When I started planning our 3 week trip to Costa Rica I really wanted to find a place that was not over touristed.
In fact I wanted to find a beach town that was just that – a beach town. No chain hotels, no all inclusives, no college party scene, no commercialization.
The real criteria, a shoes optional kind of place. That’s the kind of town I wanted.
(I remember how much Keith loved San Pedro town on Ambergris Caye in Belize. We visited maybe 16 years ago, I remember I was just pregnant with Bella and she’s about to turn 15. I have no idea how San Pedro is now, but back then it was a very quiet little town with parallel dirt roads, small seafood restaurants and bars, no tall buildings, kids playing in the water right in town, idyllic to my Manhattan senses.)
On with the current story…after a ton of looking, I finally decided on the Pacific Beach towns of Santa Teresa / Mal Pais on the Nicoya Peninsula.
(I hate to keep saying I, I, I, but the only input I had from the family was that everyone had Costa Rica on their bucket list and the dates worked for everyone’s calendars, other than that, it was up to me).
But honestly, I couldn’t decide between the two. Santa Teresa had the in town, walk to the beach and restaurant vibe and Mal Pais had the absolute tiny beach town with gorgeous views and not much else to do but relax (and there must be a reason why Gisele + Tom have a house here).
So we chose a week in both towns. [Read my post about Santa Teresa HERE.]
Santa Teresa was a great ice breaker for the area. But Mal Pais was what the doctor ordered.
As always I do a TON of research on where to stay. I don’t obsess about much in my day to day life but for some reason travel accommodations are where I put my blood, sweat and tears into research.
The AirBnb I decided on appeared to check all the first world boxes that I require. This gorgeous spot was surrounded by jungle with the exception of the forward view to the ocean, bedrooms had balconies that you could sit and watch the wild life in the canopy, a/c in the bedrooms, great WIFI, and a housekeeper on property.
Isabella is feeling sick today. As I put a cold compress on her head and sit by her side on the lanai, I can’t help but lay my head back and shut my eyes, taking in all the sounds of life in these trees. The yellow crested bird lands on top of the outdoor shower and starts tapping his beak on the reflection, a lizards starts crawling up the tan wall, the frog that has become our nighttime friend by the pool is seen for the first time in daylight (what a magical color green), he hops randomly into a fern tree a good piece from the pool. The iguanas that perch over the pool – you can hear them scatter on the metal roof, two types of monkeys swing through the trees, grabbing leaves, eating what they want and spitting the leftovers to the ground, momma monkeys with their babies on their back delicately move between trees while their toddler offspring fling themselves without a thought off a branch onto a tree. A tapir that crept right up to the edge of the patio. (never heard of this animal, glad Keith was there to tell me what it was and then of course Gabby piped in with the stats on the Tapir, type, size, habitat, eating habits, she’s a one (mini)woman encyclopedia of animal facts) Bats parked under the ceiling. Hornets nests. And we can hear the crash of the ocean all day long. Pure paradise.
Where to eat in Mal Pais:
If you want to stay in Mal Pais then there are only a few dining options but Santa Teresa is right down the road with a seemingly endless amount of really good options. This particular week – we only wanted to stay put here. We made the 7 minute treck into ST for the grocery run (as Mal Pais has only more of a bodega/convenience store option) and to get Gabby pizza at The Bakery since she decided it was the best pizza she’s ever had in her whole entire 12 year old life. And she eats ALOT of pizza.
Mary’s Restaurant. I had read about this spot long before we arrived. They have an organic farm and seem to grow many of their own ingredients. It is on the only street that runs along the water close to the fishermen at the end of the road in Mal Pais. We had my 50th birthday dinner here and opted to split a couple pizzas and a very rich brownie (accompanied by a candle) and homemade coconut sorbet. We sat in the open air section of the restaurant in a large semi circular red banquet. I love how eclectic the interior was.
For sunset one evening we went to Las Caracolas right on the Mal Pais beach. The caretaker of our villa told us that we couldn’t beat the views but the food was just ok. We wanted to give it a try anyway. I saw all the amazing trip advisor reviews so it was on our short list of places to visit.
Don’t miss out on this spot. The location is outstanding especially as high tide is rolling in at sunset. There are tables where you are so close to the water that you can definitely leave with wet sandals. Think sand between the toes kind of close.
This isn’t a polished restaurant but a casual restaurant that has good service, an extensive seafood menu (with some really nice vegetarian options as well) and is a locally owned (YES!) The food is fine. Nothing insanely creative or amazing but solid. It’s the location that makes this place a must visit.
The sunset was incredible…oranges and pinks. The temperature amazing. No rain in sight.
The sunset horse back riders trotted right by us. Secretly wishing it wasn’t our last night here so we could have done this. But we are on to another week in Ojochal so I’m sure we will fit it in there.
What to do in Mal Pais:
The beaches are gorgeous. Rocky just like in Santa Teresa but if you time it right, with low tide – you have the best chance of swimming safely, or rest in a tide pool, you can lounge while watching this incredible nature unfold before your eyes. There are so many beach access roads off the main street, just take a right at any one of them and follow the road straight to the beach. There is always parking as these are some of the quietest beaches I have ever seen.
Low tide often gives you the opportunity to cool off in a tide pool. If you are traveling with younger children – a tide pool is a safe option for them to explore the hermit crabs and other little critters that thrive at low tide with out the strong undertow once the tide starts rolling back in.
We were told about a secret little beach past the fishermen. Follow the main road as far as you can in Mal Pais. Till you think you can’t go further – then keep going. When you see the fishing boats it looks like you can’t go any further, just keep going.
Time your visit around low tide so that you can swim! If you don’t care about swimming then I’m sure it has a whole different gorgeousness to it later when the waves are crashing over the rocks.
When we arrived, we realized it wasn’t a secret after all. Just a spot off the beaten path that locals seem to know about and tourists might not be as in the know. It was a Friday when we visited, low tide was at 10:40am – when we arrived around 10:30 we parked within steps to the walkway through lush tropical fern. By the time we left, cars were parking up and down the road. I am not trying to make it sound crowded by any stretch, but the parking area is small so it filled up quickly.
We walked down the path, one of the nicest walks on this trip so far. Sun streaming through the lush green trees, such a lovely setting. Then you hit the sand and wow there is a gorgeous view of the water. Locals have already set up for the day under the shade of the trees. Of course every single family has a dog with them. (I repeat, I have never seen a culture more friendly towards dogs, they go everywhere) Imperials in hand. (the local beer) Gorgeous little spot for a swim. These beaches are rocky so make sure you have sandals or water shoes that have a tough bottom.
A ride from Mal Pais to Cubaya through Montezuma and then back. GORGEOUS.
We set off to get gas in Cobano…and misread Cubaya for Cobano when we put it into WAZE. Really, there are only a handful of towns, not sure how I managed this one, but in the end I’m glad I did. We ended up doing this ride 2x because we couldn’t make stops the first time around for fear of running out of gas. (gas stations are few and far between – read my Things you need to know about this area post) So once we saw how lush and absolutely breathtaking this scenery was, we knew we had to come back with more gas in the tank.
Taken from www.malpaisbeach.com Cobuya “is the most isolated town on the (Nicoya) peninsula because the road between Cabuya and Malpais is only passable for 4-5 months in the year. In the old days, the residents of Cabuya used to get their supplies by swimming out to a boat that would come once a month. They would swim with a list of supplies, and swim back with what they had ordered the month before.”
The bouncy chiropractor inducing ride should not deter you. You will see some very incredible scenery. The evergreen canopy, crossing over streams (that probably become impassible in the rainier season) and the Pacific, then all of a sudden being in this tiny little town and you feel like you are at the end of the world. There are several small restaurants including Cafe Coyote (pizza), Cabuya Bakery + Cafe, El Pescador and Habitat (you can’t miss the big Canadian Flag right at the crossroads in town).
We didn’t allow the time for this but visit the Cabo Blanco National Reserve and Park, the entrance is in Cabuya but the secret beach I mention above is the entrance on the Mal Pais side of the Reserve. Also, during low tide you can walk out to what becomes an island. Wish we hadn’t missed this. Oh the tide chart, I had no idea how important it would be on this trip. Live and learn.
We were thirsty and not hungry (and had remembered seeing a craft brewery sign on our first pass through) and stopped at La Selva (when you see the Canadian Flag in the center of town, take the left towards Montezuma and the sign for La Selva will be a few yards down on the left). Give this spot a try. A Cabuya based micro brewery in a very open setting, an outdoor bar with the most delightful bartender. You can see the whole set up, how they brew, bottle and what they offer. We each had a pint and while Keith photographed the owner and the surroundings, me and the girls played dominos and rummy with the bartender and her daughter. A little broken English and our really poor Spanish and it was a delightful way to spend some time.
Once we pried ourselves away from this eclectic watering hole, we kept going on the road to Montezuma. Time your travels with the tide if you plan on getting in the water. This is some outstanding coast heading this way. Stop and take it all in. Like everywhere else, just pull off and you will have the place to your self. There might be surfers in one spot, a family in a tide pool in another, a loner sitting on a large piece of driftwood contemplating how beautiful life is, two lovers in an embrace but whatever beach you decide to stop at you can’t beat the view.
Crossing the last bridge before Montezuma, look to the left and you will see a lovely spot to stop and refresh yourself in the fresh water that leads to the ocean. One of the most serene spots I have laid eyes on. Easy to pull in, park, take a dip. (and remember don’t leave anything in the car)
After refreshing yourself, drive a few minutes more and you will come to a 3 way intersection of sorts. You can take a left to get back to ST, go straight into the town of Montezuma (I would at some point) or pull into the first parking lot you see on the left and make this the day that you climb to see the waterfall. You can easily park and start climbing, there are local guides available if you think you need one. But just climb. There is another access to the middle and upper falls if you take that left to ST when you get to the crossroads – go up an extremely steep hill (another reason you should have 4×4 just makes our driving life easier). Pull into (yes another micro brewery, I believe there are currently 2 on this side and 2 more on the ST side) Butterfly Brewing Co. and Butterfly Gardens. From here you can pay a couple $$$ and access the trail.
To get back to Mal Pais (or ST) start heading up that hill. It is not well marked at all. Follow the best road (a term I just very very lightly and you will understand once your wheels hit these roads for the first time) that leads to the left. It may at some point veer to the right, but when you come to any choice, to go left or right coming out of Montezuma, stay to the left. Eventually there are points you will see the water out in front of you, you really can’t go too far wrong. You might be on a longer, more scenic ride back, but you’ll enjoy it!
Now I’m sitting here at the al fresco dining room table enjoying the gentle morning breeze, enjoying a cup of Costa Rican coffee, watching a monkey family eat breakfast a few feet away, I is easy to remind yourself how great life is.
I’m sad to leave this beautiful spot but onto the next spot: Ojochal.