San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Kickin’ it in Sámara

By Arianna McKinney | Special to The Tico Times

From the print edition

Sámara, a laid-back beach destination in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, has achieved a unique blend of culture, nature and activity that makes it ideal for those seeking a full Costa Rica experience. In this Pacific beach town, Ticos blend with foreigners, mountains blend with ocean and adventure blends with relaxation. Expats may abound, but instead of overrunning the town and turning it into another tourist gringolandia, they’ve integrated into the community. Sámara has become a place predominantly Tico-flavored, but seasoned with international spice.

Recently, the town’s beach was named second-best in Central America by Trip-Advisor’s 2012 Traveler’s Choice awards. In April, the town proudly raised the prestigious bandera azul (blue flag) at the entrance to the beach. The environmental award recognizes the community’s commitment to maintaining cleanliness in both the town and at the beach, for both locals and visitors to enjoy. 

Best activities under the sun

Sámara offers a wide variety of activities and points of interest. Take a walking tour of local artists’ shops, stroll the beach, sunbathe, rent a bicycle, explore backroads to spot howler monkeys, get a massage at the Sámara Massage School, pamper yourself at the Natural Center Gym & Spa or book one (or more) of the many tours offered by local tour operators, from deep-sea fishing and spearfishing to nighttime tours to observe sea turtles meticulously burying their eggs on nearby beaches. Here are some of our recommendations for fun and adventure in and around Sámara.

Learning to Surf: The beach is shaped like a horseshoe, which protects the shore and maintains the gentle surf. It’s an ideal environment for learning (for hardcore surfers, nearby beaches like Camaronal offer more challenging waves), and four surf schools are available to choose from.

Prices range from $30-$35 per hour on average. The oldest, most established school is C+C, which offers a large selection of boards and equipment. The owner of Choco’s Surf School, Alex “Choco” Gomez, is one of the top surfers in the nation, placing second on the national circuit in 2009. Tico Surf and Tours specializes in group instruction, and Pato’s Surf School is oriented toward families, having instructed surfers as young as 3 years old.

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Arianna McKinney Layton

The Ultimate Ultralight Flying Experience: As the two-seater ultralight aircraft builds inertia, the energy vibrates in your chest until the gyrocopter sets off down the private grass runway. It takes to the air alongside Buena Vista Beach, and aloft, passengers get a birdseye view of mangroves and several beaches along the coast, including Sámara, Carrillo, Buena Vista and Barrigona (where Mel Gibson owns a beachfront finca).

Glimpse cows grazing, flocks of white birds swooping along Buena Vista River or even a sea turtle floating in the ocean, and then the gyrocopter hovers so close to the ocean that you feel like you’re in a boat instead of in the air. German Guido Scheidt has 25 years experience as a commercial pilot and 17 years operating ultralight aircraft in Costa Rica, with Sámara as his home base. He also operates gyrocopters out of a few other locations, including Tamarindo and Pavas in San José.

Ultralight Tour S.A. is the only certified school in Costa Rica to teach you to pilot a light sport aircraft, and the $110-tour lasts a breathtaking 20 minutes. Or, if you’d rather learn to fly, lessons are around $200 per hour. A taxi from Sámara to the location costs around $12. For more information, call 2656-8048 or email 

Kayaking and Isla de Chora: Sometimes the journey is the destination, and sometimes having a destination makes the journey more significant. For either philosophy, Sámara offers a kayaking option: journey along a river through the mangroves or set your destination for Isla de Chora, a small island off Sámara Beach.

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This beach was recently named the second-best in all of Costa Rica.

Arianna McKinney Layton

From central Sámara Beach, the journey to Chora takes about 30 minutes of kayaking, although the island is only 300 meters off the southern end of the beach. The island was declared a National Wildlife Refuge in 2002 and is home to at least six species of trees, 11 types of birds, various reptiles, snakes and raccoons.

One edge of the island offers a small pebbled beach, and around the island you’ll find some of the best snorkeling around, with colorful fish, shellfish, lobsters, octopus and sea turtles. If you don’t feel like paddling, you can also hire a boat to take you to the island. Some daring souls have even swam out to the tiny island, sometimes hiring someone to kayak alongside them for safety, according to Pablo Sánchez of Ticos Surf and Tours.

Horseback Riding to Swim Under a Waterfall: If you hang out on the beach long enough, you’re sure to see someone on horseback offering rides, which is a thrill in itself. But horseback riding tours are also available to waterfalls around Sámara. The best of the best is a five-hour tour into the mountains of Santo Domingo, where you’ll linger for a snack and a swim at a 100 meter waterfall. The natural pool at the base of the falls is cool and refreshing, surrounded by trees and the lulling sounds of nature. Best yet is sitting under the fall, letting the water massage your shoulders. To visit this waterfall on horseback, contact Chong Díaz, whose family owns the finca where the waterfall is located, at 8307-1433.   

Dining and Local Hangs

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La Mansion owner Marlene McCauley used to perform with Ringling Brothers.

Arianna McKinney Layton

For the size of the town, Sámara offers an amazing variety of cuisines, including French, German, Italian, Thai, Mexican, seafood and typical Costa Rican dishes. Try the green curry at Kaibella, visit Casa Paraiso for the best local pizza, sit down on a stool at Soda La Perla for the best-priced local fare.

You’ll find the coldest beer in town at Pablito’s (served with great soups at an unbeatable rate) or you can treat yourself to a divine Amor Amor (a brownie, ice cream and coffee concoction) at Cafécito. For hanging out in the evenings, Rancho de la Playa offers great meals and mixed drinks at reasonable prices along with a ping pong table and live guitar music on Fridays; Bar Arriba serves drinks, tapas and sports a huge flat-screen TV and a dartboard on the balcony; and La Vela Latina offers mouthwatering burgers, incredible nachos and beachfront sushi.

Unique Places to Stay

Whatever your budget, Sámara has something, from hostels to luxury villas.  Here are a few options that are full of color and character.  

An Artist’s Cabin on the Beach: For the luxury of being right on the beach and the pleasure of being stimulated in a haven of creativity, check out Koss Art Gallery and Cabins. Two cabins offer comfortable beds, a full kitchen and bathroom with a nightly rate of $50 or $70.  As a bonus, the small art gallery displays vibrant oil canvases by owner and artist Jaime Koss, who is always up for a stimulating intellectual conversation. To inquire, call 2656-0284.    

The Flying Crocodile: Ten rooms, and no two are alike. Some have a rustic style, others have a Moroccan touch. All have A/C and water capably heated by solar panels.  Mattresses are firm but pads are available for those who prefer a softer bed. This is a nice place to stay with kids as some rooms have kitchens and the gardenlike grounds harbor many activities, such as foosball, ping pong, a swing set, a pool table, a trampoline and of course a swimming pool.

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Popular waterfall.

Arianna McKinney Layton

Although the place is only about a 10-minute walk from Buena Vista Beach, it’s a bit outside of town – about 5 kilometers across Buena Vista River in Los Esterones. Also, the floors in some rooms have steps, which might be difficult for handicapped folks. Rates for a double room are from $70 to $90 in high season (from Christmas to Easter) and $50 to $70 in low season, including breakfast. For reservations, call 2656-8048.  

La Mansion B+B: Offering four rooms (three of which have A/C and two with private bathrooms), the two-story house in the center of Sámara is surrounded by a garden of tropical greenery. It has an upstairs balcony for sitting and kitchen privileges for guests, with whom proprietors Allan and Marlene McCauley are happy to reminisce about their history as artists and performers.

Marlene, who is an artist, author and puppeteer, used to ride an elephant in the Ringling Brothers circus. Her paintings and prints line the walls of La Mansion, along with Catholic images and saints. The couple is active in the local Catholic church and Marlene says they love the local traditions. 

A fantastic full breakfast is offered, although people on a budget can opt for a continental breakfast or no breakfast for a reduced rate. Standard rates range from $35 for a single room to $100 for the two-bedroom family suite during green season, May 1 to Dec. 14.n 

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