Costa Rica’s natural beauty is breathtaking and unique. It is therefore an absolute must visit country for any nature enthusiast and be assured that one trip will not suffice to see the complete extent of Costa Rica’s astonishing nature. Here is a small guide to several attractions that Ticos (local name for Costa Rica inhabitants) and tourists love to visit. Note that this small guide is concentrated on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast and does not cover any attractions situated in the hinterland or in the Caribbean.
The high season runs from December to April, if you plan to visit between May and November, expect a lot of rain. The climate is generally hot and humid with no significant variations except for the rainy season. Prices are much higher than in most Latin American countries and the Pura Vida (enjoying, relaxing life) lifestyle is omnipresent. Do not expect service or infrastructure to be anywhere near North America or Europe. Costa Rica is a lot more americanized than other Central American nations and English levels are higher than in most countries in Latin America. Spanish is however necessary if you plan on travelling on your own (check out Spanish travelling basics picture below).
San José: An avoidable Central American capital:
Quite frankly, San José is a city that you can easily skip when visiting Costa Rica. It isn’t particularly beautiful, interesting or safe. On the plus side, its international airport links Costa Rica with various hubs in North, Central and South America, which adds to the country’s accessibility.
If you do plan to stay in the capital for a day or two, the highlights are located around the National Theatre (Av Central) , which is one of the few nice colonial buildings present in the Costa Rican capital. Another attraction is the Jade Museum (Calle 13 y 13 bis, Av Central), which gives you a great opportunity to have a look at the well preserved archaeological heritage of the region.
In terms of accommodation, this guide recommends Hotel Don Carlos, a beautiful colonial hotel in a good location for reasonable prices. The hotel contains a charming patio with a small pool and an excellent restaurant to try out some of Costa Rica’s most famous dishes. If you want to experience some nightlife in the Costa Rican capital, try out Costa Rica Beer Factory (Barrio Escalante, Calle 33), one of the coolest spots for beer lovers in the city. (Do not walk around the city at the night, not even the touristy parts, just take a Uber/taxi.)
Jacó: Costa Rica’s trendiest surf town:
Playa Jacó has a controversial reputation among locals and tourists alike. Some will tell you that the town is ugly and full of drugs and prostitutes while others will tell you that it is the one of the best surfing towns in the world with a marvellous beach and a great nightlife scene. As always, the truth lies in the middle.
As a preliminary rule, stay away from Casino Cocal and from everyone who wants to offer you any kind of drugs or prostitutes, that’s it. Jacó does have its dark side, but this can easily be avoided as long as you apply the two aforementioned tips. Now you know what not to do in Jacó, let’s get to Jacó’s upsides: its amazing waves and its great beaches.
Jacó is Costa Rica’s most popular surf town for good reason. The incredible waves are the perfect tool for the experienced surfer. The inexperienced surfer should not worry either, as the sea is usually much quieter in the morning which offers an excellent opportunity to take some surfing lessons.
How to get to Playa Jacó:
The easiest and cheapest way to get to Jacó from San José is the bus which runs from San José Bus Terminal 7-10. Tickets cost roughly 2,500 colones (5$). The bus usually runs every hour but make sure to check at the station as bus schedules can be very flexible in Costa Rica and be there ahead of time. The ride takes about 2hours and the bus has no A/C so be prepared. The bus station itself is quite safe but it is located in a bad area so do not walk around outside the bus station, take a taxi/Uber, especially if you are carrying a backpack.
Where to stay in Jacó:
Jacó is Costa Rica’s most developed beach town, you will find large supermarkets, international restaurants and a large amount of hotels and hostels for every taste and budget. This guide recommends Buddha House Boutique Hostel, a charming and modern hostel right in the centre of town with all the usual amenities and different types of rooms. For more info on accommodation, click here.
Beaches: Jacó Beach and Playa Hermosa:
Jacó’s beach has a very distinctive colour due to its dark Pacific sand. The sand is said to be healthy for the skin and it is comfortable and doesn’t heat up too much. The beach is quite long and the best part of it is located on the southernmost end of Jacó. In addition to the hotels, there are numerous beach bars right next to the beach. The best time to go is without a doubt early morning to noon, at which time the tide allows you to relish the full extent of Jacó’s black beach.
Playa Hermosa is just a short bus ride away from the town of Jacó Beach and resembles the latter due to its dark sand. The fact that Playa Hermosa is a much smaller town adds to its quietness and authenticity which makes it an ideal destination for a day trip. Definitely worth an excursion if you want to experience a beach that many travellers prefer due to the fact that it is a lot more sedated than the main beach in Jacó
P.S make sure to experience sundown at one of the aforementioned beaches. The imagery that is created by the combination of Jacó’s waves and its sea is truly magnificent at dusk.
Food and Nightlife:
Jacó is one of the only beach towns in Costa Rica with a large amount of food and nightlife options, mostly concentrated around the main strip, the Avenida Pastor Dias. Los Amigos (Avenida Pastor Dias) is an excellent pub with a varied burger and fish selection and thereby a good place to eat before starting your night out. The Green Room is a great place for a cocktail and the live bands that perform here create a great atmosphere. Orange Pub (Avenida Pastor Dias) and Jaco Blu are two of the main nightclubs, the parties usually start and end late and the drinks are high quality.
Quepos: A small town close to a wide range of natural attractions:
The town of Quepos is the main gateway to Costa Rica’s most popular national park, Manuel Antonio. The small town in the North Puntarenas region is famous for sports fishing and its shiny new marina.
How to get to Quepos:
Quepos is located around 160km from San José and buses run from Tracopa Bus Terminal (Avenida 10, Plaza Viquez). The schedule changes frequently and the ride takes about 3.5hours.
The easier option is to go from Jacó to Quepos. Buses depart every 1-2 hours from Jacó Bus Station and it takes about 2 hours.
Quepos also has a small airport which caters to a number of commercial flights and chartered planes. A domestic flight to San José takes no more than 25 minutes.
Where to stay in Quepos:
Quepos is home to a small amount of boutique hotels, chains and hostels. This guide recommends the Best Western Hotel Kamuk, a standard hotel offering everything you need for relatively reasonable prices.
What to do in Quepos:
Apart from the traditional sports fishing, Quepos also has marvellous white sand beaches which are different from the typical dark Pacific beaches you will find in Jacó and Playa Hermosa.
Manuel Antonio National Park: Costa Rica’s Pacific jewel:
Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most visited national park and it is easy to see why. Its amazing wildlife, its breathtaking coastline and its drop dead gorgeous white sand beaches make this a uniquely beautiful natural attraction on the Pacific coast.
How to get to Manuel Antonio:
Manuel Antonio is just a stone’s throw from the town of Quepos and buses run very frequently from Quepos Main Bus Terminal. The buses are easy to find but beware of pickpockets in the bus station.
Staying in Manuel Antonio:
There are several hotels, hostels and lodges in and around the park and some are truly unique, like the Hotel Costa Verde which has an old Avianca airplane converted into several luxury rooms. This guide recommends staying in the town of Quepos as it is easily accessible and more economic. Staying in Manuel Antonio is a great experience though and offers the advantage of peaceful serenity.
The highlights of Manuel Antonio:
Manuel Antonio has several distinctive parts and natural sights. The jungle which forms the entrance is full of different types of monkeys, racoons, colourful crabs, different bird species and other animals. On the other hand the paths through the jungle lead to some breathtaking beaches. Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Escondida are some of the best beaches in Costa Rica, the former getting quite busy in the afternoon. The hiking trails moreover lead to some staggering viewpoints which enable travellers to marvel at the gorgeous Pacific coastline. This guide recommends hiking through the park in the morning and relaxing on its beaches in the afternoon. Be aware that the park closes at 5PM and that it is quite a hike from the beach back to the entrance.
General safety tips for Costa Rica:
Costa Rica is generally speaking a safe country but its capital is not. If you plan on travelling alone, make sure to have a good command of Spanish and watch your belongings closely at all time, especially in bus stations and town centres. Pickpocketing is unfortunately very common and the victims are often careless travellers.
Do not walk through a city/town with a backpack and keep your belongings in front of you or in well guarded pockets when taking a bus, do not put anything in the overhead compartment.
If you apply these simple principles, you will be able to enjoy the full extent of Costa Rica’s natural beauty without any unfortunate incident.
Final tips and verdict:
If you have less than two weeks to spend in Costa Rica, the Pacific Coast is a great option thanks to its proximity to the largest airport. If you have more than two weeks, you will be able to visit the volcanos, national parks and other natural attractions located further away from the capital, which is definitely recommendable.
Get a local SIM card in order to be able to use Uber, it is much better than taxis and more reliable, especially since you don’t have to negotiate the price.
Costa Rica’s nature is astounding and therefore overshadows its shabby towns and cities. It is a unique country with a unique nature, wildlife and culture and should therefore certainly make your bucket list.