5 Things You Can't Miss in Jaco, Costa Rica
What's it like to travel authentically in the most popular city on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast? Here are five Slow Travel experiences I wouldn't pass up in Jaco, Costa Rica.
As we rode in our car transfer to Jaco (hah-co), Costa Rica, from the capital city of San Jose, the landscape slowly transformed from city streets, tall buildings, and wide highways, and I was struck by something I never expected would surprise me. I don't think my eyes have ever been exposed to so much green.
Not just the rainforest-laden mountains and hills but... Every. Single. Strip. Of unpaved soil. The land around houses and commercial buildings is often filled with coconut or banana trees or bursting with colorful flowers or alien-looking bushes.
The land beside freeways and highways is also left wild, making it feel like the forest is just waiting to take over as it drowsily hangs above speeding cars.
As if that wasn't enough, the seemingly sentient greenery has decided every bit of brown must be covered, even the tree trunks! Wrapped in pothos, monstera and other climbing vines, the trees are swaddled with humongous leaves. It feels like something out of Jurassic Park.
Life… uh… Finds a way
I would say my vision was assaulted with the verdant colors, but the effect was one of a more calming nature. This comes as no surprise since study after study shows that green is good for humans. Even us city-loving, concrete jungle cats need to escape and reconnect with our inner hippie-dippy selves.
After three days in the very lovely - albeit very developed - capital city, this was just what the doctor ordered. The impact of this ungodly (or maybe godly?) amount of greenery when arriving to Jaco physically made me feel like a puddle - in a good way. The world's troubles and my anxieties melted away. As a Type A, anxious personality, this was an unusual but welcome feeling.
Jaco, the city, may not be the place that makes you ooh and aah, but the surrounding landscape will offer everything you're expecting from a tropical getaway in South America. Just take a look at this photo and tell me you're not ready to chant mantras and meditate.
Here is a little background before we dive in:
Jaco is a newly developed city, established in 1965, with around 12,000 people. While it is well-known for its amazing beaches and lively nightlife, it's also ideally situated between the country's main tourist sites, including Manuel Antonio National Park to the South, the surfing paradise of Tamarindo to the North, and the Monteverde Cloud Forests and Arenal Volcano to the East.
While many of these locales are anywhere between 1-5 hours away by car, my partner and I found that Jaco's location makes it a perfect home base from which you can explore the rest of the Pacific Coast. While we ended up loving Jaco for her beautiful self and spent the most time there, the central location was a huge perk.
One thing I should briefly mention is the Covid restrictions. While things are getting better, there is still a curfew. It was 10 PM to 5 AM during our stay, which led to Jaco's famous nightlife feeling a little dead.
If you're like me – you could take it or leave it – I don’t think it will bother you. My partner and I really enjoy each other’s company so staying at home, drinking Modelos on our Airbnb’s porch, and hunting for a different kind of nightlife (see below) was our idea of a perfect night "out”.
All this Costa Rican prince was missing was a ‘Kiss Me’ sign
Now... the reason why we're here. My top five things you must-do, must-see, must-try, etc. in Jaco, Costa Rica. Keep in mind that these are my suggestions a Slow Traveler. These aren’t necessarily the main tourist attractions or activities but things we saw the locals doing. The Slow Travel movement is about connecting with authenticity, so that's what we attempted to do. If that’s your style, I think you’ll appreciate this list, so let's GO!
1. Eat at Sodas
Sodas in Costa Rica do not just refer to fizzy drinks but are also casual buffet-style eateries that serve casados. This plate usually consists of the following: beans, rice, veggies, and a protein of your choice. The perfect meal!
If you like to eat and you want to “do as the locals do,” Sodas are where it’s at. If you don’t speak Spanish, you can easily get away with pointing at what you want. The ladies behind the counter are more than happy to try and explain what something is if you have questions, but generally, everything is easily identifiable.
Our go-to Soda in Jaco was Soda Garabito. With the line going out the door every time we ate there, you could tell it was a hot spot for locals. My meal of choice was usually pretty simple: Gallo Pinto (a traditional ‘Tico’ food) or rice, black beans, maduros (fried plantains), and carne mechada.
2. Watch the Sunset on Jaco Beach
This was one of my favorite moments during our time in Jaco. I loved to see how ‘Ticos’ (what Costa Ricans call themselves) really seem to appreciate what they have. Even though life is not always great, they take the time to enjoy it.
After weeks of gallivanting around and missing the Jaco sunset, we finally made it one night. With a couple cans of off-brand white claw in tow, we parked our car and walked towards an area where groups of people were standing around. Looking up and down the beach, there must have been hundreds of people, all standing around and waiting for the sunset.
We sat down on the sand, cracked open our seltzers, and watched the sun turn vibrant yellows and oranges, then pink, then a deep purple color.
Now, I grew up on California’s west coast. I know what a summer sunset on the beach looks like. But in Costa Rica, it’s as though someone takes the sunset and blasts it in photoshop with 100+ saturation and vibrancy. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful and unreal to see.
It’s no wonder Ticos flock to watch it, even after thousands of beautiful sunsets. I can’t imagine it would ever get old.
3. Walk the Jaco Strip
This will seem like an incredibly obvious suggestion, but this is one of the best ways to people watch and get a sense of what Ticos and other locals are doing day-to-day.
Along the strip, you’ll find lots of the usual tourist fare, of course, but there are some great boutiques where you’ll find local crafts, clothing, and jewelry, coffee shops that use locally sourced beans, and restaurants serving a variety of cuisines.
The strip is just a couple of streets away from the beach, so you can wander off to one of the beach bars after you’ve had some arepas at El Arepazo or maybe a refreshing cold brew at Café Bohio (try their Bohio Style cold brew!).
4. Hike El Miro Ruins on Sunday
After making the trek up to the ruins and learning a bit more about the location, this ended up being one of the coolest things we did in Jaco! The El Miro Ruins has an entry in the Atlas Obscura. While there’s not much information online about the history of the ruins, the story goes that a wealthy man wanted to build a mansion on this hilltop, but he either died before it was completed or the money ran out.
The entrance to the hike is just off the Costañera Sur. Once we pulled in, we were directed where to park. We chatted with the ‘parking attendant’ and gave him a ‘tip’ to keep an extra close eye on our car. All this is in quotes because this is an informal setup that’s super common in Costa Rica. While you shouldn’t go around trusting every person claiming to be a parking attendant, know this isn’t usually a scam.
On our way up, we passed families, groups of bikers, teenagers, and young adults walking and enjoying the views along the way. We were probably the only tourists there that day! It was a very easy hike. I did it in flip-flops, but I highly recommend wearing close-toed shoes.
Once you reach the top you can tell this is the local place to hang out on Sundays. People were cooking food, hanging out with their families, drinking, and playing music. I even saw a girl doing yoga.
There’s also tons of incredible graffiti and art throughout the ruins that you shouldn’t miss. If you’ve never done urban exploration it can feel a little sketchy, so go open-minded and enjoy the unique experience.
On your way back down the trail, I recommend stopping at the fruit stand for a coconut to refresh yourself!
5. Visit the Local Beaches
Did you come all this way just to hang out in the rainforest? I didn’t think so! Jaco Beach, Playa Hermosa, and Playa Herradura are all incredible beaches, each with unique reasons to pay a visit.
Jaco Beach: Jaco Beach sits in a shallow bay with gorgeous views of outcropping cliffs to the north and south. In the morning and early evening, the tide comes in and the waves are great for surfing. There are surf stands on the beach where you can rent boards and get some lessons from locals. As the tide goes out the beach widens a ton. It takes a short walk to reach the water but once you do you’re met with tepid bathwater temperatures, perfect for a relaxing swim.
Playa Hermosa: Playa Hermosa (‘beautiful beach’ in Spanish) is true to its name. The beach’s sand is a dark gray almost black color, rich with volcanic soil. This is common throughout Costa Rica due to its active geothermal activity. It was also a little overcast the day we visited which I’m sure that heightened the effect of the sand’s color. We were warned not to swim on this beach due to the strong currents and saw no one in the water that day. So be aware that this is not the place for playing in the water with kiddos or weak swimmers.
We did have a quick bite to eat and a couple drinks at Restaurante Vista Hermosa and they were super. They had the best Pescado Frito Entero!
Playa Herradura: This is an excellent beach for families and big groups of friends. Many Ticos will flock to Playa Herradura with their cars and set up camp for the day on the weekends. We saw groups with pop-up canopies, coolers of food and drinks, speakers blasting music, and even barbecues to cook food! This is a super fun place just to chill, hang out with friends, and drink the day away. Similar to Jaco beach, you’ll find the water is the perfect temperature and calm enough for every type of swimmer.