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 might just be the perfect fit. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about this popular Pacific coast destination, including our picks for the best 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, jungle gyms, 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 from one of the tour operators in town. Out of the many things to do, here are a few 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.
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 to the 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 newly renovated 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.
Read our post Birding in Carara National Park for more detailed information.
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 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 with Jose’s Crocodile River Tour and learn how to book a tour here.
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 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.
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 sun bathing, 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 is 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 a dirt road right before the small restaurant, Soda Nimar, near the Punta Leona Hotel. Follow it to the end, passing through the resort, to a small 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.
Eight kilometers (5 miles) to the 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 the shade of a palm tree, some peace and quiet, and nice waves if you’re into surfing. This area is not very developed but has a mini-supermarket and a couple of small sodas (typical Costa Rican restaurants).
The restaurant scene in Jaco is really taking off. Expert chefs are moving into town, and wine bars, vegan restaurants, and even pop-up supper clubs are springing up. The Jaco area has around 100 different restaurants serving everything from typical Costa Rican fare and bar basics, to gourmet cuts of beef and other gastronomic delicacies. Luckily for us, we got the inside scoop on the best places to eat from a few locals, including hospitality specialist Jon Hochstat.
Here’s a selection of what we have enjoyed to get you started. 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.
Side Street Bistro
This is probably our favorite lunch spot in Jaco. Side Street offers gourmet sandwiches made with quality ingredients and delicious breads. They also have a selection of craft beer, homemade lemonade and ice tea, and for Sunday brunch—bottomless mimosas! $8-14. Kids menu available. At night, check out Side Street’s new sister restaurant, Puddlefish, right next door. Puddlefish has small plates, salads, and mains like tuna steak and tenderloin. Vegetarian-friendly. Now located at the new Jaco Walk Open Air Shopping Center, on the southern end of town past Mas X Menos grocery store.
A chill spot right in the middle of everything is Los Amigos. Los Amigos has a large and varied menu with burgers, wraps, salads, Thai food, and their innovative Tropi rice bowls (recommended). Los Amigos shows football and other games, and has events like live music and late night surf parties. $8-12. Take-out available. Open for lunch and dinner. Happy hour drink specials 4-7 p.m. Ave. Pastor Diaz. At the intersection across from POPS.
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 was 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 flatbreads. $10-25. Dinner only. Closed Sundays. Call ahead for reservations. Now located at the new Jaco Walk Open Air Shopping Center, on the southern end of town past Mas X Menos grocery store.
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. Large pizzas, $16-20. Check out their website for the menu. Just south of the small yellow bridge on Ave. Pastor Diaz in the Paso Los Americanos building near Budget Rental Car.
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. Happy hour Tues. – Sat. 5-7 p.m. Open for brunch/lunch and dinner. Ave. Pastor Diaz, across the street from POPS.
This is one restaurant that we haven’t made it to (yet) but that was highly recommended to us. Lemon Zest has been around for more than 10 years and is known for having exquisite international cuisine and top notch service. They have daily specials, but everyone raves about the chef’s specialty, the duck with blackberry sauce. They have a nice wine list too. $11-30. Ave. Pastor Diaz. Just south of the Mas x Menos Supermarket. Upstairs in El Jardin Plaza.
Heladeria el Barco
For dessert or a mid-day treat, stop by Heladeria el Barco for really good homemade gelato. Flavors are constantly rotating but there are at least 20 to choose from. Our favorites were hazelnut, chocolate, and coffee. 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 ($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 six 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. $200-500. Check Availability and Prices Here.
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 visited recently 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. $200-400. Check Availability and Prices Here.
For more affordable luxury, consider Hotel Pumilio. Pumilio is a smaller hotel set in the jungle between Jaco and Herradura on the inland side of the coastal highway. It has a nice pool and well-manicured grounds. The staff is very friendly and pride themselves on hospitality. Guests are even greeted with a glass of wine upon arrival. There is no restaurant on-site, but a myriad of choices are located about 5-10 minutes away in Jaco. Rooms also have an outdoor kitchenette if you’re inclined to cook. Lower rooms have direct access to the pool via a private terrace. $100-200, includes breakfast. Check Availability and Prices Here.
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. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Budget ($80 and under)
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. $65. Check Availability and Prices Here.
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. $20-80. Check Availability and Prices Here.
Hotel de Haan
Hotel de Haan is a hostel with decent amenities and a fantastic location. It is only 100 meters from the beach in the middle of Jaco, has a pool, shared kitchen, Wi-Fi, hot showers, and fans. Dorms and comfortable private rooms are available. Get a room upstairs if you can for a better breeze. Beds start at $10. 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.
Have you been to Jaco? What did you think?
Last Updated: October 4, 2017