Amid the center of a dust ball kicked up by rickety vans traversing a bumpy and dry, remote dirt road in Costa Rica, lies the town of Santa Teresa.
This is where cool-kid Argentinian 20-somethings on a gap year come to surf, their tanned and toned bodies zooming up the main road, the spine of the town. They navigate on bicycles, motorcycles and ATVs, the occasional surf board miraculously balanced on the back.
Everyone is hot. Everyone is toned. Everyone has that I’m-so-cool-I-don’t-care-but-I’m-still-friendly attitude.
Once an unknown surfing village, Santa Teresa has grown quickly in the past few decades, driven by the sea’s hearty and constantly rollicking surf. People come for the surf, the vibe, many stay awhile, and others never leave.
Santa Teresa is a place of contradictions.
Costa Rica is a third-world country; people live in open huts with corrugated metal walls. Trash lies strewn on the beach and on empty vacant lots. The undeveloped sewer system means even the most luxurious bathrooms come equipped with trashcans designed to hold used toilet paper. The septic system can’t process the paper.
But don’t let this hold you back. The town is incredibly peaceful. It’s a place where you arrived stressed and broken, leave healed and effervescent, beaten back to life by the warm, ferocious sea, re-infused to life by the ever-present sun.
I had always wanted to attend a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. After working as a freelance writer for several months, I had finally started earning money and needed a break from deadlines. I was also committed to continue indulging in wanderlust-fueled adventure despite settling down to married life in the suburbs.
Life had changed a lot in the past few years and become much more routine. I wanted to reconnect with myself, my roots and remember who I was. Additionally, although I had been healthy and cancer-free for more than four years, I still felt emotionally brittle. I needed to get my groove back, and there’s nothing like a bit of adventure to do just that.
I flew to San Jose and stayed in the Holiday Inn by the airport, where I slept before taking a bus to Costa Rica the next morning. Outside the airport, a throng of drivers gather to see if you need a ride. They don’t touch you or grab at you, but they’re still more aggressive than you’d see in America.
I put on a poker face and walked through the crowd even though I had no idea where to go. On the other side, a friendly airport employee asked me where I was headed. After telling him, he directed me to cross the street and wait for the Holiday Inn shuttle.
Crossing the street required navigating back through the throng, but at least this time I actually knew where to go. A few minutes later, the shuttle arrived for the short drive to the hotel.
The night ended with overpriced, mediocre food at the Denny’s adjacent to the hotel, but I was thankful to be there and ready to rise early the next morning to head to Santa Teresa.
The ride from San Jose to Santa Teresa is about 5 hours long. It starts on surprisingly well-maintained and paved roads, which lead to the Gulf of Nicoya. Crossing the gulf requires boarding a ferry. The actual ride takes about an hour, but waiting for the ferry to get going takes much longer. I was lugging a too-heavy suitcase and felt conspicuous, but encountered no problems.
After the gulf, another driver was waiting, and we cruised another hour or so to Santa Teresa. Eventually the road turned to dirt, and the ride got very, very bumpy.
Finally, we arrived at Nautilus Hotel and Wellness Retreat, a small, intimate resort with a delicious health-food restaurant, Olam, on-site. The hotel is well-located, within walking distance to several other delicious restaurants and a short jaunt to the beach.
The first day, I wandered down to the ocean, wandered around town, walked to the natural foods store to buy water and a peach, and just hung out.
Sunset yoga started at 6 p.m., and we sweated through our down dogs in the cozily humid air. Darkness descended, and after taking a shower to wash the sweat off, I discovered the front desk was closed and nobody was available to call a taxi for dinner. I contemplated my options. Walk to town, not knowing if it was safe? Return to the room and eat fruit?
I began walking a few steps down the dark, dirt side road that the hotel was located on, toward the main road. But the dark quiet unnerved me, and I wasn’t sure what lay on the main road — maybe thugs just waiting to mug or murder a solo female traveler?
I meekly returned to the room and ate a peach for dinner. Went to bed hungry, angry at myself for not doing more due diligence. Adventure is not always comfortable.
Exhausted from travel and from life, I slept much of my first full day in Santa Teresa. I felt kind of guilty about this, like I was wasting my time, but I really needed some down time, and didn’t have the energy to do much. Plus, I was nursing a sprained, and still painful hamstring.
I woke up, ate breakfast, walked to the beach, slept, returned to the room, slept. Asked at the front desk and learned that walking around Santa Teresa in the early evening was perfectly safe.
Emboldened, I strode down the same dark side road that night, breathing a sigh of relief to find the main road lit by the shops that lined it. People still zoomed down the main road as dusk turned to dark, just as rowdy as during the day. I dined at Pizza Tomate, eating simple, delicious food, feeling adventurous and free.
After an early-morning smoothie, followed by an invigorating yoga class with the best instructor I’ve ever practiced with, a bike adventure ensued.
First, I headed toward the center of town, passing more shops and restaurants along the way. Finally, I reached the main intersection, after which development stops and trees are the only companions until Mal Pais, a little ways down the road. At the intersection, I turned around, again biking through Santa Teresa towards Playa Hermosa.
Between Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa lies the uber-luxurious Florblanca resort. It’s a blissful, world-class haven — about $600 a night — and even though I was supposedly being adventurous, I still craved luxury. I guess the older me doesn’t like roughing it as much as the younger me. (I once lived in a tent for a month on Maui while working on a farm.)
Florblanca has a wonderful restaurant, where I dined while looking at the ocean. After eating, I followed a scenic path to the ocean where the resort set up beach chairs beneath umbrellas. I watched the ocean for awhile and then headed back to Nautilus, sweaty but invigorated.
Surfing! The best surf instructor in all of Santa Teresa is Amit at Del Soul Surf School. We headed to Playa Hermosa where the waves are more beginner friendly.
After a morning of yoga, surfing was the best adventure one could hope for. The waves slosh you around, beat you down, and occasionally give you the ride of your life. The process of learning to balance on the board as it glides across the ocean waves is one of the most exhilarating, difficult things I’ve ever done.
Just at the moment you feel you have it — that’s when it starts to go wrong. Because it means you’re thinking. The second you start to think is the second you come out of the flow, lose balance and fall. Surfing is like yoga in that its lessons are so applicable to life. Not to mention that the position one assumes while laying on the board waiting to jump up to ride the wave is similar to chaturanga.
It was exhausting and so, so wonderful. Surfing rekindled my love for life again. Being at one with the ocean was so incredibly powerful, feeling its waves and being forced to be in the moment was pure bliss. It was so great that I prayed for the zip line tour I reserved the next day to fall through because I wanted to do it all over again.
The zip line people never emailed me back, and I was so happy because it meant surfing would again be the day’s activity.
This second day of surfing was both less successful and more. Less successful because the entire day, I felt more out-of-balance, less able to stand and ride the wave. But then, at the very end, everything aligned for one beautiful, harmonious moment. Gliding on the wave, stable and sure, my mind, energy and body completely connected to the ocean and all its immensity. Bliss.
Today was the last half day in Santa Teresa. Rose early, practiced yoga, and hung out on the beach until it was time to take the shuttle and repeat the long trip to San Jose, where I again stayed at the Holiday Inn before heading out.
I purposefully planned plenty of space in between traveling and flying, and it was a good thing because the shuttle people were late, and I would have missed my flight. At Holiday Inn, I was the 3,000th guest to check in and the hotel gifted me with some Costa Rican candies and took my picture. Super fun!
Back at the same Denny’s where the trip began, I felt like a road-hardened warrior. I arrived literally injured, but now felt strong and purposeful. That night, I began googling Argentina, eagerly wanting to plan the next trip.
In the end
Traveling alone was wonderful and lonely. I missed my husband, and realized that my days of solo wanderlust are not the same when you have family at home. You return, and they’re eager to hear your tales, but because they didn’t experience it with you no words can fully convey the richness of the adventure.
My husband didn’t eat a peach with me on the first night for dinner because I was too scared to walk to town. He didn’t see a scorpion on the wall and trap it with a cup and piece of laminated paper, scared to death and checking the sheets for other creepy crawlers eight times that night.
He didn’t see the lush jungle abutting the wide, misty beach, or feel the warm water rushing up on Costa Rica’s shores. He didn’t see the Costa Rican janitor on the ferry dancing as kids watched him, clapping and singing. He didn’t meet the other adventurers on the road, normal people who carve out space from their comfortable existences to see how other people live and fill their hearts with adventure.
I returned changed and unchanged, healed and happy. Peaceful knowing I could return to the world of adventure whenever I wanted. Joyful knowing that my life had changed and become more settled because I had come more settled. Content in knowing that carving out that time for adventure was up to me.
Every journey leaves me with a nugget of wisdom. From Costa Rica, it was this:
For your life to change, you have to change.
It’s easy for life to become boring as we grow older and settle down. We may wishfully think of the adventures we’d love to take, or the routines we’d love to break up. We may wish for life to sweep us off our feet and take us for the ride of our lives. But ultimately, it’s our own responsibility to do these things.
We must, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, buy the ticket and take the ride.
What is your favorite place to travel and do yoga? Share your tips in the comments below!