With miles of beach, lush rainforest, and abundant wildlife, Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast is a favorite among visitors. Some come for surfing, which is plentiful up and down the palm-tree-lined shores. Others flock to the region’s well-known national parks to see monkeys, sloths, and exotic birds. While much of the central Pacific coast is developed, there are several smaller communities to discover.
In this post, we’ll give you a snapshot of Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast as well as some resources to help you plan a visit.
Central Pacific Coast: Quick Facts
- Closest Airport: Juan Santamaria International (SJO)
- Best Weather: December to July
- Activity Highlights: Beach and Wildlife
- Major Destinations: Herradura, Jaco, Playa Hermosa, Manuel Antonio
Central Pacific Coast: Location and Landscape
As the name implies, the central Pacific runs along the coast in the center of the country. It starts from the port city of Puntarenas, a narrow peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Nicoya. Then it stretches south through Herradura, Jaco, and Playa Hermosa, passing small beach towns like Esterillos and Bejuco before ending in Manuel Antonio/Quepos. The southern Pacific region continues south from there.
Previously, this region was hard to access due to narrow curvy roads. But thanks to the construction of a wide-laned highway (Route 27) and improvements along the coastal highway (Route 34), the drive from San Jose is fast and easy.
The landscape along the central Pacific coast is a mix of tropical dry forest and lush rainforest. From Puntarenas south to Jaco, the drier forests of the north begin to transition into verdant rainforest common to the south.
As you travel south along the coast towards Manuel Antonio, large palm-fruit plantations line miles of roadway. In Manuel Antonio, the region’s most popular town, the landscape is very lush and tropical feeling.
As for beaches, much of the coastline has larger waves that are best for surfing. Playa Hermosa and Jaco are two famous surfing destinations.
For swimming, there are some calmer coves, including Playa Herradura, Playa Blanca and Playa Mantas, Playa Manuel Antonio, and Playa Biesanz. Playa Esterillos Oeste also has some amazing tide pools that are great for wading at low tide.
When to Visit: Climate and Weather on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Coast
Like most of Costa Rica, the central Pacific coast has two seasons. A dry season runs from December to the end of April. During this time, you will find sunny skies and very little rain. This is also the busiest time for tourism. Rainy season begins in early May and continues through November.
While many people visit during dry season, May through August still can be a great time to come. The rain typically isn’t too heavy during these months.
Temperatures are hot throughout the region (into the upper 80s (29 Celsius)), especially during dry season. With a little extra moisture and cold fronts coming through, the rainy season can be slightly more refreshing.
Weather Breakdown by Month
The driest times in the central Pacific are from mid-December to the end of April.
In early April, the first rains usually arrive. More consistent rain showers and thunderstorms (usually in the afternoon or evening) begin in late April/early May and continue through August.
The months of September and October are typically the rainiest, with wet weather most days. There is still the chance for some sun, though, especially in the morning.
Rain begins to taper off starting in November, but it varies by year. Some Novembers still can be quite rainy.
In December, the rains start to lessen dramatically. By around mid-December, the rain mostly ends for the season. During December and January, it usually rains a handful of times in the late afternoon or evening, which gives the landscape some much-needed additional moisture for the rest of dry season.
Central Pacific Coast: Things to Do
Surfing & Beaches
With miles of varied coastline, beaches are a highlight in the central Pacific. You’ll find some perfect spots for surfing, boogie boarding, paddle boarding, kayaking, beach combing, swimming, and of course sunbathing.
Some popular beaches/towns are:
(1) Manuel Antonio/Quepos, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica. This town has several different beaches. Hidden coves offer swimming and snorkeling, while at the main beach, you can be served drinks from your chair. Manuel Antonio has many tour operators with just about every activity you can imagine.
(2) Playa Herradura, a calm, but rocky beach, about 1 hour from SJO Airport. This beach is best known for hosting Los Suenos Marriott and marina.
(3) Jaco, a lively, developed beach town with nightlife, excellent restaurants, and many things to do.
(4) Playa Hermosa, a famous surfing beach just south of Jaco. This is a small community with a handful of hotels and restaurants.
(4) Puntarenas, a port city that is popular among locals. This is not so much a tourist destination as it is not too scenic. But many people do pass through to use the ferry to the southern Nicoya Peninsula.
In Jaco and Manuel Antonio, you’ll find catamaran tours that will take you offshore in search of marine life or to secluded islands.
For more personalized experiences out on the water, there’s jet skiing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. These tours are fun because they often take you to hidden beaches and coves.
The central Pacific coast is also famous for sport fishing. Anglers from all around the world visit Los Suenos Marina in Playa Herradura and Marina Pez Vela in Quepos/Manuel Antonio to try their hand at catching big game fish like sailfish, tuna, marlin, wahoo, mahi mahi, and even roosterfish. Both marinas hold fishing tournaments throughout the year.
Adventure and Nature Tours
The central Pacific coast is one of the best places in Costa Rica for adventure tours. Here, you can go zip lining, waterfall rappelling, whitewater rafting, parasailing, do ATV, and even take a banana boat ride.
Nature tours are also popular. Hikes with a naturalist guide can help you get to know the local flora and fauna. You can do a night tour to see insects and nocturnal animals, mangrove kayak or boat tours, visit wildlife centers, go horseback riding, and take a crocodile river tour.
National Parks and Reserves
National parks are another big highlight. Here are some you won’t want to miss.
Carara National Park
This park is a short drive from the Jaco area and a great way to get in some nature time during your trip. Carara National Park has a handful of trails that cut through pristine tropical forest. There’s a Universal Trail that is great for young kids or anyone with limited mobility. Additional, more rugged trails continue off the Universal Trail.
In this park, you can see many different bird species, spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys, green and black poison dart frogs, and agouti, among other things.
Carara National Park also has some huge buttress trees with giant roots that make for great photo opps.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is probably Costa Rica’s most popular reserve. It has a handful of mostly short trails that traverse through dense tropical rainforest and along mangrove forest. Many trails are paved and some are handicap accessible.
The highlight in this park is the abundant wildlife. It’s fairly easy to spot sloths, howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, squirrel monkeys, deer, and a variety of birds, butterflies, and lizards/iguanas.
The national park has a few beaches to explore. Playa Manuel Antonio is the prettiest one. It’s a calm cove with turquoise water and plenty of almond and palm trees for shade.
Rainmaker Conservation Project
A lesser known reserve in the Manuel Antonio area is Rainmaker Conservation Project. This is set in the countryside and full of pristine, primary rainforest. Along the more rustic trails, you can see butterflies, frogs, and birds.
A big highlight are the waterfalls and small pools where you can take a dip. The reserve also has some simple hanging bridges, which give a different vantage point to view the rainforest canopy.
Planning Your Visit to Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Coast
Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is the closest international airport. It is located in Alajuela near San Jose. SJO is about 1.5 hours from the Jaco area and 2.5 hours from Manuel Antonio/Quepos.
Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) is Costa Rica’s other international airport. It is farther from the central Pacific coast, at between 3 to 4.5 hours.
All major rental car companies in Costa Rica have offices along the central Pacific coast and offer car pick up from SJO Airport. If you plan to rent a car during your stay, we recommend using Adobe Rent a Car. Check out our Rental Car Discount page to save 10-20% and get free extras.
If you’d rather not drive, you can easily take a private shuttle van. Shuttles from SJO Airport to beach destinations in the central Pacific coast range from around $145-$190/van transfer one way. To check prices and book with a reliable company, use our Shuttle Transfers page.
Popular Tourism Destinations
Here’s a list of the central Pacific coast’s most popular destinations and their proximity to SJO Airport. We’ve written detailed articles on many of these towns so use the links below for more information.
Playa Herradura/Los Suenos Area – Approx. 1 hour from SJO
Jaco – Approx. 1.5 hours from SJO
Playa Hermosa – Approx. 1.5 hours from SJO
Esterillos/Bejuco – Approx. 2 hours from SJO
Manuel Antonio/Quepos – Approx. 2.5 hours from SJO
Most larger resorts in Costa Rica are located in Guanacaste Province. However, there is one resort in the central Pacific, Marriott Los Suenos. This resort fronts the beach in Herradura and has several restaurants on-site. The adjacent Los Suenos Marina has several more restaurants.
In addition to the Marriott, Los Suenos has many condos available to rent.
The central Pacific coast has become one of Costa Rica’s most popular regions. With beautiful beaches, tons of activities, and excellent restaurants and amenities, it has a lot to offer travelers. It’s also a reasonable drive from the airport and other popular inland destinations, making it a great addition to any itinerary.
Planning a visit to the central Pacific coast and have a question? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more resources to help you plan? Check out these posts:
La Fortuna: What to Expect – La Fortuna/Arenal pairs well with destinations on the central Pacific coast. Read about this town’s famous volcano, activities, hotels, and restaurants with this post.
Guanacaste Regional Snapshot – Unsure that the central Pacific coast is right for you? Check out our snapshot of Guanacaste in northern Costa Rica. This region has beautiful light sand beaches both for surfing and swimming.
Family Travel: Why Costa Rica Is the Perfect Destination – Learn what makes Costa Rica a great place for a first international vacation with kids.
Rental Car Discount – Check out our rental car discount for a reliable car at a discounted price. Our readers get free extras and 10-20% off.