When my husband Scott and I moved here over a year and a half ago, we toyed with the idea of living at the beach. It is a fantasy of most expats who choose to settle in Costa Rica, and we were no exception.
After living in Costa Rica for about three months and exploring our possibilities, we decided that we really enjoyed the climate in the mountains above the Central Valley, which is pleasantly temperate. With temperatures ranging from upper 50’s to mid 80 degrees Fahrenheit, we do not require air conditioning or heat.
Another compelling reason why we chose to stay in this area is we had made wonderful friends, so we had a community that we did not want to part with. We had several other factors that influenced our choice, which you can read about in an earlier post, My Recommended Plan of Action For Relocating to Costa Rica.
The beach is quite hot and humid, so unless you have a guaranteed never-ending ocean breeze, you most likely will require air conditioning (which equates to a much higher electric bill to stay comfortable). The alternative is to sweat, a lot, which can get old pretty fast. The cost of living at the beach is generally much higher than living in the Central Valley, not only in electric bills but also in food and retail items as well, because it cost stores a little extra to transport these items to beach towns from central Costa Rica.
But still, I LOVE the beach. I yearn for it. As a child, I was spoiled by the pristine beaches of Okinawa, so the beach is a must in my view.
After decades of being land-locked in Central Texas, the thought of being in a country with over 800 miles of beach to choose from was exhilarating and mind-boggling. I still have to pinch myself.
Every quarter or so we will venture to further-off beaches like Puerto Viejo, Tamarindo or Manuel Antonio (each is about a 3-5 hour drive from our home), but at least once a month or more we venture to the Pacific to the nearby Playa Jaco (Jaco Beach) to get our regular dose of “Vitamin Sea.”
A Quick and Simple Beach Getaway
If you live in or are visiting Costa Rica’s Central Valley, one of the closest beach destinations is Playa Jaco. It is on the way to Manuel Antonio, Dominical and other southern pacific coast destinations.
A quick beach getaway for Central Valley dwellers, Playa Jaco is best known for surfing and nightlife. There are so many other activities to do there, and a great variety of restaurants and cuisines to enjoy.
Not only do we enjoy Playa Jaco itself, but we make brief stops along the way (and a little beyond) that we were introduced to or discovered on our own that we enjoy from time to time.
After living here a little over a year and a half, we have our routine for going there. . . and on each trip we try something new. The possibilities seem endless. And in a year and a half, believe it or not, we have barely scratched the surface.
NOTE: On this drive to Playa Jaco from Alajuela/San Jose (West on Route 27 to Route 34 South) there will be several tolls, so make sure you have Costa Rican colones to pay (the tolls vary in price, there are at least 2 that cost 600-700 colones, which is a little over a dollar). If you live in Costa Rica, you can get a toll tag for your vehicle from your Costa Rican bank (a HUGE time saving must).
So get into your vehicle, open your Waze or Google Maps App and take a short trip south to the beach!
Little Stops, Pleasant Detours and La Playa
Our recommendations begin by heading south on Route 34 (Carr. Pacifica Fernandez Oreamuno, aka Costanera Sur) with the Tarcoles Crocodile Bridge and ends at Playa Hermosa, the black sand beach just south of Playa Jaco that is a surfer’s paradise with great waves (not for beginners, the location of last year’s World Surfing Championship).
As I mentioned, we have been on several day trips to Jaco, so please note that we did not visit all these places or do all these things in one day (we have always driven back home to the Central Valley in the afternoon). If this is just a day trip for you, pick and mix what you think you will like and what you can fit into your day.
As of this post, here is what we have tried and are experiences we can personally recommend:
Stop #1: Tarcoles Crocodile Bridge
Once you start driving south on Route 34 you will really start feeling the humidity in the air. You will pass by large produce markets on the left, which can be an interesting stop for fresh fruit on your way to the beach.
As you continue you will see an area with Tico “strip centers” on both sides of the highway before you come to a big bridge. On the left strip there s also a POPs ice cream shop.
We like to park on the left and get a tasty, cool smoothie at Restaurant Los Cocodrilos. You can choose from a variety of fresh fruits and mix them if you like (mango, banana, strawberry, pineapple, guava, guanabana, etc. – try the gua-na-ba-na for a unique, healthy treat). This is also a great opportunity to use the restroom in the restaurant. We have never eaten a meal here, but I’m sure you will enjoy typical Costa Rican food (comidas tipicas) if you choose to dine here. It looks good anyway!
The main attraction is the massive and numerous crocodiles who live under this bridge over Rio Tarcoles. Just follow everyone else to the bridge’s center, and look over the edges. Careful, the railings aren’t very high and tourists have been known to get ‘goosed” and accidentally drop expensive cameras!
There will be young men on the bridge selling souvenirs which include wooden crocodiles and necklaces with crocodile teeth. Even though it is illegal to feed the crocodiles, some of these souvenir peddlers will sell you a little bit of chicken (for an exorbitant price so negotiate down if you must see them eat) to throw down to the voracious cocodrilos.
As you leave, please don’t forget to tip the parking attendant two to five hundred colones ($.50-1.00) for watching your car and helping you get back out on the road with traffic. He will appreciate it very much!
Detour #1: Playa Mantas, Punta Leona and Playa Blanca
One of the first recommended detours of the trip, about 17 km south of Tarcoles Crocodile Bridge, are Playa Mantas, Punta Leona and the beautiful white sand beach Playa Blanca. These are located next to one another. Unless you are staying at the hotel there, these beaches are not the easiest to access, especially Playa Blanca.
All Costa Rican beaches are open to the public, but some hotels try to prevent public access by making access points only available through their property. This is the case here, but where there is a will, there is a way.
Since we are not guests of the hotel, we do not go through the gate which is a private access road to these beaches. Instead, we drive just a little bit further up Route 34 to a sign that says “PLAYA MANTAS” with a green arrow pointing to the old access road on the right. It starts off as a gravel road and as you start getting closer to the beach, the road is paved and you will pass by the hotel, a small shopping center and restaurants on the way to the parking lot for Playa Mantas. There’s even a POPs ice cream shop there!
Tricky right turn before a bridge, look out for the PLAYA MANTAS sign with the floating playground.
When you get to the parking lot for Playa Mantas (look for the signs to it along the path), an attendant will direct you where to park. It costs 2000 colones (<$4USD) to park there, which is totally worth it. These guys will make sure your vehicle is secure, but take caution and hide the valuables that you leave behind well. It’s just a good habit to get into in Costa Rica, where petty theft is not uncommon. No need to tempt anyone.
Playa Mantas is a very calm cove with grey sand, unusually dark water, and an Aqua Sport playground. It is pleasant to stay at this grey-sand beach, but most people will take the short hike over to the next beach, Playa Blanca, which is the picture of the stereotypical beautiful white sand beach and moderate waves. There are nice picnic areas there with tables and benches. From what I hear it’s a nice spot to go snorkeling, so on our next visit I plan to bring our snorkel gear.
It can be a challenge to hike between these beaches when the tide is high, so check tide times before going. The passage is also a bit rocky, so make sure to have decent shoes.
Low tide at Playa Mantas, a grey sand beach with calm cool waters and an aqua sport playground.
It’s a short climb from Playa Mantas to Playa Blanca . . . make sure it is low tide!
The white sand Playa Blanca is worth the hike!
These two beaches can get crowded on the weekend or during holidays, so it is best to visit at other times so you can have more of the beach to yourself.
Stop #2: Auto Mercado Herradura at Plaza Herradura
From Playa Mantas, get back on Route 34 and head south. In about 6-7 km Auto Mercado will be on your right.
You will see a bridge over the highway and a faux light house on the facade of the shopping center.
To see photos of Plaza Herradura, click here.
There is a POPs ice cream shop here too, just in case you need more ice cream!
This is a great stop for groceries on the way to or from Playa Jaco, especially for those who enjoy goods imported from the US. In addition to regular groceries, special imported items we like to get at Auto Mercado include Beef Broth, European style butter, Dr. Pepper, and Tabasco sauce (and its several flavors). One time they had yellow Meyer lemons (it is hard to find typical US lemons in Costa Rica)! It felt as if we had struck gold.
We will usually take the opportunity to stop there on the way home to the Central Valley to pick up anything we may need as it saves us an extra trip.
Detour #2: Los Sueños Marina and Resort
Take a right at Auto Mercado (On Waze, the road is Quebrada Canablancal). Travel for about two kilometers. On the right there is a big gated entrance to the Los Sueños property, which is situated on Playa Herradura. Drive on in, there is no need to speak to the guard if you do not need any assistance or directions.
Keep driving into the property on this main road, Calle Sueños, and remember the marina is on the left, you will see the Marriott Hotel on the way to the restaurants. You will drive around a circle and head left past the beautifully manicured golf course and come upon a restaurant next to the marina called The Hook Up, which serves typical American cuisine (salads, burgers, fish tacos, etc).
There is a parking lot for visitors for their shopping promenade with several other restaurants (fine Japanese, Italian, etc.), a gourmet coffee shop/bakery (La Dolce Vida), cigar store, clothing store, salon/spa, gourmet food import shop, local real estate and yacht sales, etc.
This area is a one-stop shop for those visiting and living in Los Suenos, with almost everything anyone could ever need or want. We like to go there for a change of pace for lunch and check out Jimmy T’s gourmet import store to see if they have any new (hard-to-find) goodies there, like US imported beef, Kosher and Maldon salt, US lemons, cornbread mix, and Japanese mayonnaise.
Stop #3: Playa Jaco Itself
Drive back to Route 34 and head south for another 6-7 km. Playa Jaco will be on the right. You can’t miss it. There are several roads on the right leading to the main drag, Avenida Pastor Diaz and the beach, so don’t worry if you miss the first one.
One of our favorite things to do is to drive on one of the side roads to the beach itself and back our vehicle into a spot to face the ocean. We open our SUV’s back hatch and we sit, eat, people watch and dip into the water now and then. Not only is it fun and relaxing, but it’s also FREE.
Avenida Pastor Diaz is the main drag. It is parallel to the beach with everything you could need to have a great time and a satisfying meal. There are plenty of souvenir shops on Ave Pastor Diaz for you to purchase your Costa Rican mementos and there’s even a POPs ice cream shop here too! Notice a trend? You will probably never have to go without ice cream here in Costa Rica, especially near the beach. 🙂
Here is a list of a few things we can recommend to check out or do in Jaco:
We walked into a surf shop on Ave Pastor Diaz and got immediately hooked up with a surfing lesson, $35 for 2 hours. Your teacher could be a Costa Rican surf champion . . . it just depends on who’s available when. Jaco is a really nice beach to learn how to surf with decent but not intimidating waves. If surfing is a bit much for you, you can also rent a boogie board, which is far less intimidating and also fun (just be sure to keep the front edge up when catching a wave to avoid a sand slam).
Other Outdoor Activities and Tours
Along Ave Pastor Diaz you will see kiosks for walk-up customers offering all kinds of activities at the beach and in the nearby local area. Besides surfing, other activities you can choose from include deep sea fishing, waterfall hiking and swimming, ATV tours, SUP (Stand Up Paddling), ocean kayaking, nature walks, etc. You can also book your activity ahead of time through the Visit Jaco website.
If you need a coffee break, Cafe Bohio is a great place to get your cappuccino. They have excellent coffee and are located on Ave Pastor Diaz across from Calle Bohio, next to Buddha Hostel. The last time I was there I got the Affagato – homemade ice cream topped with a shot of espresso – and it was excellent! I got my ice cream and coffee fix both at the same time (sorry Pops)!
We love variety and have found restaurants with different cuisines and price points that we like. All of these restaurants are good at what they do. We do our best to stay open to trying new places, and most of the time we are pleasantly surprised.
Taco Sol: The last time we were in Jaco, we were in the mood for tacos and just happened on this new Mexican themed restaurant on Calle Bohio. The staff is very warm and welcoming, and many of them speak English. We met the owner who is also from Austin, TX – this completely explained the authentic Velveeta queso on the menu (the portion was small, but we Texans can’t live without our queso!). The generously sized margaritas are excellent as well.
El Hicaco: During a stroll on Playa Jaco I noticed a lovely restaurant, El Hicaco. Situated right on the beach, El Hicaco offers amazing views and beach access, along with high quality and great tasting food and drinks. It is on the more expensive side, but the view, combined with the upscale decor and menu, makes it a nice change of pace for lunch, dinner or happy hour. At the end of a satisfying day at the beach, we like to order drinks and the salmon and tuna ceviche with mango and avocado (which is served with crispy plantain chips), and watch the sunset from our table.
Kosher Sabress: This is the restaurant of Hotel Las Orquideas that has Kosher meals and awesome authentic Israeli dishes to include dishes like hummus, falafel, and kabobs. The display menu is all in Hebrew! We were surprised and delighted to find such delicious Mediterranean food in Costa Rica. It was a very affordable and satisfying meal, and different from the typical cuisines offered in the area.
Soda Rustica: A favorite of the locals, this soda (small, home style restaurant) serves up typical Costa Rican dishes for a great price. For about $6USD you can get a casado (a typical meal with a choice of meat, rice, beans and a couple of other side dishes) and a non alcoholic beverage (a fresh fruit drink being the most common). The dining is outdoors and covered. Because of the affordable price and good quality of food, it can get crowded from time to time, but it is worth the wait.
Zukia Art Gallery
Located across the street from the Jaco Central Park, this little art gallery is full of paintings by Costa Rican and Nicaraguan artists. If you love getting art work as a souvenir, this is a good place to stop by to get a painting at a decent price.
Hotel South Beach
Located approximately two kilometers south of Playa Jaco, Hotel South Beach is a lovely boutique hotel that is directly on the beach. It has a very unassuming entry on the road, but as you walk on the property towards the beach, you will come across its newly renovated swimming pool and see the gate to the beach. This hotel is also just removed enough from the hustle and bustle of the main drag, but many restaurants are accessible. A taxi into town is inexpensive, and is wise to take especially at night.
Stop #4: Playa Hermosa
Another 6 km south of Hotel South Beach is Playa Hermosa. It is a black sand beach with stronger waves than Playa Jaco, and is where the more experienced surfers congregate to catch waves. There are several Playa Hermosas here in Costa Rica, so please note that this is the one south of Jaco, in the province of Puntaranes.
On the way to Playa Hermosa, pull over on the right at Mirador de Jaco for great pictures of the ocean and Playa Jaco in the distance.
While known for having some of the biggest breaks in the country, this 6 mile beach does have variety, with some areas swimmable at low tide. It is a quieter setting than its neighbor Playa Jaco to the north, which is ideal for those who want to avoid tourist traps. Our favorite thing to do here is to watch the surfers!
As creatures of habit, we tend to drop in on our old reliables and favorites whenever we make a trip to Jaco beach. That being said, on every excursion we try at least one new thing because you just never know what wonderful experiences are around the corner. As a result we have had plenty and hope to have more.
We will update you on what we discover along the way as we continue our exploration, and we highly encourage you to take the time to take some detours and make exploratory stops wherever you go. We have found that most of the time you will be pleasantly surprised and delighted by what you find.
Until our next adventure . . .
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