Instead of a birthday party, we took our 1-year-old to Santa Teresa for a month. Our motto? Travel over toys.
Santa Teresa, a laid-back beach town on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, had been on my list of places to visit for quite a while. I'd long felt drawn to its palm-fringed beaches, surf culture, and pura vida spirit. So, when COVID-19 restrictions began to lift with our son's first birthday on the horizon, it felt like it was meant to be. As a professional travel writer and someone shaped by my globetrotting adventures, I wanted to give the gift to our son, Miles. Travel is the greatest gift. So instead of a birthday party, I thought it would be fitting to take him to Santa Teresa for an entire month — and with the stars seemingly aligned, we did just that.
We arrived at night. After four and half hours in the car, we pulled up beside a convenience store on a dusty, unpaved road, and our driver said he couldn't go any further. In the dark, we navigated up a rocky hill and down a sharp gradient to our holiday accommodation, Nala. It was a short — albeit difficult — trek, and a bit jarring with a baby strapped to my chest (shout out to our favorite BabyBjörn carrier).
As the sun came up, things looked and felt different. The light streamed into the giant windows that covered almost the entire length of the living room. While we'd rushed to get the pack and play set up the evening before, and then conked out ourselves, I could really take it all in now. Our one-bedroom apartment was modern and beautifully designed, with concrete floors and clean-lined furnishings. I stepped out onto the balcony, which faced the pool and lush garden area, checked out the on-site yoga shala, and took a dip — all before breakfast. The hike up the hill felt far less treacherous than how I'd remembered the way down the night before. (Spoiler alert: I did eventually get used to doing the round-trip route multiple times a day.)
This is a good moment to pause and mention some logistics about getting around. Santa Teresa has one main road that’s paved only in certain sections and runs parallel to the beach. Most locals and visitors get around via a four-wheeler or SUV. But due to the cost of renting a car for a month, and the fact that my husband and I weren't comfortable putting our one-year-old on an ATV (though we did see many babies and toddlers riding around completely unfazed), our method of transport was walking.
We strolled along the rough road for about five minutes until we reached The Bakery, a lively all-day cafe that serves coffee, fresh juices, savory dishes, and — as you probably guessed from the name — all sorts of delectable baked goods. One tropical fruit cup, a cast-iron skillet of shakshuka, and a baby-size portion of scrambled eggs later, we had found our go-to breakfast spot.
After our little dude's morning nap, we splashed around in the pool and attempted to laze on the hammock, which, as it turns out, is less leisurely with a soon-to-be toddler. The afternoon followed the course of most others, with many carefree hours on the beach. We played in the powdery sand, took Miles into the ocean, explored the tidal pools at low tide, and watched the surfers. While neither my husband nor I surfed — despite my best-laid plans to take a lesson during our visit — just seeing Ticos and travelers taking on the famous waves proved to be a joyful endeavor.
We dined at Angelina Santa Teresa our first night and returned multiple times for the roasted veggie plate, penne with arrabbiata sauce, and convivial atmosphere. I lost count of the number of times we ate lunch at La Cevicheria. Our favorite beachfront restaurant was without a doubt Uma Santa Teresa. I recommend reserving a shaded table facing the ocean via WhatsApp and sharing an assortment of Mediterranean small plates, the whole grilled snapper, and Greek salad. El Corazón and Koji's were our go-to date-night spots on the few occasions we got a babysitter.
Of course, since we were living in Santa Teresa for an extended period, it wasn’t all sushi dinners. As a family, we frequented Green World Store to stock up on the most delicious organic produce — especially fresh papaya, mango, and caimito (star apple) — and a Costa Rican cashew butter that I still dream about daily.
Over the course of the month, we didn't feel compelled to do much beyond enjoying the beach and local businesses in town. That said, there are some extraordinary day trips in the area — from Isla Tortuga to Montezuma — as well as deep-sea fishing adventures and after-dark tours of bioluminescent Paquera Bay. One day, we took a taxi to Mal Pais (a 10-minute drive away), walked to a secluded cove to swim and explore the tidal pools, and had lunch at Tierra Mar. You can walk the entire way from Santa Teresa to Mal Pais — probably not with a baby in tow, but it's doable otherwise. To the north of town, Playa Hermosa is a beautiful beach where dolphins frolic in the waves and the sunsets are spectacular.
For our final night, we reserved a foliage-framed bungalow with a plunge pool at Hotel Nantipa and nabbed one of the low-slung tables right on the beach at Manzu. Between bites of gallo fish and helping Miles dig holes in the sand, we watched the surfers come in as the sun began to set — it really felt like the perfect encapsulation of Santa Teresa and our month-long stay in this magical place that had welcomed us with open arms and genuine warmth during this very special moment in our lives.
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