Full disclosure... as it stands, we’ve only visited 3 parts of Costa Rica. We are so eager to go back and spend plenty more time exploring this incredible country, but for now, I can confidently say, 2 of the 3 parts we’ve visited are on every travel guide’s must-visit list. So here's everything you need to know about those 2 magical places; Santa Teresa and La Fortuna (for reference, Tamarindo is the 3rd place we’ve been, and although a cute beach town, we wouldn’t rush back. Why would you when Santa Teresa exists?).
Santa Teresa Beach
We excelled at getting “stuck” in places much sunnier and happier than London during the pandemic. Case in point; one 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, so we said ABSOLUTELY NOT, and stayed in Santa Teresa for nearly 6 weeks. Pure bliss.
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 Paradise (capital P). 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 budget airbnbs and communal live-work spaces.
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 living the pura vida (pure life).
We could go on and on about how special Santa Teresa is, but let’s dive right into our must do’s.
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 dip. 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 took our Salt guests on this hike and they loved it.
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 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.
Tortuga Island Boat Tour
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're 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 whole lot of fun and we'd highly recommend these guys in Mal Pais.
Book here - the full tour takes 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. We stayed here for 4 days, which we felt was enough, 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 epic welcome to Costa Rica. Here's our best bits from our time in La Fortuna.
Tabacon hot springs
One word: MAGICAL. This place blew our minds. We could have spent a whole week just floating about in these natural 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, so you can soak up the magic all day until you’ve turned into a prune. You can also experience the springs at night, so head here before or after dinner for an upgrade to your evening bath.
Obvious, but it really does rain a lot in the rainforest, and the heavy droplets falling on the trees overhead only seem to make the hot spring experience even more mystical.
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 adult. Whatever you do, wherever you stay, don't miss these springs.
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 Amy), then you’re in the right place. Local tour guides walk you round a 2 mile trail of rainforest, pointing out various colourful birds, frogs, insects, other wildlife, and obviously, most importantly, SLOTHS.
Our guide helped us spot 5 different sleepy sloths and assisted us in getting some snaps of them up close through the binoculars, whilst Mike made the most of his long lens. LIFE MADE. Did Amy come home with sloth memorabilia? Take a wild guess.