SANTA TERESA, Puntarenas — Lost in the darkening belly of the Nicoya Peninsula, after nearly hitting a stray ox in the road, I came to yet another river crossing and wondered if I would ever find Santa Teresa.
My phone’s navigation system told me I was an hour away, but it had already steered me down the worst possible route to my destination, and it couldn’t be trusted.
Along mud-filled paths that cut through dusty valleys and over a series of rocky hills that weave along the jade-colored landscape, I kept moving in search of paradise.
Driving to the remote, sandy haven of Santa Teresa can be a long and aching experience, but immediate remedy comes upon first sight of this fairy-tale village secluded in the southwest corner of the Nicoya Peninsula.
With world-class waves and undeniable charm, it is seductive enough to attract the rich and famous, but laid-back in a way that appeals to dreadlocked surfers and 20-somethings.
Accolades constantly pour in for a town that is, in the most elemental terms, just a dirt road sandwiched between ocean to the west and mountains to the east. TripAdvisor, the multibillion-dollar online travel guide that may be the most influential voice in tourism today, just named Santa Teresa the No. 1 destination in Central America through its Traveler’s Choice Awards. A decade ago, Forbes Magazine called Santa Teresa one of the “ten most breathtaking beaches in the world.”
So why does this little village, which doesn’t even have a stop sign, loom so large? (Santa Teresa also doesn’t have reliable drinking water, as the community is awaiting an aqueduct that won’t be completed for another two years at least.)
Even without the most basic necessities, like water and paved roads, the stunning beach town draws 120,000 visitors per year, more than 80 percent of whom are foreigners.
But there are a lot of Costa Rican beaches with great waves, excellent restaurants and bustling international populations. What makes Santa Teresa so special?
I went on a long, tiring journey to find out.
After getting off the ferry in Playa Naranjo, my car’s gas meter was on the fat orange hash. I meant to take the other ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera, which leaves a half-hour earlier and puts you farther south, but I got off to a late start in San José. It was the first hiccup in a day where I would later be waking up an entire town with a tripped car alarm.
Around 3 p.m., my phone told me my hotel was two hours away. I was feeling good about getting in before sundown, but kept looking at my soon-to-be-depleted gas tank. I asked two women walking down the road south of Naranjo with carts full of fruit if there was a gas station ahead.
“Oh no, you’ll have to turn back,” one said, while the other agreed. “The next gas station isn’t until Tambor and you won’t make it there.”
Another temporary detour. But there had to be a gas station close, I figured as I circled back northbound, keeping my eyes on the sides of the road. My phone said the only gas station in the area was the Antiguo Estación de Servicio just outside the ferry port in Naranjo, which looked like it had been shuttered since the Óscar Arias presidency — his first one, that is.
With my gas gauge in the danger zone, I inched up the gulf for about 20 kilometers, waiting for my mule-like 1994 GeoTracker affectionately named “Sancho” to give up and die. In Lepanto, which seemed like a big enough town to warrant a gas station, I stuck my head out of the car and asked a wrinkle-faced man on a bike where the next gas station is.
“Siga recto,” he said — keep going straight.
“Sure, but for how long?” I asked.
Traveling even farther in the opposite direction of Santa Teresa, I finally made it to a modest town called Jicaral where a blue Mobil sign read like a biblical godsend. Once I filled up, my phone said I could take 30 minutes off my trip if I took a road through the middle of Nicoya instead of going back around the southern horn.
I was half an hour into the route when I knew it was a bad idea. Even in four-wheel drive, Sancho bounced around with noisy chaos, moving with the control of a rubber band ball in a washing machine.
When I stopped at the first river after the slow, violent drive over a constant stretch of potholes and swells, I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants to test the water’s depth. I was nearly up to my knees in the Río Bongo and I looked back nervously at my car. Turning around at this point, already halfway through the peninsula, would mean going a long way back on terrible terrain and then driving three more hours at night on the infamous Route 160, which is so bad that violent protests broke out last month amid demands to improve the road.
As I stood plotting my next move in the middle of the river, a revving motorcycle appeared from beyond the thin shrubbery of the riverbank. As I waddled back to land, I nodded to an old man without shoes who came off the motorbike. He pointed to the river and told me to follow him in my car.
“You’re sure there’s a way under there?” I asked.
“There’s always a way,” he said. “You just can’t see because the river is so dirty.”
Looking back at the road I came from, I knew I could take the safe but long way or follow this stranger and possibly turn my car into Costa Rica’s next tourist attraction: the sunken vessel of Nicoya.
Soon my car’s wheels were half-submerged in the water, treading over the slippery rocks behind the old man, who zigzagged through the water, leading me on a shallow trail where I wouldn’t get washed away. We made it to the bed of white pebbles and dirt on the other side, and he shook my hand as I took off into the road disappearing into the black jungle.
Within 15 minutes of the first river, I came upon a fork and decided to veer left, where toads lined the road’s edges and birds rose from the ground. There another deep-looking river swallowed the path. Getting my car close to the edge, I kept my brights on to try and determine where the road reappeared, but the other side was lost in the darkness.
I turned around to check out the second trail. A kilometer into my Plan B and I was back at the same river, just a little farther north. Again struggling to see where the road reappeared on the other side of the water, I was taking off my shoes again when two motorcycles drove up.
Despite my luck with the first stranger, this did not put me at ease. I was a foreigner alone at night in the middle of nowhere, and it was a bit scary. There was no town, or even a house, for miles around and my cellphone had lost service and turned into an expensive paperweight.
“Hey, do you know if it’s passable here?” I asked.
One man remained quiet under his helmet while the other took his off, though his face was still shrouded by the night. He got off his motorcycle and walked toward the river.
“It should be,” he said. “I’ll check.”
By now my pants were almost dry, so I said OK and watched the man wade through water up to his thighs. He motioned at the right portion of the water and yelled back to us.
“Come around this way and get to the bank,” he said.
His friend went first, successfully reaching the other side, where he turned horizontally and ducked into a small opening, then his headlight vanished into the forest. I followed his path, my car rocking through the river, until I too found the uphill path tucked like a secret along its bushy edge.
After another river crossing or two, and at least a dozen hilly climbs, I could finally hear the ocean. It was a strange and relieving sensation to have my bearings again after hours adrift and directionless.
We made it to Playa Manzanillo on the Pacific and the two motorcyclists who had generously let me ride behind them stopped in town. I gave a thumbs up out my window and continued to the south, hooking around the dramatically located Atardecer Dorado restaurant steps from the beach.
The rolling Pacific reflected the sliver of moonlight above, and streetlights brightened the dark space between Playa Hermosa and Playa Cocal. I crossed a mini-bridge, and then a crowd of people appeared on a short stretch of road lighted by storefronts and restaurants. They walked in and out of bars and hotels, speaking all kinds of languages.
There was no welcome sign, but I had made it to Santa Teresa. I stopped at the eight-month-old bar Tap House to get a beer and a steak sandwich. When I came back out, around 11 p.m., I turned my car on and the alarm started blaring.
I had never heard my alarm go off before, and did not even know my ’94 GeoTracker had one. The awful noise went on for 10 minutes as tourists walking by stared at me as I tried to find a secret button under the steering wheel that would shut up my howling beast.
A Tico stopped his car behind mine and got out to help.
“You don’t have a button on your keys to deactivate it?” he asked. I shook my head and he took a look inside the driver’s side of my car to find some kind of switch. There was nothing.
He let me borrow a wrench so I could unfasten the cable from one post of my battery, which finally silenced the noise. The kind man, who had taken time during a night out with his family to help me, shook my hand and took off.
As I scrolled through the driver’s manual with the hood up, a young guy riding a motorcycle with his girlfriend (yes, the fourth Tico on two wheels to come to my rescue tonight) stopped and asked what the problem was. He told me he was a mechanic and almost immediately fixed the problem by pushing two green wires away from the base of the steering wheel.
The next day I would have to take out the whole system, he said, or else the alarm would start again randomly, but I would be fine for the night to drive to my hotel a mile away.
“This is your first night here?” he asked. “Well, welcome to town. It only gets crazier.”
(To be continued.)
Contact Michael Krumholtz at email@example.com.