A beach and mountain escape in Malpaís
The headlights from our truck illuminated only the craggy dirt road and the jungle that tried to cover it. The truck rocked side to side as we slowly rolled down hill, and the sparkle from the dark river’s reflection came into view.
It reminded me of the scene from “Jurassic Park” when Dennis Nedry, desperate to escape the island (supposedly in Costa Rica, mind you) with valuable dinosaur embryos, crashes his truck into a tree before crossing a river just like this one. If we got stuck, would we also be dinner for a dilophosaurus lying in wait?
What brand was my shaving cream anyway? Barbasol?
We splashed through the river and slowly climbed the bumpy road up the hill until we reached Star Mountain Jungle Lodge.
If we didn’t need four-wheel drive to get to Malpaís, we did for the hotel. SMJ sits 5 kilometers down the road and up the hill from the intersection that separates Malpaís and Santa Teresa, home to some of Costa Rica’s most beloved and remote beaches.
As we pulled onto the lawn in the darkness, the groundskeeper greeted us with his assistant, a gray, white and brown calico cat.
After a bit of shuteye in a comfortable bed in the warmly painted, clean room, I woke up the next morning to the sound of a heavy rainstorm on the roof overhead, the soft light of the morning filtering in through the slatted windows.
With such famous beaches, it’s easy to forget the dramatic green mountains that rise over the coast here at the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The lodge sits on 222 acres of undeveloped countryside, offering a unique chance to be immersed in the sights and sounds of the tropical jungle – with a pool and Jacuzzi nearby.
Four hotel rooms, two doubles ($69 per night) and two triples ($95 per night), sit together under a shared porch. The rustic rooms are warmly decorated and come equipped with an overhead fan, two nightstands, mini fridge and a private bathroom with hot water. There are even arrangements of fresh flowers picked from around the lodge.
A short way down the path is the Monkey House, a small cottage that’s popular with families for its privacy and ability to sleep four comfortably ($159).
In the daylight, the property revealed itself to be a lush tropical garden. The path from the rooms to the large gazebo where breakfast was waiting was lined with red, yellow and magenta false birds-of-paradise flowers, green palms and countless other flora.
A spread of yogurt, granola, cereal and milk was laid out on the table, alongside a large serving of papaya, pineapple and watermelon. I order scrambled eggs, too.
The simple breakfast was a nice way to start the day but there’s no cook on hand so we would have to head back into town for lunch and dinner.
The dining area also has lightning-fast WiFi, something that can be hard to come by in the neighboring beach towns.
Finishing my coffee after the plates were cleared, I heard the first cry from a howler monkey. The jet-black monkey’s deep-throated moan, winding up to a staccato hoot, also made me think of dinosaurs.
While there aren’t any dinosaurs to see here, SMJ attracts birders and other wildlife enthusiasts. The owner, Andrew Rhee, called the property “a budding Cabo Blanco” for its proximity to the national park, Costa Rica’s first.
Bird watching tours and horseback rides through the expansive property are available along the 1.4 miles of trails that wend through the property.
SMJ offers horse tours of the peninsula’s famous beaches, too, but we opted for a half a day away from the waves and saddled up for a ride through the jungle. On the way to the stables we passed the yoga studio, a beautiful open-air space secluded from the hotel rooms and dining area.
Keeping with its eco-tourism roots, the studio was built in part from reclaimed lumber from trees that fell during a storm.
Crossing streams and climbing the mountain on our horses, we saw bromeliads, vines reaching down from the canopy and spectacularly tall trees. Howler monkeys continue to, well, howl, but the other animals were shy that day.
We finally reach a clearing and the Pacific Oocean came into view. Cabo Blanco was to our backs but from our vantage point, there were no roads or developments or noises to mark the town of Cabuya, the entrance to the reserve, or the dusty roads of Santa Teresa, just uninterrupted green mountains.
Driving from San José, take Route 27 west out of the city and follow it north along the coast after it turns into Route 23. When you near Puntarenas, go west on Route 17 and follow signs for the Paquera Tambor Ferry. ($24 per vehicle plus one driver; $1.50 per additional adult passengers). After crossing the Gulf of Nicoya, drive past Tambor and through the town of Paquera. Follow Route 160 into the town of Cóbano and turn left at the Banco Nacional. At the Mal País/Santa Teresa intersection take a left into Malpaís. At Mary’s restaurant take a left and drive 2 km on the jungle road towards Cabuya. After crossing two creeks the hotel will be on your right.
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