Not long ago, the sleepy fishing villages of Malpaís and Santa Teresa, on the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula, were virtually unknown, hard to-reach destinations. But this Pacific coastline proved irresistible to surfers looking for the endless wave, and the area is now growing rapidly.
This beach and surf lovers’ paradise offers a range of rustic to top-notch accommodations and eateries, nestled in the jungle or situated along the beachfront road that runs three kilometers south from the El Carmen crossroads through laid-back Malpaís. To the north, the village merges into Santa Teresa, a vibrant surfers’ playground.
A recent eating odyssey in Malpaís proved it’s definitely not a case of feast or amine here, as options abound to suit every budget. Though we were unable to sample all of them, we highly recommend the following:
This small, upscale resort has an excellent restaurant open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Amid a lush tropical garden, you can dine in the open-air restaurant or by the pool. After dark, the restaurant’s romantic candlelit setting offers simple elegance accompanied by pleasant background music, excellent food and outstanding service.
Chef Christian Schwaiger, who trained in France and lived in New York for 10 years, has brought some of the Big Apple’s sophistication to the Malpaís restaurant scene.
His innovative menu changes daily and is inspired by French cuisine with creative Mediterranean and Asian influences.
Four of us arrived for dinner and were immediately welcomed by our attentive waiter, Chad Thompson, who knew all the tricks of the trade and never faulted throughout the meal.
From the appetizer menu with its six choices, all in the $7 range (not including 13 percent tax and 10 percent service charge), we chose the tempura squash blossoms with goat cheese, walnuts and charred tomato sauce, locally grown crispy oysters (see separate story on Page W1) with white wine, creamed spinach and bacon, and fresh parmesan noodles with wilted lettuce, peperoncini and mint. All were as different and delicious as they sound.
Entrées range from $13 to $16 and always include the catch of the day. That night, it was grilled corvina and scallops in a porcini sauce. The corvina was excellent, though the diner felt the sauce overpowered the delicate flavor of the scallops. The chicken breast with oyster mushrooms, potato croquettes and olive tapenade received high praise, and the huge portion of chicken wings was a tasty appetizer, though far too much for one person to finish alone.
Wine appears to be an expensive item in Malpaís. We paid $5 for a glass of house wine, which seems to be the norm in town.
Two imbibers were not happy with their bitter mojitos, and later our waiter informed us we hadn’t been charged for them.
The chef ’s tasting menu has been highly recommended if you want to indulge yourself, and the restaurant also caters to groups and wedding parties. Beija Flor is a kilometer south of the crossroads, on the left-hand side of the road. Hours are 8 to 11 a.m. for breakfast, noon to 4 p.m. for lunch and 6 p.m. to midnight for dinner. For information and reservations, call 2640-1006 or visit www.beijaflorresort.com.
Playa El Carmen Bar & Pizzeria
This beachfront restaurant with its wooden tables and canary-yellow and cobalt-blue color scheme is an ideal place to watch the sun set over the ocean or cool off after a morning on the beach.
The friendly Emilio Villavicencio, who came to Costa Rica from the Dominican Republic eight years ago, runs a tight ship, offering 27 different pizzas, 14 choices of pasta and a variety of salads. To quench your thirst, ice-cold beer, a selection of tropical drinks and cocktails from the well-stocked bar are all on hand.
The yummy thin-crust pizza is baked in a traditional wood oven. Prices range from ¢4,500 to ¢10,000 ($8 to $18), depending on size and ingredients. Pastas and salads are slightly cheaper and won’t break the bank.
Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Tuesday, the restaurant is 50 meters from the crossroads at the entrance of Malpaís, down by the beach.
This place has come a long way since it started life as the Malpaís pulpería, the only general store in the village. Chef Alex Barnett and partner Mary Luz Núñez, daughter of the original owners, turned the place into an attractive restaurant with a spacious, openair dining area, a bar and two pool tables.
Nevertheless, it still maintains a friendly, rustic atmosphere and is popular with locals, expats and visitors alike. Their staff continues to be family and locals from the village.
Mary’s serves a large choice of innovative pizzas, as well as some standard Mexican fare, including a different style of taco filled with shrimp, all very reasonably priced. However, the blackboard daily specials are the tour de force here.
The night four of us dined at Mary’s, the choices included grilled or seared yellowfin tuna served on a huge mixed salad. It was melt-in-your-mouth, ocean-fresh superb.
The mahimahi with a sage and garlic dressing, accompanied by mashed potatoes and a salad, was just as wonderful. We didn’t sample the marinated pork roast served with rice, beans, tortillas, guacamole and salad. All were priced from ¢5,600 to ¢6,200 ($10 to $11).
“I never plan my menu ahead of time, as I hate set menus. I prefer to create my recipes from what’s available,” Barnett said, adding that he goes to the dock every morning to buy the catch of the day from local fishermen and organic produce from the truck that comes in.
Regarding the enormous portions, Barnett said, “I don’t like the chic-style small portions; a little overindulgence never hurt anybody.”
For dessert, Barnett persuaded us to try the rum raisin ice cream made by none other than his mother, Marian, who inspired him to become a chef and taught him to cook, he said. It was absolutely delicious.
If you visit Mary’s, make sure you buy Barnett’s fascinating cookbook, entitled simply “Mary’s Restaurant.” It contains a wonderful selection of recipes, as well as fascinating facts about the types of fish found off the coast and tidbits of Malpaís history (TT, Aug. 15). It’s a great souvenir for $20.
Mary’s is two kilometers south of the crossroads, just before the turnoff to Star Mountain Resort. Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m. every day except Wednesday. For information, call 2640-0153.
From San José, take the west to Puntarenas. From there, take a ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to Paquera. Naviera Tambor (2661-2084) makes the trip at 5, 8 and 11 a.m. and 1, 4 and 8 p.m., returning to Puntarenas from Paquera at the same times. The fare is ¢810 ($1.50) for an adult passenger and ¢6,100 ($11) for a car.
to Puntarenas. From there, take a ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to Paquera. Naviera Tambor (2661-2084) makes the trip at 5, 8 and 11 a.m. and 1, 4 and 8 p.m., returning to Puntarenas from Paquera at the same times. The fare is ¢810 ($1.50) for an adult passenger and ¢6,100 ($11) for a car.
Be sure to arrive early to reserve your spot. The schedule has been known to change, so it’s a good idea to call in advance to confirm times.
Once you’re in Paquera, travel to the town of Cóbano, and from there head on to Malpaís. If you’re traveling by bus, you may be able to catch one directly from Paquera to Malpaís; if not, take a bus to Cóbano and then another bus or a taxi to Malpaís.