Turistas Gone Local: An Eco Vacation to Mal Pais, Costa Rica.

Via Caroline Treadway
on May 26, 2008
get elephant's newsletter

The road to Mal Pais is dusty. It’s so dusty that the torso-sized leaves arcing over the road are gray-brown shapes against the blue sky. From the back of our taxi, Costa Rica looks little like the impossibly green jungle pictures in my travel book. In the rainy season, the road from the tiny Tambor airstrip to Mal Pais [Pie-ees] is a washed-out rut of waterfalls and fluorescent flora—hard to believe as we bump along down the stoney lane.

Everyone here has a cough, but many locals would take dusty lungs over paved roads, which equal tourists, accidents, new construction and an extinction of the gracious pedestrian/stray dog right of way. What to us might be an annoyingly slow, bumpy road is to the locals a moat around the Nicoya peninsula, protecting it from gringo monoculture. A moat that’s about to be paved over.

The road dips steeply towards the Pacific, a sweep of azure fringed in white and gold. Between the beach, jungle and wildlife, you’d be hard pressed not to find an easy connection to the natural world here—the perfect antidote to city-worn eyes. But Costa Rica is more than beaches and babes. It’s a country teetering on the edge of a cultural abyss. As a turista, every choice I make about what I eat, where I stay and how I choose to spend my day is vital to the local way of life. With more bird species than all of North America’s countries combined and a tradition of environmental protection and its cousin, eco-tourism, Costa Ricans know the importance of conscious consumerism.

Go local: There’s an eerie lack of fruit at supermercados here. Why? Everything’s exported! Even bananas are scarce despite hundreds of surrounding plantations. Sadly, the only dried papaya we found was from Thailand (gasp!) via Maryland (gasp! gasp!)—even though they were in season and grow everywhere, abundantly au naturel. Read the package and buy local. When buying coffee, look for fair-trade, shade-grown. Café Altura is good.

Get out: Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, Costa Rica’s first national park, is just a few kilometers from Mal Pais. Your $8 entrance fee helps protect a gorgeous jungle microclime that cradles a wealth of rare flora and fauna.

Bike: Casa Zen rents bikes for $10/day. Sacrifice your need for speed, forget the ubiquitous two-wheeled A.T.V. cruisers and take a beachside ride up to Manzanillo—your thighs will thank you! Manzanillo’s pristine beaches are deserted and you can bob around in the calm, warm water without swallowing gallons of salt. Taste the best local dorado ceviche (Mahi-mahi) on earth at Atacedero Dora Restaurant, where you can watch las ballenas (whales) breech on the horizon while sipping coco de sueno.

Bus: Public transportation is easy and ecologically responsible. Ride to Cabo Blanco, Montezuma or even the airport for an eighth of the price of a cab (plus you get to meet people, and keep the adventure in traveling).

Surf: Fun doesn’t get more emissions-free, and surfboard sunsets are the best. But before flinging yourself into high tide, find out where the rips and rocks are. Take a lesson from the Mal Pais Surf Camp (Lessons start at $35) or grab a local—surf gurus abound here. Playa Carmen’s consistent and friendly break is perfect for beginners. Rent a board for $10/day at one of the surf vendors along the beach.

Eat Local: Buycott the gleaming, air-conditioned resorts offering mozzarella paninis for $15 and sushi for $50. Choose one of the small roadside sodas (inexpensive, local “tico” eateries). Soda La Amistad is my favorite. Try pinto gallo con aguacate for $2.50 (rice and beans never tasted so good). The best smoothies: sandia con agua (watermelon) and banana con leche. Best local beer: Costa Rican Pilsen or Imperial with lime. Organic food is rare, but local is still eco. Hoof it up the dusty road to Santa Teresa’s Pacifico: a surf shop by day, organic restaurant by night. Find the local fishmonger (look for the red truck) on Tuesdays and Fridays, or rent a boat and catch your own. Casa Zen’s Oscar will grill your fresh-caught filets with red curry and fresh veggies. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturday by the beach at 3 sharp. You’ll find veggies, fish, homemade chocolate, hummus and sustainable clothing. Most food is gone by 3:15, so don’t be late!

Learn Spanish: Open your ears to the sounds of Spanish everywhere…and take a class. It’s the best way to travel. Casa Zen offers Spanish privates for $15/hour, $20 for groups. Then you can ask how that fish got to your plate!

Eco Resorts: The Mal Pais area has countless places to bunk, from private bungalows (I recommend Disfrutalo) to eco resorts (Star Mountain). My fave is Casa Zen, an Asian-y beachside home-away-from-home with rooms for $12 and up (!), fresh food and iced coffee to die for.

Do yoga: You can find everything from Ashtanga to Kundalini (and it’s all hot) at Florblanca, Hotel Tropico Latino and Horizon. I loved Katie’s 9:30 a.m. Ashtanga-Vinyasa class at Casa Zen.

What to bring: Fashion divorces function…bring goggles and a surgical mask for dust protection. Sunscreen costs an arm and a leg here, so bring from home.

Caroline Treadway is an avid rock climber, journalist and photographer. She’s also a big schweetey. Congratulations on her admittance to Boston University’s top-ranked journalism grad school!


About Caroline Treadway

Caroline Treadway is a professional freelance photographer and writer who shoots editorial and commercial work, including photojournalism, sports, portraits and weddings. She received her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010. Caroline’s passion for journalism is evident in the variety of stories she covers and the depth of her reporting, documenting the unique and powerful moments of life. Recently, Caroline has been documenting the life of Navajo geo-botanist Arnold Clifford and threats to rare plant species in the Four Corners region of the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona. As a journalist, Caroline seeks to overcome the traditional boundaries between photographer and reporter. This multi-platform approach gives her the flexibility to create visual stories for a rapidly changing media world.


17 Responses to “Turistas Gone Local: An Eco Vacation to Mal Pais, Costa Rica.”

  1. […] theaters cafés and local music hotspots. Look for Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City, Utah; Costa Rica and Rio de Janeiro on our website now. Los Angeles, Boston, San Fran’s Mission District and […]

  2. […] of our workaholic, adhd overwhelmed communication-happy modern lifestyles. We all talk about taking vacations, but find ourselves incessantly checking our iPhones when we do. So try injecting space—via […]

  3. Sarah K says:

    How funny…..I just got back from Mal Pais! Great article- the insights are spot on

  4. […] also fun and keeps you healthy. In my 30s I rode across Mexico among other long rides. At 56 I still do all my local travel by bike. Bikes should be our first choice when […]

  5. dexter says:


    Dear Sr.Let me introduce me and take few minutes of your time to present you our stock for New and Semi-New Korean Cars in the City of Busan. microbus , auto busMy Name is Dexter Loaiza Gonzalez, I´m taeyang Saler.
    TAEYANG is a company whit more then 15 years experience in the Used and New Automobile export business to Africa, Europe, Middle East and South Asia , Central america

    In this Power Point Presentation you will see our stock cars bus ; this stock is ready to be shipment to any part of the world via Container, RO-RO to any major port in the South Asia.

    We are offering also our Auto Parts service for all Koreans Cars. (Used and New)

    TAEYANG hope is to bring a new u other option to all the Automobiles importers from Korea to your area.Best Regards.
    Dexter Loaiza Gonzalez.
    [email protected]
    [email protected]
    [email protected]
    costa rica
    gabriel loaiza gonzalez
    Office: (82) 051-971-9540
    PH: (82) 10-4998-2488

  6. I feel like I’m constantly looking for interesting things to read about a variety of topics, but I manage to include your blog among my reads every day because you have compelling entries that I look forward to. Here’s hoping there’s a lot more top-notch material coming!

  7. Hey may I use some of the material here in this site if I provide a link back to your site?

  8. My friend referred me to your site, so I thought I’d check it out. Very interesting insights, will be back for more!

  9. Leena Biven says:

    Hello dude,i like Your blog ideal a lot. do u have suggestion for my website? thanks for Ones New attention

  10. Ciara Stuer says:

    Hello adminstrator , i read with u web blog. LOL Please come to my blog

  11. hey Admin , i read with Your blog.

  12. Ken Petix says:

    Surprisee Friend , i love with u write. i will ctrl + D your site

  13. Surprisee Admin , i w/ ur blog. Do you have twitter or facebook so i can follow you ?

  14. Bezecke pasy says:

    One of my friends sent me link to this post saying I must definitely have a look at it, cause I am interested in such topics. And he was definitely true! Currently I am only preparing my small site bezecke pasy

  15. Somebody sent me link to this post, very interestring. I have my blog too here Detske odrazadlo

  16. Branden Khay says:

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all people you really recognize what you are talking about! Bookmarked. Please additionally consult with my site =). We can have a hyperlink trade contract between us!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.