After Guanacaste, the beaches of Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast are the country’s most popular. Options here range from the surfer and snowbird hangout of Jacó, to the ecotourist mecca of Manuel Antonio, to remote and diminutive Dominical, with its jungle-clad hillsides and rainforest waterfalls. Now that a newish modern highway connects San José to the coast, and improvements along the Costanera Sur highway are heading south, this region has gotten even easier to visit.
Jacó and Playa Herradura are the closest major beach destinations to San José. They have historically been the first choice for young surfers and city-dwelling Costa Ricans. Just north of Playa Herradura sits Carara National Park ★★, one of the few places in Costa Rica where you can see the disappearing dry forest join the damp, humid forests that extend south down the coast. It’s also a great place to see scarlet macaws in the wild.
Just a little farther south, Manuel Antonio is one of the country’s foremost ecotourist destinations, with a host of hotel and lodging options and an easily accessible national park that combines the exuberant lushness of a lowland tropical rainforest with several gorgeous beaches. Manuel Antonio National Park ★★ is home to all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species, as well as a wealth of other easily viewed flora and fauna.
If you’re looking to get away from it all, Dominical and the beaches south of Dominical ★ should be your top destination on this coast. Still a small village, the beach town of Dominical is flanked by even more remote and undeveloped beaches, including those found inside Ballena Marine National Park ★★.
Finally, if you can tear yourself away from the beaches and coastline here, and head slightly inland, you’ll find Chirripó National Park ★★, a misty cloud forest that becomes a barren páramo (a region above 3,000m/9,840 ft.) at the peak of its namesake, Mount Chirripó—the tallest peak in Costa Rica.
The climate here is considerably more humid than that farther north in Guanacaste, but it’s not nearly as hot and steamy as along the southern Pacific or Caribbean coasts.
The Best Central Pacific Travel Experiences
* Having Miles of Pacific Beach Practically to Yourself: While Jacó, Manuel Antonio, and Dominical are all bustling tourist beaches, the rest of the long, Central Pacific coastline is almost entirely deserted. Rent a car or hire a taxi to visit any number of isolated and virtually undiscovered beaches.
* Visiting Carara National Park: The Tárcoles River crocodiles are best viewed from the bridge just outside the park entrance, and the resident scarlet macaws can often be seen outside the park as well. Still, I recommend hiking the lush and varied trails inside Carara National Park. You’ll be rewarded with rich foliage and the chance to see much more wildlife.
* Hiking the Trails in Manuel Antonio National Park: The trails here wind through thick tropical rainforest and periodically offer beautiful ocean views as well as opportunities to spot wildlife—all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species call this national park home. You may not knock all four species off your life list, but a visit here almost—I said almost—guarantees you’ll see these local primates darting around the tropical treetops.
* Visiting the Nauyaca Waterfalls Outside of Dominical: Nestled in a patch of thick tropical rainforest, the Nauyaca Waterfalls are gorgeous, and feature a large and inviting pool at its base.
* Climbing Mount Chirripó: The highest mountain in Costa Rica, Mount Chirripó is a challenging, but accessible peak whose summit sometimes offers simultaneous views of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.