Mal Pais & Santa Teresa

Get ready for tasty waves, creative kitchens and babes in board shorts and bikinis, because the southwestern corner of Península de Nicoya has all that and more. Which is why it’s become one of Costa Rica’s most life affirming destinations. Here, the sea is alive with wildlife and is almost perfect when it comes to shape, color and temperature. The hills are dotted with stylish boutique sleeps and sneaky good kitchens run by the occasional runaway, top-shelf chef. Sure, there is a growing ribbon of mostly expat development on the coastline, but the hills are lush and that road is still rutted earth (even if it is intermittently sealed with aromatic vats of molasses). The entire area unfurls along one coastal road that rambles from Santa Teresa in the north through Playa el Carmen, the area’s commercial heartbeat, and then terminating in the fishing hamlet of Mal País. The whole region is collectively known as Mal País.

The road from Cobano meets the beach road next to Frank’s Place, on the western side of the peninsula. To the left (south) lies Mal País and to the right (north) is Santa Teresa. Dead ahead is the beach at Playa el Carmen. In the dry season you might also arrive on the 4WD road from Montezuma via Cabuya, which terminates at the southern end of Mal País village.

The quiet surf village of Santa Teresa Mal Pais provides a unlimited opportunity for visitors to escape the hustle and bustle of more crowded destinations. It is an excellent place to enjoy the incredible natural surroundings in relative peace. Reflecting this relaxed attitude, the town of Santa Teresa Mal Pais offers quite few services with regard to tours. However, Canopy Tours are available, and one can also take Horseback rides along the shores.

The beach at Santa Teresa Mal Pais alternates between long areas of sand and large patches of rock. A green rainforest with its playful monkeys lines the beach. For the most part, beaches in Santa Teresa Mal Pais have been sparred of development. Development has largely taken place in areas to the north, around the Beaches of Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa.

The nearby Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve can make an excellent day trip from Santa Teresa Mal Pais. Check with locals before heading to the Reserve. Usually a visit requires entering the town of Montezuma. There is a road closer to Santa Teresa Mal Pais, but unfortunately, it is often not in good conditions requiring a 4x4 vehicle.

The village of Santa Teresa Mal Pais is accessible by road via Highway 160, or you can take the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera or Naranjo Beach (Playa Naranjo), and ride a bus or drive the rest of the way. Flights to the nearby town of Tambor are also available via San Jose and Liberia.

 

Activities

Surfing is the be-all and end-all for most visitors to Mal País, but the beautiful beach stretches north and south for kilometers on end, and many accommodations can arrange horseback-riding tours and fishing trips. Or you could find the fishing harbor in Mal País and arrange your own fishing tour. It does help to speak some Spanish, however.

Surfing

The following beaches are listed from north to south.

About 8km north of the Playa el Carmen intersection, Playa Manzanillo is a combination of sand and rock that’s best surfed when the tide is rising and there’s an offshore wind.

The most famous break in the area is at Playa Santa Teresa, and it’s fast and powerful. This beach can be surfed at virtually any time of day, though be cautious as there are scattered rocks. To get here take the lane just north of La Lora Amarilla from the main road. The beach down the alley from Casa Zen is our favorite. White and powdery, it’s great for swimming and surfing as rock reefs on both sides protect the small cove.

Playa el Carmen, downhill from the main intersection, is a good beach break that can also be surfed anytime. The beach is wide and sandy and curls into successive coves, so it makes good beachcombing and swimming terrain too.

The entire area is saturated with surf shops, and competition has kept prices low. This is a good place to pick up an inexpensive board, and you can probably get most of your money back if you sell it elsewhere. Most of the local shops also do rentals and repairs, and may clue you into secret surf spots.

Al Chile Surf Shop Surfing (Tel 2640-0959; www.alchilesurfshop.com; board rental per day US$10, lessons per person US$4045) ‘Al Chile’ is a slang phrase that means something like ‘For real!’ As in ‘In one lesson you’ll be riding the white water – Al Chile!’ The charming husband-wife team here guarantees it. If you don’t want a lesson, they will still rent you a top-notch board. And if you’re bringing your own board, check out the custom surfboard art by local surfer-artist William Borges.

Nalu Surf School Surfing (Tel 2649-9391, 2640-0714; board rental per day US$10-20, lessons per person US$40) Located 300m north of the intersection at Playa el Carmen, this surf school has a good reputation. It rents boards by the half and full day, offers daily lessons for all skill levels and has a good range of new and used boards for sale in the surf shop.

Kina Surf Shop Surfing (Tel 2640-0627; www.kinasurfcostarica.com; lessons per person US$50, board rentals per day US$12-20; h 9am-5pm) a terrific, efficient surf shop near the break in Santa Teresa. The 90-minute lessons for beginner, intermediate and advanced surfers come highly recommended, plus it has an excellent selection of boards to buy or rent.

Freedom Ride SUP Surfing (Tel2640-0521; www.sup-costarica.com; rental half-/full day US$25/35, lessons per person US$50; h 9am-6pm) a stand-up paddle (SUP) place with sharp, English-speaking management, set in Mal País proper. It offers half and full-day rentals, as well as SUP lessons and tours. Lessons should be arranged in advance.

Yoga

Yoga naturally complements surfing, and if you haven’t been in the water for a while, the stretching can be the perfect antidote to sore flippers.

Casa Zen yoga (Tel 2640-0523; www.zencostarica.com; per person US$9) offers two or three classes daily, in a lovely 2nd-story, open-air studio, surrounded by trees. Most of the classes are a Hath inspired Vinyasa flow, but there’s also a more relaxing flow class, cardio fit and other styles. Multi-class packs available.

Horizon Yoga Hotel yoga (Tel 2640-0524; www.horizon-yogahotel.com; per person US$12) offers two classes daily, in a serene environment overlooking the ocean. Classes include Sivananda, Vinyasa and Pilates. A massage from the Horizon Spa is a nice follow-up.

Yoga Studio at Nautilus yoga (Tel 2640-0991; www.hotelnautiluscostarica.com; yoga US$10) Twice-daily yoga classes are held on the deck at the Nautilus Boutique Hotel, offering lovely views over the village. Private lessons are also available.

Sleeping & Eating

Frank’s Place occupies the corner of the main intersection in Playa el Carmen; this is also where shuttles will drop you off and pick you up. Entries are listed in order from the main Playa el Carmen intersection.

Santa Teresa

Horizon Yoga Hotel $$$ (Tel 2640-0524; www.horizon-yogahotel.com; d US$120-140, q US$210) Replete with fountains and profound beauty, this stunning terraced property on the Santa Teresa hillside offers barefoot elegance at its best. There is a range of rooms, including family friendly villas with private pools. A better choice is the stilted bamboo bungalows, which have decks with hammocks and massive 180-degree ocean views.

The same views are available at the nearby teahouse that plays jazz, blends smoothies and brews a delicious house-made herbal tea.

Brisas del Mar Seafood $$ (Tel 2640-0941; www.buenosairesmalpais.com; mains US$14-18; h 8-11am & 4-10pm Tue-Sun) It’s worth the steep climb for sensational views and delectable seafood at the poolside patio restaurant at the Hotel Buenos Aires. Begin with a specialty cocktail as you peruse the day’s menu written on the blackboard. Look for fresh fruits de mer prepared with international influences, such as chipotle lime marinated tuna with roasted-tomato salsa and jalapeño cilantro cream. Brisas del Mar is open for breakfast too.

Hostel 7 Hostel$ (Casa de Gigi; Tel 2640-0268; US$12, r US$30-35) Gigi’s place is beloved by surfers and backpackers for its welcoming, laidback vibe, clean accommodations and awesome extras. The whitewashed rooms are excellent for the price. On grounds filled with fruit trees, there’s also a communal kitchen, pool table, basketball court and TV lounge. Gingi is a gem: he goes above and beyond to ensure you have a great time.

Atrapasueños Lodge Boutique Hotel $$$ (dream Catcher lodge; % 2640-0080; www.atrapasuenos.net; d/apt incl breakfast US$130/200) One of the few properties right on the beach, this family-owned place offers the intimacy of a B&B and the luxury of a boutique hotel. With a balcony or terrace overlooking lush gardens, the rooms have hardwood floors, exotic art and tapestries, and big glass sliding doors. A sun terrace with an outdoor shower surrounds a lovely mosaic pool.

Wavetrotter Hostel $ (Tel 2640-0805; www.wavetrotterhostel.com; US$15, without bathroom US$35) an excellent option for hostel hoppers, not just surfers. Italian-owned Wavetrotter is a simple but classy place, with all-wood six-bed dorms overlooking a vast common area. There are private rooms in the garden, which is also home to howler monkeys and iguanas. There is a huge communal kitchen and – major bonus – the whole place is spotless. This place is one block east of the main road: turn off right before Pizza El Pulpo.

Casa Zen Guesthouse $ (Tel2640-0523; www.zencostarica.com; US$15/34/42/50) This recommended Asian-inspired guesthouse is decked out in Zen art, celestial murals and enough happy Buddha sculptures to satisfy all your belly rubbing needs. The goal is to help guests ‘chill and recreate on their own time.’ There is also an eclectic restaurant that has everything from veggie sandwiches and burgers to fresh sushi and Thai curries. Rates all include breakfast.

Funky Monkey Lodge Bungalow $$ (Tel 2640-0272; www.funky-monkey-lodge.com; US$15-20, d US$92-97, apt US$135-170) Up the hill from Tuanis, this funky lodge has sweet, rustic bungalows built out of bamboo. Each has an open-air shower, balcony with hammock and access to a communal kitchen. One huge bungalow is sometimes used as a dorm, as are smaller, less interesting quads in the main building. Also: Ping-Pong, pool and board games...good times! Located on the main drag, just past the soccer field.

Don Jon’s

Bungalow $ www.donjonsonline.com; US$12-18, bungalow US$45-75, apt US$75-110) Just past the soccer field, Don Jon’s place is the perfect base for surfers and anybody looking to ‘relax to the max’. Rustic teak bungalows are creatively decorated and quite appealing, while attractive Spanish tiled dorms have high-beamed ceilings and

Plenty of hammocks. 
The restaurant knows its audience, serving filling breakfasts, giant burritos, delicious fish tacos and strong drinks. Located 100m from the surf.

Zwart Cafe $ (Tel 2640-0011; mains US$4-8; h 7am-5pm;) Zwart means ‘black’ in Dutch, but this shabby-chic, artist-owned gallery and cafe is all white (or mostly, damn dust!). You’ll love the surf-inspired Technicolor canvases, the lively outdoor patio and popular breakfasts including three flavors of crepes and two varieties of French toast. At lunch it’s all about the burritos. There’s a dynamite used-book store here too.

Canaima Chill House Apartment $$$ (Tel 2640-0410; www.hotel-canaima-chill-house. com; d US$100-130) A ‘chill house’ is an apt descriptor for this eight-room boutique eco-chic hotel. Super-stylish suites have breezy indoor-outdoor living areas, awesome hanging bamboo beds and loads of natural materials (such as stone grotto showers). Guests share the Jacuzzi and plunge pool off the sunken pillow lounge. It’s set in the hills, 500m from the main road, so you’ll want wheels.

Nautilus Boutique Hotel Boutique Hotel $$$ (Tel 2640-0991; www.hotelnautiluscostarica.com; villa d/q US$150/250) If you’re looking for a healthy, relaxing retreat with a bit of luxury, Nautilus is for you. Each villa has a living area, fully equipped kitchen and private deck. Even better, the design incorporates plenty of wood and natural elements, local artwork and fine linens.

Besides being a boutique hotel, Nautilus is also a ‘wellness center’, offering twice daily yoga classes (US$10) and amazing, healthy food at the onsite restaurant Olam.

Rumbo Surf Lodge Hotel $$ (Tel 2640-1122; www.rumbosurf.com; apt US$70, surf camp from US$900) Simple and sweet, Rumbo has four clean, tile apartments with kitchenettes and balconies with hammocks. They’re not fancy, but they have everything you need – if not, Nico will find it for you. He can also teach you to surf, with weekly packages that include lessons and board rental. Rumbo is 100m from the waves.

Cuesta Arriba Hostel $$ (Tel 2640-0607; www.cuestaarriba.com; US$15, d US$50-60) this is a thinking person’s hostel attracting an older, more polished crowd. Colorful, loft-style dorms have en suite bathrooms, polished concrete floors and creative mosaic tile embellishments. The lovely private rooms are similar, but there are fewer beds. Communal areas include a big well-stocked kitchen area, a breezy terrace upstairs and a garden with hammocks. Rates all include breakfast.

Koji’s JAPANESE $$$ (Tel 2640-0815; www.santa-teresa.com/kojis; sushi US$5-10; h 5:30-9:30pm Wed-Sun) Koji Hyodo’s sushi shack in nearby Playa Hermosa is a twinkling beacon of fresh raw excellence. The atmosphere and service are superior, of course, but his food is a higher truth. The grilled octopus is barely fried and sprinkled with sea salt; and there’s a sweet crunch to his lobster sashimi, sliced trace-paper thin and sprinkled with fresh ginger.

There are generally bar seats available, but if you want a table, book ahead. Koji’s is located 2km north of Florblanca. If you cross the bridge, you’ve gone too far.

Playa el Carmen

Frank’s Place Hotel $$ (Tel 2640-0096; www.franksplacecr.com; s/d standard US$55/75, superior US$95/115) Coming into town from Cobano the first place you’ll see is this historic surfer outpost. But Frank has grown up, and this is no longer the backpackers’ paradise it once was. The rooms are plain but clean and comfortable (all include breakfast). The location has its advantages: not the least, the road is paved here so it’s not nearly as dusty as elsewhere in town.

Pizzeria Playa Carmen

Pizzeria $ h 11am-9pm) Playa el Carmen’s most conspicuous pizza joint is this splashy restaurant right on the playa, which makes it ideal for sundowners. The tasty pizza is cooked in the wood-fired

Oven and beer is cheap.

Casa Azul Guesthouse $$ (Tel 2640-0379; www.hotelcasaazul.com; r with/ without ocean view US$125/60, casita US$150, US$400) you can’t get much closer to the waves than this fabulous electric-blue house, looming over the garden, pool and beach. Sharing a communal kitchenette and an outdoor barbecue, the three downstairs rooms are attractive with ceramic-tile floors, wrought-iron beds and plenty of light. The secluded garden casita has a private patio with sea views.

Mal País

The Place Boutique Hotel $$ (Tel 2640-0001; www.theplacemalpais.com; d/ bungalow incl breakfast US$69/135) A waterfall-fed pool is surrounded by cushy blood-red lounge chairs and day beds at this Euro-chic boutique hotel. Attractive tile rooms are draped in linens, but it’s absolutely worth it to splurge on the more expensive bungalows. Set amid tropical gardens, each one is creatively and uniquely decorated according to a different theme.

Malpais Surf Camp & Resort lodge $$ (Tel 2640-0357; www.malpaissurfcamp.com; camp US$11, US$17, d with/without bathroom US$73/40) There are comfortable, private cabañas and more luxurious digs, but the best deal at this surfers’ lodge is the open-air rancho, with a tin roof and pebble floors, which you can share with three other surfers. Wander the landscaped tropical grounds, swim in the luscious pool, grab a cold beer in the open-air lounge and soak up the good vibes.

Blue Jay Lodge Bungalow$$ (Tel 2640-0089; www.bluejaylodgecostarica.com; d/tr/q incl breakfast US$83/100/115) these charming stilted bungalows are built along a forest-covered hillside, each with a huge, screened-in veranda with hammocks. Though they’re a bit on the rustic side, the luxury is in their spaciousness and openness to the dramatic surroundings. The lodge is 200m from the beach.

Caracolas Soda $ (Tel 2291-1470; mains US$4-13; h 7am-9pm) the lone soda on this end of the coast. It serves tipica on timber tables in a garden that rolls onto the rocky beach, and does all the usual chicken, beef and seafood dishes, as well as sandwiches and salads. But the reason to come here is to feel the ocean breeze and stare at the setting sun. There are also rooms available from US$45 to US$100.

Pachamama Hotel $$ (Tel2640-0195; www.pacha-malpais.com; bungalows US$65-75, house US$160; p W ) this sweet earth-loving property offers tremendous value, especially in its quaint fauxdobe bungalows, each with a kitchenette and lovely shady front porch. There’s also a wicked two-story two-bedroom house with a romantic wooden loft. All choices are romantic and recommended. Wildlife abounds in the tropical garden, and it’s about 50m from the beach.

Camping Elimar Campground $ (Tel 8892-2005; per person US$6) Set on a stunning slice of rocky coastline is this humble family-run campsite where a pebble beach rolls onto a rock reef that becomes tide pools. There’s ample shade and flat ground where you can pitch your tent, and a shared grill, showers, bathrooms and electricity.

Moana Lodge Boutique Hotel $$$ (Tel 2640-0230, in USA 888-865-8032; www.moanalodge.com; r standard/deluxe US$99/135, set US$235-260) A simply stunning boutique property etched into the wooded hillside above Mal País. Standard rooms are all wood garden cottages, decked out with African art, and close to the pool and reception. Make the climb to the junior suites for 180-degree views of the coast, as well as wood floors throughout, rain showers inside and outside, a wet bar and sliding glass door entry. The top-shelf Papaya Lounge (Tel 2640-0230; tapas US$6-9; h 7:30-10am & 5-10pm) shares that stunning perch.

Mary’s Restaurant international, Organic $ (Tel 8348-1285; www.maryscostarica.com; mains US$7-17; h 5:30-10pm Thu-Tue) At the far end of Mal País village, this unassuming, open-air restaurant has polished concrete floor, wood oven, pool table and chalkboard menu. It offers delicious wood-fired pizzas, homemade bacon and sausage, grilled seafood, sashimi tasting plates and fresh produce straight from the farm. It’s all-fabulous. Its secret? Using only fresh, organic ingredients from local farms and fishermen.

Drinking & Entertainment

Rocamar Bar (Tel 2640-0250; h noon-9pm) Tucked away on the sand deep in Santa Teresa is this beach lounge that has become a popular local expat hang at sunset. There’s a thatched dining area (meals US$8 to US$16), timber tables and beanbags stuck in the sand, and hammocks slung in the trees – all perfectly positioned for sunset.

La Lora Amarilla Club (Tel 2640-0132; h 7pm-2am) The town’s enormous concrete hangar of a dive bar and disco. It is a stone’s throw from Kika, making for an easy flow between both on Thursday (reggae-dub) nights.

88 Information

Next door to Frank’s Place, Banco de Costa Rica (h 9am-4pm Mon-Fri) has a 24hr ATM. directly across the street at the Centro Comercial Playa El Carmen you’ll find a branch of Banco Nacional (Tel2640-0598; h1-7pm) that can change US dollars and has an ATM.

You can find Internet access all over Mal País, but for a start, try Frank’s Place on the main intersection.

There are several grocery stores along the coast. The largest is Super La Hacienda (h7am-8pm), located 100m north of Cuesta Arriba hostel. The closest gas station is 2km up the Cobano road from Playa el Carmen.

 

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