Malpais is a tiny, serene community, loosely spread out along five kilometres of road. Its northern limit is the road intersection of “El Cruze” where the road from Cobano ends on Playa Carmen. On Playa Carmen Mal Pais merges with the booming beach village of Santa Teresa with its vibrant surfer scene, shops, hotels and bars. The southern part of Malpais intersects the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve on the very tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Many people refer to the entire area as Mal Pais, so when you hear of Mal Pais being one of the top surf destinations in Costa Rica, it really means the surf beaches of Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen. Malpais is the more idyllic part of the combined villages of Santa Teresa and Malpais. While in recent years Santa Teresa has seen a boom in tourism and development, Malpais has retained its quiet aura, laid-back charm with large patches of unspoiled natural beauty. The coast of Malpais is rocky in most parts, with some strange volcanic formations creating fascinating scenery. Old jungle forest grows down to the shore where rocky outcroppings alternate with pockets of beaches, some made up entirely of fascinating seashells.
Malpais Beaches, Attractions and Activities
The beaches of Mal Pais and Santa Teresa host some of the best surf spots in Costa Rica. There are a number of world-class breaks with perfect surf conditions throughout the year. The main surf beach, Playa El Carmen, is on the border between Malpais and Santa Teresa. It has a good set of sand bars that offer some nice lefts and slightly longer rights. The break of Playa Carmen is popular with long-boarders but you can always find a few hot short-boarders pulling tail slides, aerials and 360s. Rip tides and beach breaks at Playa Carmen are less powerful than in other surf spots on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, which makes it well suited for surf beginners. The waves tend to get heavier, faster and steeper as you head north towards Playa Santa Teresa where you find various point breaks, such as the “Suck Rock”.
Malpais Surfing Beaches
El Carmen – A long right and a shorter left, surfing over sand. It is the best break for beginners learning to surf. The other surf spots in Malpais are more challenging and not suited for beginners.
Mar Azul – A left-hand point break that works at mid/high tides, and when there’s a larger swell. This is the most popular break in Mal Pais but rarely surfed, since most people head north to the beach breaks of Playa Carmen and Santa Teresa. For more on Mar Azul, Click Here.
Punta Barrigona – A reef break with a long lefthand which wraps around the point turning into a great hot dog wave. This area needs a lot of swell to work properly. Watch out for the rocks.
Sunset Reef – Another lefthand reef break with a fast take off followed by a long workable wall. Gets hollow with size and offshore winds and also needs a good swell to work. Caution is advised as surfing over the shallow reef can be dangerous.
In Mal Pais you don’t find lively or blatantly touristy scenery. Instead there are many activities and adventures. From the small fishermen’s port you can take boat and fishing tours around the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The maritime sanctuary of Cabo Blanco protects many aquatic species, and from your boat you might even spot dolphins, manta rays, sea turtles or whales. Tours can be arranged for you. Although Malpais directly hems the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, there is no entrance to the park from this side of the peninsula.
To explore the neighborhood of Cabo Blanco take a canopy tour on the edge of the nature reserve, or go on a horse tour. Located within the national park but still accessible from Mal Pais is one of the area’s most scenic beaches – Playa Cuevas is also called “playa los suecos” or “the secret beach” although it isn’t a secret anymore. The small white-sand cove is surrounded by a rocky outcrop and is also one of the best snorkelling spots in Mal Pais.
Frank’s Place – Located inside Frank’s Place Hotel at the crossroads between Malpais and Santa Teresa, Frank’s Place is a great poolside dining venue. The restaurant features fresh seafood and is a popular hangout frequented by both locals and tourists. Housed at just 150 meters from the beach, Frank’s Place is a well recognized location that offers among others things, delicious food, flawless service and an inspiring romantic ambiance.
Mary’s Restaurant – Mary’s Restaurant is a charming little local restaurant in the heart of Malpais. Their specialty is whatever the local fishermen catches, and delicious brick oven pizza. They are famous for their desserts, and the atmosphere is simply surreal.
Papaya Lounge and Restaurant – The Papaya Lounge and Restaurant is perched upon one of the highest part of the Hotel Moana property. From the restaurant patio, the ocean vistas are simply breathtaking. The Moana Lodge is located along the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the western seaboard of Costa Rica in the local area known as Mal País. The Moana lodge itself is situated on the tree covered hills just 200m from the Pacific Ocean. In relation to the Mal Pais, Hotel Moana is 1.5kms from the intersection at Playa Carmen, (which is also know as Frank’s corner). The inspiration for the menu, decor and ambiance of the Papaya Lounge draw from the local Latin American culture. Papaya Lounge offers a delicious assortment of tapas, including some of the best local seafood and produce. The decor is chic with some ambient Latin beats to help you unwind and enjoy the view. From the viewpoint on the terrace, guests can relax enjoy some exquisitely prepared tapas while sampling a great cocktail menu serving up fresh fruit daiquiris and some of the best Mojitos around. This is an ideal spot to watch the magical Costa Rica sunsets. Open also for breakfast, The Papaya Lounge offer traditional Gallo Pinto (Costa Rican rice and beans), French toast, pancakes, fruit bowl, as well as the huevo rancheros. The Papaya Lounge and Restaurant is open for breakfast 7.30-10am and dinner 5-10pm.
Pizzeria Playa Carmen – Neatly tucked away from the eyes of prying tourists, Pizzeria Playa Carmen is probably Malpais’ best kept secret. Enveloped by trees in the areas most popular beach, it serves a fresh and flavoursome array of pizzas made using delicious local ingredients. This is a perfect choice for lunch or a casual dinner to relax and enjoy the splendid oceanic views. Their house specialty oven-baked pizzas are second to none. Other favourite dishes include shrimp scampi, pastas, and other inspiring Italian fare.
Vista de Olas Restaurant – High on a mountaintop in the heart of Malpais, “The Wave Grill” offers something unique in the area… you are given a choice of beef, chicken, or fish, which you cook yourself on a large grill, and serve yourself from a salad bar. It’s a great experience, hanging out with everyone else, chatting and grilling together. A spectacular infinity-edge pool is part of the restaurant and you’re expected to swim and lounge here as part of the dining experience. Highly recommended.