About one hour’s drive outside of Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, lies Jacó, which is a small central Pacific coastal town that is the perfect tropical getaway for adventurous folks.
Leave your high heels, makeup, and ironed shirts at home because you will not need them here. Here you’ll discover my list for the top 10 things to do in Jaco!
Also check out our article on the Top 10 Things to See and Do in Tortuguero, Costa Rica
The town is a hotspot for tourists with its wondrous jungles, pristine beaches, and challenging surf. Visitors can also stop by Herradura Beach to the north, and Playa Hermosa to the south, both of which offer great challenges for the more advanced surfer. The surrounding mountains house a wide variety of exotic fauna and flora and the Carara National Park is only 15 miles north of Jacó. The park’s rainforests are known for their flourishing wild Scarlet Macaw population, and tours are available.
Unlike other smaller towns in the area, the public tap water is safe to drink and there is a general lack of tropical illnesses found in other Central American cities, such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever. Jacó offers all of the safety and amenities a modern city and is a great place to visit to bring out the adventurer or nature-lover out of you. Travelers typically make the short 120 Km trip from San Jose with a rented car, but there is another option for the budget-conscious.
Instead of splurging on rental fees and gas money, arrange to take a public or private bus from San Jose. It is also possible to arrange an airport shuttle to transport you straight to Jacó after arriving in San Jose. I recommend a private bus ride, which will be worth your while and more cost efficient than driving yourself. If you are driving take Highway 27 west from San Jose and then Highway 34 south towards Jacó. On the way you will see exits for Tárcoles and Herradura.
The town is also home to several outstanding hotels and restaurants and the nightlife is an adventure all its own. Jacó Beach is considered to be one of Costa Rica’s top ten beaches, but it is more suitable for surf than for swim- its waves are typically too strong for swimmers. The city’s surfing industry has transformed this one-sleepy town in a popular tourist destination. Don’t worry if you cannot surf…yet! Visitors can experience other thrilling activities like Bungee jumping, sports fishing, nature tours, hiking, and more. Here are the top 10 things to do in Jaco!
Rainforest Aerial Trams
The Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica Pacific’s Aerial Trams are a heart pounding, exotic adventure not to be missed. If you thought a Disney ride was fun, you have got to check out Rainforest Adventures’ aerial trams, which take you high above ground to experience the stunning Costa Rican nature. This ecotourism project is housed within 222 acres of rainforest, surrounded by small, cascading waterfalls, and the striking panoramas of the Pacific Ocean. The tours take you to the junction between the tropical rainforest and the rare tropical dry rainforest, and in this narrow stretch reside some of Costa Rica’s most exotic wildlife and stunning vegetation.
Each tour is available is English and Spanish and is manned by an expert guide. The tour includes a tram ride to the top of the forest, hiking on maintained paths, and then a zip line back down through the rainforest. The zip line is a thrilling adrenaline rush that beats some of the best roller coasters. Rainforest Adventures allows you to save money on tickets by booking with them directly online, and they even can arrange a bus transfer for you or your group from your hotel.
Surrounded by mountains and with a surrounding jungle ambiance straight out of Jurassic Park, world-renowned Jacó Beach is the most popular Costa Rican beach. Stick to the day light hours and avoid any nighttime strolls- many tourists have been robbed after dark. This a great beach to come to learn how to surf, but more experienced surfers should travel an extra 15 minutes south to Playa Hermosa where the waves are more challenging.
Captain Bear’s Sports Fishing
For a unique experience, take a ride aboard Captain Bears Sports Fishing and go on the prowl for tuna or marlins, catch a stunning ocean sunset, or go diving in Costa Rica’s clear oceans. This company offers boats that are well stocked with proper equipment for inshore and offshore fishing, but restrict customers to circle hooks so that the fish can be released back into the ocean. With a fleet over 15 boats, ranging from 26 to 47 feet, there is always the opportunity for a great coastal experience. You and your friends could swap fish stories for years.
Perched atop a mountain, this hilly town is named after the national park located at the end of its beach. Its claim to fame is its resident monkey population, who supposedly outnumber the human residents. Ponce de Leon, the famed Spanish explorer, discovered Manuel Antonio in 1519.
The main beach in Manuel Antonio is Playa Espandilla, which is best visited in the morning when the current is slower. Enjoy some traditional shaved ice and purchase souvenirs for those back home. A great restaurant in the area is El Avion, whose name means the airplane, and is literally housed inside a military cargo plane. The open-air restaurant features a menu that not only lists its scrumptious dishes, but also details the history of the plane and its journey to the top of the mountain. As you enjoy your meal, also soak in the stunning seaside view.
The main attraction in Manuel Antonio is the Manuel Antonio National Park. It was established in 1972 and is well known for it gorgeous trails. Manuel Antonio welcomed about 150,000 visitors per year and is the second most popular national park in Costa Rica second only to the Paos Volcano. The four beaches encompassed by the park’s boundaries include Playita, Teldoro, Espadilla Sur and Manuel Antonio. The latter two house tidal pools that is great for snorkeling, and visitors can also hike from Espadilla Sur to the mount of Punta Catedral. If you want to discover what this great park has to offer beyond the beaches, there are a variety of tours and activities available- from spa days to horse back riding and river rafting. This diverse landscape will have everyone entertained.
Despite its small size, the park is rich with diverse wildlife, with over 100 species of mammals and over 180 species of birds over 1700 acres of land. Visitors can observe, squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, sloths, lizards, coaties, snakes, pelicans, hawks, motmots, tanagers, dolphins, and the occasional whale within its 135,906 acres of marine reserve. Manuel Antonio is located about 100 miles south of San Jose, which is about a 3-hour drive. The park is closed on Mondays.
With a name that means crocodile in the indigenous language, Tárcoles is the perfect home for one of the most amazing crocodile shows. About one hour north of Jacó, Tárcoles sits on the banks of the Tárcoles River, whose watershed covers around 50% of Costa Rica.
The river has unfortunately been contaminated by the sewage of Costa Rica’s larger cities but it is still home to several species of birds and lizards, including the American crocodile, the Common Basilisk, several varieties of iguanas, the American Pygmy Kingfisher, Anhinga, Mangrove Warbler, and the Tiger Heron. In fact, the river houses the largest concentration of crocs in the entire Americas, meaning this is not a good place to go for a swim. Carara National Park in Tárcoles is one of the only places left on the planet that Scarlet Macaws call home. It is not uncommon to hear or see them in pairs at dusk flying overhead. Carara National Park is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and offers guided tours.
Thriving in this crocodile haven is the Crocodile Man River Tour, a one-man show that features your guide feeding over fifteen foot crocodiles by hand. This is easily the craziest thing I have ever seen a person do. The real scare comes from the possibility of an attack at any moment. Still, this is not to be missed. If you want to spot sunbathing crocs, make sure to stop at the Tárcoles Bridge.
Spanish for beautiful beach, Playa Hermosa is a small surf village about 10 minutes south of Jacó and is considered one of the best surf beaches in Costa Rica. The black beach is 12 km of surfing heaven and has been known to convert tourists into ex-pat residents. About 7 km are accessible by car and feature year round surfing. Visitors will notice numerous houses alongside the beach. A great restaurant in the area is The Backyard. In 2009, the beach hosted the ISA Billabong World Games, the largest event to date in the region.
Where to Eat
When in Playa Hermosa, the Backyard is the only place worth dining at. Located next to the Backyard Hotel, this open-aired restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner on an ocean front terrace. Breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily. Lunch and dinner are served from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. For lunch, try the famous wings, the fresh seafood that is delivered daily, the wonderful salads, the burgers, the ceviche, the wraps, the burritos, or the sandwiches. For dinner, sample the whole red snapper, the lobster, the mahi mahi, the tuna or the jumbo shrimp.
For those looking for non-seafood options, order the local dishes; they include the arroz con camarones, and the “casados” arroz con pollo. For a unique happy hour experience, stop by this bar and enjoy drinks while watching the sunset over the ocean.
Recs: Chicken wings, burgers, sandwiches, wraps, burritos
Best Time: Lunch or Dinner
A popular haunt of surfers, Caliche Wishbone offers high quality Californian style Mexican food that is made with fresh ingredients and no lard, preservatives, artificial flavors or fillers. Prepared by a native Costa Rican chef, the diverse menu is bound to impress the pickiest of palates with its seafood dishes and homemade pita bread sandwiches. Relax in the fun and casual atmosphere and enjoy some house specialties, including the tuna steak with mango salsa, the lightly seared tuna with soy-wasabi dressing, and the sesame-crusted tuna.
Where to Stay
Hotel Pochote Grande is a German-owned resort that is the perfect residence for your tropical getaway. Built in 1990, the hotel is named for the large Pochote trees that can be found near the barbecue area. This type of tree is home to numerous birds and animals, including iguanas, squirrels, tropical birds, and even the occasional raccoon family. The hotel is located about 15 minutes from Jacó Beach and from the center of town. The distance is enough to allow you to soak in the essence of Jacó without getting tangled up in the nightly crowds the flood the center of town.
The resort offers 24 rooms on a gorgeous beachfront property that is surrounded by tropical gardens, ancient trees, and miles of sandy beach, to which guests have direct access. Free parking is also offered to its guests. Each room comes with two queen sized beds, a private bath with a shower and hot water, air conditioning, a fan, a small refrigerator, tables, chairs, television, Wi-Fi, and a twenty-four hour security guard, making this a great option for families traveling with children.
Enjoy the quiet atmosphere on the open terraces or lounge by the poolside and indulge in a tropical cocktail. For a great breakfast or rich barbecue dinner, swing by the in house restaurant. Take a stroll down the Bay of Jacó, which can be directly accessed from the hotel, or head to downtown Jacó to purchase souvenirs. Set aside one night to view the stunning sunset, either from the terrace or down by the beach. The ocean backdrop and craggy mountains make this an unforgettable sight.
Jacó’s nightlife easily lives up to its reputation as a wild and crazy city. A night out in town is more than just an experience; it is an adventure complete with Imperial beer and wild dancing. Visitors should however be aware of the wide spread presence of prostitution in the area. It is important to remember that the local population of Jacó is about 10,000 people, and so these ladies of the night roam town when the tourists are plentiful. You can still have a safe and fun time in Jacó- just remain aware of your surroundings and stay away from the working girls. The most popular nighttime spots are clubs that blast reggae, reggaeton, house, hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and more. If you want to get down on the dance floor Jacó nightlife will surely have something for you. Don’t go out in Jacó expecting the class and luxury of clubs in Vegas or Miami. Instead, get ready to rough it a little in this small surfer town.
Note from David
Jacó is a small Costa Rican town that is known for being one of the wildest surf beaches in the country. With towering green mountains encircling the beach, visitors will feel like they stepped onto the beaches of Jurassic Park. Avid surfers should avoid Jacó Beach and instead head 15 minutes north to Playa Hermosa, which is considered to be the best surf beach in the country. Easy to navigate, Jacó offers numerous attractions, from the gorgeous beach and the surfing to amazing rainforest tours. Do not miss the Crocodile Man tour, located in Tárcoles. Watching this man risk his life to feed these enormous crocodiles for your entertainment is a thrilling experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The nightlife in Jacó is as wild as the surrounding jungles and is a great a place to let loose. For the best possible experience, be aware of the prevalence of prostitution; and gentleman, do not pick up random women. Manuel Antonio, known for its booming monkey population, makes for a fun day trip and is one of my favorite places in Costa Rica. This national park is filled with rich, natural beauty and an amazing array of wildlife.
Overall, Jacó is easily one of the most popular Costa Rican cities to visit, especially for those who don’t shy away from adventure and new experiences.
If you have any suggestions about things to do in Jaco, leave a comment below!