The Central Pacific region of Costa Rica is a long swath of gorgeous land, encompassing sublime coastline dotted with national parks and palm-lined beaches, and inland stretches of ranches, coffee plantations, small villages, and forested mountains. There’s a reason this is a popular place to visit: the region has a lot of pura vida to offer.
POINTS OF INTEREST
MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
At only 3 square miles, Manuel Antonio National Park—Costa Rica’s smallest park—has an impressive collection of natural attractions: wildlife, rain forest, white-sand beaches, and rocky coves with abundant marine life. The forest is dominated by massive ficus, silk-cotton trees, black-and-white Guapinols, and Panama trees. It’s home to both two-and three-toed sloths, green and black iguanas, agoutis (similar to the guinea pig, but with longer legs), three species of monkeys, and more than 350 species of birds.
The well-maintained trails are short, mostly paved—and heavily traveled. Make no mistake about it: this is no undiscovered wilderness. In fact, Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most visited attraction. There are 5 km (3 miles) of coastline, and it’s one of the few parks where you can combine nature walks with swimming off idyllic beaches. There’s absolutely no commercial beach development, so the beaches are picture-perfect.
Crocodile boat tours on the Río Tárcoles are this small town’s claim to fame. You don’t actually have to drive to Tárcoles to do the tour, operators can pick you up in Herradura or Jacó. Budget (or time-conscious) travelers may want to simply stop near Río Tárcoles bridge where dozens of crocodiles gather on the banks. It’s easy to snap a few photos from the top of the bridge, but be sure to lock your car and watch for oncoming traffic and Tourist Police, who make this a regular ticketing location for speedy drivers. The muddy river has gained a reputation as the country’s dirtiest, thanks to San José’s inadequate sewage system, but it amazingly remains an impressive refuge for wildlife. A huge diversity of birds results from a combination of transitional forest and the river, which houses crocodiles, herons, storks, spoonbills, and other waterbirds. This is also one of the few areas in the country where you can see scarlet macaws, which you may spot on a boat tour or while hiking in a private reserve nearby. If you have the time, take a dip in the pools of Catarata Manantial de Agua Viva, the highest waterfall in Costa Rica located 2½ miles past Hotel Villa Lapas.
Past Tárcoles, the first sizable beach town of the Central Pacific coast is Playa Herradura. In between, the road passes tiny Playa La Pita, then heads inland where it crosses the entrance to Punta Leona, a vast hotel and residential complex. The road then winds its way up a steep hill, atop which is the entrance to the luxury hotel Villa Caletas. On the other side of that ridge is the bay and beach of Herradura.
Just north of bustling Jacó, this small beach town, named for its horseshoe-shaped bay, is made up of hotels, a golf course, and a marina. Once a sleepy fishing village, it has recently transformed into one of the country’s fastest-developing areas. The entrance to town is marked by a shopping complex complete with fast-food chains and a surf shop. A paved road connecting the coastal highway to the beach dead-ends at the sand where three seafood shacks line the shores; the best is the more upscale El Pelicano. Golfers and sportfishing fans alike are drawn to the pristine beauty of Playa Herradura, and the placid waters tend to keep surfers farther down the coast, where waves are abundant.
Its proximity to San José has made Jacó the most developed beach town in Costa Rica. Nature lovers and solitude seekers should skip this rather seedy place, which is known mostly for its nightlife, surf scene, and prostitution. More than 80 hotels and cabinas back its long, gray-sand beach, and the mix of restaurants, shops, and bars lining Avenida Pastor Díaz (the town’s main drag) give it a cluttered appearance devoid of any greenery. Any real Costa Rican–ness evaporated years ago; U.S. chain hotels and restaurants have invaded the area, and you can pretty much find anything you need, from law offices and dental clinics to tattoo parlors and appliance stores. In recent years, several ex-pats have opened a handful of cheerful cafés, restaurants, and hotels on side streets, offering a splash of color to the grungy town. Jacó does provide everything in terms of tours and outdoor activities, and makes a convenient hub for exploring neighboring beaches and attractions. Theft can be a problem here; watch your things like a hawk.
On the other side of the rocky ridge that forms the southern edge of Jacó Beach is Playa Hermosa, a swath of dark-gray sand and driftwood stretching southeast as far as the eye can see, with consistent waves for surfers. For non-surfers, outdoor options include horseback and canopy tours in the nearby forested hills, but all of these can be done from other beaches. As for the town itself, there’s really not much, which is part of the attraction for travelers who want to escape Jacó’s crowds and concrete towers. Most of the restaurants, bars, and hotels have cropped up one after the other on a thin stretch separating the highway and the beach. From June to December, olive ridley turtles nest on the beach at night, especially when there’s not much moonlight. Note: there is a second Playa Hermosa on the Guanacaste Pacific coast.
Just 20 minutes southeast of Jacó, Playa Esterillos is divided into three sections; Este (East), Central, and Oeste (West). While Esterillos Oeste and Central are inhabited by locals, the undeveloped area of Esterillos Este is where you’ll find several boutique hotels capitalizing on the seclusion and beachfront location. Head-high waves break year-round, making it one of the most consistent surf spots in Costa Rica. At low tide, the dark stretch of sand is unbelievably wide, inviting beachcombers for a leisurely stroll. Almond trees and swaying palms frame the shoreline, and you can walk for miles without seeing another soul. If you want to get away from it all, the isolation and “best-kept secret” feel make Esterillos Este the perfect escape.
Serious surfers wanting to escape the crowds at Jacó and Playa Hermosa, or anyone simply seeking to stray from the beaten path, need drive only 20 minutes south to Playa Bejuco’s relatively deserted, palm-lined beach. One could stroll for an hour along the light-gray swath of sand and rarely encounter a soul. Several vacation homes and two small hotels sit behind the first part of the beach, and behind them is a large mangrove forest where you might see macaws or white-faced monkeys. Most locals survive on farming and fishing, meaning this area is relatively undeveloped other than the occasional soda serving up rice and beans.
This hot and dusty town is the gateway to Manuel Antonio, and also serves as the area’s hub for banks, supermarkets, and other services. Because nearby Manuel Antonio is so much more attractive, there is little reason to stay here, but many people stop for dinner, for a night on the town, or to go sportfishing. Quepos’s name stems from the indigenous tribe that inhabited the area until the Spanish conquest wiped them out. For centuries the town of Quepos barely existed, until the 1930s, when the United Fruit Company built a banana port and populated the area with workers from other parts of Central America. The town thrived for nearly two decades until Panama disease decimated the banana plantations in the late 1940s. The fruit company then switched to less lucrative African oil palms, and the area declined. Only since the 1980s have tourism revenues lifted the town out of its slump, a renaissance owed to the beauty of the nearby beaches and nature reserves. Forests around Quepos were destroyed nearly a century ago, but the massive Talamanca Mountain Range, some 6 miles to the east, holds one of the largest expanses of wilderness in Central America.
You need merely reach the top of the forested ridge on which many of Manuel Antonio’s hotels are perched to understand why it is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. That sweeping view of beaches, jungle, and shimmering Pacific dotted with rocky islets confirms its reputation. Unlike the tropical forests in other parts of the country, Manuel Antonio’s humid tropical forest remains green year-round. The town itself is spread out across a hilly and curving 3-mile road that originates in Quepos and dead-ends at the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park. Along this main road, near the top of the hill, or on Punta Quepos are the area’s most luxurious hotels and fine-dining restaurants, surrounded by rain forest with amazing views of the beaches and offshore islands. The only problem with staying in one of those hotels is that you’ll need to drive or take public transportation to and from the main beach and national park, about 10 minutes away. More hotel and restaurant options are available at the bottom of the hill, within walking distance of the beach, but they lack the sweeping view.