Whether you’re just planning on visiting Costa Rica or you are thinking about moving here, you might be asking yourself: should I go to Santa Teresa or Uvita? You’ve heard about places in Guanacaste, like Tamarindo and Nosara, being densely populated and dealing with drought. You also know that you love the weather and the wildlife on the Pacific Coast and both Uvita and Santa Teresa keep coming up on your radar as slightly off the beaten path and fondly loved by those who visit.

Neither Uvita nor Santa Teresa exist in a bubble so we’re going to discuss the surrounding areas as well. For Santa Teresa, the greater area is called Cobano and includes the towns of Mal Pais, Montezuma, Tambor and Playa Carmen, among other lesser known communities. Uvita is a part of a region known as Costa Ballena, which includes Dominical, Ojochal, and their surrounding communities. These two great regions of Costa Rica come highly recommended to explore if you are into beaches, mountains, nature, adventure, and relaxation. Here’s a bit about what they are like, what makes them similar, and what’s different about these two rising stars.

What’s Cool About Cobano

Santa Teresa is located in the district of Cobano, which is on the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula and one of the lesser visited areas on the peninsula, which is also home to places like Tamarindo, Nosara, Samara. The most important economic activity in Cobano centers around tourism along the coast. The more popular towns in this area all have several hotel complexes for middle to high-end tourism. Even still, only one dirt road traverses Santa Teresa, which keeps mass tourism at bay. 

The main drag in Santa Teresa is a juxtaposition of the low key vibe of the dirt road with the densely packed restaurants, stores, and tour companies. (image from govisitcostarica.com)

Santa Teresa is internationally known as a trendy place to visit and has around 2000-3000 full-time residents. Celebrities like Mel Gibson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Giselle Bundchen have vacation homes in the area. This is because it feels remote while also having lots of touristic options for activities and amenities.

A waterfall near Montezuma Beach in Cobano

The popular Cobano towns of Montezuma and Santa Teresa have experienced rapidly developing commerce in recent years. Luxurious hotels, international restaurants, small shopping centers, and gourmet markets are all increasing in prevalence. The city of Cobano has most of the commercial development in the region and is home to supermarkets, restaurants, hardware stores, gas stations, professional offices, and government offices.

Visiting Santa Teresa requires a short flight from the San Jose International Airport to the Tambor domestic airstrip. From there, it’s a 45 minute drive to Santa Teresa proper. There is also the option of taking a ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera, which is just over an hour’s journey. 

The Allure of Costa Ballena

For decades, Costa Ballena has been a quiet destination on Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast that is favored by avid surfers, nature lovers, and adventurers from around the world. Known for its consistent surf breaks and rustic charm, visitors tend to come back often enough that they eventually end up staying for good. It is now a popular tourism and expat destination with loads of eco and adventure activities to fill your days.

New homes in Uvita have modern aesthetics amid a delightful tropical setting.

The stunning coastal ridges in Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal, and the surrounding areas attracts high-end investors to the many communities that sit atop the verdant cliffs overhanging the pristine Pacific coastline. Many of the luxury homes seated in this landscape act as successful vacation rental homes for high-end adventure and eco tourism, especially now in this era where people desire peace, tranquility and exquisite natural beauty.

Homes in Uvita sit on cliffsides above verdant foothills reaching out to the Pacific.

Uvita is the commercial center of the Costa Ballena. This is where the greatest number of services can be found in the region, which is at most a 20 minute drive of most other communities in Costa Ballena. The flatness of the main commercial district in Uvita makes it an ideal place for people who prefer to cycle rather than drive. Central Uvita residents can walk or cycle between stores, banks, clinics, and home — all within an afternoon. 

Marino Ballena National Park is at the center of Uvita and likely played a big role in this area becoming a popular destination. The signature Whale’s Tail cola formation is uniquely beautiful, especially in that this marine park attracts bi-annual visitations of Humpback whale pods who come to birth new calves in this special subduction zone.

A visit to the Uvita waterfall is a lush, green, refreshing treat after a day at the beach.

Many tourists who visit Costa Ballena opt to stay in Uvita because of its range of accommodations, services and activities. Rental properties, BnBs, hostels and hotels are abundant, each with their own special offerings. There is more commercial investment happening today in Uvita than ever before and it will likely continue to expand with the rate of tourism.

High-end accommodations for rent in Uvita tend to be in the higher altitudes, taking advantage of the amazing views and lush temperatures in the tropical mountains of the region.

Families are drawn to Uvita because this is where the majority of English-language and bilingual schools are in the region. There is no shortage of young families moving to Costa Rica from all over the world. These adventurous parents are looking to offer their children a different kind of experience to shape their future. Even if it’s just for a year or two, traveling to a new land — especially one as nature-filled as Costa Ballena — is an enriching experience that is highly valued by the families who are willing to try out a different style of life.

Local restaurants are a popular draw for foodies all over the world seeking elevated, local, fresh, and organic dining paired with phenomenal al fresco environments. Surrounded by flourishing greenery, twinkling lights, and open and fresh air, Costa Ballena dining offers experiences that are naturally filled with elegance and romance. There are several more low key cantinas and sodas, too, with a variety of menus. You can also find the occasional live entertainment in bars showcasing local and national talent.

What is similar about Santa Teresa and Uvita?

As with many of Costa Rica’s coastal Pacific communities, pura vida is a central pillar in the spirit of both Santa Teresa and Uvita. People are friendly, attitudes are laidback and peaceful, and there is a distinctly welcoming tone to everyday interactions. These are two of Costa Rica’s prime destinations for when you want to feel like you are living at the edge of the world while still being able to live life with relative ease.

These down-to-earth destinations are increasingly becoming luxurious surfer’s paradises that were once quiet fishing villages. The international communities here blossomed in the early 2000s and brought with them yoga classes, cacao ceremonies, sound meditations, dance workshops, and transformational retreats. There are also plenty of former city-dwellers trying to recreate the cultures of their own hometowns in more idyllic settings.

Both Santa Teresa and Uvita have plenty of options for everyday necessities and luxuries. Grocery stores, services, international imports, and other facilities are all available among incredible opportunities for eco and adventure tourism. Gourmet options are becoming more populous every year and craftspeople who feel inspired by the local selection of raw materials are creating amazing products. Fiber-optic cable has made it to both location in recent years, with parts of central Uvita even getting up to 200 mbps download speed and most homes in the mountains with high speed internet getting around 30 mbps.

When it comes to the quality of nature, Uvita and Santa Teresa are on a very similar scale where development is low enough that it has a minimal impact on the environment when compared to other parts of Costa Rica. Wildlife corridors are protected from over development by both local and national efforts and marine environments are actively protected, too. Both Cobano and Costa Ballena have uniquely biodiverse ecosystems that provide amazing opportunities for humans to live in closer harmony with the essence of nature. Here, you can create more of the world that surrounds you than you could elsewhere in the world.

Catch consistent big waves in both Santa Teresa and Uvita (photo from Costa Rica Dive and Surf in Uvita)

Uvita and Santa Teresa are popular surf destinations because of the good waves and great breaks, making for challenging and fun rides. The beaches in both destinations are characterized by lush vegetation that stretches along the coast. Coastal migratory birds, lots of water activities, and a good amount of nightlife options are all reasons why people visit anywhere along the Pacific Coast. Jungles go to the edge of the beach and you will find no high-rises in the mountains, where the majority of international arrivals find their homes.

What Makes Santa Teresa Different from Uvita?

Since the popularity of Santa Teresa exploded in the last decade, tourism has grown from less than a hundred annual visitors in 1975 to around 25,000 in the mid-1990s to around 150,000 in recent years. This was likely due to the TV series Temptation Island 2 being filmed in the region (in Tambor).

Santa Teresa has a dry and humid climate, with dry season extending from the end of October to the end of May. This region endures periodical years of drought occurring alongside the El Nino phenomenon. Costa Ballena has a more verdant calendar year, receiving over 280” of rain annually on average. The rainy season extends from May to November, with 6 months of dry season (which include the occasional rains). In Costa Ballena, the ample rains have kept drought at bay in this region and development levels are kept in check with the measurement of the water table being a deciding factor in new development.

 

Santa Teresa’s coastline is drier and more sparsely treed due to the different ecosystem that is more drought-prone.

Densely treed green mountains loom over Uvita’s coastline

Santa Teresa was built to be in walking distance to its palm-lined beaches. Development of this area began before Costa Rica’s more stringent environmental regulations encapsulated the protection of the Maritime Zone (200m from the high-tide line). As a result, you will find luxury resorts dotted around certain coastlines and restaurants located very close to the beach, which you will not find in Uvita or anywhere else in Costa Ballena. 

Many homes and businesses are located right on the beach in Santa Teresa which is not allowed in the Uvita area

With the larger number of tourists in Santa Teresa, there are many more resorts, golf courses, and mid- to high-end tourism activities. More tourism and a drier climate also mean that Santa Teresa has to truck water into town daily to meet the increased demand that the local precipitation is unable to supply. Some feel that it is too late to address the growing water shortage problems in a coherent and sensible way. More and more people from Santa Teresa are choosing to moving elsewhere to get away from the increasing commercialization in Santa Teresa and the surrounding area.

Do you think either Uvita or Santa Teresa is right for you? Tell us which one you think you prefer in the comments below!

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