Matt Thompson and I are back in Toronto after a fabulous two-month work and life retreat in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Wanted to share the best insider tips we wished we had known before the trip, for anyone else who’s thinking about traveling to this lovely part of the world.
Google doesn’t know all.
TripAdvisor remains a great resource to get the high-level lay of the land, but most of the best stuff and services in Santa Teresa can’t be found by searching online.
We wasted hours trying to figure out where to buy bikes at the start of our trip, who gave the best massage in town, and how to find a good local chiropractor. We found all those answers and more through a mix of personal recommendations, and the single most useful online resource we found during our trip: the Mal Pais and Santa Teresa Buy and Sell Facebook page.
On it, we sold two bikes within 48 hours, booked the best massage I had in our two months, read a fascinating debate about whether paving the Santa Teresa road would kill or save the community, and found a bunch of great house rentals for half the price of what we were spending.
How to stay at a resort for $15
Flor Blanca is the most expensive and exclusive resort in town. We started visiting it because it also has the best yoga classes in town, helmed by master teacher Stefano, and once we were there for a few hours … we didn’t want to leave. Matt and I eventually figured out one of the best life-hacks of our trip, which was how to feel like you’re staying at a resort for less than $15 a day.
The recipe: go to Flor Blanca for a yoga class in the morning ($8 per class if you buy a package). Afterwards, slip into the nice bathrooms next to the yoga shala to change into your bathing suit and find one of the lovely lounge chairs by the beach. The wait staff will come by, and the food at the resort is fabulous, but you can get away with as little as ordering a fruit ($3) or mixed smoothie ($6) and lounging for as long as you like.
We spent many happy weekends in exactly this way (and truth be told, probably hundreds of dollars on Flor Blanca meals, massages and cocktails, all of which were totally worthwhile). Top tip: on our last trip to Flor Blanca, a waitress told us that people who come for yoga classes get a 20% discount at the restaurant afterwards. What! Trying not to think of how much we would have saved had we known that at the start.
The dust is a nightmare.
Dirt roads can be charming, rustic, and hold back development and speeding cars. And they can create a noxious cloud of grit that fills the air, layers houses and trees, and creates an asthma epidemic among local children. In Santa Teresa, both things are true — although personally, after spending two months in the dust I’m firmly in the “pave the f*cker” camp.
If you decide to visit Santa Teresa, the dust will be part of your life, and you’ll need to figure out your coping strategy: getting a rental set back far from the road, renting a car instead of walking or biking, or like us, buying a bunch of surgical masks from the grocery store and trying to wear them whenever we were biking. But be forewarned: even with a mask, the dust is still pretty brutal.
Costa Rica uses more pesticides per-capita than anywhere else in the world.
I learned this on the website for Barefoot Organics, Santa Teresa’s brand-new organic grocery store, lunch counter and green box program, newly opened in December 2012 and already thriving.
The store looks like a restaurant from the outside, and the intriguingly vague ‘Social Organic Food’ sign by the road somewhat obfuscates the fact that this is a fabulous grocery store and lunch counter, filled with organic meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables. The quality of the meat, produce, cheese and yogurt is outstanding, and the prices are way better than buying organics at home. Stop in and stock up, and say hi to handsome Barefoot co-owner and chef to the stars Jim Kelly while you’re in there.
“Nothing bad can happen while you’re on vacation.”
The locals have a running joke about vacationing tourists wandering blindly into traffic or carried into the sea by riptides with a blissed-out thought bubble over their heads “Costa Rica is so relaxing!”. Matt and I are both cautious worriers by nature, and our mishaps were limited to surfing scrapes, bug bites, and a few ocean scares. But while we were in town, at least three people drowned in drunken late-night ocean swims, and a many others were ambulanced to hospital after serious quad accidents. Be careful out there, folks! It may be paradise, but that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen.
Restaurants: there’s Koji’s, and there’s everything else.
A quick glance at TripAdvisor’s restaurant reviews will leave you with the impression that there’s three great restaurants vying for the top spot in Santa Teresa. No disrespect to the fine institutions , where we had perfectly good meals in lovely, vibe-y atmospheres, but when it comes to restaurants in Santa Teresa, there’s Koji’s, and everything else.
Based on our two visits there, our dream menu recommendations include: ginger pork, mixed tempura, green salad, and maki rolls of your choice. We had fabulous grilled octopus the first time we went, then the same dish slightly overcooked the next time. I’d say it’s worth the risk.
A few other favourite places to nosh and sip:
Best smoothies: Zula Restaurant. Lovely Israeli joint with nice brochettes and falafel, but the smoothies are what it’s built its well-deserved reputation around.
Best fries: Burger Rancho. The place has a great vibe, always-good music, and excellent fries. But be forewarned: the burgers are surprisingly mediocre, soggy and served on supermarket white buns.
Best place for sunset cocktails: Rocamar. This beachside lounge has a bevvy of outdoor beanbags, couches and loungers by the ocean, perfect to watch the sunset from while sipping a pina colada. They host a bonfire party every Sunday night at sundown, with great music, lots of kids running around, and if you’re lucky, some Chinese lanterns lifting off into the star-filled sky.
Best bakery: The Bakery in Playa Carmen by a mile. After awhile, a native Montrealer does pine for a good croissant and espresso-based coffee, and this is the place to find them. More awesomeness includes the brownies, and beautifully slushy lemon iced tea.
Best muesli: Easy to spend $8 on a box of imported granola here, but if you don’t like the fried-sugar style stuff, my favourite muesli can be found in any grocery store: Vitalissimo 10 Frutas; delish.
The myth of “Tico Time.”
We’d often hear people (read: expats) joking about the phenomenon of “Tico Time”, the inability of Costa Ricans to show up on time for appointments. Matt and I never once witnessed this in two month in Costa Rica. Whether surf lessons, massages, yoga classes, taxis, or meeting with people to sell our bikes at the end of the trip, the people we met and did business with were always on time, and often five minutes early.
Could be the product of a tourism-driven economy, where many young Ticos are professionally trained in the sector. Or just old-fashioned good manners. But Tico time, in our experience, was a myth.
How to tip.
Some restaurants will include a 10% tip with the bill, and some don’t. For those that do, the amount is 10% because that’s the maximum they’re allowed to charge by law; apparently only a portion of that amount ends up going to the servers. Servers REALLY appreciate it when you tip above the 10%, so check carefully to see if the tip’s included, and consider leaving more than 10% either way.
A few last things.
We stayed at several different apartments at Surf Vista Villas over our two months and it can highly recommend it.
For travel within Costa Rica we used Tropical Tours Shuttles and found them friendly, professional and ridiculously punctual.
This is the best and only map of the towns of Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen that we found, and we used it all the time.
Have a great trip!