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 east coast of the peninsula. 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.

For more information on the Puntarenas ferry, see our post Taking the Puntarenas-Paquera Ferry

*     *     *

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


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    1. 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.

      1. 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?

        1. Hi Wendy, 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!

    1. 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!

  1. 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!

    1. 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!

  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!

    1. 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. 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!

    1. 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!

  4. 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! 🙂

    1. 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!

  5. 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

    1. 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.

  6. Hi:)) Thanks for all of the great info!! We will be headed to CR for 2 weeks in February and are super excited. Our plan was to do a couple of days at Arenal and then drive down to Samara then Mal Pais/Santa Teresa. Did you drive from Samara down? We will be renting a car as well and just wondered if it would easier to break the trip (we have a kiddo) up by staying in Samara for a few days and then head to Mal Pais? Or is Samara way out of the way?

    1. Hi Liz, Breaking up the trip with a stop in Samara is a great idea. The roads getting to Samama from La Fortuna/Arenal are in really good shape so it’s only about an hour out of the way. Just be sure to take the highway and go through Nicoya instead of going the coastal route through Nosara, etc. From Samara to Mal Pais, you’ll want to head inland back up through Nicoya etc. using the From Liberia directions above. The roads south of Samara are very rough with multiple river crossings and it’s less safe because it’s so remote, so I would definitely recommend the route that takes you on the eastern side of the Nicoya Peninsula via Nicoya, Paquera, Cobano. If you haven’t booked your rental car, be sure to check out the discount we get through Adobe Rent a Car to see if it will save you some money- more info here: Have a great trip!

  7. Hi guys!

    Awesome site, I’ve found so much information I was looking for 🙂
    I’m curious if there are any public transport options for getting to Mal Pais? My friend and I will be backpacking on a low budget and we would to check it out but not if it’ll cost an arm and a leg!


  8. Your tips and posts have been so helpful! We are going back to Costa Rica in Feb/March and are going to fly into Liberia, stay in Tamarindo a day or two and drive to Malpais. About how long from Tamarindo, would you say?

    1. Hi Julia, It’s around 4.5 hours from Tamarindo to Mal Pais. It’s all smooth highway so a fast ride until you get to the southern Nicoya Peninsula, when the roads get rougher. Make sure to take Route 21 (following almost the same directions from Liberia we provide above- don’t go the coastal route via Nosara, Samara, etc.). Have a great trip!

  9. Hi Jenn and Matt,

    I am going to come to Costa Rica for a month this June. I’m hoping to make Mal Pais a stop on my trip. To clarify, you mentioned going to Playa Hermosa “just north”, but my understanding is that Playa Hermosa is way up north in Guanacaste. Is there another lesser known Playa Hermosa close to Mal Pais?

    I’m really excited to come back to Costa Rica. I did my student teaching there in 2003 and haven’t been back since. I’m returning on a Teacher Creativity Fellowship and am having a blast researching where to go, what to see, and what has changed in the past 13 years!

    1. Hi Beth, That’s exciting that you’re coming back to CR for a visit! I’m sure a lot will have changed over the last 13 years. Mal Pais is still pretty off-the-beaten path so it’s a good place for you to check out. To answer your question, yes, there is a Playa Hermosa near Mal Pais. There are actually at least four Playa Hermosas in Costa Rica, which makes things really confusing. There’s one near Jaco, one in the Southern Zone, one in Guanacaste, and one near Mal Pais/Santa Teresa too. The one near Mal Pais is about a 5-10 min. drive from the main area of town and is a little more secluded and just gorgeous. Have a great trip back!

  10. Hi Jenn and Matt,

    I just came across your wonderful page! I am a flight attendant and flying stand-by to San Jose hopefully arriving this Sunday morning! My plan is to rent a car and drive to Mal Pais that Sunday (we get in at 9AM so have all day to drive.) Do we need to take the Ferry and does it hold the vehicle? Is that a good idea and should we get a 4-wheel drive? We want to raft the Pecuare River then head to Arneal. Then back to San Jose to fly home. Does that sound like the right order? Thank you!

    1. Hi Michelle, You can drive around the peninsula to get from San Jose to Mal Pais, but the ferry in Puntarenas is a lot faster so we would do that. And yes, you can take the car on the ferry- here’s a site with more info on schedule and price: You do need 4×4 for after you get off the ferry. Take a look at our directions above for which route to take. For the order, we’d recommend rafting either at the beginning or end of your trip as tours usually leave from San Jose (or Turrialba), and it probably makes more sense to do Mal Pais, then Arenal before heading back to SJ because Arenal is closer.

  11. Hi! Do you have any recommendations on where to stay in Mal Pais/Santa Teresa? I’ve been looking for days and would love some suggestions! Looking for beachfront preferably; budget is flexible.

    1. Hi Lina, There are lots of good choices. Here are some ideas for places close to the beach:
      (1) Oasis Mal Pais: Nicely appointed bungalows with a kitchenette and outdoor porch. Close to the main area of town near Playa Carmen and the beach, but in a quiet location. Well-manicured pool area. Around $100.
      (2) Tiamat Lodge: Newer hotel with nice, modern-looking rooms built with native wood. Loft style with kitchenette. Farther from the main area of Santa Teresa but very close to beautiful Playa Hermosa Beach. You could rent bikes or a quad to get around. $80/night.
      (3) Villas Hermosas: More modern villas on Playa Hermosa. Only a few so small, intimate property. Right on Hermosa Beach. $200-300 depending on if beachfront.
      (4) Hostel La Posada: Small hotel with clean and comfortable rooms with A/C. Set back a little from the main road and close to the beach. Good location near the main area of town. Around $90/night.

  12. Hey guys,
    My wife and I are traveling to Santa Teresa for a wedding in a couple of weeks. We land at LIR in the afternoon and plan to rent a car and drive to Santa Cruz for the first night. From there I could use a little clarification on driving directions to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa. It looks like the preferred route from Santa Cruz is route 21 down to Naranjo and then on to Paquera (the other side of where the ferry lands). From that point it looks like it may get a little confusing…any additional info would be much appreciated! Thanks!

    1. Hi Jeremy, Yes, that’s the correct route. If you follow our directions “From Liberia” above, you shouldn’t have any problems. Basically, in Paquera, you take a right at the stop sign so that you go towards the Mega Super, in order to stay on 160. After that, you just follow the main road until Cobano (it looks more obvious what the main road is when you’re here), where you’ll take a left, following signs to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa. Really not a bad drive but GPS or a phone with a maps App isn’t a bad idea.

  13. Hey Jenn and Matt,

    Love your site! I am wanting to go from Malpais to Costa Ballena. I have been traveling around Costa Rica for awhile now. What do you suggest in terms of how to get there. Boat? Road? Fly? Combination? And, how long would the travel time be depending on route and mode of transportation?

    1. Hi Pat, The easiest is to take the ferry from Paquera to Puntarenas and then drive the rest of the way. It’s a long trip (about 6 hrs including the 1 hr ferry), but that is the easiest way to do it. There’s also the speedboat from Montezuma to Jaco but you will probably want a car for the Costa Ballena anyway so the ferry and driving makes the most sense. Flying wouldn’t save you much time and would only get you as far as Quepos anyway.

  14. My cousin and I will be in Mal Pais the end of January and I am pleased to see one of the hotels you recommended is where we are staying (Oasis). We’ll be there 3 nights and don’t have a car but want to go to the Secret Beach and Playa Hermosa. Wondering which would be the best options: Rent an ATV, bike, walk or taxi? Also wonder how much time we should plan for getting there and back? Looks like the hotel is not far from Playa Carmen. If we go straight down to beach can we walk to Playa Carmen, Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa? Thought I had read somewhere that the beach was not walkable from Mal Pais to Santa Teresa.
    Really enjoying all the information you have provided. Thank you.

    1. Hi Evelyn, An ATV is probably your best option for getting to Secret Beach and Hermosa. They are both too far from Playa Carmen to walk probably. You could bike ride there too but the road gets pretty dusty so getting there quicker might be best. Hotel Oasis is right near the main intersection in Santa Teresa so you will be able to walk to a lot of different restaurants and to Playa Santa Teresa no problem. Hope you and your cousin have a great time!

  15. Saw your suggested hotels above- Oasis is one of our options, but wanted to see if you knew anything about Hotel Tropico Latino at all. Seems a little more built up?

  16. What a great site! Thanks for sharing all this information.

    I am planning on a 1-week trip for Feb 2018 (yes, I’m a bit too early; but just excited) and plan on staying at Malpais. Surfing is our main interest. I don’t plan on getting a car rental as we prefer to stay local and go around via ATV. What’s the best airport to fly to from Charlotte, NC and how do we go about using public transport?

    1. Hi Ces, If you plan on using public transportation, your best option is to fly into San Jose. There is a direct bus from San Jose to Montezuma via the ferry that continues on to Mal País. You can use this website to find the schedule. ATV is a great option for getting around locally once you’re there.

        1. Yes, definitely. A lot of the businesses are clustered around the main part of Santa Teresa so it’s easy to do if you stay in that area (near Playa Carmen/Playa Santa Teresa).

  17. I’ve been to CR twice in last 18 months (from D.C.) to learn to surf. I love it. I went to surf camps both times, so the hotel and lessons were packaged together, which made my planning easier. I’m fascinated by the remoteness of Santa Teresa and trying to schedule a trip during first week in march. Am I missing anything or would going there mean planning the hotel and surf rental and lessons all separately. I’m a single female so I’m looking for a sense of security in the planning, while still trying to make it happen! Can you share any tips or advice ? Thank you!

    1. Hi Emily, We don’t surf so don’t know which option would be better than another, but it does look like there are surf camps/hotels that package lodging and surf lessons together. Blue Surf Sanctuary has packages that include lodging at their hotel, daily lessons, use of equipment, etc. Here’s a link to their packages page. Shaka Beach Retreat has something similar. Mal Pais Surf Camp (less expensive) has packages that include use of boards but lessons are extra. Those are just a few options that we found, there are probably more.

      1. You’re wondeful ! Thank you so much for the help. I emailed all those places for info on availability. After reading your story on the road trip, I got determined to get there for the adventure of it. And since I learned to surf in CR last year, it’s all I can think about. I have read all your posts about moving to CR and just wish I had taken Spanish in high school instead of French 🙂 Thanks again.

  18. Hey this is an awesome website!! Just wondering about the mosquito situation at this time of year … hoping to go to Mal Pais at the end of February … is Zika still on the rise?
    Thanks a lot!

    1. Hi Aaron, Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases are not as much of a problem in the dry season (February). Current government data shows that there were about 60 confirmed cases across the country in the month of January, so not too many considering the population as a whole. The numbers are actually all way down from last year. We still recommend wearing repellent and taking other precautions, though, just to be safe. You can read our Costa Rica and Mosquitoes post for more info and tips. At the bottom of the article is a link to the government data we are referencing if you want to take a look yourself.

  19. Looking for something to do on the way back from Mal Pais to SJO (or near SJO) as we won’t be flying out until the following morning. We have a 1 yr old and 4 yr old. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Melissa, You could read our How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose post for ideas. It’s not in that article, but there’s also a Children’s Museum in San Jose that is supposed to be very good. Some other possibilities are Zoo Ave in La Garita. And if you do that, you could swing by the train museum near Atenas. It’s only open on Sundays I think but the old train is always sitting there. Our Atenas article talks more about these latter two places.

  20. Hi there,

    First- thank you for providing such thorough & thoughtful overviews of Costa Rica and it’s many destinations. It’s been incredibly helpful when planning our trip- although I will admit its been difficult to pick where to go with so many great options!

    My boyfriend & I are planning a 1 week trip the first week of May. We’ll be flying into San Jose, and renting a 4×4 car (likely through your discount!). The destinations we have in mind are Nosara, Samara, and Malpais- a few nights at each. Do you have any recommendations on how to break up the trip based on getting to and from these places? From our research, it doesn’t seem like there is an easy way to get between these places without backtracking quite a bit. Ideally, we’d do a big circle, and end up back in San Jose via the ferry without retracing our steps. Should we skip one of the above places?

    Last question- do you know of any good hikes in the above areas? Open to any & all levels of difficulty.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Amy, We would recommend SJO to Samara to Nosara down to Mal Pais to SJO via the ferry. Samara isn’t quite as far as away for your first day of driving from the airport and the roads there are all in good condition. You’ll have to head back towards Samara to get to Mal País after, but I think it’s worth it. Fitting all three of those places in 1 week is ambitious so you could pick either Samara or Nosara and do the one you don’t stay in as a day trip easily.

      Samara has a nice hike through a private reserve- see our Samara Trails post. You can also do Diria National Park from either Samara or Nosara. And s great hike near Mal País is Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve.

  21. Wonderful extremely useful info on this site! Thanks for doing this.

    We have a 2WD (Kia Cerato, similar size to a Civic), and are planning on heading to Montezuma via the ferry at Paquera in a few days time. Your site says “recommended”, but IYO at this time of year, Is Paquera to Montezuma doable with a 2WD?

    Also,based on the other info you shared on the site, I’m assuming it’s best for us to come back up to Paquera / Naranjo and get on 21 to head to Tamarindo area after we’re done in Montezuma.

    Please advise, thanks!

    1. Hi Paul and Amy, We have not driven that route in a while, but last time we did, we were glad to have 4×4. We did see regular cars making the trip, though. You could always ask your hotel for the most current conditions. Not sure if the road has been regraded recently or if they have gotten rain yet this year.

      And, yes, that route is correct for getting to Tamarindo after.

  22. Hi! We are planning a trip to possibly Nosara, Samara, and Montezuma in July/August but I’m worried about driving times in the rainy season (with a toddler in the car!). Do you know how long the drive is if you don’t take the coastal route from Samara to Montezuma and then from Montezuma back up to Liberia? Thank you! These comments have been very helpful.

    1. Hi Christyn, To get from Samara to Montezuma, you will want to take Route 21 around the peninsula (via Nicoya, Jicaral, Paquera). We did this exact drive last year and think it was about 4 hrs, but we did stop a lot because we too have a baby! Road conditions in the Southern Nicoya Peninsula change so it could be a little more or a little less. And then to get to Liberia after, allow about 5 hrs. A good place to stop if you need a break is Santa Cruz. It has a small park where your little one could run around a bit.

  23. Hi! I just stumbled across your site as I was researching information about a possible trip to Santa Teresa with my husband and 10 mo old baby. Husband is a surfer and has always wanted to go but we are wondering what your thoughts are on traveling to that region with such a little one. We would fly into Liberia and rent a car. Do you think the drive is doable? Safe enough town to bring a baby? Looks like you have a baby yourself so I thought you might be able to offer suggestions/tips! Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Andi, Mal País is a long drive from Liberia but I do think it’s doable with a 10 month old. We visited Montezuma, which is a town nearby, when our son was only 4 months old and he did great. You will probably have to make some stops to let him/her crawl/run around, but there are plenty of places to do that. It does get more remote once you get to the S. Nicoya Peninsula so keep that in mind. Plenty safe too so don’t worry about that. Costa Rica has its quirks when traveling with a baby but is great overall. Definitely read our Traveling with a Baby post too!

    2. Andi my husband and I stayed in Santa Teresa for about a week on one of trips to Costa Rica in the past couple years and the town was amazing. My husband surfs also and that is why we picked it. It is super laid back town. Our kids are older (4 and 6), but we would definitely bring our kids there if we went again and feel completely safe. The hotel we stayed at had a great restaurant and there were always local families there in the evenings with their kids.

      On a random side note…Jenn and Matt, I found your site today and I am obsessed! You guys are living our dream!

  24. Thanks for your great articles – so helpful for dreaming into the perfect vacation! Can you help me make a choice between Santa Theresa and Tamarindo? I am a (youngish) 50 year old woman traveling solo next month after a week leading a biomimicry educational group. I’d like to take some surf lessons, enjoy chill time on the beach, in a quiet place with a laid-back attitude and enough other things to do without being overly touristy. Wondering if the waves at Santa Theresa may be too much for a beginner…? And whether it’s possible to find quiet and some solitude amidst the hipper, more active town of Tamarindo? Anything you can offer about comparing the two places would be so helpful! Thanks.

    1. Hi Toby, If you’re visiting mid-December or later and you prefer laid back and not too touristy, definitely go with Santa Teresa. Tamarindo will be getting very busy and is especially crazy around the holidays. Santa Teresa sounds more like the vibe you’re looking for too. It has a decent amount going on but you can still find quiet if you want to. It has good waves for advanced surfers but there are also places for beginners too so don’t worry. If you want to learn more about the surfing there, check out the Surfing chapter of our Itineraries book.

  25. Hi,
    We’re travelling to Costa Rica for 4 weeks in March and have been using your site for the majority of our planning! We’re planning on heading to Playa Samara for a few days then onto Mal Pais and Montezuma for 5 nights, but will be coming from Volcan Tenorio / Rio Celeste. We have a rental car and so will be driving between places. Do you know whether, in terms of timing and road quality route, it make most sense from route 6 to head south on route 1 and onto route 18 or to drive north on route 1 to Liberia and join route 21?


  26. Hi Jenn and Matt! I am officially OBSESSED with your blog! Awesome content and great info. You are living the dream 🙂 My boyfriend and I are traveling to CR for about a week (short, I know) at the end of March. He is a surfer so we definitely wanted to spend a few nights in Santa Teresa/ Malpais area. We were going to land in San Jose and spend the day there (already took some advice from our blog) then head out to Santa Teresa in a rental 4×4 via the ferry route. Where should we stop along the way and make it a full day trip? Also, we wanted to do the La Fortuna/ Arenal area for a day or two. What order would you recommend? Santa Teresa or Arenal area first?

    1. Hi Lisa, There aren’t a ton of places to stop on the way from San Jose to Santa Teresa, but here are a couple of ideas. Not far from San Jose, you could stop in the town of Atenas. This is a cute locals’ town with a scenic central park. Up in the surrounding hills is a restaurant with amazing views that go all the way to the ocean on clear days (see our Atenas post for more information). Something quicker but stil fun would be to pull over along the beach near Puntarenas/Calera and grab a Churchill (local ice-cream-type drink). There will be other locals around so it’s a fun cultural experience. Just be careful if you have all your bags in the car.

      It sounds like you have more time at the beginning of your trip, so we would recommend getting the long drive to Santa Teresa done first, then heading to La Fortuna. La Fortuna is only about 2.5 hours from the airport.

  27. Would you recommend renting a car or hiring a driver? We fly into Liberia and then will be staying with friends in Mal Pais. TIA!

    1. Hi Holly, If you don’t think you’ll need a car once you get there, then it is probably better to just take a shuttle. If you’re staying farther from the main area of town, then you could rent a car to have it to get around. Or ATVs are available for rent- those are really popular in this area.

  28. Hey Jenn and Matt,

    My fiance and I are going to be traveling to Costa Rica for our honeymoon in late June/early July for two weeks. We are flying into SJO and then driving south to Uvita. We are staying a week down south in Uvita and Manuel Antonio and then heading north to Malpais. We are planning on taking the ferry and then driving to Malpais from there.

    The rental car company we are dealing with is recommending a Hyundai Tucson. Do you think this car will be able to make it? I know that we are going in the beginning of rainy season so I want to make sure we aren’t going to get stuck somewhere.


    1. Hi Jordan, Yes, a Hyundai Tucson 4×4 will be fine for those trips, even in the rainy season. It’s actually the car we have now and it gets us everywhere we need to go in the country. You’ll encounter some rough roads in Uvita if you explore too so the 4×4 will be useful there as well. Please check out our Rental Car Discount page to save on the car and get some free extras if you haven’t reserved already.

      Also, we have detailed information about the roads to Mal País and many other popular routes in our post Road Conditions of Specific Routes in Costa Rica. Have a great honeymoon!

  29. You guys are so amazing and I am finding EVERYTHING I need here! I am planning a road trip kind of vacation with my husband and two boys (5 and 3 years old) in August. Right now our biggest debate is between beach up north around Playa Flamingo in an easy for the kids type resort, or roughing it a bit more in Santa Teresa at a very quaint bnb situation. My biggest concern is the beach, will the waves down south be too much for the little ones? Is the mosquito situation much more dangerous in Santa Teresa?

    1. Hi Rachel, If Santa Teresa appeals to you more, go for that. It’s definitely a more interesting destination and is still a decent spot with kids. Most of the beaches have waves, but Flamingo has rip currents too so you’d have to drive to find calmer water there anyway. The water at Playa Hermosa just north of Santa Teresa should be okay for them to wade in. The mosquitoes are really similar in those two locations so don’t base your decision on that. You can read our post Costa Rica and Mosquitoes for tips on avoiding bites. If you aren’t set on Santa Teresa, you could also look at Playa Samara, which is a great destination for families and has a calmer cove that’s better for swimming.

  30. Hello! Your tips and website have been great resources thus far. I will be in Costa Rica June 12-19th. I had planned on flying to Tambor via San Jose airport to save time, but realized there isn’t an adobe rental car place in the south of Nicoya? Any other suggestions? I hear that is the most reasonable company from a few sites?
    My plan was;
    Santa Teresa/Mal pais 12th and 13th,
    Drive to Monteverde the 14th (either up eastern peninsula or via ferry through puntareanas?) and stay two nights. then head out to La Fortuna and Arenal for the last 2 nights? I know this all seems a bit ambitious. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Catherine, I think the only company with an office in Tambor is Budget, unfortunately. Right now, flying on small places isn’t a great option anyway. The two carriers are not very reliable right now- one has been shut down by the government and the other has been regularly cancelling flights. So we’d recommend driving or shuttling.

      For your itinerary, if you can, we’d add an extra night onto Santa Teresa because it takes so long to get to. You could take either the ferry or drive the whole way via Route 21 to 18 to 1. The ferry option takes slightly more time but it’s a fun, scenic ride.

  31. I love your site and have been following you for almost two years now. Went to CR last Xmas and hope to go back this Xmas holiday. The crowds were really not that bad. This year, I’m trying to figure out where to spend New Year’s Eve. 2 older adults and a teenage daughter traveling. I was planning to cover the following: Rincon de Vieja (Buena Vista or Guachipelin activity tour), Paquera (Curu reserve, bio bay kayak), Samara and Playa Brasilito. I was ruling out Santa Theresa due to more time in the car, but after reading your blog, it’s back in the plan. I have 12 nights total. Santa Theresa or Samara for New Year’s. How are they different? And do I really need to stay in Playa Brasilito at all? How is it different from the other two beach areas? My daughter will want to surf, and I love super calm seas with white sand beaches. Hoping to visit both types. Please share your thoughts. I need your help. thanks

    1. Hi Sue, We think the vibe will be more fun on New Years in Santa Teresa so we’d do that over Samara. Playa Brasilito is a lot different than the southern Guanacaste and Nicoya beach areas. Northern Guanacaste is more developed, but not so much Playa Brasilito, which is a small locals’ town. There really are some gorgeous beaches up there as well, since you’re into calm water and beaches. Playa Conchal and also lots of smaller secluded options like Bahia de los Pirates, Playa Mina, Playa Penca, etc. Northern Guanacaste is where you have the calm coves for swimming. Farther south in Samara, Santa Teresa, etc., the beaches have bigger waves for surfing so your daughter will be happy. Hope that gives you some guidance. Thanks for following us for all this time!

  32. Hi Jenn and Matt,
    My husband and I used your site to map out an awesome trip last Christmas break and loved every minute of out trip to Costa Rica. This year we are returning, but taking a less adventurous approach and only staying in one location for 8 days. This year’s focus is more on chilling at the beaches. We are staying in Playa Carrillo and I wanted to ask what the driving time would be to take a day trip to Santa Teresa and do you think we have enough time for a day trip down there? Originally we were looking at breaking up the trip between the two locations but in the end it just seemed to be too rushed.
    I appreciate any info and tips.

    1. Hi Nicole, Glad that our site was helpful with your planning last year! For the day trip, even though it doesn’t look far on the map, the drive from Playa Carillo to Santa Teresa is probably around 3.5-4 hours because the roads are so rough. You would want to take the inland route via Route 150 to 21 instead of the coastal route south from Carrillo, which involves river crossings. So it wouldn’t be great as a day trip, unfortunately. A cool day trip from Carrillo is Punta Islita, so you could check that out. It’s a tiny town that is home to the Ara Project and you could grab lunch at the resort on the beach.

  33. Hi there! I love your blog! Super helpful. We are traveling to CR for our first time this year. We are torn between mid april (for our kiddo’s Spring Break) or a longer vacation in june or end of july. Which would be best? I’m orginially from FL so I do understand the afternoon storms, but just want to make sure our whole trip wont be rained out if we did june or late july. Also, orginally our travel agent had us staying in arenal for 4 nights and then to Manuel Antonio for 3. But now I am discovering the Montezume/Mal Pais areas and am very torn. The only reason I am “holding onto” Arenal is just because of the volcano. Not sure if it’s worth it. We want to be on the beaches, be in the rainforest/jungle, ride ATVs around at our own leisure, wake up to KILLER views, eat local food, maybe charter a private boat for a day, and enjoy a quiet quaintness (i do not like super touristy and high rises or chains of any type). I’m from a small island in florida (sanibel/captiva island) so really looking for something with that casual and chill beachy islandly vibe. Would you say it would be wise to switch our trip to just the Mal Pais/MOntezuma area instead of Arenal and Manuel Antonio? This is all getting SO confusing!

    1. Hi Stacie, Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. We’re guessing that you probably already have figured out what time of year to visit Costa Rica but let us know if not and we can share our thoughts. Thanks!

  34. Hi Jenn and Matt! Your website is so helpful, thank you for all of your articles. My fiance and I are planning our honeymoon in late August/September. We love Nosara so would like to go there, as well as Santa Teresa as we have never been. Are Routes 150 and Routes 21 paved the whole way? We would like to drive but I am a little concerned about road conditions since it is technically the rainy season. Thank you for your advice!

  35. Love your site and all the great local information. First time traveling to CR in December 2019 and considering 4 nights at Casa Chameleon Mal Pais. Flying into Liberia (I believe that is the closest airport) and not sure yet if the hotel offers transportation. From what I’m reading I would want to plan for making that trek during day time? Any suggestions on where to go snorkeling, seeing sea turtles, monkeys and local shopping?

    1. Hi Susan, Yes, Liberia is the closest airport. You don’t absolutely need a car for Mal Pais so you could take a shuttle to and from, then take taxis to get around locally or rent a quad/ATV (fun!). Let us know if you’d like any help booking a shuttle – you can contact us through our Shuttle Booking page if you’re interested. If you decide to rent a car, yes, only do the drive during the day because it’s very rural and dark. Be sure to check out our Rental Car Discount. For snorkeling, there’s a great tour to Tortuga Island. For wildlife, hiking in Cabo Blano Nature Reserve is a great option. There isn’t too much for local shopping in that area, but you could stop in the town of Guaitil on your way to or from the airport to get some traditional pottery. Hope that helps!

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