Costa Rica may be a well established destination on the tourist trail, but the Nicoya Peninsula is still very much the country’s own Wild Wild West. Lucky for us, what started off as a transportation nightmare led us to discover our favorite beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.We had no plans to visit Samara Beach. Sure, it was suggested in the guidebooks like countless other Costa Rican beaches. However, despite naysayers’ warnings that efforts to traverse the entire peninsula by bus would prove futile, our plan was to get from Playa del Coco in the north down to the popular, once-isolated beach town of Montezuma on the very southern tip of the Nicoya. We pushed along all the way to the sleepy, scorchingly hot inland city of Nicoya, the peninsula’s namesake, before realizing, weary and dusty from an already long afternoon of bus travel, that there was indeed no way to get down to Montezuma without paying a private taxi $120 to make the remaining five-hour, tire-busting trip.After chatting to several very helpful taxi drivers and a group of American language students on their way back to Samara after a trekking adventure, we spontaneously decided to join our fellow ‘gringos’. The next bus to Samara Beach left just thirty minutes later and arrived within an hour.As soon as we arrived, we were enchanted by the beauty of the beach from the start. We basked in the late afternoon sun, admiring the tropical palm trees which line the miles of wide, white sand beach. The town itself is really only a collection of hotels and restaurants along one road perpendicular to the coast and a smattering of hotels and beach lounges on the beach.Despite the well-developed tourism here, this beautiful beach location is noticeably absent of all-inclusive resorts, and the tourists here are different than the older retirees of Playa del Coco or aging hippies at Montezuma, populated instead by younger couples and smart travelers looking to escape all of that.The area is certainly almost exclusively populated by tourists, ex-pats and locals working in tourism, but Samara Beach does not feel contrived the way that many Costa Rican destinations have now begun to feel. There are no chain hotels, no fast food restaurants, and no multi-story buildings. When you look back at the land from the water, the buildings peek out from amongst lush jungle and striking cliffs. The best thing about Samara is that the endless amount of sandy beaches always feels fairly empty, no matter how full the hotels actually are.The ocean here is shallow, and the waves are present enough to learn to surf but unforgiving enough to enjoy a day splashing around in them, not the case in many locations up and down the Pacific coast from Mexico through Nicaragua (exception: San Juan del Sur). After a day in the waves, there are sunset beach lounges with mellow music, creative cocktails and international cuisine. The magical sunsets during our stay turned the sky various shades of purple and pink, causing a wall of bikini-clad amateur paparazzi to form, trying to capture the stunning scenery.Even though there are quite a lot of international (mostly American) tourists, Samara Beach still manages to feel like an off-the-beaten-path location – which, of course, the town is not. Visitors here can surf, kayak, take a boat ride, book a sport-fishing trip, go diving, head inland to the jungle nearby for canopy tours, or rent a bicycle or hop on a horse and ride up and down the miles of deserted coastline. Samara even advertises itself as a key spot for destination weddings. The hotels remain reasonably priced, although budget accommodation in Samara Beach, as in Costa Rica in general, is harder to come by. We stayed at Casa Valeria, which Frommers calls the best budget option on the beach. The hotel has 9 stand alone beach bungalows for $50 and a pair of cheaper rooms for $30. There is a new hostel in town, Hostel Matilori, which cost around $16 per person per night in a dorm or $45 in a private room – the advantage to the bungalows and other hotels is that the hostel has two shared kitchens.Samara Beach is the Costa Rican vacation we really wanted, fulfilling perfectly the image still being sold in the travel brochures. The level of tourism here makes for the perfect peaceful escape – all of the organization you need and none of the banana-boat and disco clubs you don’t. The problem with Samara Beach is that it is at its tipping point, and while the balance is now is perfect, more tourists arriving each year might convert the place into another overly Americanized beach like Montezuma, Playa del Coco or Jaco Beach (lined with Quiznos and Pizza Huts).This is why we beg you…please don’t go to Samara Beach. But if you do go, which you really should, please don’t tell anyone else about this perfect Costa Rican beach location.
How to get to Samara
The closest airport is Liberia (about 2 hours by car from Samara), but you can also fly into San Jose and get to Samara by car (4 hours) or bus (about 5 hours). A taxi from Liberia airport is between US$50 and US$60. Important: Negotiate the fare before you get in the cab!
By bus: You can take a bus from San Jose or Liberia to Nicoya, and then change onto a bus to Samara. The bus company that runs from Nicoya to Samara is called Empresa Rojas. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Nicoya to Samara.
Alfaro express buses go directly from San José daily at noon from Avenida 5 between calles 14 and 16. The trip takes 5 hours; check here for current timetables and fares (2017 fare: ₡4,395/ US$7.95).
By car: You can rent a car right at the airport in San Jose and Liberia, the roads are simple country roads but okay to drive on. If you don’t want to drive all the way to Samara from San Jose but would like to have a car to explore more of the Nicoya Peninsula – you can also rent a car in Samara.
Where to stay in Samara
Check out the top rated hotels in Samara (2017 edition):
- Las Mariposas – hostel right on the beach, private single rooms from $30, doubles from $35, dorm bed $12 – review score 9.9
- Sunset Chillout Bed & Breakfast – triple room from $50 (incl breakfast) – review score 9.7
- Oasis – 2-bedroom house right on the beach from $35, triples from $42.50 – review score 9.5
- Casa Amarilla – guesthouse with swimming pool in the town center. Double rooms start at $62 – review score 9.2
- Finca Minoy – guesthouse with swimming pool (note: a bit out of town), doubles from $79 – review score 9.8
- Villas Tangerine – Bed & Breakfast right on the beach, doubles start at $62 incl breakfast. Review score 9.3
- Las Perlitas – Hotel with pool in the center of Samara, doubles from $89 incl breakfast. Review score 9.8
- Samara Palm Lodge – hotel with pool, 6 min walk to the beach. Doubles from $61. Review score 9.9
- la isla que no hay – Two bedroom house in the center of Samara from $161 per night (sleeps 4 people), swimming pool. Review score 9.6
- The Hideaway Hotel – on the far southern end of the beach, between Samara and Playa Carillo. Swimming pool and on-site restaurant. Double rooms start at $150 – review score 9.1
Hostel: If you are looking for a hostel, Hostel Matilori has great reviews. They offer both dorm rooms and private rooms. There is free wifi, two shared kitchens, barbecue facilities, hammocks and a games room (perfect place to hide during the rainy hours in monsoon season!).
There are several inexpensive sodas, local restaurants in Samara. These simple restaurants serve up Costa Rica’s main dish: casado. A casado usually includes your choice of beef, chicken, pork or fish, rice and beans, salad, a vegetable side dish, and fried plantains. Vegetarians can ask for fresh cheese or eggs instead of meat. A casado is between US$4 and US$6.
Other places worth checking out:
- Samara Organics MercadoCafe (Natural Center, in front of Gusto Beach Restaurant, Sámara, 50205, Costa Rica)
- Ahora Si! (Samara’s first vegetarian restaurant)
- Lo Que Hay (Mexican restaurant right on the beach)
- Luv Burgers (Vegetarian Burgers)
- Restaurant Giada (Italian restaurant right in the center of town, look for Hotel Giada on Main Street)
- Roots Bakery & Cafe (Fantastic bakery /coffee shop / breakfast place in town. Near Hotel Giada)
- Restaurant Tabanuco (family-run restaurant with fresh seafood served right on the beach)
- El Lagarto (Best place in Samara for steaks, barbecue and seafood)