The day after arriving in Costa Rica in January ’21 for what was supposed to be a 10-day trip, London went back into it’s third lockdown and the gym we owned was forced to close (again). Whilst sitting soaking up the zen in hot springs in the middle of the rainforest, going back to a London-lockdown didn't sound too appealing, so we ended up extending our stay and spending nearly 6 weeks in Costa Rica. Pure bliss.
For us, Costa Rica is one of the most magical places on earth. We've ticked three areas of Costa Rica off our bucket list, and can't wait to go back to explore more of this incredible country. If you're heading to Costa Rica for the first time, you are in for a treat. Here's everything you need to know about two of the most magical places we've ever visited; Santa Teresa and La Fortuna.
Santa Teresa is a laid-back, jungle-backed beach town on the Nicoya Peninsular with epic surf, incredible food and mind-blowing sunsets. For us, Santa Teresa is real-life paradise. One beach road runs through town, all the way from Playa Mal Pais through Playa Carmen and Santa Teresa, and down to Playa Hermosa. The town is built up along this beach road, backed by everything from luxury ocean-view villas and hotels, to affordable Airbnbs and communal live-work spaces, and of course, some of the best food spots you'll ever find.
It's a bit of a journey to reach Santa Teresa from any of the international airports, so we’d recommend at least a week here. As much as there are endless activities to do here, there’s also a lot to say for just soaking up the beach vibe, surfing, trying every little cafe in town, and just generally embracing pura vida (pure life).
We could go on forever about how special Santa Teresa is, but let’s dive right into our best bits:
Santa Teresa beach has very strong currents and rips, so if you’re not a strong surfer or swimmer, head a 5 minute drive down to Playa Hermosa, where the surf is smaller, and the beach is quieter.
If you’re looking for an instructor, for our Salt Escapes weeks here, we mostly used the crew from Santa Teresa Surf Lessons, and loved them - especially Mickey, Richard and Arisha. We also loved Jero and his crew. If you'd like either of their contact details, drop us a message.
CABO BLANCO HIKE
The start of the hike to this deserted beach is about a 25 minute drive from Santa Teresa. The hike is about 2 hours each way through the jungle, where you can spot everything from monkeys, deer, coatis and birds. The entrance fee for the national park is $12 per person, and is open Wednesday - Sunday.
The half-way point for this hike is Cabo Blanco, where you can take a well-deserved dip and cool off in the salt before heading back. The beach is long, in parts white sand, and in parts pebbles and rocks. I think we were hoping this beach had more of a white-sand Caribbean vibe, so it wasn't quite as epic as we were expecting, but still a cool spot for a half-way swim. There are no facilities here, so pack your own lunch and snacks. Also, take plenty of water, it gets hot deep in the jungle.
We love this spot. We took our Salt Escapes guests on this hike, and it was one of our favourite memories from Salt Escapes of all time.It’s an epic drive from Santa Teresa to Montezuma, through rivers, Jurassic-park-esque land, and alongside gorgeous white-sand beaches. It’s about a 15 minute hike up and across the river (wear trainers that you don’t mind getting wet) to the base of Montezuma falls. This spot is cool for a quick pic, but usually very touristy (with maybe the odd local trying to sell you some weed), so if you’re a good climber and don’t mind heights, we highly recommend heading to the top of the fall! The hike is steep in parts, and more of a clamber, but there are plenty of ropes and tree roots for you to grab hold of. It levels out for a bit, then the last section requires you to abseil down. If you’re up for a little adventure, this hike is really fun, but there are some stairs you can take from the bottom of the fall if heights aren’t your thing (note: there are some park rangers at the top of the stairs requiring a fee, of about $1.50).
Once at the top, you can swim in the pools, jump off the smaller waterfalls and clamber up even further to walk up the river. Take a packed lunch - this is such a cool spot to hang for the afternoon.
For the ultimate Salt Escapes experience, after the fun drive back to Santa Teresa, stop off at Nantipa and head to their beach bar for a margarita and an epic sunset.
We loved this day! You can book this tour through Zuma Tours (they have an office in Santa Teresa), and either drive yourself down to the pick-up location in Mal Pais (just 10 minutes from Santa Teresa) or use the tour transfer.
While the 45-minute boat trip to Tortuga definitely isn’t the Greek coastline (truly, we've been too spoilt), it is a fun little ride with a snorkel stop in beautiful clear water around a volcanic rock reef.
Next stop is Tortuga, a white-sand island lapped by turquoise water, which is a world away from the rough, rugged beaches of Santa Teresa. Finally, a little slice of the Caribbean in the middle of the Pacific! Here you’ll be served up a tasty BBQ lunch, and you can spend a couple of hours hiking to the top of the island for some epic views, taking a siesta on the sand, or sipping a cocktail at the beach bar before your boat ride back.
MAL PAIS ZIP-LINING
You can't go to Costa Rica and not go zip-lining. The Mal Pais canopy tour has 11 platforms set high in the jungle, and you can experience flying 30 metres above a creek and along a 500 metre zip-line. We couldn’t take our camera on the tour (they do offer a photography service if you're keen on getting some snaps), but it was A LOT of fun and we'd highly recommend these guys in Mal Pais.
The full tour can take up to 2 hours (depending on how many people are on the tour - it took us 20 minutes as we were the only people there) and costs $55 per person.
La Fortuna / Arenal National Park
La Fortuna is a small town based at the bottom of the Arenal volcano and is a gateway to the Arenal National park. This was our first stop in Costa Rica, and we drove here directly from San Jose airport, which took about 3 hours.
We stayed in La Fortuna for 4 days, which was a good amount of time for us, but there are plenty of adventures you can do in and around La Fortuna if you want to pack full a week. Hikes, waterfalls, swims in hot springs, sloth-spotting, white-water rafting and zip-lining through the rain forest. Spending your first days here after flying into San Jose make for a pretty special welcome to Costa Rica. Here are our best bits from our time in La Fortuna.
TABACON HOT SPRINGS
One word: MAGIC. This place was mind-blowing. We could have spent a whole week just floating about in these natural hot springs, and to this day, we teleport back here whenever we're feeling stressed.
For our accommodation, we splashed out and stayed for 4 nights at Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa. This luxury resort is nestled within Arenal’s largest private rainforest reserve, with a backdrop of the mighty Arenal volcano. Staying here gave us unlimited access to the Tabacon hot springs - Costa Rica’s largest network of naturally flowing thermal mineral springs.
The 20 or so natural pools range from 22 to 40 degrees celsius, and you can soak up the magic all day in the greatest bath you'll ever have, until you’ve turned into a prune. You can also experience the springs at night, so head here once the sun has set and the springs are lit up. Genuine fairy-tale kinda stuff.
There's plenty of options for places to stay in Fortuna, and if you don’t stay at Tabacon resort, you can still experience the springs with a day or night visitor pass. Packages usually include lunch or dinner, and start from $70 per person. Whatever you do, wherever you stay, just don't miss the Tabacon hot springs.
LA FORTUNA WATERFALL
We love a waterfall. Fortuna was our first Costa Rican waterfall experience and it didn’t disappoint. At 70 metres high and surrounded by lush tropical wet forest, it’s worth clambering down the 530 steps for a cool, refreshing dip. There are epic viewpoints en route to the bottom for you to catch the scale (and some snaps) of Fortuna waterfall. Take a little wander around the bottom of the fall and along the river - this gave us real Jurassic Park vibes! We visited Fortuna waterfall during the pandemic, so it was quiet on our visit. We can imagine it gets busy here during normal times, so would recommend visiting earlier in the morning if you can.
In reality, this tour might not be that exciting for most, but if seeing a sloth is a dream come true for you (like it was for me), then you’re in the right place. Local tour guides walk you round a 2-mile trail of rainforest, pointing out various tropical birds, frogs, insects, other wildlife, and obviously, most importantly, sloths. Our guide helped us spot 5 different sleepy sloths. LIFE MADE. Did I come home with sloth memorabilia? Yes, yes I did.
TIPS FOR PLANNING YOUR TRIP
- You need a 4x4 for driving pretty much anywhere in Costa Rica. So much of it is dirt roads, and there are plenty of rivers and creeks to drive through (so fun). We hired our 4x4 through Amigo - their office & car pick-up is a short shuttle from the airport, and there's a guy who'll meet you there for the transfer.
- It's worth noting that driving in Costa Rica seems to take forever as the roads are mostly small, single lane roads, and we were often getting stuck behind trucks. Take this into account when getting around.
- We also wouldn't recommend driving at night in Costa Rica (see below, about sunset). Take this into account when planning your trip - if you land after a long-flight into San Jose airport in the afternoon, it's perhaps a good idea to book a hotel by the airport for the night, before any kind of big drive. Sounds like parent advice, but with the roads, the lack of street lights, and rainforest-kinda-rain (as we headed into Fortuna), our experience driving at night wasn't easy!
- Being so close to the equator, Costa Rica always sees 12 hours of daylight, so the sun is up between 5am and 6am, and the sun sets between 5pm and 6pm. It's a bit weird if you're used to long summer days in Europe - just a tip for planning your days activities and restaurant bookings!
- When talking to anyone about Costa Rica, we always get asked if it's safe. We just visited the Pacific side (we've heard the Caribbean side has some spots that could be more risky), and we've always felt super safe here. Like most places, I wouldn't walk around alone at night (locals advise this especially for the beaches), and don't leave valuables in your car.
- Currency used in Costa Rica is American dollars or Costa Rican Colon. Dollars were accepted everywhere we went.
- Getting to Santa Teresa is a bit of a trek. From San Jose airport, it's going to take you about 5 hours all up. You can drive the whole route, but we would recommend getting the car ferry. It breaks up the drive a bit - about 1.5 hours drive to the ferry crossing (mostly highway), about 1.5 hours on the ferry (you can leave your car and sit up the top to watch the coast), then a further 1.5 hours drive the other side to get to Santa Teresa beach (the cool bit of the drive!). On the ferry, I would just recommend keeping an eye on the car from time to time, and holding onto your bags. You can read more about the ferry here.