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Santa Teresa, Costa Rica: A Guide to The Coolest Beach Town You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Playa Hermosa - a sandy beach lined with palm trees

Ever heard of Santa Teresa or Mal Pais in Costa Rica? Yeah, I hadn’t either. Lucky for us, I stumbled upon this gorgeous beach hideaway. After going, I can say it was just as wonderful as it looks.

Mal Pais beach
We had Secret Beach right outside of Mal Pais all to ourselves.

Several months ago, I came home from a mentally exhausting day at work and immediately searched for beach vacations.  I wanted a break.  I’m talking off the grid, relaxing, no makeup kind of vacation.  The kind of vacation where you wonder what you actually did all week.  The kind of vacation we never take. Luckily, I found the perfect low-key beach town, and I found it completely by accident. 

Costa Rica had been on our list for a while.  I didn’t want an all-inclusive, and for some reason I decided that we really needed a plunge pool in our room.  I mean, this is our one vacation this year without the kids.  The search was on.  I came across the Casa Chameleon Resort and loved it. I then did my usual “oh but I can probably find something similar at a much better price” search.  Nothing.  So I went back, joined their mailing list and immediately got an email about a promo they were running.  Done.  I barely did any research on the actual town of Mal Pais until after we booked the hotel.  Seems logical, right?  Sometimes you just have to take a chance.

Why Go?

I’m so glad we found Santa Teresa/Mal Pais because it was a perfect off-the-grid week of relaxation.  There is minimal infrastructure and it is long travel day to get there but the payoffs are amazing!

  • Monkeys right outside your hotel
  • Fun outdoor activities like hiking, waterfalls, and zip lines
  • Delicious fresh seafood
  • Some of the best surfing in the world
  • Lots of yoga studios 
  • gorgeous, quiet beaches
  • Oh, and you may even encounter a few celebrities- Tom Brady and Giselle, along with Matthew McConaughey are frequent visitors!

About the area

Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are sister towns on the Nicoya Pensinsula on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.  They are often grouped together when referring to the area since they are so close together.  It is only about a 7 to 10 minute ATV ride between the two, on a mostly dirt road.  Santa Teresa is more of the town, with restaurants, shops, and hostels along the one main road,  while Mal Pais is more of a fishing village.  By fishing village, I mean a few boats and a little building where the fishermen come in every day to clean their fish.  

Street view of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
street view of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Getting There and Logistics

How to Get There

Mal Pais/Santa Teresa requires a long travel day, but offers fewer crowds in return.  There are several options for getting to Santa Teresa/Mal Pais.

  • Fly into San Jose then drive about five hours (time includes a ferry crossing)
  • Fly into Liberia then drive about four hours
  • Fly into San Jose and take a regional flight to Tambor. From Tambor take a rental car or hire a driver for the hour ride.

Based on our experience and in talking to other travelers that chose to drive, the best way is to fly into San Jose airport then take a smaller puddle jumper to Tambor.  The driving from San Jose or Liberia takes you down winding roads through the countryside for several hours. Normally, we would be up for this adventure, but we knew that we wouldn’t need a car once we arrived (more on that later), so we decided to take the regional flight. From there, it is about an hour drive into Santa Teresa. 

When we visited, Sansa was the only regional airline flying.  They only had a few flights per day to Tambor, and none of the times worked well with the incoming flights.  So we had about a three hour layover at San Jose (and a subsequent delay for another two hours….but let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you).  We also had to wait at the airport for several hours for our return flight as well.  Just mentally prepare yourself, and remember…so worth it.

When you fly into Tambor Airport, you quickly realize that you are truly in an area that is still pretty new to tourism.  The airport is one landing strip with a few benches to sit on while waiting for your flight.  It is on private land, so you will be charged a small fee before leaving the airstrip.  I think it was about $5 for the two of us.  You will have to pay this each time you fly in and out.  So be prepared with some cash.

I would suggest setting up a transport to your hotel from the Tambor Airport.  Our driver was waiting at the airport (even after our two hour delay).  We arranged for this through our hotel, but there are several companies online as well. There was a car rental nearby, but you really don’t need a car rental in the area.  From Tambor, it is about 45 to 60 minutes ride to Mal Pais.

Getting Around

This area has mostly dirt roads with little to no infrastructure. The easiest way to explore is on an ATV, so you don’t have to worry about destroying a rental car on the bumpy roads. There are a few rental places in town, but we worked with our hotel upon arrival to arrange a rental.  They brought it to us and picked it up at the end of the week.  It ended up being about the same price as a rental car and allowed us to access more places than a car. 

Driving our ATV into Santa Teresa for dinner

When to Visit

There really isn’t a bad time to visit the area, but some are more ideal for various reasons.

  • The winter months usually offer the warmest and driest weather, but prices will reflect the busier season
  • The rainy season technically goes from May to October/November, with September averaging the most rain. We went at the end of August and only had one day with more than ten minutes of rain.  It was less expensive and far less crowded.  Several places in town do start closing for the rainy months, so your choices for restaurants and rentals may be limited. 

Where to Stay

There aren’t any high rise mega resorts in Santa Teresa, which is exactly the reason to stay here. Instead, the town and surrounding hillsides are scattered with several small scale properties to choose from. Only one or two resorts are located oceanfront.

We stayed in a beautiful adults only property called Casa Chameleon.  It is located on the hillside between Santa Teresa and Mal Pais.  There are only a few properties in the area located directly on the beach, and we liked the feeling of being in the jungle.  We stayed in one of their villas.  It was the perfect size, and felt so much bigger with the wall to wall sliding doors that opened up to the patio and pool area.  The service was incredible, and the breakfast every morning was delicious.  They also provided everything we could have ever needed for our days out and about….folding beach chairs, cooler, etc.   

Delicious Pancakes topped with mango, pineapple and coconut
The most delicious tropical pancakes at Casa Chameleon
looking out at views of the jungle and ocean from our private plunge pool
Enjoying the jungle and ocean views from our private plunge pool

Another property that I would highly recommend is Mint.  It is a recently opened adults only boutique hotel with the nicest owners.  The hip Scandinavian design with clean lines and locally sourced materials creates a stark contrast to the surrounding overgrown jungle, making for a serene setting.  There is a gorgeous pool and common area overlooking the ocean below.  While we didn’t stay here, we did make the trek up the hill for sunset drinks one night before dinner. It definitely left us wanting to return for a stay in the future.

clean lines and modern architecture
Jonas, the owner of Mint, making a fresh margarita while we enjoy the stunning architecture and views

Things to Do

  • Zip Lining- We used Canopy Mal Pais del Pacifico, whom our hotel recommended.  They can pick you up, or you can save about half the price and drive yourself.  It is right up the road about 1/4 mile from Mal Pais fishing village. 
  • Visit Montezuma– Drive over to Montezuma for a fun day of hiking and swimming in the falls then grab some lunch and hit the beach.
  • Horseback Riding-  We didn’t do this but talked to a few people who did and really enjoyed it. 
  • SUP or surfing lessons
  • Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
  • Tortuga Island – We skipped out on this.  I decided it was probably a huge tourist trap based on mixed reviews from other travelers. 
  • Relax on the beautiful beaches
Playa Hermosa - a sandy beach lined with palm trees
Playa Hermosa in Santa Teresa

Where to Eat

You would think that being in the middle of the jungle would give you few options at bargain prices.  Not so much.  With all of the expats and visiting surfers, there are some amazing restaurants.  Prices are about on par with anywhere back home.  You still can find some amazing hole-in-the-wall places to eat with great local food.  Here is a list of our favorites:

  • The Bakery- Delectable baked goods, sandwiches, and smoothies
  • Caracolas – The perfect spot for a sunset dinner on the beach.  We had delicious ceviche.  If you’re traveling with kids, they have a great little playground where they can run around. 
  • The Roastery- great coffee and super friendly owner
  • Katana – We had great sushi here.  Koji’s is another highly reviewed sushi place, but it was already closed for the rainy season.
  • Ritmo Tropical-  Surprisingly, they have good pizza made from fresh, local ingredients. We didn’t get the best vibe from the staff. They weren’t very friendly, but the pizza was good. Maybe it was just a bad night?
  • Product C – great fresh seafood
  • Las Piedras Parrilla – Ok, so we didn’t ever eat here, but it looked and smelled amazing.  We kept saying we were going to stop, but never got around to eat.  They have an open air grill right at the entrance, and all of the chicken and beef cooking on it smells heavenly as you go by.  It has great reviews, so I’d love to hear from someone who has eaten there.
  • Chiringuito Tierra Mar – We heard about this little place from a local.  It is a tiny walkup counter beside Mary’s Restaurant in Mal Pais.  It doesn’t really have a sign and seems more like a place for locals to grab a quick lunch, but that made it even more appealing to us.  The food was fantastic.  We both had a casado: a typical local lunch of meat or fish with salad, rice and beans.  I had beef and David had fish, both of which were delicious.  I would highly recommend trying to find this place for a more local experience.
palm trees and string lights with ocean sunset in the background
sunset ocean views at Caracolas

Other Things to Know

  • There are two grocery stores in town. We stopped daily to pick up beer to stock our cooler for the beach. They have all the essentials like wine, mixers, and snacks to keep on hand.
  • Try the Drift Bar- They have artisan cocktails made with locally sourced, fresh pressed juices and their own house-made liqueuers. The best part, you can get a bottle to go! Perfect for a day at the beach.

Have you been to Mal Pais/Santa Teresa? I’d love to hear your favorite part!

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