Costa Ricans or as they are commonly called, “Ticos”, absolutely love their country. But while they must enjoy the flood of gringo tourists – with their bulging wallets and pension for howling “Pura Vida” throughout the day – they also enjoy the hidden towns and the unknown beaches…all the little hideaways they still have left to themselves in Costa Rica.
Perhaps this is why I was quite glad to pry out an answer from the ultra-laid back hostel owner in La Sabana, just west of the downtown in San Jose. Asking in Spanish, “Hey so what’s a great beach town to visit this week”? He seemed to think deeply, leaning back in his chair and tugging off his backwards trucker hat to let his brain breathe. When ready to give it up, he leaned forward and scanned side to side, checking to see if anyone else was listening, “Oh there’s many but my favorite is probably Santa Teresa”.
Got it! The local’s inside information was all I needed to hear and I was off to pack.
Santa Teresa and Mal Pais are small, bordering beach towns on the Nicoya Peninsula which you quickly learn could be considered the same place (it’s a 15 minute walk between them). The entire area is a welcome escape from the tourist hot-spots like Tamarindo and Jaco, and after visiting this surfer’s paradise it is easy to see why some get sucked in and start calling this home. Mal Pais and Santa Teresa make up a true beach destination and one with a feel all too difficult to find: un-groomed and un-spoiled.
Boats and Beers
The start of this trip is really the ferry ride which takes you across the Gulf of Nicoya. After a four hour bus ride from San Jose or a private shuttle, you’ll be asked to board the ferry and head up to the deck. Cruising on a boat, with the cool, salty ocean air of the pacific and the warm sun pressing on your skin is as good as any way to begin. Locals will undoubtedly be on their second or third Imperial beer – playing card games and enjoying their time. Join in and start to relax.
When you pull into town, at the corner of the road, you will find “Frank’s Place”. The local restaurant and bar serves as marker, measuring point, and national landmark of great importance. It sits at the middle of the fork in the road and to the right (North) you have Santa Teresa and to the left (South) you will find Mal Pais. It may seem strange that everyone in Costa Rica uses landmarks and markers to give directions…rather than just telling you an address, but the truth is they don’t use addresses much in CR, so get used to directions like, “head 500 meters past Frank’s, turn to the right and go on until you see the big sign…” Hey, even Mr. Frommer himself uses this little restaurant when giving directions.
Walk north on the dusty main road until you find the Tranquilo Backpackers’. The hostel has a fully furnished kitchen, a two-story layout with tables, chairs, and hanging hammocks in every corner. They offer inexpensive beds in a shared room for under $20 a night and private rooms for under $45.
One of the best things about where you’re staying is the 2 minute walk to the beach. Head north and turn onto the path to Playa Carmen. Several large rocks jut out from the perfect, flat-sandy beach and small waves crash and run straight up to your feet. Stretch out and watch the big orange sun tuck himself in for the night. You can also grab boogie boards from the local rental shop and ride in the frothy waves at dusk.
When everyone is ready for dinner, you can walk down the main road and head to the Casa Zen for tasty thai food and drinks, (506) 2640-0523. The Casa is also a hostel, yoga spa, and more. Check out the premises and enjoy. You can also elect to stay within shouting distance of your hostel, and pick one of many restaurants along the main road. For a full map of restaurants in the area click here.
At night, head out onto the main road and look for the D&N, the Day and Night Club. A large two-story structure with a thatched roof…it’s loud with pulsing reggae-dancehall beats and the warm ocean breeze is constantly teasing the sun-tanned girls’ loose dresses. Grab an imperial beer and keep the chilled tequila shots coming as the flashing lights and loud music light up the sleepy beach town.
When it is finally time to ride the waves, you’re in one of the best places on earth to give it a try. Playa Carmen in Santa Teresa has soft and steady waves rolling into shore and will be a great place to get some practice surfing. You can take a lesson or rent a board and try to learn on your own. Note: There are several surf shops and rental stores along the main road and you can usually haggle for a lower price if you’re not trying to rent a board for the entire day. Also check out the Safari Surf School for vacation packages: http://www.safarisurfschool.com/index.html
Lunch (by yourself)
One of the things you will love about this area is how easy it is to find yourself completely alone. There is something truly comforting about getting away from all the rest of ‘em, and a good place to start is finding a “Soda” – a small, usually family run restaurant which serves hearty plates of food at backpacker’s prices ($6-8). Leave the Surf camp and resort and turn left at the dirt road, walking south for about 20 minutes…there’s no cars, no subway, and no city noise, just the sound of crashing waves in the distance. You’re looking for a local’s restaurant, marked by an almost impossible sign to spot – white plastic chairs and tables, and a rundown kitchen will be the only indicators you’ve made it (that and the sweet smell of coconut rice and grilled Red Snapper).
Four wheels to the Waterfall
Along the main road, you will at times, be forced to jump off the dirt road as grumbling ATV’s (rugged four-wheel motorcycles) rip past and head towards the waterfalls. You can join in the fun and rent one for the afternoon ($50-75). There are several competing rental shops all nearby and each will direct you to a different waterfall, but the most common route is to head south on the dirt road to Mal Pais. If you object to these ozone slaying machines you can rent bicycles and peddle your way there as well.
Camp & Resort
The Mal Pais Surf Camp & Resort is your next stop and new accommodation. Head past Frank’s and down the lush jungle road…this is the point when you have crossed from Santa Teresa to Mal Pais and you will quickly notice how this side is even more underdeveloped. To hear a Mal Pais local explain it, Santa Teresa is almost a downtown metropolis, compared to the thick foliage with the occasional dirt path throughout Mal Pais. And at night there are almost no street lights of any kind – it’s just you and the stars up above. The Camp & Resort has rooms for all types – individuals and groups can rent tents, beds, or private apartments and couples can grab a private cabina. Note: There are several bad reviews on the web about belongings “disappearing” from rooms. When you check-in, use the locker offered at the bar to store all important items.
Mal Pais is pretty quite at nights – the diehard surfer’s are fast asleep (dreaming of the waves and ready to wake up at 5am) and so there are several different options. The Camp & Resort has a bar, dartboard, and pool table so stay and celebrate or head back towards Frank’s place to find a dive bar. On the Santa Teresa side, La Lora bumps latin music and is one of the few clubs inside so the party will be going on rain or shine. Note: Check to see if there is a cover, 2640 0132.
IF YOU GO:
Tranquilo Backpacker’s: http://www.tranquilobackpackers.com/new/malpaisenglish.html
Mal Pais Surf Camp & Resort: http://www.malpaissurfcamp.com/