In Search of Perfect Beach Towns: Sámara, Costa Rica

Playa Samara

For the past few years, I’ve always been on the lookout for the perfect beach town.

Perfect for me, that is. You may disagree. What I like most in a beach town is a big, beautiful, airy beach with lots of space, west-facing sunset views, and the perfect level of development. More on the development in a bit.

In Costa Rica, I know I’d be dealing with a heavily Americanized environment with much higher prices than the rest of Central America (excluding Belize). Its most popular beach towns like Tamarindo exist as overdeveloped playlands designed to satisfy every Gringo need, with sky-high resorts and matching sky-high prices, even by Costa Rican standards.

There’s nothing wrong if you want that in a vacation — but it wasn’t my thing.

So I prioritized finding a smaller beach town, something that didn’t feel too much like a resort town, somewhere that felt a bit more local, that wasn’t too busy, that had a lot of space. And in my research I came across a calm, sunny town on the Nicoya peninsula.

I’ve got to give all the credit to Dani from Globetrottergirls — she recommended the Costa Rican beach town of Sámara so enthusiastically that I knew I would make it my one and only beachy stop in the country.

Playa Samara

Meet Sámara

Stepping through the trees at the end of my street, I emerged onto a long curve of dark gray sand, rippled in the surf.

The beach was enormous, long and wide with unlimited room to spread out. The palm trees along the edge provided plenty of shade. The sky was reflected in the most brilliant shade of blue. The waves were far too small for surfing, but the perfect size for a SUP adventure.


READ MORE: How to Protect Your Belongings on the Beach


THIS was pura vida. This was the Costa Rica that I had dreamed of experiencing for myself.

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Playa Sámara was so long that I could walk from the more developed end to the most isolated end in about 30 minutes and end up in a place with hardly any buildings or people.

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Evaluating Paradise

I’ve traveled quite a bit in Asia; not so much in Latin America. If I were to evaluate the beach towns I’ve seen so far, I’d be best off comparing them to destinations in Thailand.

Koh Lanta is the closest place I’ve ever found to perfect. I still love that little island as much as I did when I first visited in 2010, and I can’t stop recommending it to everyone. Last winter I set up shop there for nearly a month and easily could have stayed longer.

On a 1-5 scale of tourism development, I’d put Koh Lanta at a 3 — lots of places to stay and eat, some high-end, but almost all locally owned. Boracay, with its high-end resorts and crazy malls, would be a 5, but the Angol/Station 3 neighborhood I favored was more like a 3. Koh Phayam would rank around a 1 — technically some places for tourists, but not much in terms of electricity or wifi.

So where would I place Samara on the development scale?

Playa Samara

I’d give it a 2. And that’s not a bad thing.

The town has its amenities, but almost everything is clustered onto one tiny street leading to the ocean. There are several places along the beach as well. If I were to stay here for a few weeks or longer, I think I’d be going out of my mind with boredom.

Some of its strengths, though, included multiple places to eat healthy (including raw vegan options — let’s just say that I’m taking Ana from Monteverde seriously about changing how I eat!) and get fit, with several regular exercise classes and yoga (albeit not on weekends, and I visited Saturday and Sunday so I didn’t get to check it out).

And very important for that particular Sunday — there were multiple venues playing the Super Bowl, including my own hostel! (Not that I want all sports all the time. Having the big game was nice!)

Even with that, though, Sámara doesn’t stand out as a place that caters solely to Americans and Canadians. There were plenty of Costa Rican tourists as well, and even though the groups didn’t intermingle, you had plenty of businesses that catered primarily to locals.

Playa Samara

This was the view from my hostel, Hostel Las Mariposas. It was a five-minute walk from the main street and led straight to the ocean.

Playa Samara

And Sunsets

The final component to a perfect beach town? West-facing beaches and beautiful sunsets.

This is why I headed to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast instead of the Caribbean coast. I can’t get enough of beach sunsets — and Sámara delivered. Just look at the colors!

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The Takeaway

I almost didn’t come to Costa Rica’s coast — with direct buses to Nicaragua from Monteverde, I was tempted to just pack it in and head north to cheaper pastures.

I’m glad I chose to come here anyway (and that so many people told me that I couldn’t skip the beaches). Sámara was just lovely and beautiful and not too crazy or developed, and the Costa Rican coast is absolutely worth seeing!

For that reason, I’m putting Sámara on my “go now” list — it’s pretty fantastic as it is right now, but I don’t think it will stay that way for long. I hope you get to experience it as I did.

Essential Info: Samara is located on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. You’re best off getting a public bus from Nicoya. There are also private shuttles; most cost around $50 whether it’s from Liberia, Montezuma, or Monteverde.

For food, I loved eating healthy at raw vegan restaurant Elemental and organic market/restaurant Samara Organics.

For activities, I rented a stand-up paddleboard from Pato’s Surf School for $12 per hour.

I stayed at Hostel Las Mariposas, which had fairly good dorms and very good internet in the covered outdoor common area. What I didn’t like was that there was an extremely loud bar that blasted music until 1:30 AM on Saturday (though it was quiet Sunday). Sámara is a sleepy place; there’s not a big incentive to stay up late and most of us went to bed early-ish. Excluding the noise issue, I really liked the hostel. Dorms from $15, doubles from $35, tents and hammocks from $10, bring-your-own tent or hammock from $8. You can find other accommodation in Samara here.

As always, I highly recommend purchasing travel insurance before your trip. It will protect you financially in case anything goes wrong. I never travel without it and always use World Nomads.

 

Where’s your favorite beach in the Americas?

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Sonja @ Breadcrumbs Guide
Guest

Samara looks like my perfect beach getaway! Thank you for finding it and sharing! I love the way undiscovered beach towns often have gorgeous beaches and colorful sunsets, yet they are filled with locals that see them every weekend rather than a million tourists visiting once then moving on. It makes the beach seem more personal and special. Kua Bay (although not a town, it’s a fantasic local beach) in Hawaii on the Big Island is just like that. Postcard-perfect beach, but out of the way enough so that it is mostly locals hanging out after work.

Katie @ Domestiphobia
Guest

Love Samara! In all fairness though, I don’t remember Tamarindo being particularly busy when I was there (I think it was off-season though), and it definitely didn’t have sky-high resorts or seem over-developed. (It’s been a while, but I think it felt less developed to me — yet more expensive — than San Juan del Sur.) It definitely had a few godawful trinket shops though — but those were kind of hilarious. I guess when I think “overdeveloped” in terms of beach towns, I think of places like Waikiki and Panama City Beach.

Gorgeous light in those sunset photos!

Linda
Guest
Linda

I was just in CR, while I found Tamarindo to be a bit touristy, very much a surfer vibe, I did not think it was over developed. The food was incredible but a bit over priced. Wonderful couple of days none the less. Will visit the Nicoya Peninsula next time.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos.

Beanie
Guest

I am desperate to know more about South America having been to Asia, as it’s a continent I’ve neither learnt about or visited. I’m so excited to experience, through you, the offering of the wonderful countries that make up South America!

Beanie

Ps. Just to let you know that this blog post is coming up as very hard to read (black with grey writing). I’m viewing on Safari through bloglovin, as I normally do, but I wonder if the bloglovin redesign is messing things up! 🙁

Jennifer Miller
Guest
Jennifer Miller

I lived in Samara for 2 months and never got bored ! I went to the amazing Spanish school that is right on the beach and was speaking spanish very quickly ! Highly recommended. As you pointed out, there is yoga and there is even a gym. There is the right mix of locals and expats that live there and there are so many activities to do from horseback riding to hiking waterfalls to kayaking, etc. Everyone there is so friendly and you just feel like you are in paradise ! So glad you went.

Roma
Guest
Roma

Thanks for the article. We are a family of 4 planning to spend a month in Samara Jul – Aug. Jennifer – do you have any accommodation recommendations or tips? We’d like something with 2 bedrooms and a kitchen. Everything on airbnb seems rather expensive…do you think it’d be better to wait till we arrive – seeing as is low season. I’d be most grateful for any tips…

Rob
Guest
Rob

Hey Roma, My family (six of us) are going there June – Aug.. We have been to several different places in Samara for the last 8+ years. Las Palmeras was nice for families, especially if there are little ones as its gated with a pool .. its a little bit of a walk to town though. For airbnb and vrbo, I’d pick a few places I liked and ask for a deal, especially if you are there for a while. You should be able to get a reasonably priced house between Playa Carrillo to the south and Playa Buena Vista… Read more »

Kristen
Guest
Kristen

I have to counter your presumed thoughts on Tamarindo. It is a lovely small beach town. Not lined with sky high resorts and not particularly “busy.” You can take a 15 – 20min walk either direction along the beach & be completely secluded. Night after night Tamarindo sets off some beautiful sunsets. And if you’re a surfer Tamarindo has great beginner breaks & you can easily boat or drive to more intermediate breaks. Costa Rica’s pacific coast has many beautiful beaches. I encourage you to spend a little more time there and find some true gems!

Shawny
Guest
Shawny

Was there reliable internet anywhere there? Something close to high speed broadband?

Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren
Guest

Okay. I MUST go here. Thanks for sharing! Beautiful pictures, as always.

Happy travels 🙂

ryan
Guest
ryan

Great post! What about koh Samui? I live in koh Samui and it’s incredible! I stayed in Lanta be4 Samui and think Samui is loads better. ..

Katie
Guest

Samara looks perfect!! We stayed in Playa Langosta a little south of Tamarindo and it was fabulous too. I also didn’t love Tamarindo. It’s so true about the sunsets! 🙂

Mike | VagabondingMike
Guest

You didn’t like the ‘loud music’ on a Saturday night? Sound like your getting old-ish…(your starting to sound like me hahahaha).

Glad you made the detour, the pics look beautiful!

Happy travels!

Vivianne
Guest

Nice photos, I’d love to go visit and hit some coral reefs for snorkeling. From the pictures, I could see the weather and trees are similar to Puerto Rico. I recently took a vacation to Puerto Rico, I was surprised by the high prices of food and lodging at these places as I was expecting things would be cheaper in these places. I will have to try your backpacking method, it seems fun to sleep on hammocks and emerge among the people.

Katie @ The World on my Necklace
Guest

It looks beautiful. My favourite beach in that part of the world is San Agustinillo on Mexico’s Pacific Coast and Playa Maderas on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast

Steven Schmeltzle
Guest

Looks like a great place to take a vacation. I have a friend that lives way on the other side in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Maybe when I’m down there I’ll have to swing by and check it out.

Silvia
Guest

My favorite beach in Costa Rica was Santa Teresa. Although, I think that you will love El Tunco. It will be nice to meet you here in El Tunco Kate. See you soon, feliz viaje 🙂

Francesca @onegrloneworld
Guest

I love watching sunsets. Costa Rica is such a hot spot now, I kind of wish I had visited years ago. Great post!

Victoria@ The British Berliner
Guest

Costa Rica looks lovely.
I’ve only been to one beach in the Americas and that was in the Dominican Republic. Does that count?

Brooke
Guest

Looking into Costa Rica for my sister’s birthday this summer, so I’ll have to keep all of these places in mind. Looks like a lot of fun and great time to relax! Also thanks for the great vegan suggestions, I love hearing about organic, local restaurants!

Christine
Guest
Christine

We traveled to Samara Beach by default. It was 1998 and we were headed for Nosara Beach in October (the rainy season) when the road was washed out. We found an amazing two room condo for nothing in this sweet town and enjoyed every moment. What a gem! I still have a few shells from this beach. There was some serious monsoons happening in October, but they come and go so quick that it’s refreshing and exciting and just fine when your on vaca!

Katelyn @ Diaries of a Wandering Lobster
Guest

I was in Costa Rica in 2011 and didn’t really like it. Nicaragua is where it’s at! But this sounds like a nice alternative to the really expensive and touristy areas of Costa Rica. I might have to stop in if I’m down there next. That’s for sharing this “secret” with us! 🙂

Dorothy MacDonald
Guest
Dorothy MacDonald

My husband and I have been to Samara many times since 2001. It is one of my very favourite places in Costa Rica even though we now own a home in the Southern Zone(which is also magical). Just think your followers may also be interested in the postcard perfect beach, Carrillo, which is just South of Samara. My very favourite beach in Costa Rica.

Enjoy your posts, Kate!

Shawna
Guest
Shawna

Dorothy: I am curious where you bought a home in the Southern Zone. Do you mind sharing?

Erin
Guest

Thanks for giving me my first piece of beach inspiration for the Costa Rica trip I’m planning for next year! Gorgeous photos – I see why you’re in love with the sunsets.

Daniel
Guest

Reading this brought a big smile to my face. Two years ago I stepped off the bus in Samara for what was to be a 5 day stay. Almost two weeks later I stood on the edge of town reluctant to drive up the hill away from the place. Staying in one of the private rooms at the Hotel Mariposa for what also included the Easter holiday I experienced the same things you did, a very wide range of people and personalities. One night 13 of us from the Hostel walked over to that noisy bar/restaurant, there were 9 different… Read more »

George
Guest

Excellent beach town Kate. I also enjoyed your idea about “over-development.” Humanity views civilization in this sense “the more development the better!” That is why people prefer America, after all. But you bring up a good point, less development/less hubbub has an upside: more peace and quiet, more nature, and a slower, sweeter pace of life. Samara is a hidden treasure. You found it. Thanks for telling us about it.

Madge
Guest

Ooh I need to go here! My fella and I spent a month in the Caribbean side near a small town called Manzanillo, which had perfect beaches that were almost deserted (Punta Uva! Like Eden!) and amazing coral reefs to check out just a few meters off shore. Not very developed at all but some very nice restaurants the closer you get to Puerto Viejo. Perfect bike riding terrain — flat and shady and full of butterflies and birds and monkeys? You should def check it out next time you’re around that way.mthe snorkeling alone is worth the trip.

Britt
Guest

By sending me to Koh Lanta with your recs you have totally ruined me for any other beach holiday. Growing up on the beautiful beaches of Australia was worse enough but now I don’t want to go anywhere other than Koh Lanta. I want to live there forever and ever 😛

But this looks acceptable hehe 🙂
The sunsets and the laidback atmosphere definitely look to be highlights.

jasmine
Guest

I love central america

Laura
Guest

Great pics and I like your comparison to the Thai beaches to give a good idea about development level there!

Hatice
Guest

hello Kate, you have a fantastic job to do! i wish i could do it too, travelling world alone? my god, really fantastic! you should also see the beautiful fethiye and marmaris in Turkey, and North cyprus, you will be in love with them also. have a nice trip!

Aaron
Guest

That sunset is very beautiful, looks like a very relaxing beach.

Brittany
Guest

Hi Kate,

I’m trying to access the Canada page from the Destinations page. When I click on the Canada icon, it seems to be linked to the Costa Rica page. As a Canadian, I’m interested to see a traveler’s input on our country. Just thought I would let you know.

All the best,
Brittany

Hayley
Guest

Aw, I was so excited to see Las Mariposas on here! I worked there back in the summer of 2013! Such a beautiful town, so glad it made your blog 🙂

Taylor
Guest
Taylor

HI Kate!

First of all, your blog has been infinitely helpful in my travels through Central America – so for that, thank you!!!

I’ll be heading to Samara from San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, and then the plan is to head on to Montezuma from Samara. Do you have any transportation tips for this route?

Maryann Meza
Guest
Maryann Meza

You have to go to Playa Linda, Matapalo, Costa Rica the next time you go. Not a beach town at all. Its a beautiful beach that is off the beaten path.

Callie Ann
Guest

Your photographs are absolutely stunning. They make me want to go there so badly.

RTC Travel
Guest

I have never been to Costa Rica but is looks like a beautiful part of the world. Next on my list I think!

Daniel
Guest

Good info but Costa Rica is the most expensive place. Please share also best ways to enjoy Costa Rica on a budget.