I encountered a mix of urban life and nature. Although Jacó's vibe didn't fully resonate with me, its proximity to diverse attractions and essential amenities made it a meaningful stop.
After seven hours of bus rides filled with various experiences, including conversation with a stranger whose name I only learned at the end of the trip, sweaty body contact with another stranger, and sitting behind someone who seemed to have every criminal tattoo symbol I'm aware of, I finally reached my destination - Jacó.
Arriving in Jacó, totally sweaty, tired, and disoriented, the first few minutes felt a bit strange. Having just been in Tamarindo, I felt like a villager arriving in a big city (which is pretty funny considering Jacó's size). Nevertheless, I quickly adapted and decided to treat myself to some junk food in front of the beautiful and forceful waves of Jacó.
Walking a few blocks past several abandoned buildings, I finally reached my Airbnb. I was greeted with the most depressingly white light I have experienced in a long time. At that moment, I remembered how my mom used to say that being in certain lighting could change her mood, and I couldn't agree more. Nevertheless, I was very happy, as I had a roof over my head with my own kitchen, bed, and the biggest washing machine I had ever seen.
Before reaching Jacó, I was already bombarded with a multitude of negative opinions about the place. Honestly, only a single person I met said that he likes Jacó. If you read Reddit comments, you might get the impression that Jacó is basically Las Vegas without the casinos.
Is any of it true? I think so, at least partially. This is definitely a place where people can go to have fun. Even though I was initially warned, I was still surprised by the number of sex workers there. However, this probably makes sense considering that prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. I'm not into the drug scene, but from what I've heard from others, it seems like drugs are prevalent here. Yet, from my personal experience, I encountered far fewer drug offers here than in other places I've visited.
Why did I choose this place even after hearing all the negatives from other people? Simple. I wanted to be near good surf (in case I felt an irresistible urge to surf after the surf camp), I wanted to visit certain places like Manuel Antonio Park, I needed to be relatively close to Juan Santamaría International Airport, and most importantly, I didn't want to spend another week looking for a place to stay.
While I will detail my take on this place below, my quick summary is that, from my experience, Jacó is not as bad as some people make it out to be. While it's not my type of town, it did offer the necessities I was looking for, along with some additional niceties.
There's a long-running joke in my family where my brother or I would describe any bird by its color, like, "Oh look, a black bird." This highlights my somewhat embarrassing lack of knowledge about birds. And is one of the reasons why I was thrilled to add Ara and Toucan to my bird recognition neural network.
Although I had some vague awareness of these birds before, living in Jacó gave me the opportunity to experience them daily and learn their sound patterns. I won't lie: returning to my Airbnb from the gym, hearing a faint sound, instantly recognizing it as a Toucan, and then detouring slightly to actually spot it, felt amazing. It definitely boosted my confidence in an area where I previously felt clueless.
Moreover, I had the privilege of watching a pair of colorful Aras several times while catching the morning sun and brushing my teeth. On that note, I must admit that their squawks were not as joyful, but on the bright side, my neural network learned a new sound pattern.
Additionally, I saw many other beautiful birds while staying in Jacó. The fact that my Airbnb was a bit outside of town likely contributed to this. Therefore, I don't want to give the impression that you'll definitely experience these beautiful birds. However, they certainly added a great deal of beauty and joy to my stay in Jacó.
I might be very picky when it comes to beaches, but once again, this is not a beach where I would like to chill out. Although it's very wide and spacious, I was not a fan of the composition, which is a combination of dark sand and rocks. However, an even bigger issue here was the litter, which included pieces of bricks and various other items.
Nevertheless, not all parts of the beach are the same. I found the southern part to be cleaner and overall a bit nicer, thanks to its proximity to green nature. Seeing families with their huge speakers and picnic equipment brought back memories of Mexico. It's still a bit of a cultural shock for me, but traveling through Latin America made me realize who the big market for those big portable speakers is.
With all that being said, Jacó Beach is not a place where I would like to spend my holidays. Again, I have my particular tastes and things that bring me joy. This beach might be fine for you, so I suggest trying to find a few random pictures to judge for yourself.
However, if you are staying in Jacó and want to have a nice beach day, I have a suggestion that was passed to me by at least a few people. Go to Playa Mantas, which is roughly a 30-minute drive from Jacó. Once you are there, you'll find a much nicer beach (well, at least for me anyway) that is surrounded by nature. As an additional side benefit, you might also encounter white-faced capuchin monkeys.
But your secret mission doesn't end here. While you can stay at Playa Mantas and enjoy it, you can also wait for low tide and then embark on a short journey to reach Playa Blanca. This was particularly fun for me. Since I arrived a few hours before low tide, I was just sitting at the end of the beach, waiting for the secret gates to El Dorado to open. It was interesting to see more and more people start their pilgrimage to Playa Blanca. While the first few travelers failed and turned back (the tide was still pretty high), about 1.5 hours before low tide, I started seeing more people embark on that journey without coming back.
Since it was my birthday and I was enjoying my birthday cake, I didn't rush. When I started walking, the tide was pretty low (still not the lowest), so it was fairly easy. I think I came back around the lowest tide, and I can say that walking then was particularly easy, so if you have children, you might want to wait for that, as otherwise, you need to walk through slippery rocks.
While Playa Blanca still isn't my perfect beach, oh boy, it was a huge upgrade from Jacó. You are surrounded by beautiful nature, the water is pretty, the waves are fun, and most importantly, yes, you guessed it, the sand is white. However, even though I was there on a regular day, the number of people was on the higher side. I would imagine that weekends can get pretty crowded.
By the way, if you don't want to embark on the low tide journey, you can enter this beach through Punta Leona Resort, but it won't be free, and you won't get the thrill of being an adventurer who is about to discover a new
I went surfing here only once, so you should take what I write with a slab of salt. Additionally, it's worth mentioning that this was during the rainy season.
From my limited perspective (as someone who is not a proficient surfer and didn't monitor beach conditions daily), it seemed that while Jacó has some bigger waves, most of them tended to be closeouts. Perhaps they appeared that way to me because I'm not very experienced, but I constantly saw better surfers skillfully navigating through those waves. What I really appreciated, though, was the fact that the beach is vast, which means you can most likely find a spot without being bothered by others.
My own experience here was somewhat comical. I went to a surf shop near my gym, and they told me they only had shortboards, which I had never ridden before. It would have been logical to go to another surf shop, but I was very particular and decided to take a chance.
Oh boy, did I take that chance. Before even getting into my 20-minute struggle to balance on the board, it's worth mentioning that, within about 3 minutes of entering the water, a stingray casually jumped about half a meter away from another surfer, who didn't seem bothered at all. So there I was, struggling to keep my balance on a completely new type of board, surrounded by carelessly jumping stingrays. It was quite comical. After about 30 minutes, I started to get the hang of the board and was excited to practice duck diving for the first time in my life. At that point, I probably hadn't surfed a single wave, but I found a lot of joy in learning how to duck dive. While my technique probably looked funny to onlookers, I felt like I had a new superpower, and it was awesome.
After many failed attempts, I finally caught a few waves. And wow, it was interesting. I had never felt so much maneuverability and speed. Although I was still failing quite a bit, I gained more confidence (which I've since lost) and started to enjoy it way more.
The cherry on top of all this was the following situation: I saw a huge wave in front of me and tried to paddle towards it in the hope of reaching it before it broke, then realized it was too late, and I would have to duck dive. In the last 3 seconds, as the wave was about to crash over me, I saw a big stingray at the crest of the wave. I probably never in my life exerted so much effort to change my position while simultaneously thinking: "oh shit."
As for the spot, I surfed where the Surfer Factory shop street meets the beach. From what I observed, the southern part (basically at the end) of the beach offers more mellow waves that could be suitable for beginners. I heard that an hour or two before high tide is the best time to go.
While I didn't plan on surfing much in Jacó, I was tempted to go to Playa Hermosa. However, after reading several warnings that the beach is not for beginners, I decided maybe next time. Especially since I didn't have a surfing buddy, the rip currents there are very strong, and my skills are definitely not up to par yet. Nevertheless, if you're an intermediate surfer, I think you can have a blast there, as I've heard great things about it from more experienced surfers.
This trip started with very low expectations since it was raining heavily, and our guide mentioned we couldn't use a monocular, and the chances of seeing animals were quite low, as animals don't like the rain. I started accordingly with low expectations, hoping to simply walk through the park, enjoying my time in nature, and maybe seeing one or two animals.
However, the reality was the complete opposite. Before even entering the park, we saw a few toucans, squirrel monkeys, and a sloth. By the time we entered, the rain had almost stopped, and throughout the day, we saw so many different animals that I was utterly amazed.
The best part about seeing animals in this kind of park is that they are in their natural habitat. Thus, each encounter felt quite magical. Seeing a white-tailed deer family (mother with two children) felt really special, even though throughout my life, I think I've seen plenty of deer.
The beauty doesn't end with animals, as you also reach the magnificent Punta Catedral, which begs the question: isn't this one of nature's paintings, showing off its uniqueness and the beauty of non-perfect symmetry? The beaches there are also very picturesque. You can easily capture stunning photos that make it appear as if you've been washed ashore on an uninhabited island.
This was another activity that I was recommended to do while staying in Jacó. You hop on a boat with a local guide and cruise down the river. Along the way, you'll see huge crocodiles either chilling on the banks or swimming around, and you should also see quite a few different birds.
To be honest, this trip was a bit of a letdown. The main factors contributing to this were the change of meeting point, more people on the boat than I expected, and most importantly, a sense of excessive commercialization. In other tours, I met guides who seemed genuinely passionate about what they do, but here, I didn't feel that.
I think it really depends on which tour operator you choose. My parents, who have been here before, had a completely different experience. Looking at their photos and listening to their stories, I think that this trip can be interesting and very memorable. Don't get me wrong, my trip was also interesting. I learned a lot and saw a lot, but it was somewhat of a letdown.
If you don't have much time or interest, you can go to the Crocodile Bridge, stop by, and observe some of these beasts from above. While it won't be as immersive as gliding by with the boat, it will still likely be an interesting experience.
I was really motivated to see as much of Costa Rica's beauty as possible, so much so that I rented a car to drive to the volcano and other treasures of Costa Rica. For some, this might seem like a casual thing, but for me, it wasn't. I haven't driven a car in a long time and don't have much driving experience. The thought of driving made me nervous, especially solo, in a completely different part of the world, and to a volcano. Since I didn't have a USB-A cable to connect my phone to the car's infotainment system, in addition to all the previously mentioned challenges, add a sliding phone into the mix.
With all that being said, this was the best trip in Costa Rica. In addition to seeing all the beautiful places and meeting interesting people, I also overcame one of my biggest fears. I can imagine how this might sound silly to some, but it is what it is, and it felt truly empowering.
As for the roads, I drove on two different routes. Since my first stop was Místico Arenal Hanging Bridges, I drove through Puntarenas, and my way back was via San Ramon. While both roads were good, I enjoyed the first part (via Puntarenas) way more as it offered very scenic views of Lake Arenal and was generally more relaxed and beautiful. Nevertheless, I liked the idea of making this kind of loop, as it offered different perspectives - a more peaceful nature versus local towns filled with everyday action.
As for a random highlight, I don't know why, but those one-way bridges were amusing to me. They brought a smile to my face throughout the entire journey.
Birds, birds, and more birds. While I saw other animals like vipers, bats, coatis, and so on, the birds and the broccoli tree were the highlights for me. Oh yes, and there were bridges – the ones that are high in the air and can swing. Those were pretty cool, but again, it was the birds that captivated me the most.
While the park itself feels more like a civilized amusement park, I still had the ability to connect with nature. I am particularly grateful for the wonderful guide, who was probably one of the best guides I met in Costa Rica. Not only did it feel like this person was connected to nature and knew how to notice things, but it also felt like I was walking with a genuine human being who is very good at storytelling.
Apart from learning about Costa Rican childhood, what plants to eat for healing, and how to survive when lost in a tropical rainforest, I also learned that apparently, termites taste like black pepper, while caterpillars can taste like chicharrones.
10/10 would recommend the guide, birds, and broccoli tree.
Going to hot springs seems like a must in that region. The concept of hot springs already sounded very cool (no pun intended), and the fact that I'm somewhat of a heat fanatic made this idea even more appealing.
Since I didn't have much time in San Carlos, I decided to stay at Baldi Hot Springs Hotel, so after a long day of riding and exploring, I could enjoy some hot springs and go straight to bed. If I had more time, I would have tried Ecotermales, which seemed to match my vibe more than Baldi.
While I was fascinated by the sauna that is purely powered by hot springs, I can say that overall, I had a very meh experience. However, I want to stress that this was mostly due to the place and my personal preferences. For example, if you are into warm water pools with alcohol or sports games on TV, this might be the place for you. Otherwise, it's not that great.
I really wanted to experience a HOT spring, and almost all of the pools, apart from one, were too cold for my taste. I must admit, after I found that very hot pool, it was entertaining to watch people go inside and quickly nope out of it. But entertainment aside, even this pool didn't match the vibe I was looking for. There were a bunch of LEDs spraying light into my face when the only three things I wanted to enjoy were: hot water, rain, and a mesmerizing dark sky.
If you are looking for an Arenal Volcano hike, this is it. It's one of those places that are not on the mainstream tourist path but offers something very good. I could go into great detail here, but instead, for those who are interested, I would just suggest reading this amazing blog post by Walk My World. My chosen hike was very similar to the one described in their blog post, except I skipped Lago Verde.
I arrived a few minutes before the park opened, and as a result, I was the first person to start the journey that day. You know what else that means? It means that I served as a spider web collector. So, if you are going first that day, maybe pick up some stick or something to clear the path in front of you.
Another lesson I quickly learned was that if you are going with just a shirt and shorts in the first part of the hike during the rainforest, prepare to donate some blood to mosquitoes. If you are not a fan of this idea, act accordingly and bring long sleeves.
I truly haven't felt so close to nature in a long time, if ever. At some points, maybe even to an uncomfortable level, since I was in the middle of the rainforest surrounded by weird sounds, rustle, and sudden movements in the underbrush. This is one of those moments where you realize that you are not in control. Apart from a snake sliding in front of me during the first twenty minutes of the hike, I saw agoutis, rainforest turkeys, some beautiful butterflies, a very interesting frog, and some shadow ninja animals that were definitely close by but too fast for me to comprehend.
However, the hike's uniqueness wasn't due to the animals or the volcano. The part that was special to me was walking in the rainforest and feeling like I'm on an expedition while simultaneously imagining how people used to live in this kind of world. A world where you realize that you are part of something bigger. I can't reiterate how impactful and strong this experience was for me.
Again, apparently, one of the must-see attractions in Costa Rica is this waterfall. How would I rate it? Not great, not terrible, so probably okay. It's a nice waterfall, but nothing spectacular. When you reach the bottom, you can swim around, refresh, and chill on the rocks. Given good weather, you can probably hang around for a while. That's what I did, while eating cookies and reflecting on my life.
If I were to give you one brilliant tip, it would be this: before leaving, take one more quick dip in the water, as otherwise, by the time you reach the top, you will be a salty and sweaty piece of flesh.
This is a bit off-topic, but I noticed that La Fortuna seems to be filled with backpackers. By the time I reached the parking spot, a backpacker from Switzerland approached to invite me on a hike. Since I didn't have time, I offered a lift to the hike. However, since the weather forecast wasn't great, we drove to La Fortuna instead. Once again, it was one of those conversations where you talk very emotionally and with so much interest that you only learn the name of your newly met friend when it's time to say goodbye and exchange contact details.
Would I recommend Jacó to others? As usual, it really depends on you and your goals. While I didn't feel particularly connected to Jacó, it was a stop that served a purpose for me. I had the opportunity to surf, explore nature, work, exercise, and meet new people (albeit fewer than in all the other cities I stayed in), which were the things I wanted. I didn't feel unsafe or encounter any other problems.
However, I wouldn't want to go there for a holiday, as I didn't like the beach and the overall vibe. I also wouldn't recommend this place for backpackers, since most likely you will feel out of place (places like La Fortuna seem much more suitable for that).
On the other hand, I must be honest and admit that I didn't put much effort into getting to know and feel the city well, since I spent the majority of my time doing activities that were outside of it.
What I can recommend, though, is to make as much effort as possible to meet Costa Rica's nature. If you are staying in Jacó, I would recommend at the very least visiting Manuel Antonio National Park. If possible, go and explore.
— Definitely visit a soda. These small, local restaurants offer Costa Rican cuisine at affordable prices. While I wasn't a huge fan of the typical food, I always managed to find something delicious in soda.
— My stay in Jacó was notably enhanced by the presence of Toucans and Aras.
— Manuel Antonio Park is a must-visit if you're staying in Jacó.
—I had a wonderful experience at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park, largely thanks to an excellent guide.
— I've never eaten so many delicious pineapples in my life.
— If you're unsure which Arenal Volcano hike to choose, Mirador El Silencio is a solid option.
— Jacó beach didn't quite meet my vibe, but Playa Blanca was prety good.
— Baldi Hot Springs was somewhat disappointing.
— Watch out for ATM fees. BAC Credomatic asked for an absurd fee, while Banco Nacional allowed fee-free withdrawals.
— If you're planning a Tarcoles crocodile tour, extra research on tour providers is advisable.
— To date, my postcards sent from Jacó have not reached their destination.
— The Costa Rican enthusiasm for lottery was surprising (I haven't seen anything like this in Tamarindo). People constantly buy tickets, be it from a street vendor under an umbrella or a passerby selling them at traffic lights.
— The prevalence of beans and rice in almost every meal was unexpected. To immerse myself, I even bought a half-kilo bag of rice to support local cuisine.
— The number of abandoned buildings just outside the city was a bit surprising.
— The noticeable presence of sex workers in Jacó was quite apparent.
— From my perspective as an amateur surfer, Jacó beach seemed less inviting due to a large number of closeouts. However, I've heard Playa Hermosa is excellent for intermediate surfers.
— The abundance of stingrays at Jacó beach was unexpected.
— The backpacker community around La Fortuna seems pretty vibrant.