Mal Pais is a small village on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Its southern limit borders the Cabo Blanco National Park, from where it extends north for 4 km until Playa Carmen and the neighboring community of Santa Teresa. Many people wonder about the origin of the name Mal Pais which means “Bad Land” in English. Maybe it was called so because of the rocky coast, although it‘s precisely this feature which makes for picturesque coastal scenery and stunning views.
Malpais hosts the only port in the area. It‘s just a narrow channel between rocks to a small spot on the beach where the fishermen keep their boats. The number of boats has increased in recent years but chances to get fresh fish from the fishermen have become less due to the high demand from the local hotels and restaurants. Many fishermen also offer boat and fishing tours to tourists. The harbor additionally serves as a take off point for activities like kayaking, SUP or sailing tours.
A treat for eco tourists is the neighboring Cabo Blanco National Park. The lushly forested hills of the nature reserve provide the scenic backdrop of views from the beaches. Cabo Blanco is an important refuge for nature and animals which are threatened by the booming development in many parts of the Santa Teresa area. Entering Cabo Blanco is however not allowed from the Malpais side. Visitors have to drive to Cabuya where the entrance of the national park is located.
For many years Santa Teresa and Mal Pais were off the beaten track because it was difficult to get there. Roads were bad and there were fewer ferries available than today to cross the Gulf of Nicoya. Surfers and adventurous backpackers were the first tourists to discover the beaches with its great surf spots. As roads and transportations improved Malpais, and Santa Teresa particularly, turned into one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations.
Malpais vs Santa Teresa
While in recent years Santa Teresa has become a bustling surf town, Malpais has retained its laid-back vibe and beckons travelers in search of nature and tranquility. Life is slow paced and most properties in Mal Pais are on large parcels of land where monkeys traverse the canopy and other animals find shelter in the thickets. In Santa Teresa the development boom has destroyed much of the once densely forested hills and monkeys are no more seen in the village and beaches. Many properties are on small lots and the heavy traffic on the unpaved main street produces lots of dust.
The difference between the two neighborhoods is clearly distinguishable on Playa Carmen, where the road from Cobano ends on the beach. It is like an invisible line drawn between the two communities: to the south few people are seen on the rocky coast of Malpais, while to the north people flock to the sandy beaches and surf of Santa Teresa. Same at the road intersection of Playa Carmen – one of the commercial centers of the combined villages. Here most tourists arrive and either veer to the left: on the quiet road into Malpais, or to the right on the busy and sometimes traffic choked street into Santa Teresa.
The ratio of tourist attention wasn‘t always like this. In former times, before the focus turned on Santa Teresa the whole beach area was rather known as Mal Pais. Hardly a map stated the name of Santa Teresa when the first resorts, hotels and restaurants sprang up in Malpais. Around the turn of millennium however foreign investors started to buy more and more real estate in Santa Teresa. They successfully promoted the village as a surf spot and it quickly morphed into a mainstream tourist destination. Today a young, energetic community offers all kind of services, and you find some of Costa Rica’s finest hotels and a surprisingly vast choice of good restaurants.
The younger crowds in particular flock to the happening surf town where bars and hostels have always something going on. The party scene in Santa Teresa is famous, with beach parties and events in funky bars and hostels. The main street is lined with clothing boutiques, surf shops and a great many of bars and restaurants. Compared to that, the number of restaurants and hotels in Malpais is limited and they are spread far apart. It‘s useful to have an own vehicle as there are also no shops or supermarkets in Malpais, only a small grocery store. The closest bus station for Mal Pais of the direct bus from San Jose is on the road intersection of Playa Carmen, while Santa Teresa has multiple bus stops all the way until the northern end of the village.