Road Trip to Mal Pais

For months we had been meaning to make the trek to the beach towns of Mal Pais and Santa Teresa. Known for consistent surf, pristine jungle, and a chill vibe, Mal Pais has attracted quite a following, even among celebrities. If it’s good enough for Tom Brady, Gisele Bündchen, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matthew McConaughey, what was stopping us, right? Our biggest deterrent was that Mal Pais is located in a remote corner of the Nicoya Peninsula, far from every place we have visited during our travels. The roads were also said to be very bad, making us weary to take our own car. So, finally, with a rental car and a packed cooler, we decided to take a road trip and see for ourselves what makes Mal Pais so special.


Malpais Beaches


Mal Pais and Santa Teresa, often called Mal Pais in short, are located in the southwestern Nicoya Peninsula, tucked between the warm Pacific Ocean and steep, lush hills. The fishing village of Mal Pais extends to the border of Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve on the very southern tip of the Nicoya. Santa Teresa, just to the north, is home to the majority of the area’s hotels, restaurants, bars, and surf shops. There’s only one main road between the two towns, making it easy to get around.

Directions to the area are somewhat confusing so we give comprehensive ones later in this post.


Surfing is by far the biggest attraction in Mal Pais, and several beaches like Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen offer consistent swells. If you’re not looking to surf, there are plenty of other things to do like yoga, zip-lining, stand-up paddleboarding, and horseback riding. The nearby Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve offers hiking and a chance to see wildlife like howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths, and coatis as well as many birds. The town of Montezuma, which has some spectacular waterfalls, is also just a short drive away.

Tip: We got the insider scoop on the area from our friends over at Pollo Pass. Per Macho Pollo’s recommendation, we headed to the more remote beach of Playa Hermosa just north of town for swimming and sun. Apparently this is the beach the celebs frequent and we can see why—it did not disappoint.


Malpais Beaches

The serene Playa Hermosa



People from all over the world have made the move to Mal Pais and brought with them a variety of cuisine. You can get everything from Indian and Mexican food to sushi, pizza, and all-American hamburgers and hotdogs. Typical Costa Rican fare can also be found and, of course, there’s plenty of the freshest seafood. Overwhelmed by the choices, we followed Pollo Pass’ recommendations on this one too and loved the Argentinian-influenced Casa del Mar, the French-inspired Couleur Café, and the rice and fish bowls at Product C.


Santa Teresa Costa Rica

Directions to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa

The roads on the southern Nicoya Peninsula are known to be rough but, overall, they weren’t as bad as we had expected. The best way to get to Mal Pais is to take Route 160 along the coast. The drive is very scenic, with sweeping views of the bay and surrounding islands. It’s mostly paved but has some long stretches of gravel as well.

Tip: Opt for a vehicle with 4-wheel drive. Once you get onto Route 160, parts of the road are hilly with loose gravel, especially after the turnoff from Cobano. It will also be handy once you get to town. Although some of the main road in Santa Teresa was recently paved, it’s still rough dirt for the most part.

From Liberia

Head south on Route 21 and continue through the towns of Belen, Santa Cruz, and Nicoya. The road eventually changes from Route 21 to Route 160 in the town of Naranjo. In Paquera, take a right at the stop sign in town (towards the Mega Super grocery store) to stay on 160. This turn is not marked. In the town of Cobano, take a left and follow signs to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa.

From Nosara or Samara

Take Route 150 to Nicoya and connect with Route 21 south, then follow the directions above. There is also a coastal route south of Samara, though most advise against this as you have to drive on the beach and there are multiple river crossings.

From San Jose

Take Route 27 to Route 23 and then Route 17 to the Puntarenas ferry landing. Cross the bay on the ferry to Paquera. From Paquera, take Route 621 (the main road) to the center of town and continue straight onto Route 160 (passing the Mega Super grocery store, left side). In the town of Cobano, take a left and follow signs to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa.

*     *     *

Our road trip to Mal Pais and Santa Teresa definitely did not disappoint. Now that we’ve finally visited, we can see why so many people fall in love. The area still feels pristine, with plenty of lush jungle, and has maintained a small-town feel despite the many businesses catering to tourists. There’s also something about a destination being a little hard to get to that is appealing in its own way. Along the rough roads, you’re forced to go slower, taking in the beautiful views and quaint towns, instead of speeding past them. And when you finally do arrive, you feel like you’re in on a secret that few have taken the time to discover.

Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde



  1. Awesome! How long would you say it takes to drive here from Liberia or San Jose?

    • Hi Cindy, it’s about 4.5 hours from Liberia and 5 hours from San Jose as long as you take the ferry in Puntarenas. You can also fly on a small plane from San Jose to Tambor to save a lot of time.

      • Thank your for posting your experience. We are flying in to Liberia and hired a driver to bring us to Mal Pais. Are there any stops or slight detours along the 5 hour drive that you recommend we should see?

        • Hi Wendy, great idea to leave the driving up to someone else. 😉 There is some great handmade pottery stands right on the road between Santa Cruz and Nicoya that would make a nice stop. They make it locally in the pre-Colombian style. If you wanted to take a little bit longer of a detour, you could go see how it’s made in the nearby town of Guaitil, they do tours. Later in your drive there are also some pretty spectacular views of the Gulfo de Nicoya, you could always stop along the road and take some pictures for a little break. Hope you have a great trip and enjoy Mal Pais!

  2. Those pictures really drew me in, especially the last one with the ‘Bakery’ sign. Seems to be a quaint beach town which is just my style. Lovely!

    • Hey Becca, thanks for reading! Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are definitely quaint beach towns but there’s still a ton there. You’d love it!

  3. This place looks gorgeous. I love how remote it is, but then you can still get sushi and pizza! Thanks for virtually taking me there.

    • Kelly, it is SO gorgeous, stunning beaches with a backdrop of lush jungle. And, yep, there’s good food too. Freshest sushi ever with tuna caught right off the shore!

  4. Absolutely gorgeous! I didn’t get to as many beaches as I would have liked when I lived there (being on student and then internship schedule was so restricting he he), but this is one place I would have loved to have explored. One guy in my program actually did his internship in Montezuma and always raved about it. I love any beach that is unspoiled!

    • Thanks Julie! Hope you can get down to Mal Pais sometime soon. Your friend is right, Montezuma is awesome too- another little beach town that also has a lot of great restaurants. It’s really close so you could easily see both places. Cheers!

  5. Surfing is definitely what I’d be about at Santa Teresa. I’ve heard it’s a top spot to surf. When I was in Costa Rica i didn’t get a chance to check it out, but next time for sure!

    • Hey Jules, Santa Teresa is great for surfing- lots of different breaks for all levels. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip to CR!

  6. Is there good areas to swim in Santa Teresa/Mal Pais? or is it mostly surfing beach? If you had to chose to add one beach town to a trip for non-surfers, would you add Santa Teresa/Mal Pais or Montezuma? Whichever we choose we plan to stay for 3 days at the end of our trip so we want a nice combo of town life and beach. THANKS! :)

    • Hi Lauren, I’d pick Santa Teresa over Montezuma even though you aren’t surfers. It’s just a really cool little town with tons of great restaurants and a lot going on. Most of the beaches are good for surfing, but there are a few nice swimming spots too. Playa Hermosa, a few km north of Santa Teresa, is decent for swimming with smaller waves (and a seriously beautiful beach). There are some other nice spots in the area too- ask around about Secret Beach. Not many people know about it, and it’s gorgeous!

  7. Hey,

    Your trip looked great! I was wondering what time of year did you go on your road trip. We are planning mid-late November but are worried about the rainy season

    • Hi Jasmine, We went in late June, but it shouldn’t be too rainy mid to late November either. Definitely not bad enough to change your plans. Just keep your activities flexible so that if it’s raining one day, you can just go surfing/four wheeling/hiking the next day.


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