Mal Pais is a small hamlet, located on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, which juts out into the ocean on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. To the south Malpais borders the Cabo Blanco National Park, while to the north the community stretches for about 4 km until Playa Carmen. Here the sprawling surf town of Santa Teresa begins.
Mal Pais translates to “Bad Land” in English, and there are various theories about the origin of that name. Perhaps it earned this moniker due to its rocky coastline or maybe the name stems from the landslides that aren’t uncommon on its steep, jungle-covered hills.
Although generally not good for swimming, the coastal scenery is picturesque, featuring small coves, headlands and jagged rocks, bashed by the surf. A favorite pastime is bathing in the tide pools during mid-tide. For snorkeling and swimming Playa Suecos or “Secret Beach” is an idyllic spot at the southern end of Malpais.
A particular attraction for eco-tourists is the neighboring Cabo Blanco National Park, whose lushly forested hills provide a scenic backdrop for views from the beach. Cabo Blanco is an important refuge for nature and animals that are threatened by the area’s booming development. However, it is not allowed to enter Cabo Blanco from the Malpais side. The entrance to the park is located in Cabuya, 7 km away.
Malpais hosts the only port in the area. It just consists of a narrow channel between the rocks, leading to a small spot on the beach where the fishermen keep their boats. Their number has increased significantly as in high season boat tours are offered for tourists. The harbor also serves as a launching point for kayaking, or SUP paddle boarding.
A rapid development
For many years the southern Nicoya Peninsula had remained off the beaten tourist track because it was hard to get there. The roads were in poor condition and there were fewer ferries available than today to cross the Gulf of Nicoya. Surfers and adventurous backpackers were the first travelers to discover the stunning beaches and surf spots.
The first hotels and resorts were established in Malpais around 1986. At this time electricity was just starting to be brought to the area. The name of Santa Teresa was virtually unknown, being just some large, sparsely populated cattle land. The entire beach area was known as Mal País. However, in the early 2000s, foreign investors began buying more and more land in Santa Teresa, promoting it as a trendy surf beach. In just a few years, Santa Teresa morphed into a mainstream tourist destination, and the entire region is now increasingly referred to as Santa Teresa. It has become one of Costa Rica’s hottest spots with development raging on at a dizzying pace. Not only surf bums are attracted, the area is also popular among the hip and famous. Luxurious beach and oceanview estates dot the hillsides and coastline, further fueling touristic development and real estate in Santa Teresa and Mal Pais.
Malpais vs Santa Teresa
While Santa Teresa is now a bustling surf town, Mal Pais has retained its laid-back vibe and beckons travelers in search of nature and tranquility. Life is still slow-paced and many properties sit on large parcels of land where animals find shelter in the thickets and monkeys traverse the canopy.
In Santa Teresa a young and energetic community offers all kinds of services, and you find some of Costa Rica’s finest hotels and vacation rentals, along with a surprisingly vast selection of good restaurants.
Especially the younger crowds flock to the lively surf town Santa Teresa, where there is always something going on. The party scene is notorious, with events in bars and restaurants ranging from trendy to funky offbeat. Compared to that, Malpais features only a limited number of restaurants and hotels, and they are spread quite far apart. It is useful to have your own vehicle as there are no shops or supermarkets in Malpais either, just a grocery store. Public transportation is also very limited and the closest bus station for Mal Pais for the direct bus from San Jose, is at the Playa Carmen road junction, while Santa Teresa has several bus stops throughout the whole town.
The difference between the two neighborhoods is quite clear to see on Playa Carmen. An invisible line seems to be drawn between the two communities: to the south there are few people on the rocky coast of Malpais, while to the north people flock to the sandy beaches and surf of Santa Teresa.
Playa Carmen is where Mal Pais meets Santa Teresa. The beach is very popular, known for its easy going surf, and amenities. Up from the beach is the commercial center with a bank, pharmacy, car rental agencies, and shops. The road junction is the common point of arrival for most tourists. Turning right leads you down the busy and often congested street through Santa Teresa, while turning left you find yourself on a quiet street towards Malpaís.