If you look around you can still discover little Costa Rican beach villages that offer everyday conveniences but haven’t been overwhelmed by pink gringos and multi-level condos. Only 36 kilometers down a paved and beautifully twisty scenic route from Nicoya to the Pacific coast, you’ll find just such a place in Playa Samara.
For the past two weeks while home-sitting on a hillside above a glorious bay on the southern coast of Guanacaste, this small village has renewed my soul and brought me back to a more original part of Costa Rica; rough, natural, peaceful. It’s rainy season in October, so the spectrum of breathtaking blues that normally streak the calm bays when it’s not raining have been smeared with a khaki palette of swollen brown-red rivers speckled with branches and leaves that spill in from the mountains that hug the oval bay.
The hillside cottage I’m tending rests on the rim of a canyon where northerly winds push clean feathery breezes up the verdant ridgeline to sweep through my open kitchen before sneaking out the back door. At high tide distant breakers can be heard slapping the sand before vanishing into quiet froth. In the early morning, like clockwork, the throaty howl of hungry monkeys wakes me with the new dawn.
Natural harmony exists in Playa Samara, and if you let it take you, it will. October squalls and thunderous lightening storms ironically cause a settling calm in this peaceful pocket of the Pacific coast. The forest creatures hunker down while rain, sounding like a sizzling grill, falls to earth, feeding a growing uproar of streams that snake and tumble down the seams of furry green hills. When the downpours pass, a new life emerges in a xylophonic symphony of throaty frogs, chatty birds, itchy crickets and cicadas, chirping geckos and bellowing howlers.
Peace is natural and pure in Samara, and the animals, as well as the locals, enjoy every day in stride, regardless of the season. Last week a primary bridge over the Rio Mala Noche River connecting the road from Samara to its nearby sister, Playa Carrillo, broke in two like a stale piece of cake. School kids, workers and travelers were stranded on one side or the other scratching their heads and talking about solutions. There was no panic, just planning and getting to it. After five days under a steady downpour, the passageway had been repaired.
No wonder the people of Samara and surrounding villages are peaceful and friendly – they’re in harmony with their environment, happy and settled, undisturbed by the commotion of the natural environment they live in. Any lift of a finger from a steering wheel returns a happy nod or a wave. When you want to sit and chat, time does not exist. Until you develop relations, it’s incumbent on outsiders to initiate contact because the natives sense a separation in social stratification they don’t want to impinge on. Once the doors of communication are open, though, the invisible gap quickly dissolves into open and friendly conversation. It’s not unusual to chat for hours telling tales of life and then share a meal of crunchy vegetables, sweet fat bananas, toasted hand-tossed tortillas and lime-stuffed whole fresh snapper caught everyday outside the reefs by fishermen.
For about one-third the cost of resort town prices, local fishermen will gladly take you out for a day in their scruffy looking, but very comfortable pangas with the name of their girlfriends, wives or daughters hand painted on the side. This is a very safe and fun way to see the rugged coastline from another perspective – to fish, snorkel or watch waves crashing into reefs and rocks.
The bays of Playa Samara and Playa Carrillo may be two of the cleanest and nicest on the coast. Both are partially protected by reefs that moderate the swells before they break along the sand. You can still ride waves, but their size discourages the hard-core motley surfer crowd who head further south to Camaronal for monster point breaks or north 30 kilometers to the curiously eclectic hamlet of Nosara.
When driving the paved beach road of Playa Carrillo, you find yourself gawking at the beauty. There are no developments anywhere except for a dirt landing strip used once or twice a week by Sansa and Nature Air. Park anywhere and you are in the shade of fluttering lime green palm fronds that line the entire expansive swoosh of fine sand, cluttered only with few rock outcroppings and the occasional log brought in from the sea.
A welcome convenience of Samara are the paved roads. Most of the town streets are flat and paved, including the coastal road from Playa Carrillo all the way to the Pan Am Highway. Driving the tree tunneled coastal road from Samara to Carrillo, you feel lost but safe – in another world.
Costa Rica is notorious for its elephantine potholes and slick ruts. It’s true too when you leave the paved roads around Samara. Locals try their best to fill these with lastre, but it’s like putting a strip of Velcro on the trunk of a palm. In Samara, as elsewhere in Costa Rica, it’s best to drive a four-wheel vehicle to accommodate an urge to travel off road into the blue-green mountains and through the many gravel strewn river beds.
The population in Samara is primarily Costa Rican, but there is a definite international flavor of European spice in the stores and boutique hotels are available nightly or on a monthly rental. Students of all ages and backgrounds come from around the world to learn or improve their Spanish at Intercultura’s well organized and highly acclaimed beach front facility. Some students stay in basic cabinas for as little as ten dollars a night, or enjoy the more costly facilities of cleverly designed hotels for $35.00 to $100.00. Serious students will live with a local Tico family for an interesting and fun home stay of a week or more.
Others come for a day or two on a driving tour of the country. Increasingly, more are coming to make Samara a secondary or primary residence. Real estate isn’t cheap, however, it isn’t over the top either – yet. It’s less expensive than many of the more developed resort areas like Tamarindo and the central coastline where you can easily spend $700,000 to one million dollars for a decent place.
In Samara you can find close-in ocean view homes beginning at $400,000, and there are a few condos available in the $135,000 range, a few minutes walk to the beach. Lots run the gamut from $35,000 to well over six figures, depending on location. There are several new real estate offices in town and more frequently, you see large trucks loaded with materials rumbling along. This is a sure sign of changes to come. A good location like this doesn’t stay undiscovered for long. You can sense the coming changes.
The ABC Real Estate office on the main street displays several new projects on the way – larger hotels, Bali-style villas and ocean view condos. Samara lacks a good selection of restaurants, but these too are in the works. Smart money might view this as an ideal opportunity when the commercial activity starts to percolate like this. If you’re interested in a small town with upside growth on the verge of sprouting, Samara is worth a look.
On my last night here the skies have cleared. There’s a soft chitter-chirp in the bushes of the hillside. The black-blue sky above is speckled with flickering glitter, and the distant crashing and tumbling of high tide surf is lulling me to complete relaxation.
Tomorrow I’ll stop at one of the open air restaurants on main street and order a farewell plate of rich tasting scrambled eggs, aromatic crispy dark bacon, fried plantains with a scoop of warm black beans and rice, as well as a fresh squeezed glass of orange juice. Then, it’s up the twisty scenic route back to Nicoya and later into San Jose for a late night departure. I wonder what the flight attendants will do when I stretch out and bellow like a howler monkey!