streams going dry during the summer months making this a “bad country” for the farmers and ranchers who still live and work in the region.
Ironically, the conditions of the road have become a source of controversy among the residents here. While there are those who think paving would be beneficial in terms of reducing the amount of dust in the village, others are concerned that making access easier could lead to the kind of over-development that has dominated other communities such as Tamarindo.
Much to See and Even More to Experience
There are many opportunities for exploration and recreation in and around Santa Teresa. Whether your tastes are centered around the beach, the ocean or inland, the choices are both plentiful and exciting.
Surfing is, as might be expected, one of the principal activities along the southern Nicoya Peninsula coast. With consistent wave conditions year round, wave riders have made their pilgrimage to Santa Teresa for many years.
There are many surf camps and shops specializing in surfing supplies and board repair in the area. Two of the surf camps – Chica Surf Adventures and Pura Vida Adventures – are for women only; certainly a unique aspect to the traditional surfing lifestyle that expats can immerse themselves in.
In a kind of spiritual contrast to the adrenaline-fueled experience of challenging the surf breaks along Santa Teresa’s beaches, a growing number of yoga retreats have also sprung up. With the natural serenity and unspoiled beauty of the surrounding area, expats seeking the inner peace of quiet meditation can find a most conducive environment here.
Expats can also enjoy the many snorkeling and fishing opportunities found offshore from the village. There are a number of inshore fishing charters that can provide both beginning and veteran anglers the opportunity to land mahi-mahi, dorado, and other denizens of the deep.
Santa Teresa Is Proof that “Life Is a Beach”
The coastline running from Santa Teresa southward to Mal Pais was recently identified by Forbes Magazine as one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world. With this kind of recommendation, there is little wonder that a growing number of sun and sand aficionados have made the trek to this remote Nicoya Peninsula location to experience the stunning vistas first hand.
Natural Wonders and Other Land Activities
Not all of Santa Teresa’s attractions are centered around the ocean. The first national park in Costa Rica, Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve is just a short distance from both Santa Teresa and Mal Pais.
Founded in 1963, in large part due to the efforts of Olaf Wessberg and his wife Karen Mogensen, the reserve has become known for its wide variety of flora, fauna, and over 150 avian species as well.
Another nature park, the Curu Wildlife Refuge, provides a special opportunity to experience a great selection of eco-diversity in a single location. With five distinct eco-systems within the park’s borders, there is a tremendous opportunity to see a wide collection of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibian species during a single visit.
Celebrations and Culture
Like so much of Costa Rica, Santa Teresa has a distinct culture and flavor over and beyond that which expats have introduced. One of the charms of the area is being able to immerse oneself in the daily lifestyle of the region and its people.
The sabaneros (Costa Rican cowboys) represent a lifestyle that has been an important part of the Nicoya Peninsula culture. Each February, this lifestyle is celebrated with the arrival of the Fiestas Civicas de Cobano.
This two week event honors the culture and traditions of cattle ranching and the sabaneros who are a part of it. In addition to food, contests, and musical concerts, the major event is the rodeo.
Just like their counterparts in the U.S., the sabaneros compete at various skills like roping and bull riding to demonstrate their prowess. The most unique event, however, is the “rodeo for everyone” that allows anyone who wants to participate to run with the bulls in the ring. This certainly elevates the traditional concept of a rodeo to a new level of spectator sport.
Contemporary Living Is Starting to Arrive in Santa Teresa
While locals and many of the early expats are not happy about it, progress is starting to make inroads in the Santa Teresa-Mal Pais locality. The last decade of increased tourist activity has spawned a number of new development projects and resorts.
Luxury resort type hotels and gourmet restaurants are beginning to appear side by side with yoga retreats and surf camps. Along with this tourist-driven growth, a number of residential projects ranging from single family villas to gated communities are in the planning stages.
Santa Teresa’s challenge in the coming years will be to maintain its ambiance as a place where it’s still possible to reconnect with nature without modern distractions. Even as more attention is being given to the region, the idealism of those who became disenchanted with life in Europe and the U.S. during the recession is a strong force to keeping that pura vida vision alive.
Challenges of Living in a Rustic Environment
While living in a small bohemian style hamlet may seem like “paradise” found, there are several important aspects that should be taken under advisement. Certain elements of daily contemporary life in the U.S., Canada, and Europe may be found wanting in Santa Teresa and could turn the romantic idyll into something far less attractive.
Getting There Isn’t Half the Fun
The allure of living in a place without a paved road has a serious downside. A four-wheel drive vehicle is almost a necessity as visitors have to deal with jarring potholes during the dry season and a veritable sea of mud during rainy season. Needless to say, vehicle maintenance costs should also be considered as well as access to mechanical services.
There isn’t any fast way of getting to Santa Teresa from either San Jose or Liberia-the location of the two international airports in Costa Rica. The drive from San Jose to Santa Teresa is roughly six hours whether by bus or car; from Liberia the time is slightly less-in the four to five hour range.
While there are no direct flights to Santa Teresa, the two domestic carriers, Sansa Air and Nature Air, do offer flights to nearby Tambor Airport. Once there, visitors can expect a forty minute taxi ride to get to the village; the cost is in the neighborhood of $50.00.
Getting Your Point Across – the Language Issue
As is the case with many small and/or remote communities in Costa Rica, the predominant language for everyday transactions is Spanish. With such a small expat population, finding an English speaker can be somewhat confounding.
While some people may embrace learning a new language, the prospect of not being able to express oneself – or understand what others are saying to you – may be a difficult hurdle to surmount.
Bohemian and Rustic Are Definitely the Themes
There are limited modern amenities in the Santa Teresa-Mal Pais area. For most of the 20th century, such common items as cars, telephones, and refrigerators were practically unheard of.
As might be expected in such a small community, options for shopping for basics like groceries are going to be limited. Higher-end items such as appliances, computers and televisions, and vehicles will require a journey to San Jose, Liberia or Tamarindo. Balancing a life less scripted on one hand with the conveniences of being able to obtain needed or wanted items on the other is an important question that a potential expat needs to examine carefully.
Electricity did not become available in this end of the Nicoya Peninsula until the mid-1990s. The first street light wasn’t installed until 1993 and telephone service didn’t become truly accessible until the late 1990s.
While there is slow improvement (high speed internet access is now available for example), the area is still largely an undeveloped, unpaved paradise. If truly “living off the grid” is not something of interest to you, serious thought should be given before making Santa Teresa, Costa Rica your tropical “landing pad.”
Map of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
Santa Teresa, Costa Rica Fast Facts
- Population: Numbers are hard to find, but a good guesstimate is 1,200
- Typical temperature: Mid 80’s
- Nearest airport with U.S. flights: San Jose
- Nearest U.S. consulate: San Jose
Blue Zones, those special places on earth where people live longer and healthier lives, first came to prominence in the ground-breaking book by Dan Buettner, Blue Zones.
Nicoya, Costa Rica is one of those unique locations where lifestyle, diet, and low stress have dramatically bettered the lives of Ticos and expats alike. Truly, Nicoya embodies the essence of the Costa Rica mantra “pura vida”– pure life.
As a result of the publicity generated by Buettner’s book, towns in the Nicoya Peninsula, such as Nosara, are experiencing a new level of growth. Expats seeking a less frenzied existence have discovered what native Costa Ricans have known for years – that Nicoya is a special place to live, explore, and experience.
Nicoya, Costa Rica Has Been a Desirable Location from the Beginning
Even from its earliest days, the Nicoya Peninsula has been a valued location. In the pre-Colombian era, the peninsula was occupied by two groups: the Churusteca and the Nicoya. However, after a visit by the Spanish conquistador Gil Gonzalez Davila in 1523, Nicoya’s colonial era began in earnest.
From Spain to Nicaragua to Costa Rica, Nicoya Followed Its Own Course
The first chapel in Nicoya was erected in 1544 and is considered to be the oldest parish in Costa Rica. Ten years later, Pedro Ordonez was appointed magistrate of Nicoya as the whole Guanacaste region became part of what was known then as Nicaragua.
Natives of the area, called Gunacastecos, had a strong independent spirit and on July 25th, 1824 voted to secede from Nicaragua and join Costa Rica. Later, on December 7th, 1848 Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula formally became a Costa Rican province.
Even today this spirit can be found throughout the peninsula. The flag of Guanacaste is still flown although the principles of “pura vida” temper this desire of a separate destiny from the rest of the country.
What Makes Nicoya a “Blue Zone”?
The term “blue zone” is defined as a region or group where the residents live longer, healthier lives. Originally used in studies done by demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain of Sardina’s Nuoro County, the term was popularized by Dan Buettner in his book of the same name.
Buettner identified the Nicoya Peninsula as an area meeting the criteria for a “blue zone”. In 2007, Nicoya was the subject of a Quest Network expedition examining these findings.
What Expats Can Expect Living in Nicoya
Perhaps the key feature of moving to the Nicoya Peninsula is the pleasant discovery that the pace of life is slower. Three of the most popular towns on the peninsula – Nicoya, Nosara and Samara – are all small communities with a true Costa Rican “vibe” attractive to visitors, expats and locals. Amenities are basic and are continuing to be improved to provide service to the new arrivals from the U.S., Europe, and Canada.
The cost of living, while not the most inexpensive in the country, is far more affordable for those on a budget than other expat destinations such as Escazu, Tamarindo, or the Central Valley. The types of properties available for sale or rent is broad and can range from a small “tico” house to a modern residence with landscaping and pool; again, price can vary on what a particular individual is seeking as their ideal tropical escape.
Higher-end items like vehicles, appliances, and electronics are higher priced (as is the case throughout Costa Rica) since they have to be imported and are subject to import taxes. Most big ticket items would require a trip to the San Jose area since that is where the vendors who sell them are located.
Getting There and Back Again
International flights into Daniel Oduber Quiros airport in Liberia make travel from outside the country to the Nicoya region a convenient task. With the number of daily flights increasing, flight options will increase in the future.
There is a small airport at Tambor that does have scheduled flights with domestic carriers Sansa and Nature Air. There is a second airport located in Samara that does not have regularly scheduled flights. However, it is possible to arrange for private charter flights from San Jose.
There are a number of transportation options to get to the Nicoya Peninsula proper. The first option is to drive; while there are some paved roads, the number of gravel and dirt roads in the area make having a 4×4 vehicle the most desirable choice. Rental cars are available in Liberia or San Jose (if that is your initial point of arrival.)
There are buses that connect the communities in the Nicoya region with both Liberia and San Jose. This is part of the excellent public transportation system in Costa Rica and is an economical way to get where you are going and to actually have the time and freedom to enjoy the ride.
Lastly, for those seeking a different approach, the ferry from Puntarenas travels to both Naranjo (for the area around Nicoya and Nosara) and Paquera (for Tambor, Montezuma, and Santa Teresa). The roughly hour-long ride can give passengers a great opportunity to see the Gulf of Nicoya and views of the peninsula from a new perspective.
Things to See, Things to Do
The Nicoya Peninsula has a large collection of activities to go with its stunning beaches, natural preserves, and colorful villages. Whether your tastes run to pulse-pounding adventure or quiet contemplation, there is something here for everyone.
Adrenaline and Meditation – the Surf/Yoga Blend
As part of the lifestyle options available in Nicoya, there are many yoga, spa, and meditation retreats that have become world renown. Contemporaneously, surfing has become a major draw for those seeking the adrenaline rush of riding the challenging waves. In a uniquely “pura vida” approach, there are a growing number of ocean side establishments that offer both yoga and surfing in a merger of activities that challenge both participants’ bodies and minds.
Explore Natural Beauty
The Casa Blanca Absolute Wildlife Reserve, with its 3000 acres, has been rightly called one of the most scenic spots on the Pacific Coast. The Reserva Biologica Nosara is a 35 hectare reserve with trails that lead through a mangrove wetland. Well known as a great place for bird-watching, visitors can arrange for self-guided tours through the park.
One of the most ecologically important and profound experiences on the peninsula can be found at the Ostional Wildlife Reserve. It is here, during the months of August through November, where the giant leatherback and green sea turtles come ashore to nest.
These mass inland migrations, called arribadas, occur at night (usually between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.) just prior to the new moon. Watching these special creatures heed this primal instinct is something that can truly be said to be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Celebrations and Festivals
The Nicoya region has a number of special festivals that can allow visitors and expats to immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage of this land. Perhaps one of the most important celebrations is the Fiestas Civicas.
Occurring in mid-January, this is a celebration of the life and culture of the sabaneros – the Costa Rican cowboys who are an essential part of Guanacastan and Nicoyan heritage. Much like their North American counterparts, this festival is a chance to demonstrate the skills of the sabanero in the form of contests and rodeos.
The week of July 20-25th celebrates the entire province of Guanacaste, including the Nicoya Peninsula, leaving Nicaragua and becoming part of Costa Rica. It is one of the major holidays of the year.
Pica de Leña, the festival of wood cutting, is held on November 12th, celebrated with music, food, and drink. A month later, on December 12th, the wood that was gathered is used for the communal cooking in the celebration of Yeguita – when the image of the dark Madonna is paraded through the streets of Nicoya and then returned to the main church where food and drink are once again served.
A Celebration of the Spirit
Nicoya is a special place where expats can spread their wings and explore what a life less encumbered may offer. Truly, this is the essence of what “pura vida” – the pure life – is all about.
Map of Nicoya, Costa Rica
Nicoya, Costa Rica Fast Facts
- Population: About 14,000
- Typical temperature: Mid 80’s
- Nearest airport with U.S. flights: Liberia, Costa Rica
- Nearest U.S. consulate: San Jose