Okay guys I just got back from Costa Rica. Spent three nights each in three places, Mal Pais, Arenal, and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. I would have to say Mal Pais was my favorite. I will try to share as much info as I have, but feel free to email me if you have questions.
Apparently you can fly in a Cessna for $65.00 to a little town very close to Mal Pais, but we were driving throughout Costa Rica, so we did that route. Get a 4WD. I also highly recommend the ITPS map that you can get on Amazon - this was recommended by arenal.net and saved us on our trip. The Inter American from San Jose to Puntarenas is horrible. Parts of the highway were totally missing in the mountains. It will take you about two hours to get to Puntarenas. Once there, you will see a car line for the ferry. Get in line IMMEDIATELY and just wait. There will be some guys who look like maybe they work for the ferry, who approach your car and are kind of intimidating - automatically put you on guard thinking "scam". I though they worked for the ferry - but they really don't. They just give info for tips. Well here's your free info. Get in line. That's the most important thing. A ferry official will come shortly after the ferry arrives and hand out laminated passes to the cars. Only so many cars fit on the ferry. Once you get your pass - rush up to the window to buy your tickets. A car pass includes passenger, and then you also need to buy for other adults in your car. Two adults and car was like $11.00. Get back to your car quickly cause they load pretty fast. If you want snacks/soda/beers, buy them before getting on the ferry as they are more expensive, though still cheap by American standards. Have your camera ready too cause you might see dolphins as we did, and the view is gorgeous. The ride to Paquera is about 1 1/2 hours. If you miss a ferry - you will have to wait about two hours for the next one. I would say get there one hour before the time slot you want - and better to go early in the day. Don't leave your car unlocked or unattended for long.
When you get off in Paquera you have another hour or so to drive to Mal Pais. You will pass through the small town of Cobano - that has a federal bank, with long lines, and an ATM that was broken on our way in and out. Don't count on ATMs no matter where you go - unless you know there is more than one. I would say to bring what cash you want and change it at a federal bank for the best rate. Also Cobano is the last stop for gas - so make sure to fill up here. The roads to Mal Pais are half great, half not so great. As you arrive - you will see Frank's Place on your right. There is actually an ATM there now. You can get most of what you need in Mal Pais and Santa Theresa, as far as snacks, beers, ice, etc. There are even some small boutiques. If you go straight - you will hit the beach - there is a parking lot here, some artists selling jewelry, including one guy who will make jewelry out of anything you find on the beach - and the restaurant Playa Carmen. To the left is Mal Pais, all the way to where the road ends and the Sunset Bar and Canopy Tours are. To the right is Santa Theresa - where the surf camps are, and the end of the road is Manzanillo- if you can make it that far in your 4WD. I liked the Mal Pais end better - just seemed quieter and more scattered out. The beaches here are all rocky - good for exploring tide pools, rock pools, etc.
EATING: In Mal Pais we had our best meal, probably out of all of Costa Rica, at Mary's. Great prices, fresh seafood, original dishes, such as chile relleno stuffed with goat cheese and corn, dorado, tuna filet, etc. Also known for great pizzas. Nice atmosphere with a pool table. We tried Soda Piedra Mar, and while prices were good and food was pretty good, service took forever. This is nothing more than plastic tables under a roof on the sand. Our think our meal here, for two people, which included a huge shrimp dish and grilled whole red snapper (pargo) was like $12.00. Our other fabulous meal was at RITMO TROPICAL. I can't say enough good things about this place - great menu, prices, food, and service. Miguel, or Michael - can't remember his name, made sure we attempted our Spanish when ordering (I am about 1/2 fluent). He was super friendly, and showed us his cabins. They were adorable, a bit small, but very clean and cute. It seemed like they had air too, but I forgot to ask. His pool and commons area ROCKED. He told us rates were about $45.00 at that time. Please stop by and see him and eat at his restaurant and maybe even pick them for your accommodations.
We wanted to eat at The Place - but they no longer serve food. Do stop by for a drink though as their courtyard is AMAZING and they show surf movies some nights. We had lunch at Playa Carmen - very good and fun to watch the beach goers. We also ate lunch at Luz de Vida, Santa Theresa - cute little resort right on the beach. Food was good but limited menu and kind of Americanized.
Plan on eating around noon and dinner at 5 - 7. We were on a later schedule and were often the only ones at lunch and last ones at dinner.
For entertainment, there are lots of cute places to stop for drinks in both towns. Most bars shut down around 9 or 10 - but there is always one that stays open really late and has live music, djs, or fire dancers, etc. Ask around to find out where the fiesta is that night.
Activities - if you want to surf - do it here. Lessons are cheap and the surf seemed pretty big to us. Or just boogie board, or jump in the waves. The beaches are super clean, you can wander forever. Rent bikes and meander through both towns, it's the best way to see places to explore. We drove north to try to get to Manzanillo -but weren't sure if we ever made it that far or could even see it. We ended up at a little deserted beach just north of a private school. We were the only ones there all day. Take the canopy tour in Mal Pais - eight lines and one rapel. Marby and John are great. Bring your camera - there is a great view of the bay once you get to the top line. I would also go horsebackriding on the beach at sunset - but ask around about the condition of the horses. Mine were not happy campers. There is a girl in town from Vienna who knows all the horse guides - she has some of her own - and she will tell you who has the healthiest horses. She lived on the Santa Theresa side.
This is a small town - be respectful and support Tico businesses. Tourism can be good and bad - so be respectful of people and nature while there. Have a great time! (sunscreen can be bought at Super Ronny).