Playa Herradura is a calm and protected beach, although the dark sand is rocky in places and not very attractive. The calmest section is toward the north end, where you’ll find the Los Sueños Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort. When the swell is big, the center section of beach can be a good place to bodysurf, boogie-board, or try some beginning surf moves.
Punta Leona, just a few kilometers north of Playa Herradura, is a cross between a hotel, a resort, and a private country club, with some of the nicer beaches in the area. Manta and Blanca are two very nice white-sand beaches inside the complex. The public access beach road is south of the main Punta Leona entrance and is not very well marked.
In contrast to the dryness of Guanacaste, these are the first beaches on the Pacific coast to have a tropical feel. The humidity is palpable, and the lushness of the tropical forest is visible on the hillsides surrounding town. In hotel gardens, flowers bloom profusely throughout the year.
A little more than 17.5km (11 miles) north of Playa Herradura is Carara National Park (tel. 2637-1054; daily 7am–4:30pm; $10/person), a nesting ground for scarlet macaws. It has a few kilometers of trails open to visitors. The Sendero Acceso Universal (Universal Access Trail), which heads out from the national park office, is broad, flat, and wheelchair-accessible. The first half of this 1km (.6-mile) stretch leads into the forest and features various informative plaques, in both English and Spanish, pointing out prominent flora. About 10 or 15 minutes into your hike, you’ll see that the trail splits, forming a loop (you can go in either direction). The entire loop trail should take you about an hour. The macaws migrate daily, spending their days in the park and their nights among the coastal mangroves. It’s best to view them in the early morning when they arrive, or around sunset when they head back to the coast for the evening, but a good guide can usually find them for you during the day. Whether or not you see them, you should hear their loud squawks. Among the other wildlife that you might see are caimans, coatis, armadillos, pacas, peccaries, and, of course, hundreds of species of birds. Bring along insect repellent or, better yet, wear light cotton long sleeves and pants.
Although you can certainly hike the gentle and well-marked trails of Carara independently, my advice is to take a guided tour; you’ll learn a lot more about your surroundings. Most hotel desks can arrange for a guided hike to Carara National Park, or contact Tucanes Tours (tel. 2777-0775) for one. Also, there are almost always bilingual guides available to hire at the park entrance.
Just south of Carara National Park on the Costanera Sur are the Pura Vida Gardens and Waterfalls (tel. 2645-1001; $20 adults, $10 kids over 8; daily 8am–5pm). The fee covers the gardens and trails, which lead to the waterfalls, allegedly the largest waterfall in Costa Rica, the 600-foot (180m) Catarata Bijagual. Pura Vida also offers Adventure Dining (tel. 8352-9419; reservations required), with transportation, appetizers, open bar, dinner and entertainment; $110 for adults, $65 for kids under 16. Look for the signs to Pura Vida Gardens and Villa Lapas. From there, it’s 8km (5 miles) to the gardens.
Several companies offer boat tours of the river and mangroves, and every hotel and tour agency in the area can make arrangements for you. Many operators bring along freshly killed chickens to attract crocodiles, though it’s irresponsible to feed any wild animals in Costa Rica. That’s why I suggest going with Eco Jungle Cruises (tel. 2582-0181; 2-hr. tour $85 adults, $45 kids 4–10). Its staff doesn’t believe in feeding the crocs or altering their behaviors. There are plenty (hundreds, in fact) of crocodiles to be seen along this stretch of river and mangrove, and plenty of photo opportunities. Transportation is offered from Jacó, Playa Herradura, Manuel Antonio, or San José for an additional fee.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.