The traditional vacation destination for Ticos, Costa Rica's central
Pacific coast is where many foreign visitors first discover this country's
Costa Rica's central Pacific coast is a tropical playground, year-round. Its
evergreen forests meet warm Pacific surf on sandy beaches to provide a unique
setting for unforgettable vacation experiences.
The Pacific port town of Puntarenas sits on a narrow finger of sand jutting
into the mouth of the Gulf of Nicoya. An ancient fishing port, the dark
beaches of this sleepy town attract many Costa Rican tourists escaping the
rigors of city life. From Puntarenas one can explore several gulf islands,
charter fishing trips, and catch ferries to the resorts and attractions on the
southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula.
A few miles south of Puntarenas is the port of Caldera. The Pacific cruise
ships dock here to release their passengers on an idyllic jaunt through Costa
Rica. Although tours to all parts of the country are available, most visitors
stay in the area to take advantage of the well- developed infrastructure and
multitude of activities available along this coast.
The coastal road southward from Puntarenas crosses rolling terrain as it
wanders part way up the mountainside to Orotina. This is a good place for a
short break before heading back down to the central Pacific beaches. The
intersection on the main road has several restaurants and shops where the
parched traveler can find drinks, snacks and fresh tropical fruits.
There's a lot to do along this part of Costa Rica's Pacific coast, and not all
of it has to do with beaches and water. Surely, some of Costa Rica's best
beaches are here, but the rivers and mountains behind the beaches hold a
wealth of activities for the adventurer.
If you bear left rather than right when leaving Orotina, you'll find yourself
on the road to Iguana Park. After a couple miles of pavement you'll cross a
narrow swinging bridge then continue on dirt and gravel. Follow the signs to
the park where you can take a guided hike through some fantastic transitional
forest, see scarlet macaws flying through the trees, and, oh yes, pet an
iguana. Take a little time to learn about the Park's projects to protect,
raise, and commercially exploit this animal in a sustainable manner. If you
get hungry, now would be a good time to try an Iguanaburger, because this is
the only place in Costa Rica authorized to sell meat of the Gallina de Palo,
literally Chicken of the Tree, the local name for this prehistoric reptile.
The first stop along the coastal road is the bridge over the Grande de Tárcoles
River. You can't miss it. It is very long, there are shops at the approach,
and you are likely to see cars stopped and people afoot wandering back and
forth on the bridge, looking down toward the river. They are trying to spot a
few of the resident crocodiles. If you just can't seem to get close enough for
a good look, drive on past the bridge and take the right turn to the village
of Tárcoles. Here you can catch a pontoon boat ride with Jungle Crocodile
Safari up the Grande de Tárcoles River and into the heart of Croc Country.
This is a very interesting ride, great for birders and for taking "close
up" photos of some very large reptiles. Even Florida residents, used to
finding alligators in their back yards, should be at least mildly impressed by
The central Pacific has many important national and private protected areas.
These pristine green zones provide sanctuary for many endangered species. The
two most well-known areas, Carara Biological Reserve and Manuel Antonio
National Park, are readily accessible natural laboratories that nature lovers
will enjoy immensely.
Carara Biological Reserve borders the Tárcoles River. This transitional zone
encompasses several ecosystems and harbors an incredible variety of wildlife
including the largest population of scarlet macaws in Costa Rica. These
brilliantly colored birds are in great danger of extinction due primarily to
nest poaching (the young are highly prized on the international market) and
habitat loss. Two entrances along the highway provide access to two hiking
trails penetrating very different areas. The river trail passes through
marshlands and past a lagoon formed from an abandoned river meander. This is
an exceptional area for spotting waterfowl. The second, shorter trail is a
good introduction to transitional evergreen forests. Along with the more than
750 plant species identified here some representative animals include
white-tailed deer, the rare two-toed sloth, margay cat, kinkajou, ocelot and
spider monkey. Other spectacular avian species include the collared aracari,
tri-colored heron, king vulture, roseate spoonbill, jacana and pied-bellied
Just past Carara on the left is a road leading up the mountain to Villa Lapas.
Following this road another 8 kilometers (be sure to go the full 8 kilometers)
through rich forest and past breathtaking views brings you to a small tourist
complex called La Catarata. Here you can take a four-hour trek on horseback
through a private, reforested cattle ranch to a magnificent waterfall. Along
the way you'll see several expansive vistas and you're likely to spot scarlet
macaws, toucans and monkeys.
Near the top of the waterfall you can hike down a picturesque trail to stand
in the spray of this 500-foot catarata. The horses will then carry you to
natural pools at the top, where you can take a refreshing dip before heading
back to the complex for a cooling drink and a delightful country lunch. The
gift shop features hand-made and hand-painted crafts by locals.
Herradura Beach is a small, quiet, protected cove with just enough
infrastructure to make it comfortable. Sportfishing charters, visits to
Tortuga Island and romantic sunset tours round out a full fare of water
related activities including snorkeling, water trikes, windsurfing and water
skiing. Scuba diving trips are also available in this area from JD's
Watersports at Punta Leona.
Jacó Beach is what Herradura isn't. This is where Ticos traditionally come to
play in the sun. There's plenty of infrastructure, shopping, nightlife and
accommodations to provide anything one might want in a beach vacation. A
plethora of activities abound and tours can be arranged to most other parts of
the country as well as the broad selection available in the surrounding area.
The tour desk at the Best Western Jacó Beach (formerly Jacó Beach Resort)
can help you bicycle your way through town, book passage on a white water
river, or choose any of myriad activities in between.
At the final entrance to Jacó is a gas station. Across from that is what is
promoted roadside as a petting zoo. This is a "must stop." Although
it is small, it will surely be a major highlight of your trip. Petting zoo it
is, but not like any you've seen before. No chickens or sheep here. Try
monkeys and toucans. You'll find the baby howler monkeys very affectionate and
the white-faced monkeys mischievous--watch your glasses and pockets. Ever
dreamt of touching beaks with a toucan? Here's the place to make your dream
All the animals at the Petting Zoo have been rescued or confiscated by the
National Parks Service. The animals were considered tame enough or too young
to have a reasonable chance of survival in the wild so they were brought here
and entrusted to Jacó business owner Mark Hauser and his wife, whose hobbies
include caring for orphaned animals. You'll see reptiles, frogs, various
colorful birds, monkeys and possibly a cat or two in the Hausers's menagerie.
Their hope is to secure backing so they can buy an adjacent property and
install more facilities to accommodate their growing population of
"illegal" pets. One idea Mark is working on is a breeding program to
provide some of these tropical cuddlies for legal pet trade.
The road follows the coast out of Jacó providing spectacular scenery along
the beaches. At the top of the hill is a great spot for a final look back on
Jacó. A little further is a perfect view looking down on the long, black
expanse of Playa Hermosa. There is a lot of uncrowded beach along this
stretch. Many gravel roads provide easy access to these oases with names like
Esterillos Oeste, Bejuco and Palma. They are characterized by grand expanses
of empty beach and minimal established infrastructure--a few local families, a
small restaurant or two, a couple of seaside cabins.
Parrita is a traditional gas and rest stop on the way to Quepos--a place to
brush off the dust of the kilometers traversing the African Oil Palm groves.
With the improvement of the road in this area, stopping in Parrita is not so
common. However, it is a good central location to explore the region and its
many attractions. Jacó and Quepos are an easy drive from here and those 42
kilometers of lovely beaches in between are on Parrita's doorstep. One of the
most compelling reasons to consider stopping here is that prices are
significantly lower than in the higher-traffic areas nearby.
There is easy access from Parrita to all the attractions in the area which
include Class III white water rafting, jungle hiking, cruises through the
mangrove estuaries of Damas Island, horseback riding, tours of the oil palm
plantations, as well as the usual assortment of beach and water activities.
Check with the two Yolanda's at Café Yoli at the entrance to the city.
Between them they speak five languages and have the scoop on what's available
in this area. If you're in the mood for pizza, the best to be found on the
central Pacific is here at Café Yoli.
Quepos is well known by sportfishing enthusiasts. The blue water off this
coast provides exceptional challenge and excitement for seasoned, as well as
occasional, anglers. International billfishing tournaments in these waters
routinely tie and break world records.
This small fishing village turned resort has a variety of accommodations and
restaurants making it a good alternative to the higher prices and crowded
conditions often found closer to the national park. Several tour companies
operate out of the city, offering jaunts into the jungle, up various rivers
and through the estuaries. Mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking
complement the various water activities that include sea kayaking, jet skis,
waterskiing, parasailing and snorkeling.
Steve Wofford at Taximar runs SCUBA dives all along this section of the coast,
but says the best is at Caño Island where you can expect clear water and
eventful dives 250 days out of the year. The underwater topography along the
coast includes a fifteen-mile long ridge with a few caves and many good spots
from Dominical to Uvita. He also operates very successful dolphin watch
cruises that give you the opportunity to swim with the dolphins. Steve says
his whale watch cruises at Ballena National Marine Park are 90% successful at
spotting the giant Orcas migrating from the Antarctic.
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the country
and the most popular, with locals and foreigners alike. Two gorgeous white
sand beaches sloping to the gentle surf are lined by the hilly evergreen
forest providing natural shade from the tropical sun. Several trails lead
through dense jungle growth to hidden sandy coves and magnificent lookouts
over the ocean and beaches.
Despite its small size and great popularity, Manuel Antonio has managed to
remain one of the premiere nature spots in the country. The mountains
literally meet the sea here and the ecosystem is teeming with land, sea and
air species. If there is one place to visit in this country and be assured of
seeing animals in the wild, this is it. Just a couple hours walking the park's
trails are likely to present various colorful and majestic birds, white-faced
monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, coatis, pacas, brilliantly colored land
crabs, a variety of multi-hued butterflies, and interesting insects. The
endangered squirrel monkey and a subspecies of the squirrel monkey endemic to
Costa Rica are also frequently seen. In all, over 100 species of animals and
nearly 200 species of birds have been identified in this park.
The area between Quepos and Manuel Antonio has been commercialized with dozens
of hotels and restaurants offering the visitor a wide variety of
accommodations and dining choices. Camping is available in some areas near the
park and dozens of roadside vendors offer all manner of foods, drinks and
Near Manuel Antonio is Jardin Gaia. Named as Costa Rica's first official
Wildlife Rescue Center in 1995, it receives injured and confiscated animals
and attempts to rehabilitate them for return to the wild. In the six years
since its inception, Jardin Gaia has received over 400 birds and 100 animals,
many being species on the endangered list. The Center has several ongoing
research and education projects in operation in the local area and manned by
international volunteers who come to work for a couple of weeks to several
months. For a five dollar donation visitors to the center receive a guided
tour of the facilities, explanations of the ecological projects, and are
introduced to the current animal residents.
The region south along the coast from Quepos to Dominical is sparsely
populated. Miles of deserted beaches and a few farms and ranches occupying the
narrow flatlands between the mountains and the sea are characteristic of the
very picturesque drive.
The infrastructure of Costa Rica's central Pacific coast has developed to
provide everything anyone could possibly want while enjoying the gifts of
nature "at the beach." Vacationers looking for an encounter with
nature, a leisurely rest on the beach or an activity-laden adventure in the
tropics are sure to find what they are looking for on Costa Rica's central
Favourites: Volcanoes | Pacific Coast | Caribbean Coast | Canals of Tortuguero | Cerro de la Muerte
Tropical Islands | Cabo Blanco Strict Nature Reserve | Iguana Park