Costa Rica


Costa Rica destinations

about Centering yourself on a surfboard or yoga mat, descending into bat-filled caves or ascending misty volcanic peaks, hiking, biking or ziplining – your only limit is your return date.

The Peaceful Soul of Central America

If marketing experts could draw up an ideal destination, Costa Rica might be it. The 'rich coast' has earned its name and stands apart from its Central American neighbors on the cutting edge of so many trends: surfing, farm-to-table restaurants, and sustainable tourism. Developing infrastructure is balanced by green energy such as wind and hydro. One of the world's most biodiverse countries, with half a million species – from insects to the giant anteaters that devour them – it also protects one-quarter of its wild lands through law.

Outdoor Adventures

Rainforest hikes and brisk high-altitude trails, rushing white-water rapids and warm-water, world-class surfing: Costa Rica offers a dizzying suite of outdoor adventures in every shape and size – from the squeal-inducing rush of a canopy zipline to a sun-dazed afternoon at the beach. National parks allow visitors to glimpse life in both rainforest and cloud forest, simmering volcanoes offer otherworldly vistas, and reliable surf breaks are suited to beginners and experts alike. Can’t decide? Don’t worry: given the country’s size, you can plan a relatively short trip that includes it all.

The Wild Life

Such wildlife abounds in Costa Rica as to seem almost cartoonish: keel-billed toucans ogle you from treetops and scarlet macaws raucously announce their flight plans. A keen eye will discern a sloth on a branch or the eyes of a caiman breaking the surface of a mangrove swamp, while alert ears will catch rustling leaves signaling a troop of white-faced capuchins or the haunting call of a howler monkey. Blue morpho butterflies flit amid orchid-festooned trees, while colorful tropical fish, sharks, rays, dolphins and whales thrive offshore – all as if in a conservationist’s dream.

The Pure Life

A recent study showed that many Costa Ricans live longer, healthier lives than people on the rest of the planet, and it all comes down to pura vida (pure life), a term you'll hear everywhere. Before you dismiss it as marketing banter (and it is a big marketing phrase), listen to how it's used. It means hello, goodbye, everything's cool, same to you. It never has a negative connotation. You may enter the country not believing it, but after a week you'll be saying it, too, unconsciously: pura vida, mae. Relax and enjoy the ride.

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Chances are San José wasn't the top destination on your list when you started planning your Costa Rica trip, but give this city a chance and you might be pleasantly surprised. It's true that Chepe – as San José is affectionately known – doesn't make a great first impression, with its unremarkable concrete structures and honking traffic, but it's well worth digging deeper to discover the city's charms.

Take your time exploring historic neighborhoods such as Barrio Amón, where colonial mansions have been converted into contemporary art galleries, and Barrio Escalante, the city's gastronomic epicenter. Stroll with Saturday shoppers at the farmers market, join the Sunday crowds in Parque La Sabana, dance the night away to live music at one of the city's vibrant clubs, or visit the museums of gold, jade, art and natural history, and you'll begin to understand the multidimensional appeal of Costa Rica's largest city and cultural capital.

Sights

La Sabana - West of downtown, the bustle of the city’s congested center gives way to private homes, condo towers and shopping areas chock-full of Ticos. At the heart of this district lies the sprawling Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, a popular recreation center – and a welcome patch of green amid the concrete of the capital.

Activities

Parque Metropolitano La Sabana has a variety of sporting facilities, including tennis courts, volleyball, basketball and baseball areas, jogging paths and soccer pitches. Beyond that, you can stretch your mind and body in Spanish-language yoga classes at Downtown Yoga, hike to a bunch of awesome windmills at Las Eólicas or learn salsa with Merecumbé San Pedro (or Escazú).

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Sleeping

Accommodations in San José run the gamut from simple but homey hostels to luxurious boutique retreats. If you’re flying into or out of Costa Rica from here, it may be more convenient to stay in Alajuela, as the town is minutes from the international airport. Reservations are recommended in the high season (December through April), particularly the two weeks around Christmas and Semana Santa (Holy Week, the week preceding Easter).

Where to Stay

You’ll find the cheapest sleeps in the city center, with nicer midrange and top-end spots clustered in more well-to-do districts such as Barrio Amón and La Sabana. Also worthwhile for their charm, safety and serenity are the adjacent neighborhoods of Los Yoses and San Pedro, which lie within walking distance of downtown. For stylish options, the upscale suburbs of Escazú and Santa Ana are good choices.

Entertainment

Pick up La Nación on Thursday for listings (in Spanish) of the coming week’s attractions. The free publication GAM Cultural (www.gamcultural.com) and the website San José Volando (www.sanjosevolando.com) are also helpful guides to nightlife and cultural events.

Eating

From humble corner stands dishing out gut-filling casados (set meals) to contemporary bistros serving fusion everything, in cosmopolitan San José you'll find the country’s best restaurant scene. Dedicated foodies should also check out the dining options in Los Yoses and San Pedro, as well as Escazú and Santa Ana.

Drinking & Nightlife

Whatever your poison, San José has plenty of venues to keep you lubricated.

Dangers & Annoyances

Be safe. Enterprising thieves sometimes lurk around popular nightspots, waiting to relieve drunken party people of their wallets. When leaving a bar late at night, keep your wits about you and take a taxi.

Where to Drink

Chepe's artsiest, most sophisticated drinking venues are concentrated north and east of the center, in Barrio Amón and Barrio Escalante. For a rowdier, younger scene, head to Barrio la California or Calle la Amargura.

Best for cityscapes and cocktails are the rooftop bar at Hotel Presidente and the upstairs terrace at El Patio del Balmoral. People-watching rocks at Café de los Deseos in Barrio Otoya and at Mercado La California.

Clubbing

San José has a thriving club scene. From thumping electronica and hip-hop to salsa, merengue and reggaetón, Chepe’s clubs offer a galaxy of musical styles to help you get your groove on. Most spots open at around 10pm, and don’t truly get going until after midnight. Admission charges vary depending on the location, the DJ and the night; they're generally US$5 to US$10. Places come and go with alarming regularity, so ask around before heading out.

Gay & Lesbian Venues

The city is home to Central America’s most thriving gay and lesbian scene. As with other spots, admission charges vary depending on the night and location (from US$5 to US$10). Some clubs close on various nights of the week (usually Sunday to Tuesday) and others host women- or men-only nights; inquire ahead or check individual club websites for listings.

Many clubs are on the south side of town, which can get rough after dark. Take a taxi.

Shopping

Whether you’re looking for indigenous carvings, high-end furnishings or a stuffed sloth, San José has no shortage of shops, running the gamut from artsy boutiques to tourist traps stocked full of tropical everything. Haggling is not tolerated in stores (markets are the exception).

Travel with Children

Chances are if you’re in Costa Rica on a short vacation you’ll be headed out to the countryside fairly quickly. But if for some reason you’re going to be hanging out in San José for a day – or two or three – with your kids, know that it's not a particularly kid-friendly destination. There is lots of traffic and the sidewalks are crowded and cracked, making it difficult to push strollers or drag toddlers around. Although the city offers relatively few things specifically for children, here are a few activities they will likely enjoy.

Near Parque La Sabana, the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle will impress youngsters with its astounding array of skeletons and endless cases full of stuffed animals, while the Museo de los Niños is a sure hit for children who just can’t keep their hands off the exhibits. Young nature-lovers will enjoy getting up close to butterflies at the Spirogyra Jardín de Mariposas or checking out the exotic animals at the Parque Zoológico Nacional Simón Bolívar. Just a little further afield (an easy day trip from San José) is the wonderful zoo and wildlife-rescue center Zoo Ave, where you can enjoy native birds and monkeys in a more naturalistic setting.

If you’re spending more than a week in the city, note that many Spanish-language academies offer special custom-made lessons for teens.

LGBT Travellers

In recent years attitudes toward LGBT locals and travelers have shifted towards acceptance. Gay pride parades take place regularly, and the city's youth are leading the country's tolerance movement. A good site for all things gay travel is www.costaricagaymap.com, which offers listings of bars, clubs and hotels that cater to the LGBT community.

What to do in San Jose

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At eye level, you see hordes of tourists and tour-selling touts, postcards and pizza: evidence of a somnolent mountain town whose innocence has been shattered. But look up: whether the majestic volcano is cloud-shrouded or sunshine-soaked, it's always something to behold.

For most of its history, La Fortuna has been a sleepy agricultural town, 6km from the base of Cerro Arenal (Arenal Hill). In 1968, Arenal erupted violently after nearly 400 years of dormancy and buried the small villages of Pueblo Nuevo, San Luís and Tabacón. Suddenly, tourists from around the world started descending en masse in search of fiery night skies and that inevitable blurry photo of creeping lava. La Fortuna remains one of the top destinations for travelers in Costa Rica, even though the great mountain stopped spewing its molten discharge in 2010.

Activities

Hot Springs

Beneath La Fortuna the lava is still curdling and heating countless bubbling springs. There are free, natural hot springs in the area that any local can point you toward (ask about 'El Chollín'). If you’re after a more comfortable experience, consider one of the area’s resorts.

Hiking

Although it’s not currently active, Volcán Arenal is the big draw here. There is a well-marked trail system within the park, and several private reserves on its outskirts. Waterfalls, lava flows and crater lakes are all worthy destinations that you can reach without a guide.

In November 2017, four Dutch tourists were injured, a couple rather severely, when they were caught in a landslide in the off-limits area (within 4km of the crater) of Volcán Arenal. It took more than a day to rescue them and their Costa Rican guide from the mountain. So, quite literally – don't go there.

Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

La Fortuna is not a river-running hub like you’ll find in other parts of the country, but there are a few companies offering canoeing and kayaking in the area. If you wish to go white-water rafting, tour companies do take groups from La Fortuna to run the Sarapiquí and other distant rivers. Some offer the option to get dropped afterwards in San José or on the Caribbean coast – a good way to have some fun on a travel day.

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Sleeping

There are loads of places to stay in town. In fact, the tourist infrastructure has overflowed out of town, so that now there are lodges strung out along the roads heading south and west. With Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal at their doorstep, many of these places on the outskirts have hiking trails, hot springs and volcano views right on the property, but restaurants and other facilities are limited.

Eating

Unless you’re eating exclusively at sodas, you’ll find the restaurants in La Fortuna to be more expensive than in other parts of the country. But there are some excellent, innovative kitchens, including a few that are part of the farm-to-table movement. The restaurants are mostly clustered in town, but there are also places to eat on the road heading west.

Drinking & Nightlife

Despite the tourist influx, or maybe because of it, La Fortuna remains a cultural wasteland. Take advantage of occasional live music at Lava Lounge and La Fortuna Pub. Or, just drink cerveza and hang out with the sabaneros (cowboys) at El Establo.

Travel with Children

In a land of such dizzying adventure and close encounters with wildlife, waves, jungle ziplines and enticing mud puddles, it can be challenging to choose where to go. Fortunately, your options aren’t limited by region, and kids will find epic fun in this accessible paradise that parents will enjoy too.

Costa Rica for Kids

Mischievous monkeys and steaming volcanoes, mysterious rainforests and palm-lined beaches – Costa Rica sometimes seems like a comic book made real. The perfect place for family travel, it's a safe, exhilarating tropical playground that will make a huge impression on younger travelers. The country’s myriad adventure possibilities cover the spectrum of age-appropriate intensity levels – and for no intensity at all, some kids might like the idea of getting their hair braided and beaded by a beachside stylist in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Whatever you do, the warm culture is extremely welcoming of little ones.

In addition to amazing the kids, this small, peaceful country has all the practicalities that rank highly with parents, such as great country-wide transportation infrastructure, a low crime rate and an excellent health-care system. But the reason to bring the whole family is the opportunity to share unforgettable experiences such as spotting a dolphin or a sloth, slowly paddling a kayak through mangrove channels, or taking a night hike in search of tropical frogs.

What to do in La Fortuna

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If Patrick and Wingnut from the 1994 surfing movie Endless Summer II surfed a time machine to present-day Tamarindo, they'd fall off their boards. A quarter-century of hedonism has transformed the once-dusty burg into 'Tamagringo,' whose perennial status as Costa Rica’s top surf and party destination has made it the first and last stop for legions of tourists.

Despite its party-town reputation, Tamarindo offers more than just drinking and surfing. It forms part of Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste, and the beach retains an allure for kids and adults alike. Foodies will find some of the best restaurants in the country. There's a thriving market on Saturday mornings and fierce competition has kept lodging prices reasonably low. Its central location makes it a great base for exploring the northern peninsula.

Activities

Surfing

Like a gift from the surf gods, Tamarindo is often at its best when neighboring Playa Grande is flat. The most popular wave is a medium-sized right that breaks directly in front of the Tamarindo Diria hotel. The waters here are full of virgin surfers learning to pop up. There is also a good left that’s fed by the river mouth, though be advised that crocodiles are occasionally sighted here, particularly when the tide is rising (which is, coincidentally, the best time to surf). There can be head-high waves in front of the rocks near El Be.

More advanced surfers will appreciate the bigger, faster and less crowded waves at neighboring beaches: Playa Langosta, on the other side of the point; Playas Avellanas, Negra and Junquillal to the south; and Playa Grande to the north.

There are countless surf schools offering lessons and board rental in Tamarindo. Surf lessons hover at around US$45 for 1½ to two hours, and most operators will let you keep the board for a few hours beyond that to practice.

Diving

Tamarindo is a surf town. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to see below the waves. Enticing dive sites in the vicinity include the nearby Cabo Velas and the Islas Catalinas.

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Sleeping

Tamarindo is packed with lodging options in all price ranges, including all manner of hostels, guesthouses and high-end resorts. Although the center can feel a bit oppressive, with crowded streets and nonstop heat, it's not that hard to escape the hullabaloo by staying on the south side of town. Things quieten down pretty quickly when you leave the main drag.

We list high-season rates; prices drop significantly during other times of the year.

Eating

Tamarindo has some of the best restaurants in Costa Rica, though you'll pay Palm Beach prices. If you're watching your colones, you could get by quite well on burgers, tacos and falafels. Local supermarkets are well-stocked with familiar products, so this is a good place to take advantage of communal kitchens.

Drinking & Nightlife

The main drag in Tamarindo has the festive feel of spring break, with well-oiled patrons spilling out onto the beach, drinks in hand. Almost every hour is happy hour, all around you. If you're not sure where to start, go for sundowners at any bar on the beachfront strip – if you can wait that long.

Travel with Children

In a land of such dizzying adventure and close encounters with wildlife, waves, jungle ziplines and enticing mud puddles, it can be challenging to choose where to go. Fortunately, your options aren’t limited by region, and kids will find epic fun in this accessible paradise that parents will enjoy too.

What to do in Playa Tamarindo

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This burgeoning party town is no longer a destination for intrepid surfers only; it's bustling with tourist activity. Street vendors tout Rasta trinkets and Bob Marley T-shirts, stylish eateries serve global fusion, and intentionally rustic bamboo bars pump dancehall and reggaetón. It can get downright hedonistic, attracting revelers wanting to marinate in ganja and guaro (a local firewater made from sugarcane).

Despite that reputation, Puerto Viejo

manages to hold onto an easy charm. Stray a couple of blocks off the main commercial strip and you might find yourself on a sleepy dirt road, savoring a spicy Caribbean stew in the company of local families. Nearby you’ll find rainforest fruit and cacao farms set to a soundtrack of cackling birds and croaking frogs, and wide-open beaches where the daily itinerary revolves around surfing and snoozing. If you're looking to chill a little, party a little and eat a little, you’ve come to the right place.

Activities

Exploradores Outdoors is an excellent source of general information on local activities.

Surfing

Find one of the country’s most infamous waves at Salsa Brava – a shallow reef break that's most definitely for experts only. It’s a tricky but thrilling ride over sharp coral. Salsa Brava offers both rights and lefts, although the right is usually faster. Conditions are best with a southeasterly swell.

For a softer landing, try the beach break at Playa Cocles, where the waves are consistent, the white water is abundant for beginners, and the wipeouts are more forgiving. Cocles is about 2km east of town. Conditions are usually best early in the day, before the wind picks up. Meanwhile, Punta Uva has a fun, semi-fickle right-hand point for intermediates, and you can't beat the setting.

Waves in the area generally peak from December to February, but you might get lucky during the surfing mini-season between June and July. From late March to May, and in September and October, the sea is at its calmest.

Several surf schools around town charge US$40 to US$50 for two-hour lessons. Locals on Playa Cocles rent boards from about US$20 per day.

Salsa Brava

One of the best breaks in Costa Rica, Salsa Brava is named for the heaping helping of ‘spicy sauce’ it serves up on the sharp, shallow reef, continually collecting its debt of fun in broken skin, boards and bones. The wave makes its regular, dramatic appearance when the swells pull in from the east, pushing a wall of water against the reef and in the process generating a thick and powerful curl. There’s no gradual build-up here: the water is transformed from swell to wave in a matter of seconds. Ride it out and you’re golden. Wipe out and you may rocket into the reef. Some mordant locals have dubbed it ‘the cheese grater.’

Interestingly, this storied wave helped turn Puerto Viejo into a destination. More than 30 years ago the town was barely accessible. But bumpy bus rides and rickety canoes didn't dissuade dogged surfers from making the week-long trip from San José. They camped on the beach and shacked up with locals, carbo-loading at cheap sodas. Other intrepid explorers – biologists, Peace Corps volunteers, disaffected US veterans looking to escape the fallout of the Vietnam War – also materialized during this time, helping spread the word about the area’s luminous sunsets, lush rainforests and monster waves. Today Puerto Viejo has a fine paved road, global eateries and wi-fi. Salsa Brava's ferocity, however, remains unchanged.

Hiking

There are superb coastal hiking opportunities within easy reach. Parque Nacional Cahuita is 17km north of Puerto Viejo, and Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo is 13km south.

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Sleeping

Puerto Viejo has a little bit of everything. Many budget spots have private hot-water bathrooms and internet access. Rates are generally discounted slightly if you pay in cash.

Eating

With the most diverse restaurant scene on the Caribbean coast, Puerto Viejo has the cure for casado overkill. You'll find everything from sushi to homemade pizza.

Groceries are stocked at the local Old Harbour Supermarket or the incongruous chain-store MegaSuper. Don’t miss the Saturday organic market, where vendors and growers sell snacks typical of the region.

Entertainment

Live music happens almost nightly during high season at Lazy Mon. Pop by during the day to find out who’s performing.

Shopping

Makeshift stalls clutter the main road, selling knickknacks and Rasta-colored accoutrements aplenty.

Travel with Children

In a land of such dizzying adventure and close encounters with wildlife, waves, jungle ziplines and enticing mud puddles, it can be challenging to choose where to go. Fortunately, your options aren’t limited by region, and kids will find epic fun in this accessible paradise that parents will enjoy too.

What to do in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

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Santa Teresa didn't even have electricity until the mid-1990s. Then one major landowner died and his property was subdivided, and the landscape north of the Playa El Carmen intersection changed forever. These days you'll need to balance the annoyance of the omnipresent ATVs kicking up dust with the restaurants serving gob-smackingly delicious food and the yoga dens with transformational ocean views.

It's still a wonderful surfing town, though no longer a secret one, and there are plenty of great places to eat and a modicum of nightlife. The entire area unfurls along one bumpy coastal road that rambles south from Santa Teresa through Playa El Carmen and terminates in the relaxed, sleepy fishing hamlet of Mal País.

Activities

Surfing is the raison d'être for most visits to Santa Teresa and Mal País, and perhaps for the town itself. Most travelers want to do little else, except maybe stretch their muscles with a little yoga. That said, it's a gorgeous, pristine coastline: horseback riding or fishing trips can be easily arranged, as well as a fun-filled ziplining jaunt.

Surfing

The long, flat beach stretches for many kilometers along this southwestern coast of the peninsula. The entire area is saturated with surf shops. This is a good place to pick up an inexpensive board, which you can probably sell later. Most of the local shops also do rentals and repairs; chat them up to find out about their secret surf spots.

Yoga

Many surfers know that yoga is the perfect antidote to their sore flippers. Several studios in the area offer drop-in classes.

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Sleeping

The diversity of lodging options in Santa Teresa and Mal País is pretty damn impressive. From the simplest surf hostels to the swankiest resorts, from beachfront cabinas to jungle lodges, these twin towns surely have something for you.

Where to Stay

Frank's Place is the landmark that occupies the main corner at Playa El Carmen. Stretching to the north, Santa Teresa is a dusty hamlet that's crammed with guesthouses, cafes and surf shops ('uncontrolled development' is a phrase which comes to mind.) Stretching to the south, Mal País is more sparsely developed and more densely forested, offering a quieter, old-school hippie atmosphere.

Eating

If surfing and yoga are the top two activities in Santa Teresa and Mal País, then number three is surely eating. The dining is surprisingly sophisticated for a dusty little surf town. Indulge in gourmet burgers, sublime sushi, multicultural tapas or farm-to-table fusion goodness. Or, keep it real with a casado (set meal) from the local soda. It's all good.

Drinking & Nightlife

It's no mystery where the party is going on: Thursdays at Kika, Sundays at Roca Mar and any night of the week – around sunset – at Pizzeria Playa Carmen. Nativos, a Tico-owned sports bar, is smack-dab in the middle of things.

Orientation

The road from Cóbano meets the beach road next to Frank’s Place, on the western side of the peninsula. To the left (south) lies Mal País and to the right (north) is Santa Teresa. Dead ahead is the beach at Playa El Carmen. In the dry season you might also arrive on the 4WD road from Montezuma via Cabuya, which terminates at the southern end of Mal País village.

What to do in Mal Pais & Santa Teresa

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Is Sámara the black hole of happiness? That's what more than one expat has said after stopping here on vacation and never leaving. On the surface it's just a laid-back beach town with barefoot, three-star appeal. The crescent-shaped strip of pale-gray sand spans two rocky headlands, where the sea is calm and beautiful. It's not spectacular, just safe, mellow, reasonably developed, easily navigable on foot and accessible by public transportation. Not surprisingly, it’s popular with vacationing Ticos, foreign families and backpackers, a somewhat rare, happy mix of visitors and locals. But be careful, the longer you stay the less you'll want to leave.

If you’ve got some extra time and a 4WD, explore the hidden beaches north of Sámara, such as Playas Barrigona and Buenavista.

Activities

No matter what you like to do at the beach, you can probably do it at Playa Sámara. Expert surfers might get bored by Sámara’s inconsistent waves, but beginners will have a blast. Otherwise, there's hiking, horseback riding and sea kayaking, as well as snorkeling out around Isla la Chora. Take a break from the beach to explore the forested hillsides on foot or by zipline. Samara is not far from the turtle tours up the coast in Ostional, or just to the south on the coast at Playa Camaronal.

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Sleeping

In town, it's nearly impossible to be more than two blocks from the beach. Many hotels, hostels and charming guesthouses are clustered in the small rectangular grid that borders the sand. If you prefer to be further away from the action, there are some real gems west of town. Generally, budget options greet you with a brisk cold morning shower, while midrange and top-end facilities have hot water.

Eating

It's won't be the most creative cooking you've ever had, but you won't go hungry in Playa Sámara. Burger joints, BBQ grills, taquerías and pizzerias all do their thing and do it well. With two totally meat-free restaurants, vegetarians have more options here than they do in most American cities. Many restaurants and bars have prime beachfront property, which guarantees a good experience no matter what you're eating.

Drinking & Nightlife

It's not exactly a party town, but Sámara sees some action at night. All of the beach bars get busy after sunset. Lo Que Hay and Flying Taco are both technically taco bars, but after hours the emphasis is on the 'bar.' New kid on the block Media Luna has a more cocktail-ish, Gatsby feel.

Shopping

Sámara has a more creative vibe than most beach towns on the peninsula. You'll find a handful of galleries selling hand-crafted jewelry and exquisite items, as well as vendors hawking their wares at stands along the main road, and at your beachside restaurant tables.

Getting there

Traroc buses go to Nicoya (US$3.60, one hour) 10 times a day from 5:30am to 7pm. Heading in the opposite direction, the same buses go to Playa Carrillo. Coming into town from other parts of the peninsula you'll need to disembark at the gas station (la bomba) and hitch your way into town. Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.

What to do in Playa Samara

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