Nosara vs Santa Teresa: Where Should I Visit in Costa Rica?

Nosara vs Santa Teresa
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Nosara vs Santa Teresa is a faceoff between two of Costa Rica’s best-loved surf towns. They both spill into the Pacific Ocean from the edge of the lovely Nicoya Peninsula, up in the far northwest of the country. They both come with epic waves and long stretches of untouched sand. But which one deserves to be on your travel itinerary the most this year?

That’s precisely what we’re here to find out. This guide will delve into several key things about both destinations to outline the major similarities and differences. From the style of the beaches to the quality of the waves, the sorts of hotel options to the ease of getting there and back, we’ll deal with the most important parts of planning a trip.

Of course, the best option of all would be to visit both. That’s totally doable, considering that both towns lie pretty near to each other (at least by Central American standards) on the Nicoya Peninsula. Yep, the drive from Nosara in the north to Santa Teresa in the south takes about 3.5 hours. You’re likely to need a 4X4 but it’s a darn beautiful part of the country, brimming with waterfalls and monkey-swinging rainforests.

Nosara vs Santa Teresa: Getting there

Bird in Nosara
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One of the true joys of vacationing down in Santa Teresa is just how far off the trodden path it is. You’ll need to travel on just under four hours more from Nosara to reach the surf town. That extra leg is also on potholed, unpaved roads, which wiggle through the forests to Paquera before it becomes bearable again, so a 4X4 and good driving skills are recommended. An alternative is to hitch a ride on the cross-bay ferry that goes from Punta Arenas. It runs several times a day and offers a convenient route across to the Santa Teresa area if you’re coming off a flight into San Jose (as most people are). There are also short-haul flight links heading into tiny Tambor Airport. They’re the fastest and most comfortable way to get to Santa Terresa’s part of the peninsula but can cost upwards of $100 each way. They also get booked out fast in the high season.

Because it’s a touch further north and linked – for the most part, at least – to the main Costa Rican transport network by paved roads, Nosara tends to be a lot easier to reach. Yes, it’s further from San Jose as the crow flies and it’s not accessible via the ferry out of Punt Arenas. However, Nosara is nearer to the second largest airport in Costa Rica: Liberia. There are now lots of long-haul international connections going straight there, too, from Atlanta, LA, Denver, London, and Toronto to name just a few. The drive down from the terminals to the beaches in Nosara takes around 2.5-3 hours in all (again, we’d recommend a 4X4 here but it’s not as important as for Santa Teresa). Regular buses connect to Nosara from San Jose and Liberia, though journey times are usually considerably more than if you were to drive yourself.          

Winner: Nosara. Two access airports and better roads make it so.

Nosara vs Santa Teresa: Things to do

Santa Teresa surf
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When it comes to things to do, Nosara and Santa Teresa aren’t all that different at all. Just as you’d expect of two places on the Pacific Ocean, threaded with perfect, white-tinged beaches and backed by high hills of lush jungles, eco and adventure travel really takes center stage. Hiking is big (check out the wild cliff paths of the Reserva Natural Cabo Blanco in ST and consider an expedition to the Diria National Park from Nosara), and so are visits to waterfalls (the Mala Noche falls in Nosara and the Montezuma waterfall in Santa Teresa).

However, it’s surfing that really hits the headlines in both places. Yep, Nosara and Santa Teresa boast some of the best waves in the whole country. We’d even say that the breaks are superior to many of the better-known surf destinations in Central America, including Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (which is limited to Caribbean storm swells) and Tamarindo (where the right-hand river mouth breaks are now super busy). The key thing that separates the towns is that Santa Teresa tends to be better suited to intermediate surfers, while Nosara is a mecca for beginners. The first has open beach breaks with lots of exposure, giving fat and rippable swells. In Nosara, Playa Guiones is the place to learn to surf, especially on high tides, when the whitewash is all crumbly and accessible. 

Winner: Draw. Both of these places are downright awesome adventure travel and surf travel hotspots. You can’t go wrong!

Nosara vs Santa Teresa: Hotels

Santa Teresa beach
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We wouldn’t say that either of these towns was a booming resort. At least, neither is even close to the sort of major beach and surf destination that, say, Tamarindo or Jaco is. That’s helped to keep big hotel developments at bay, so don’t come expecting massive, all-inclusive resorts with hundreds of rooms. However, there are some wonderful, eco-friendly, and boutique choices going in both…

Let’s start in Nosara. Part surf mecca, part wellness beach retreat, the hotels here range from yogi escapes to eco lodges in the hills above the main bays. You can also find some fantastic budget hostels with on-site bars and dorm rooms if you’re watching the dollars. What really sets Nosara apart from Santa Teresa is the presence of some more upscale stays, in the form of four-star-plus boutiques with massage parlors, pools, and pretty slick interiors. That sort of high-class edge hasn’t yet made it further south on the Nicoya but is totally present here. Some hotel recommendations of ours in the town would be:

  • Green Sanctuary Hotel ($-$$) – A small outdoor pool and gardens dotted with meditating buddha statues await at this wellness hotel.
  • Selina Nosara ($$-$$$)This stunning boutique hotel is perched on the jungled hills back from the Nosara beaches, offering thatched-roof style and an inviting pool.
  • The Nomadic Hotel ($$-$$$) – Ever-popular with the digital nomad crowd, this slick hotel fuses Spanish hacienda styles with Moroccan tiling, has rooftop terraces and a bar that lists the surf tides.  

Santa Teresa has really grown up around its surf culture and there’s no main center to the resort. Instead, it spreads up along the main coast roadway from Mal Pais in the south to Playa Hermosa in the north. There are surf spots the whole way, and hotels providing access to said spots to boot. The main vibe is midrange surf living, with lots of self-contained apartments and a few eco hotels. If you head down to Mal Pais or Carmen Beach, you can also find hostels, surf camps, and even pretty chic hotels for those on a surfing honeymoon. Here are some of our overall favorites:

  • Zeneidas Surf Garden ($-$$) –This uber-cool, boho surf hostel hides in the jungles just back from the main surf peaks. It’s a board rider’s haven through and through, with cheap rooms and nightly events.
  • Fuego Lodge ($$-$$$) – Four star and fantastic, Fuego Lodge perches on the hills above the beaches among the jungles. It’s got a huge pool and a fantastic breakfast deck.
  • Casa Marbella ($$$) – A rare touch of high luxury in Santa Teresa, the Casa Marbella is a stunning villa with rooms for rent. A Jacuzzi bath and beautiful views over the coastal forest canopy make it a stand out.

Winner: Nosara

Nosara vs Santa Teresa: Nightlife

Photo by Jai79/Pixabay

We’ll be straight here: Neither Nosara nor Santa Teresa are that well known for their buzzing nightlife scene. That’s not to say there’s nothing to do. You will find plenty to keep you going after dark. The point is that the vibe in these places is nothing like the off-the-hook hedonism of Tamarindo, nor the urban buzz of San Jose. You should probably go elsewhere if partying is the main reason you’re heading to Latin America (we hear Rio is good!).

In Santa Teresa, the vibe is pretty chilled. Mostly, it’s surfers chatting about the day’s session in the coastal restaurants and bars. The thing to remember is that Santa Teresa is stretched out along the whole coast road. That means there’s no real center to it, which keeps all the venues apart from each other and makes it hard to form a happening nightlife core. The main places to know about are Nativo Sports Bar, Kika, and – the rowdiest of the lot – La Lora Amarilla. You could also venture down to Mal Pais. There’s more of town feel there, and lots of extra surf bars, though the journey back isn’t always easy.

Evenings in Nosara typically begin on the west-facing beachfronts. There, you catch sunset shacks selling cold beers under the shade of the sea grapes and coconut palms. Our favorites include Bar Olgas and Bar Garza. Later on, the Beach Dog Café sometimes offers live country bands, but the real action tends to move inland and into the reggae bars up the hillsides. They include K-Rae’s Irish Pub and Inn, Bar Buena Nota, and Tropic Revolution. 

Winner: Nosara.

Nosara vs Santa Teresa: The general vibe & atmosphere

Santa Teresa vibes
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We’d say that Nosara is currently on a journey from off-the-beaten-path coast and surf town to big resort. It’s still got a long way to go before it’s anywhere near the famous name of Tamarindo, for example, but there’s much more development and more hotels in its corner of the Nicoya Peninsula than down in Santa Teresa. That said, the vibe is still very relaxed and easygoing. What’s more, because Nosara isn’t really a single town at all, but rather a group of five or six different beaches, you can almost always manage to escape the buzz of the crowds and find somewhere to call your own. The same goes for the surf – multiple breaks make it easy to paddle out without a line up, and the atmosphere is very beginner-friendly to boot.

Santa Teresa is similar in that it’s also stretched out along a whole shoreline roadway, over several miles of the Costa Rica Pacific coast. That means it sometimes hardly feels like a single destination at all. Things change a lot from the uber-relaxed intermediate surf spots of Hermosa in the north and the more challenging surf locales of Mal Pais down south. If we had to pin it down, we’d say that ST is the prime example of a hidden Central American surfer mecca, complete with salt-washed shacks and fantastic waves that still aren’t uber-busy. To put it simply, we totally love it, precisely because it’s not as popular as other coastal destinations in the country and there’s a distinct eco-adventure travel feel to the place.

Winner: Santa Teresa. Fingers crossed it never gets too busy!

The verdict

Nosara vs Santa Teresa is not an easy one to call. That’s mainly because these two places are actually pretty similar. They both come with world-class surf breaks (although Nosara is probably a tad better for beginners) and they both have loads of gorgeous Costa Rican beaches (though Santa Teresa’s are wilder and more undeveloped). The main thing setting them apart is the fact that Nosara is a little easier to reach and has a livelier nightlife. Still, we’d reiterate: Get both on the Costa Rica itinerary if you can!

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.