Last Updated: September 3, 2020
Many people come to Costa Rica to turn everything off and just relax. Others are looking to do a lot of activities, get out on the town, and of course take in the country’s famous beaches and lush jungle. If the latter sounds like you, then Jaco may just be the perfect fit. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about this popular central Pacific coast destination, including our picks for activities, beaches, restaurants, and hotels.
Located less than 1.5 hours from Costa Rica’s Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), Jaco is the closest major beachside destination to the capital city of San Jose. With rolling green hills of jungle and farm pasture in the distance, Jaco sits in a wide cove with rocky points on each end. The beach is a long gray arc that has a backdrop of palm trees, surfside hotels, souvenir and boutique shops, a huge selection of restaurants and bars, and the occasional mid-to-high-rise condo complex.
Jaco is considered to be one of Costa Rica’s most developed beach towns, and the main strip, which runs adjacent to the sand, is bustling, both day and night. The town has developed a reputation over the years for its party atmosphere (mostly in the bars) and adult-only nighttime activities, but in recent years has put a lot of effort into making it an attractive place to visit for everyone, including families.
There are some parks, childrens’ play and activity centers, and lots of restaurants with kid-friendly menus around town. Many of the families visiting Jaco are locals who live near San Jose and flock to the beach on weekends, vacations, and holidays, injecting a nice mixture of local culture into the otherwise touristy town.
Activities in Jaco
One of the main draws of Jaco is the seemingly endless list of activities available. Everything from ATV and zip-line tours to catamaran cruises, surf lessons, and sport fishing can be booked with one of the area’s tour operators. Out of the many things to do, here are some of our picks.
Sunset Cocktails at Villa Caletas
North of Jaco on a tall ridge overlooking the scenic Gulf of Nicoya and Pacific Ocean is an amazing spot to take in the sunset over a tropical drink. Hotel Villa Caletas has built a dramatic outdoor amphitheater into the side of the cliff that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. You don’t have to be a guest to experience this unique setting; just tell the staff you’re there for sunset and grab a drink from the bar.
The amphitheater at Villa Caletas
Costa Rica is well known for its great surf, and the Jaco area is definitely one of the country’s hot spots. Surf shops are scattered all around town so it is easy and affordable to rent a board or take a lesson. At Playa Jaco, the smaller waves are perfect for learning or shaking off the rust if you haven’t been out in a while.
For the more advanced, there’s Playa Hermosa just to the south. This world-class surfing beach is known for having the most consistent waves in the country. It’s not uncommon to see surfing professionals practicing or even competing in one of the many tournaments held at Hermosa.
Carara National Park
You would not expect it so close to a highly developed town like Jaco, but just north and stretching into the mountains is a vast expanse of pristine rainforest. Carara National Park has a small network of trails that lead through primary and secondary forest. They even have a loop that is handicap accessible.
Along any of the trails, you can see wildlife like monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, and lots of birds. In fact, Carara is considered to be one of the best birding spots in Costa Rica with over 400 different species identified.
We work with a company with excellent naturalist guides that can help you see some of Carara’s many wonderful birds and animals. Guided tours are around $85 per person for 4 hours and include lunch. Contact us through our Tour Booking Service page or at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com for more information or to book a tour.
Thick rainforest at Carara National Park
Tarcoles River Boat Crocodile Tour
On your way to Jaco, you will pass a bridge with crowds of people leaning over and looking down. Basking along the banks of the Tarcoles River below, you’ll find huge crocodiles. While the bridge is a decent spot to watch the crocs, even better is taking a boat tour up the river. We really enjoyed this tour because not only do you get very close to the crocs, but there are amazing views and you get to see a lot of birds and other wildlife too.
Read more about our trip along the Tarcoles River and how to book a tour here.
Neo Fauna Costa Rica
Just outside downtown Jaco is a wildlife center that is worth a visit, especially if you have kids. Neo Fauna takes in animals that have been injured or held as pets and helps to rehabilitate them. On a tour ($25 pp), a guide will take you around the rustic facility to show you the different creatures they are currently caring for.
On our visit, we saw many snakes, turtles, some cool tree frogs, a feisty baby racoon, a monkey who was kicked out of his troop, and many butterflies in the butterfly enclosure. Our guide, David, was extremely knowledgeable and taught us a lot about what we were seeing. The tour is interactive and there’s even the opportunity to hold some of the animals.
A Red-eyed Tree Frog posing for us at Neo Fauna
Aerial Tram Ride
Just a short drive towards the mountains outside Jaco is a facility that offers a tram ride through the rainforest. The open-air gondola takes you high above the treetops to enjoy some wonderful jungle views. On the way down, you can see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Rainforest Adventures also has a big butterfly garden filled with many types of butterflies that live in the tropics.
We highly recommend this activity for families with young children, seniors, people with limited mobility, and anyone who’s interested in a relaxing rainforest tour.
For more information and to book a tram tour, read our post A Rainforest Tram Ride in Jaco.
An aerial tram ride through the rainforest near Jaco
Jaco Farmers Market
If you’re staying in town for a while, you might want to consider hitting up the weekly farmers market. Here, you can get the freshest fruits and vegetables as well as artisanal breads, cheeses, and other goodies.
The farmers market, or feria as it is called locally, is held every Thursday afternoon and Friday morning off the south end of the main way, Avenue Pastor Diaz. If you’re coming from the center of town, turn right at the Palacio Municipal, then take another right near the Post Office.
Jaco Farmers Market
The main beach in town isn’t one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful, but its convenient location makes up for it. Located just a couple of blocks from the souvenir shops and restaurants lining the main strip is the gray sand Playa Jaco. This beach fills up fast with people sunbathing, strolling, people watching, or simply hanging out.
Jaco Beach isn’t the best for swimming, but luckily there are plenty more beautiful beaches in the area to explore.
Just 8 km (5 miles) north of Jaco is a sheltered cove that is known for the nearby marina and resort, Los Suenos. Playa Herradura is a little rocky but a great spot for families because of its calm waves and playground. Parking is available right off the sand for a small fee and there are also a few local restaurants where you can grab a simple meal.
Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca
If you’re planning a full beach day, head to Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca. Located north of Playa Herradura, these beaches are well known to locals but not to tourists as they’re not clearly marked. To get there, head north along the Costanera highway, then take a left onto the road shortly before the Punta Leona Hotel. Follow it to the end, passing through the resort, to a parking area. From there, you can walk out onto Playa Mantas, a picturesque cove with gray sand.
At lower tides, you can keep walking south, crossing some rocks and a point to access the beautiful white sands of Playa Blanca. In our opinion, Playa Blanca is the most beautiful beach in the area with clear water, fluffy sand, and lots of trees for shade. These beaches are very popular with the locals so get there early (and avoid weekends) to get a parking spot; it fills up fast! There are no restaurants or amenities for the public so be sure to bring everything you need for the day.
For more information about visiting Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca, check out our post all about them.
The gorgeous Playa Blanca
Eight kilometers (5 miles) south of Jaco is the famous surfing beach, Playa Hermosa. Even if you aren’t a surfer, it’s worth a visit to this 7 km (4 mile) long stretch of dark gray sand. The majority of Playa Hermosa is empty with no development, but there is a small community with some restaurants, surf shops, and hotels on the northern end.
Playa Esterillos Oeste
If you’re looking for a secluded beach, keep heading south past Playa Hermosa about 15 km (9 miles) and you will come to Esterillos. There are multiple entrances off the main highway, but the one for Esterillos Oeste is a good place to find some peace and quiet, nice waves if you’re into surfing, and cool tidepools. This area is not very developed but has a well-stocked mini-supermarket and a few great restaurants a short walk from the sand.
The tidepools at Playa Esterillos Oeste
The restaurant scene in Jaco has really taken off. Expert chefs are moving into town, and craft beer bars, vegan restaurants, and kosher eateries are springing up. The Jaco area has over 100 different restaurants serving everything from typical Costa Rican fare and bar basics, to gourmet cuts of beef and other gastronomic delicacies.
Here’s a selection of what we have enjoyed to get you started. For a more robust list of options, check out our Jaco Restaurant Guide.
Note: Many of the directions below mention the POPS building. We use this as a point of reference because like most towns in Costa Rica, Jaco doesn’t use standard addresses. POPS is an ice-cream shop near the center of the strip. You can’t miss it.
Graffiti Restro Cafe + Wine Bar
Our pick for a nice dinner out, Graffiti has a cool, contemporary atmosphere that will make you forget that you’re in Costa Rica. They specialize in “slow food,” meaning that they use only local ingredients and their dishes take a little extra time to prepare. Not to worry, their innovative apps and selection of signature martinis (the cucumber and basil is great) will help tide you over.
Chalkboard dinner specials include lots of choices for surf and turf, and the standard menu has burgers and lighter options like tapas, fish tacos, and a poke bowl. $10-30. Dinner only. Call ahead for reservations. Located in Jaco Walk, on the southern end of town past Mas X Menos grocery store.
Blackened Mahi Mahi with coconut rice and pineapple chutney at Graffiti
Zona K Bistro
This small bistro owned by a Costa Rican chef serves up innovative fare with a Latin and Asian influence. Everything at Zona K is made fresh, from scratch and a lot of love. Some of our favorite dishes are the Cajun Tuna with Sesame and Breakfast Skillet for brunch. Also has a nice assortment of pastries and desserts. Located on the northern end of town, across the street from Best Brands shoes.
Cajun Sesame Tuna at Zona K Bistro
For an authentic taste of Costa Rica, head to Rustico. This simple soda (typical Costa Rican restaurant) serves up tasty plates of rice, beans, meats, and sides in a casual buffet style. If you like beef, definitely try their Carne en Salsa. This place is popular with locals and hungry surfers so don’t be surprised if you see a line. $5-8 for most plates, includes a drink. On a side street off Ave. Pastor Diaz going to the beach (look for a billboard for Hicaco Restaurant).
The Pizza Shop
Good pizza is surprisingly hard to find in Costa Rica, but the Pizza Shop knows how to make a great pie. Crispy thin crust and a well-balanced sauce are the highlight, but the toppings are what knock it out of the park. Homemade items like sausage, ricotta, and a balsamic reduction are just a few of the choices. $8-30. Check out their website for the menu. On the northern end of Ave. Pastor Diaz, a block up from the small yellow bridge.
A pie with pepperoni and house-made sausage at Pizza Shop
Green Room Cafe
What we like most about the Green Room is the atmosphere. As soon as you walk in the door, you feel comfortable. Grab a seat outside in the terrace garden if you can. The Green Room focuses on local and organic ingredients and has delicious locally made craft beer. This hip spot has live music every night; check out their Facebook page for details. $8-20. Ave. Pastor Diaz, across the street from POPS.
Outdoor space at Green Room
El Hicaco is one of the few restaurants in Jaco right on the beach. From the contemporary patio, you can enjoy an upscale meal with an oceanview. The menu is a little pricey, but the food is well done and they have nice touches like complimentary bread. Seafood is the house specialty. Also has a small playground for kids. Located on the southern end of town, about a block from Mas X Menos grocery store.
The patio at El Hicaco
Heladeria el Barco
For dessert or a mid-day treat, stop by Heladeria el Barco for really good homemade gelato and ice-cream. Flavors are constantly rotating but there are at least 20 to choose from. They also have a ton of fun toppings to add. Ave. Pastor Diaz, a few doors south of POPS.
This isn’t your ordinary Costa Rican panaderia. With a lot more than just pastries, this artisanal bakery makes fresh bagels, breads, and of course lots of yummy desserts. They also serve coffee and espresso, a traditional Costa Rican breakfast, and have a lunch menu with a selection of sandwiches and wraps. $5-10. Northern end of Ave. Pastor Diaz in the Palm Plaza. Across from Economy Rent a Car.
Like restaurants, there are a ton of hotel options to choose from in the Jaco area. You can find everything from shared-room hostels for $20 dollars a night to luxurious suites for upwards of $400. Below are some of our recommendations in the different price ranges.
High-end Hotels ($200+)
Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort
Spread out on 1,100 acres, Los Suenos is one of the only all-inclusive resorts on this stretch of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. This sprawling complex has several restaurants and lounges, easy access to the beach, a grand pool, an 18-hole golf course, a marina, a small grocer, and even some shops. With everything you need on-site, there’s really no reason to leave the immaculate grounds. The Marriott Los Sueños is located in the beach community of Playa Herradura, just north of Jacó. Starting at $200/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
The pool area at Marriott Los Suenos
Hotel Villa Caletas
Villas Caletas is a luxury boutique hotel located high on a bluff and built in traditional Victorian style with a tropical spin. Surrounded by lush rainforest, the property is secluded and private. When we have been for sunset cocktails, hotel guests looked quite pleased with the infinity pool overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya.
Some suites have their own plunge pools and access to a private beach is also available. Rooms have ocean, pool, or jungle views, and the property is spread out so be sure to inquire when booking. Villas Caletas is located north of Playa Herradura and about a 10-minute drive off the highway. Consider renting a car if you want to explore the area. Starting at $200/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Mid-range Hotels ($100-200)
Hotel Club del Mar
These beachfront apartment-style units are located on the southern end of Jaco Beach, away from the hustle and bustle. The style of this property carries a contemporary feeling with nice finishes. It also does a good job of incorporating some local art and wood throughout. There is a big pool area, spa, and Tiki bar overlooking the ocean where you can enjoy the beautiful sunset. Good on-site restaurant that offers local cuisine. Rooms range from traditional hotel rooms to more spacious condos, and all have A/C. $160-360/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
The grand pool overlooking the beach at Hotel Club del Mar
Oceano Boutique Hotel
This mid-size hotel in the center of Jaco will get you steps away from the beach and nearby restaurants. The 60-room property offers boutique-style modern condos with high-end finishes. Each unit has a full kitchen and living area, making it a good option for families. The property has an outdoor pool and spa. Look for weekly events with live music like paella night on Saturdays and BBQ Sundays. $100-400/night, depending on the unit size and amenities. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Budget Hotels ($100-125)
This hotel on the southern end of the beach is a great value for the Jaco area. It is located on a side street right off the main way in Jaco, making it within walking distance to the beach, restaurants, and shopping, but far enough from the hustle and bustle of Avenue Pastor Diaz. Hotel Tuanis is a small, family-run place with accommodating, helpful staff. It’s eco-friendly with solar panels and dual flush toilets, but also offers A/C, good for those steamy days. All rooms have a refrigerator and some have kitchenettes. $60-130/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Hotel Perico Azul
Located about 15 minutes outside town, Hotel Perico Azul offers simple, clean rooms for an affordable price. Ideal for surfers, this cozy aparthotel is within walking distance to the beach. Surf lessons can be easily arranged as the owners also run Tortuga Surfing. One bedroom studios and standard rooms are available. Some have A/C and a kitchenette; there is also a well-equipped common kitchen. $45-65/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Photo Credit: Hotel Perico Azul
Room2Board Hostel and Surf School
The nicest hostel in the area is probably Room2Board. This boutique hostel and surf camp is at the southern end of the main drag. It has hotel-like amenities, including a movie-theater room and rooftop bar with hammocks, and is less than a 5 minute walk to the main area of town and right on the beach. Private and shared rooms are available as well as less expensive dorm rooms. Surf and SUP packages available. $14-90/night. Check Availability and Prices Here.
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As you can see, Jaco, Costa Rica is a booming destination with tons of things to see and do. Good for foodies, adventure seekers, surfers, shopping enthusiasts, and those who just want to sit on the beach and relax, Jaco is a place where you can easily spend a week or more.
If you do want to explore, another great thing about Jaco is how close it is to other destinations. In about an hour, you can be on the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio, and in another hour more, the rainforest-covered Costa Ballena. But with so much going on in Jaco, we doubt you will stray far.
Last Updated: September 3, 2020
Have you been to Jaco? What did you think?
Looking for more information to help plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
- Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience – If Jaco appeals to you, you might also like Tamarindo on the northern Pacific coast. This surfer town has a similar feel, with a huge selection of restaurants and accommodations.
- SJO Airport Hotels: Chances are you have an overnight in San Jose at either end of your trip. Check out our hotel guide for the best places to stay and a promo code to save some money.
- Packing for Costa Rica: Start your packing list for what to bring with this post.