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A Guide to Slow Travel in Playa Samára, Costa Rica

I ventured to the sleepy beach town of Playa Sámara on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast Nicoya peninsula—and ended up staying for two years. Revisiting for an extended stay, I reflect on how this magical place made me realize how slow travel is one of the best ways to actually see and experience the world in a meaningful way.
Sunset over Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Another day of "Pura Vida" closes with an incredible sunset over Playa Sámara

A Travel Elective

As far as I know, there are no courses offered to learn how to practice slow travel, though more and more advice is being offered of late as ideas have proliferated due to the influence of the Slow Food and related Slow Travel movements. Like Slow Food, a slower form of travel has become a way of life in our fast-paced (digital) world. But no need to take a class to travel. Assuming you are an open, curious, and patient person, why not teach yourself? Why not open your senses and immerse yourself in your surroundings, stay longer in fewer places, and try to create a more simple and sustainable balance between needs and desires? You will likely be amazed how quickly sensitivity to natural surroundings, as well as respect for the local people and cultures who host you on their land, will transform a “fun vacation” to one in which you practice a sustainable form of the art of travel. One of the rewards of this new perspective leads to cultivating travel experiences that save you money and allow you to keep traveling indefinitely. Playa Sámara is an excellent place to experience what Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) mean by Pura Vida, and just might set you on your way to learning a unique mode of independent travel.

Isla Chorla, Costa Rica
Swim out to Isla Chora, or snorkel the calcified coral reef.

On Sámara Time: Some Things Never Change

Fortunately, some things never change. I still am gently awakened by the rush of the surf as the sun begins to rise, a birdsong harmony, distant monkey howls, or an iguana’s shuffling across the hot tin roof. Butterflies still flutter across the surface during calm seas as pelicans circle and dive. Gallo Pinto, plátanos y fruta remains a typical Tico breakfast that consists in a simple rice and black bean dish accompanied by fried plantains and plenty of fruit. Local fishermen return twice a day with a bountiful fresh catch. Travelers and locals gather on the beach to witness dramatic sunsets every evening.

Life slows down almost immediately once you step on the sand and behold the varying blues of the bay, bordered by rocky jungle-topped points all wrapped up in a million shades of green. As I sit at one of the few beach locales and sip a famous exotic fresh fruit Batido, thoughts refresh my soul like epiphanies. Even the most stressed escapee from the modern world will likely realize: “I am now living on Sámara time.”

Boys in tree in Costa Rica
Boys will be boys, even when living in a "blue zone."

Pura Vida! 

It is almost impossible to classify why Sámara is such a special place. Perhaps because the Nicoya peninsula is one of the few Blue Zones, and an example demonstrating greater human longevity due to the simplicity of the way of living? Perhaps it is the unique combination of the ocean, fresh breeze, the millions of tropical rainforest greens, vibrant flowers, abundant fresh food, and wildlife? The consensus among locals and travelers is that are visiting and experiencing a kind of paradise translated as pura vida. Whatever the source of the magic, whether a state of mind or a gift from the gods, the atmosphere is omnipresent. Of course, such sensations are not felt profoundly unless you are open to local life and perceive the allure. A tourist could easily sunbathe, lay by a pool, enjoy cocktails, go out to eat, and relax in their room—and it would be considered a great vacation by many who may need the relaxation. But such a tourist might well miss out on immersing themselves in a new place and culture, precisely what justifies staying in one location as long as possible.

Pura Vida, meaning pure life, is the Tico phrase reflecting Costa Rican beauty and pride, though the expression is used to mean everything from a greeting to an exclamation. The expression is culturally rich in nuance and can be interpreted in many contexts, from endearing to cynical. Therefore, there is no absolute definition of Pura Vida. Nevertheless, after living and traveling in Costa Rica extensively, I have come to interpret the expression as follows: Living simply by appreciating and being content with natural surroundings, family and friends, and creating the best situation out of the lot one is given. Such is a minimalist yet suggestive worldview, it seems to me, that could educate and inspire us all.

A fishing boat in the ocean in Samara
A fishing boat in the tranquil ocean.
A typical modest house in Samara
A typical modest house.
Fishermen return after a day at sea
Matapalo fishermen return after a day at sea.

A Return to my Matapalo Home

I return to Matapalo. The neighborhood is composed of a handful of modest, colorful houses along Sámara beach, made up mostly of local fishermen and families of shopkeepers who work in Sámara center—yet quieter and genuinely Tico.

Entering the one pulperia (small grocery store), I find Jandro and his mother, the owner, conducting business as usual. Jandro recognizes me. This time, he assures me, “Your Spanish is better.” I ask about rental apartments. His mother Maria nods, giggles, and shows me a one-room flat behind the shop for less than the cost of a hostel dorm room. At first, she was reserved, but now we talk on the phone from time to time. Being in a small barrio like Matapalo, I start to observe what is happening in the community and begin to actively greet and meet new and old faces from my patio.

Pura vida mae” (mae = dude, mate), is how I greet a few fishermen who are hauling the day’s catch in a wagon. I ask them for some fish. They invite me with a wave towards the pescaderia. At the fish store, fish are loaded into fridges or filleted by the kilo for sale. I visit Ricardo often to buy and talk fish, but his jokes still elude me despite my best efforts to understand his sense of humor. I first try my hand at making Ceviche (fresh, raw fish cured in lemon juice combined with peppers, onion, and garlic). Ricardo liked my first attempt.

Maria’s daughter bakes in a little room that has been turned into a kitchen for extra income, right next to my flat. As a result, I eat more cake than usual right where I live. Eduardo, the father, I recall as a local cab driver. Now he has an SUV and makes day trips. I watch Hollywood movies subtitled in Spanish on the shop TV with Jandro occasionally. We both laugh as little scenes play out, while customers come and go.

Living among locals, even with just one family, opens up dialogue and conversation about all sorts of subjects. You gain insight learning their stories, and meeting other members of the family and neighbors—rather than just fellow hostelers, expats, tour hands, and concierges.

Children's Christmas in Costa Rica
The children's Christmas fiesta.

The Tale of the Tico and the Gringo

Costa Ricans are some of the warmest people I have ever met, and many other foreigners have noticed that same hospitality. Most are open and gregarious, and only become reserved when they think you might not speak or attempt to speak their language (perhaps thinking that you are not interested). Manners get you everywhere. A smile or a nod are among the types of wordless gestures that are greatly appreciated. The first time I offered a señora my seat on a bus a new world opened. Not only did she give me a homemade tamale, but I suddenly became part of a chat between several people—a normal occurrence for Ticos anywhere they might be. Over time, I have met several new friends on buses, at local markets, or taking a ticket to stand in line at a bank.

Yes, there are many gringos in Costa Rica. It is, after all, the most affluent and sophisticated country in the region, stable, neutral with no military, and has ample tourism and immigration options for retirees and expats. Such factors have allowed Costa Rica to concentrate on conservation and social programs that in turn make it more attractive internationally. "Gringo" is not simply a derogatory term, by the way. The meaning and insinuation depend upon the context and attitude of the extranjero (foreigner). Sure, there are mixed feelings among Ticos regarding the huge influence on the local economy by foreign investment that is relatively massive, even if the impact is often beneficial. Many Europeans and North Americans move or retire to Costa Rica. So long as expats or retirees do not act arrogantly, and at least attempt to speak Spanish, they are welcomed by most Ticos. Many gringos have a hard time learning the language and so tend to bond closely within their own circles—unfortunate, understandable, but ultimately their loss.  

Sharing community and paradise in Costa Rica
Sharing community and a piece of paradise.

My advice is to try to be careful about falling prey to a foreign language clique—mixing only with speakers of your language—if you wish to learn in any deep manner about the Costa Rican way of life or about any other people and their culture in general. The reality is that no matter how long you live in a foreign destination, even if you learn the language, you will always inherently be considered a foreigner at some level. In itself, some form of alienation is unavoidable. But such feelings are no excuse to be shy or open enough to strike up chats with Ticos even if you need a dictionary, app, use hand signals in order to communicate, or even feel awkward using any of these ways to communicate. Ticos and expats live together on one land in Costa Rica, so why not attempt to develop creative means of dialog and develop mutually beneficial synergies?

Night sunset in Samara
Such awe-inspiring views each evening provide a reminder that you are living in Sámara time.

A Slow Travel Plan

How do you travel? Whether on the cheap or are seeking creature comforts, you can travel slower and longer on any budget. I tend to travel in a simple manner and splurge every once in a while on a more expensive place or activity. In all honesty, however, traveling slowly and cheaply quickly teaches you that simplicity is best and that the frivolities of luxury are better reserved for home. So leap out of your comfort zone and try these simple ways of living when in Sámara—or anywhere else:

  • Stay longer in fewer places. A month or more at best, but even a week will have you more immersed in local culture than the classic “see-it-all vacation.”

  • Only book a hostel or room in advance for a day or so, then go out and find a flat at a cheaper monthly/weekly rate. Of course, finding a room or apartment in advance is often ideal.

  • Get out and meet locals and local expats. A smile, a greeting, and showing signs of curiosity will get you everywhere.

  • Buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and seafood from local market stall vendors, pick-up trucks that drive by houses, or direct from the source.

  • Eat as the locals do. Do you absolutely need a brand of peanut butter when you are abroad?

  • Cook your own meals. Try your hand at local dishes. You will expand your repertoire and taste buds forever. You may even be able to host those who host you in their country for a meal.

  • Speak Spanish. Study or take a course, learn phrases/new vocabulary as situations present themselves. Use the new words you learn and don’t be shy.

  • Travel by bus/boat. The Costa Rican bus and ferry network are excellent, comfortable, and cheap.

  • Explore nature and local neighborhoods. Its free! By strolling about town, hiking, and exploring, the natural surroundings arouse your senses, help you gain familiarity, and will remain etched in your memory.

  • Go off the tourist trail. The surest path to immersion is to stay away from where tourists gather.
Some beaches in Costa Rica
Sámara, Buena Vista, and Carillo Beaches are easily accessible.

Why Did I Choose Sámara?

While Sámara is a unique and enchanting place, it’s not exactly like being on a tiny tropical island with a tribe of Indio. So why did I learn about slow travel here? The way I arrived and settled down happened something like the following:

  • The paradisaic surroundings while living in Tico time allowed me to think in peace and sharpen my senses without the distracting bustle of “western” life.

  • I learned initially from expats, met locals who spoke my language, then began to learn Spanish (I am still far from being fluent by the way).

  • In time, I automatically adjusted to local ways, including the food, climate, daily life, habits, and general customs.

  • In a beach town, where travelers come and go, things soon become quite cosmopolitan. You gain a unique chance to meet all types of people from around the globe and form a worldview, even while observing how the interaction affects locals.

  • When spending a long time in a place, you eventually become part of the very picture where you can also spot yourself. Catching a reflection in a mirror of yourself with others can be very enlightening.

Sámara just happened to be the place where it all came together, offering perfect conditions to teach me how to get the most out of traveling in the context of a local culture. The experience and wisdom I gained not only in Costa Rica as well as in all my subsequent travels have evolved into a set of maxims that now serve as a fundamental guide.

Author in hammock as advocate of Pura Vida
The author is an appreciator and advocate for pura vida.

Though I have been traveling and living abroad for over 25 years, I did not realize the value and lessons learned until after my two-year stint in Playa Sámara. My return to Sámara, a long-term trip in this unique land, visiting old and new friends, has caused me to reflect on how I have changed the way I travel and live. My senses are more acute. I am more open. My sense of empathy has evolved. I see every minute detail. I am more patient and less stressed. I am aware of the importance of leading a simpler and sustainable way of living.

Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica
From emerald jungle to the Pacific blue, this is the Nicoya Peninsula.

An Insider’s Guide to Playa Sámara

Whether you practice slow travel, adventure travel on a bare-bones budget, or just cannot do without creature comforts, there are enough options for places to stay, to eat, to buy supplies and plenty to do otherwise in Sámara.

The following are the places I know and trust, along with a few (largely free) things worth getting out to do.

Places to Stay

Beach life at hostel Las Mariposas
Experiencing beach life at hostel Las Mariposas.

Leonie, a Dutch Sámara expat.opened the second hostel just as I was leaving four years ago. Hostel Las Mariposas is just off the beach near Intercultura Language School. The colorful garden-style house has mixed or female dorms (US$17/35 dorm/private double-high season), private rooms, lots of green communal space and hammocks, as well as a kitchen where there’s always something going on. Being in town, it’s close to everything, yet still secluded. Leonie even takes on the occasional volunteer. (See #2 on the map below.) There are several hostels in Sámara.

Airbnb Oceanfront Room at Cuisine Miguel

I lived here with Miguel in those days, but these days he and Sarah offer Airbnb rooms from this heavenly seaside location just down the beach from town. Sundays, Cuisine Miguel serves up scrumptious 5-course meals with fresh, local ingredients in probably the only Supper Club this side of London or NYC. (See #4 on the map below.)

Koss Gallery Private Beach Bungalows

Right next door to Miguel & Sarah lives local, legendary Tico artist Jaime Koss. He offers two fine beach apartments, with WiFi, in a 2-story bungalow next to and above his beachfront home, open-air studio, and gallery. (See #5 on the map below.)

Map of Samara, Costa Rica
Map of Sámara locations mentioned above—courtesy of Google Earth

Otras Alquileres (Other Rentals)?

Yes, there are many other short- or long-term rentals, as alternatives to hotels, if you search deeper or locally. The occasional Craigslist ad and Couchsurfing opportunities exist as well. Also look around for rental signs (Se Alquila) My tip: Ask at the small local supermarkets as most shop owners have or know of something—often far cheaper than the usual tourist rates.

Delicious fruits for a batido smoothie
Strange and delicious fruits anytime—perfect for a refreshing batido smoothie.

Comida Tipica

Some say Comida Tipica, typical food, is rather hum-drum in Costa Rica. Rice, beans, potatoes, fried plantains, salad, and meat or fish, known as Casado are certainly simple, yet eating such a meal—even in the Pacific heat—will likely grow on you. Naturally, there are many other dishes and loads of fresh, exotic fruits and vegetables to be had for home cooking. It seems many people are quite lean on the coast of Costa Rica and low-calorie diets are common (another characteristic of the Blue Zone regions), being on the whole rather healthy.

Casado typical Costa Rican dish
Casado, the typical dish that will grow on you.

Going out to eat in Sámara is tempting. International and Tico infusion menus, as well as comida tipica dishes and vegan food can be found in the beach café scene and all over town. However, I do love my Casado at Colochos Restaurant, or tacos at Lo Que Hay on the beach, as well as the meat or fish dishes grilled over coconut wood at El Lagarto Restaurant, though pricey, are delicioso!

Learning Spanish in Sámara

Need an excuse to stay in town a while? Enroll in various Spanish language and culture courses while studying on the beach at Intercultura Language School. A perfect start for long-term travel in Latin America, just getting the basics, or brushing up on existing Spanish—or even yoga!

Explore nature in Samara or stay on beach
Relax on the beach or explore the unforgettable natural surroundings.

Into the Blue

With the Pacific blue on your doorstep, you will likely be spending a bit of time in the warm yet cool thermocline sluiced waters. If you prefer more than just the occasional dip, see the following options:

  • Swim out to Sámara’s satellite Isla Chora in the bay to the far South end of the beach past Matapalo. Of course, you could just rent a kayak at a beachside surf school.
  • Go snorkeling from the same spot entering opposite the stony reef that stretches halfway toward the island. The only coral reef in Sámara, and though white and calcified, it is a great place to see colorful tropical fish and plant life.
Hiking to Buena Vista in Samara
Traversing the bizarre rocky landscape toward Buena Vista—a hiker-climber paradise.

Hike, Walk, Adventure

  • Walk north to neighboring dark, sandy Playa Buena Vista. Time your walk with the low tides, with ample time before sundown. Wear hiking boots or at least sneakers as you will do lots of uneven rock hopping, traversing tide-pools, and a river crossing. The hike is a good 4km (2.5 miles) each way.
  • Hiking beyond the southern headland takes you to the equally empty white beach of Playa Carillo. Hiking along the rocky coast, you will be cut off by cliffs and the ocean except at the lowest tidal phases. There is an off-trail route across the jungle topped point—which you will have to find—or take the road.
Playa Carillo beach in Samara, Costa Rica
Playa Carillo is said to be one of the most beautiful, pristine beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula.
  • I enjoyed the zip-line canopy tour with Wingnuts. Sustainable adventure tourism at its best, as it is built while preserving the trees on land reserved for wildlife habitat. 10 ziplines, hanging bridges, wildlife ,and ocean vistas ($75 high season).
  • Inland Hikes, such as ascending the steps off the main road opposite Las Brisas Hotel to the overlooking hill—or toward Santa Domingo leaving east behind Matapalo—are peaceful walks on rocky dirt roads or jungle trails. You will experience plenty of natural beauty, ocean views and wildlife glimpses (at least birds and howler monkeys) if you are observant. (#6 & 7 on map above.)
Howler Monkeys in Costa Rica
Going inland almost guarantees seeing Howler Monkeys, which you will hear regardless.

Night falls over a paradise
Night falls over a paradise.

Ode to Playa Sámara

Sámara has changed as well, but thankfully it remains within the bounds of its size and infrastructure. The growth of Sámara maintains the sustainability of its inherent beauty. It is no longer the well-kept secret it once was, but a good thing tends to catch on.

Traveling slowly, you will have ample time to learn just how important preservation, culture, and sustainability are today—and not just in Sámara. So please visit and stay awhile, but leave the land as you first discovered it, and let us hope that Sámara’s future remains under the bright stars under which it still appears each night in perfect clarity.

Paul Graham France is a British-American nomad adventurer, traveling his way slowly across the planet thus far, including living in Germany, Spain, Costa Rica, and Brazil. He has been publishing articles, mostly on travel, since 2011.

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