In Santa Teresa , Camping y Cabinas Zeneida (tel. 506/2640-0118) is tucked amid shade trees (with hammocks) beside the beach. It charges $4 pp for camping, including toilets and showers. It also has two basic A-frame cabins with loft bedrooms and toilets and kitchenettes, plus a thatched cabin ($5 pp).
You can also camp at Tranquilo Backpackers (in Carmén, tel. 506/2640-0589, www.tranquilobackpackers.com , $7 pp) and at Malpaís Surf Camp and Resort (tel. 506/2642-0031, www.malpaissurfcamp.com , $8 pp). Both have showers and toilets.
The area abounds with quality surfer and backpacker digs. One is Tranquilo Backpackers (tel. 506/2640-0589, www.tranquilobackpackers.com , $11 pp dorms, $13 pp loft, $35 s/d private). Rooms are in a two-story New Mexican–style building with dangerously open rails on the balcony—take care up there! It has seven dorms with lofts and bunks, plus clean, airy, spacious private rooms with bathrooms. There’s an open-air lounge with hammocks, plus a kitchen, Internet café, and parking.
The well-run Malpaís Surf Camp and Resort (tel. 506/2642-0031, www.malpaissurfcamp.com , $15 pp camp beds, $35 s/d cabins with shared bath), 200 meters south of the junction, has a panoply of accommodations set in eight hectares of grounds. An oceanview rancho has “semi-private” camp beds beneath a tin roof with shared baths. It’s gone more upscale in recent years and now has various poolside casitas ($95–150 s/d) with stone floors, tall louvered screened windows, and beautiful tile bathrooms with hot water. There’s a lively bar, a pool, and horse and surfboard rentals.
My fave backpackers’ hostel, though, is
Wavetrotters Surf Hostel (tel. 506/2640-0805, www.wavetrotterhostel.com , $12 pp). This Italian-run winner is basically an atrium lodge with an open downstairs lounge with soaring ceiling and four all-wooden upstairs dorms with lockers. They open to a common terrace, and you can descend to the lounge via a firepole! Plus there’s a private room downstairs ($30 s/d low season, $35 s/d high season). It rents surfboards.
Once a backpackers’ place, Frank’s Place (tel./fax 506/2640-0096, www.franksplacecr.com , from $25 s or $65 d low season, from $55 s or $75 d high season), at the junction for Cóbano , has grown beyond recognition and now offers 33 rooms and bungalows in various styles and standards. The main draw is its hub-of-everything location, and it has a nice pool.
Beach Break Surf Hotel (tel. 506/2640-0612, www.beachbreakcr.net , $40–45 s/d year-round) is run to high standards. It has 12 air-conditioned rooms and three apartments, all with WiFi, TV, and DVD players, above a small shopping complex.
For a great bargain, choose the calming Casa Zen (tel. 506/2640-0523, www.zencostarica.com , $12 pp dorm, $24–38 s/d room, $135 apartment), with an Indian motif, colorful cushions, chessboards, free movies at night, a great Thai restaurant, and four simply furnished sponge-washed rooms (including two dorms) with batiks, ceiling fans, and shared bathrooms. Casa Zen also has an upstairs three-room apartment with a huge terrace with hammocks, as well as a spa.
I like Ritmo Tropical (tel. 506/2640-0174, www.hotelritmotropical.net , $45 s/d low season, $55 s/d high season), 400 meters south of Frank’s Place, with seven modern, cross-ventilated, and well-lit cabins in a lush landscaped complex. Each cabin sleeps four people and has fans, modest furnishings, and a nice private bathroom with hot water. It has secure parking, plus an Italian restaurant (Thurs.–Tues.).
The well-maintained U.S.-run Santa Teresa Surf Camp (tel. 506/2640-0049, www.santateresasurfcamp.com ), set in neat gardens, specializes in weeklong surf packages (from $596 s, from $990 d). It offers wonderful cabinas with beautiful color schemes; one spacious cabin has a sloping tin roof, ceiling fans, cement tile floors, and kitchenette with large fridge and large louvered windows opening to a terrace. Four other cabins have clean but shared outside bathrooms with cold-water showers. It also has a beachfront air-conditioned two-bedroom house with cable TV, colorful walk-in showers, large kitchen, and wraparound veranda.
The lovely Ranchos Itauna (tel./fax 506/2640-0095, www.ranchos-itauna.com , $70–80 s/d low season, $80–90 s/d high season), in Santa Teresa, is run by a charming Austrian-Brazilian couple and offers four rooms in two octagonal two-story buildings with lots of tropical charm, plus WiFi. Each room has a fan, refrigerator, double bed plus bunk, and private bathroom with hot water. Two rooms have a kitchen. The pleasing restaurant serves international cuisine, and the rancho lounge is a great place to chill. Rates include tax.
The Place (tel. 506/2640-0001, www.theplacemalpais.com , $60–80 s/d year-round; $100 s/d bungalow low season, $120 s/d bungalow high season) is another romantic delight, this one with a sophisticated and ultra-modern vogue. The high point is a lovely jade-colored pool and adjoining open-air lounge with rattan pieces with leopard-skin prints. Reflecting the less-is-more philosophy, the rooms are simply yet fabulously furnished but have earth tones, yellows, and graceful batiks. Far nicer are the bungalows, with trendy cement floors, all-around floor-to-ceiling louvered french doors, and pink spreads enlivening whitewashed wooden walls. Each bungalow has its own style—I like the African villa.
Another winner is Luz de Vida (tel. 506/2640-0568, www.luzdevida-resort.com , $75–85 s/d room, $85–105 s/d bungalow high season; $20 less in low season), with delightfully decorated split-level bungalows surrounded by forest, plus a splendid colorful restaurant overlooking a handsome pool, gorgeously floodlit at night.
Great hotels just keep coming, such as Luz de Luna (tel. 506/2640-0280, www.luzdelunahotel.com , from $40 s/d low season, from $50 s/d high season), which has gorgeous bungalows in a tropical garden. There are Balinese batiks, mosquito net frames over the beds, and sponge-washed bathrooms. Some rooms have kitchens. The highly ranked Alma Restaurant is here.
Plaza Royal Apartments (tel. 506/2640-0708, a.plazaroyal [at] gmail [dot] com), upstairs in Plaza Royal, offers fully equipped one- and two-bedroom luxury apartments with stylish furnishings, WiFi, TVs, and DVD players.
For a wild escape try the Star Mountain Jungle Lodge (tel. 506/2640-0101, www.starmountaineco.com , $50 s, $65 d), two kilometers northeast of Malpaís , on the track to Cabuya  (the turnoff is 400 meters north of the soccer field in Malpaís). This gem is tucked in the hills amid an 80-hectare private forest reserve with trails. The four charming cross-ventilated cabinas are simply yet tastefully decorated and have Sarchí rockers on the veranda. A casita bunkhouse sleeps up to nine people. There’s a pool, and guided horseback rides ($30 two hours) are offered. Grilled meats and fish are prepared in a huge open oven. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to get here.
Worthy alternatives include Pachamama (tel. 506/2640-0195, www.pacha-malpais.com ), which even has a tipi social area; the eminently likeable Funky Monkey Lodge (tel. 506/2640-0272, www.funky-monkey-lodge.com ), with some of the loveliest rooms and dorms around, plus a pool; and Tropical Surf House (tel. 506/8345-7746, www.tropicalpasta.com ).
The Argentinian-run Blue Surf Sanctuary (tel. 506/2640-1001, www.bluesurfsanctuary.com , $125 s/d low season, $145 s/d high season) has a cool vibe, lent not least by its open kitchen-lounge with hammocks and sofas. Choose one of four individually themed raised villas with pendulous open-air queen-size lounge beds slung beneath. Lovely furnishings include dark contemporary hardwoods, ethnic pieces and fabrics, and gorgeous albeit small bathrooms with mosaic tiles and large walk-in showers. It has a plunge pool and surf school. I like it!
The delightful English-run Trópico Latino Lodge (tel. 506/2640-0062, www.hoteltropicolatino.com , from $105 s/d low season, from $125 s/d high season), at Playa Santa Teresa, backs a rocky foreshore with hammocks under shade trees. It has 10 high-ceilinged, simply furnished wooden bungalows amid lush lawns and tropical foliage. Each has wide shady verandas, a king-size bed and a sofa bed, mosquito nets, fans, and a private bath with hot water. Two cabins have ocean views. It offers spa and yoga sessions, plus has a marvelous open-air restaurant and a gorgeous pool and whirlpool tub by the beach. Rates include tax.
The best of many good options in this price bracket is the brilliantly conceived and executed Moana Lodge (tel. 506/2640-0230, www.moanalodge.com , $90 s/d standard, $115 s/d deluxe, $180 junior suite, $225 suite low season; $100 s/d standard, $125 s/d deluxe, $210 junior suite, $250 suite high season). The African-themed lodge has 10 rooms and suites, some in huge colonial-style wooden cabins, featuring four-poster beds with cowhide drapes, zebra (fake) skins, leopard-print cushions, free WiFi, and large well-lit bathrooms with huge showers. The suite gets heaps of light through a glass wall. An open-air rancho with a poured-concrete sofa overlooks a large whirlpool tub and free-form pool in a stone-faced sundeck. Really, really nice—and a bargain!
The Asian-inspired Beija Flor (tel. 506/2640-1007, www.beijaflorresort.com , $85–105 s/d rooms, $120 s/d bungalows, $135 s/d suite, $185 villa) specializes in yoga and wellness retreats. It is equal to the Moana Lodge in the stylish appeal of its urbane contemporary-themed rooms, a stylish combo of whites and taupes. Most rooms have WiFi. Chef Christian Schwaiger merges French influences with local ingredients in the gourmet restaurant. There’s also a spa.
Pricey for what you get, the Hotel Playa Carmén (tel. 506/2640-0404, www.playacarmenhotel.com , $90 s/d room, $125–250 suite low season; $140 s/d room, $195–275 suite high season), at Plaza Carmén, has clean contemporary lines. Although guest rooms are dark, they have ceiling fans and bathrooms with glass walls and travertine, and they open to a lovely courtyard with pool, hot tub, and a circular thatched bar.
The Israeli-run Zula Inn Aparthotel (tel. 506/2640-0940, www.zulainn.com , $95 s/d low season, $115 s/d high season), at Playa Santa Teresita, is another lovely hotel worth considering. Then there’s the Otro Lado Lodge (tel. 506/2640-1941, www.otroladolodge.com , $100 s/d low season, $120 s/d high season), another attractive contemporary-style hotel with a crisp aesthetic, combining gleaming whites with colorful tropical highlights. The restaurant here is a winner.
I was excited to learn about Shaka Beach Retreat (tel. 506/2640-1118, www.shakacostarica.com , $100 s/d low season, $125 s/d high season), which opened in 2010 as a new surf camp and hotel at Playa Hermosa , just north of Santa Teresa. Apart from the appealing aesthetic in its four spacious, air-conditioned villas, Shaka specializes in surf camps for travelers with disabilities. In 2006 Shaka co-founder Christiaan Bailey, a surfer from Santa Cruz, California, suffered a spinal-cord injury while skateboarding. Remarkably, Christiaan learned to adapt; he continues to surf and has worked with board-maker Surftech to develop specialized boards for surfers with disabilities. Christiaan partnered with Floridian surfer Frank Bauer to create Shaka Beach Retreat, a beautiful beachfront property made of hardwoods that is a fully ADA-compliant and wheelchair-accessible retreat. Christiaan and a team of Shaka’s coaches teach kids (and adults) with disabilities to swim and, yes, surf. Awesome! The villas have WiFi, orthopedic mattresses, ceiling fans, and terraces.
In 2010 Nautilus Residential Hotel (tel. 506/2640-0991, www.hotelnautiluscostarica.com , $80 s/d apartments low season, $120 s/d apartments high season), at Santa Teresa, upped the ante on the competition for self-catering units. It offers super sophistication in spacious and modern one-bedroom apartments and two-bedroom villas, all with full kitchens. The lounge garden has a fantastic pool.
Another newcomer in 2010 that looks like a winner is Atrapasueños Lodge (tel. 506/2640-0080, www.atrapasuenos.net , $100–200 s/d low season, $130–200 s/d high season).
The French-owned Hotel Restaurante Milarepa (tel. 506/2640-0023, www.milarepahotel.com , $142–168 low season, $176–199 high season), at the north end of Playa Santa Teresa, exemplifies tasteful simplicity and has four cabins, spaced apart amid lawns inset with a lap pool. Two cabins are literally on the beach. They’re made of bamboo and rise from a cement base: Exquisite albeit sparse appointments invoke a Japanese motif, and there are four-poster beds in the center of the room with mosquito drapes, plus open-air bathroom-showers in their own patio gardens, and one wall folds back entirely so you can be at one with the ocean and Mother Nature. It has a splendid restaurant.
Yoga fans might check out Horizon Ocean View Hotel (tel. 506/2640-0524, www.horizon-yogahotel.com , $90–150 low season, $110–195 high season), a dedicated hilltop yoga center with simply yet pleasingly appointed cabins and villas. The views are worth the price.
“Stunning” and “serene” are fitting descriptions for Florblanca Resort (tel. 506/2640-0232, www.florblanca.com , $350–750 s/d low season, $475–850 s/d high season), perhaps the finest boutique beach resort in the country. This gem enjoys an advantageous beachfront position at the north end of Santa Teresa. Imbued with a calming Asiatic influence (Tibetan prayer flags flutter over the entrance), it offers 10 luxury oceanside villas stair-stepping down to the beach. Fragrant plumeria and namesake flor-blanca trees drop petals at your feet as you walk stone pathways that curl down through an Asian garden. The motif is Santa Fe meets Bali in ochers, soft creams, and yellows. The villas are furnished with silent air-conditioning, large wall safes, quality rattan furnishings, tasteful art pieces, and exquisite furnishings, from lamps of tethered bamboo stalks to king-size beds on raised hardwood pedestals. Each has a kitchenette, a vast lounge, and stone-floored rainforest bathroom with lush gardens and separate showers and oversize tub. Resort facilities include a TV lounge, quality souvenir store, and a walk-in landscaped horizon pool fed by a waterfall with swim-up bar. The superb oceanfront restaurant and sushi bar is worth a visit in its own right. It has a deluxe spa and a sumptuous bi-level honeymoon suite. Tours, including horseback riding at the cattle roundup at Hacienda Ario ($60 three hours), plus yoga, kickboxing, and dance classes in a dojo, are all available.
Florblanca’s originators, Susan Money and Greg Mullins, have gone on to open Pranamar (tel. 506/2640-0852, www.pranamarvillas.com , from $175 s/d low season, from $220 s/d high season), again using a Balinese motif. The four villas feature walk-in pool access off the patios. Want the waves? Choose one of two two-story oceanfront villas, three bungalows, or the Kula House. Wicker and wood furnishings are surprisingly simple, but beautiful. All rooms have WiFi and romantic rainforest bathrooms. It also functions as a yoga retreat. The young vegetation is still growing in.
For the ultimate in reclusive deluxe privacy with pampering personalized service, check into Latitude 10 (tel. 506/2640-0396, www.latitude10resort.com , from $245 low season, from $270 high season), a super and super-exclusive adjunct with three junior suites and two beachfront master suites (actually, they’re all private villas) hidden within its own forest garden. Villas are infused with Asian influences, including dark colonial plantation furnishings, glassless windows and french doors, lofty king-size beds with plump pillow-top mattresses, and fabulous open-air bathrooms with rainforest showers. You get your own chef at the guest-only restaurant.
“We are fans of the Moon Books, especially the popular Costa Rica edition,” wrote Brad and Tara. Brad and Tara invited me to stay at their four upscale rental villas on Playa Hermosa, just north of Santa Teresa. These lovely villas offer WiFi, satellite TV, a landscaped swimming pool, and even a kid’s playground. Check it out here: Villas Hermosa (tel. 506/2640-0630, www.villashermosas.com , from $175 low season, $225 high season).