The Central Pacific
The Central Pacific at a Glance
From the Port of Puntarenas, to just south of Manuel Antonio National Park, the Central Pacific area of Costa Rica is full of incredible places to explore and enjoy.
Just one hour drive from San Jose you can take a boat ride on the Rio Tarcoles and see huge crocodiles, take an island cruise around the Gulf of Nicoya, or visit Carara National Park, a transitional rainforest, the second most diverse ecosystem, only after the tropical rainforest.
There is also plenty of adventure to take on. Catch some waves at some of Central America’s best surfing beaches, deep sea fish, or pump up some adrenaline zip lining, rappelling, and canyoneering.
In the last few years the Central Pacific of Costa Rica has gone through a big boom in development. Luxury hotels, marinas, shopping centers, golf courses, fine restaurants, have become the center for tourism in the area.
Visitors can still enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities too though. Nature and wildlife, fishing, diving, hiking, or simply relaxing at the beach. The Central Pacific has something for everyone.
Manuel Antonio National Park: Where the Rainforest Meets the Ocean
When to visit Manuel Antonio National Park:
- Year-round, with peak season being between December-April
What to do:
- Wildlife watching (white-face capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, two & three-toed sloths)
- Scuba diving & snorkeling
- Mangrove tours
- Boat tours
Where to go:
- Punta Catedral
- Carara National Park
- Tocori Waterfalls
- Rainmaker Rainforest Reserve
Of the many national parks in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio boasts the honor of being both the smallest and one of the most biodiverse parks in the country.
The park is located on the Central Pacific Coast, just 5 miles (8 km) south of the town of Quepos in Puntarenas, and about 82 miles (132 km) from San Jose. Manuel Antonio is also a small town that has grown around the park, providing visitors with great dining, nice shopping, and many excellent hotel choices.
The rainforest meets the beach here, in a lovely blend of sand and lush greenery. Monkeys cavort through the trees, sloths are visible from the road, and hotels are filled with tropical birds.
At just 682-hectares, Manuel Antonio is the smallest national park in Costa Rica. It is also the second most visited park, with more than 175,000 visitors annually. It protects a large number of natural habitats, including marshes, mangroves, and primary and secondary rainforest.
It features three main hiking trails that wind throughout the park, and we recommend Cathedral Trail and Sloth Trail to make the most of your time. Keep your eyes open to catch them all – see three species of monkeys, various mammals, tropical birds, and reptiles.
If relaxing at the beach is more what you had in mind, enjoy one of three picturesque options inside the park – Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, and Playitas. Enjoy a refreshing dip in the Pacific Ocean and safely swim and learn to surf.
Vendors line the sidewalks selling food and drinks, surfboards, and boogie boards are available for rental, with a nice mix of local people and visitors spend time here.
Natural Highlights of the Rainforest
Established in 1972, Manuel Antonio is one of the most visited national parks in Costa Rica due to its incredible wildlife viewing and pristine white sand beaches.
Here, the rainforest meets the ocean–something one must see in person to truly appreciate. In 2011, Forbes named it one of the 12 most beautiful national parks in the world.
As one of the most biodiverse regions in Costa Rica, It is home to 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. Here it is common to see four different monkey species: white-faced capuchin, howler, spider, and the endangered squirrel monkey.
It is also home to both two-toed and three-toed sloths, as well as numerous reptiles, amphibians, coatis, bats, agoutis, armadillos, raccoons, and snakes. Among the bird species common to the park are toucans, woodpeckers, motmots, tanagers, and hawks, just to name a few.
Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point, formerly an island with rainforest-topped cliffs) is located within the park and separates the park’s two most popular beaches, Espadilla and Manuel Antonio.
It is accessed from the mainland by a thin land bridge and takes about an hour to get to the top (about 328 feet). From here, visitors can enjoy wonderful views of the coastline, park, and surrounding area.
Tips for your Visit to Manuel Antonio
To tour the park, a professional guide is highly recommended. They are masters at spotting anything and everything lurking on ground and in the trees, and they use high-powered telescopes to get the best view.
The actual hike through the park is done mostly on dirt hiking trails and takes approximately three hours to make the circuit. It is recommended that visitors tour the park early in the morning for the best wildlife viewing when the animals are most active. It’s also important to arrive early in high season, as there can be very long lines to enter the park.
Visitors will want to take a bathing suit and towel to enjoy the wonderful beaches within the park after doing the tour.
The park is open Tuesday-Sunday from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. General admission is $16. A guide is usually about $25 per person which includes your entrance fee. Guides can be found at the main entrance of the park–just make sure they are affiliated with the ICT (Costa Rica Tourism Board). Once you pay your entrance fee, you can enter and exit the park as often as you like throughout the day.
In addition, make sure to take what you need with you, as there are no places inside to purchase essentials (bathrooms are available inside). Be careful with food, as raccoons and monkeys are clever thieves and will open backpacks and satchels to get to your snacks.
Peak months for Manuel Antonio National Park are December to April during dry season. The transitional months (May, June, July, and later November) are also good times to visit.
September and October are not ideal months to visit the Central Pacific due to heavier rainfall during this time, which means smaller crowds in the low season months.
Carara National Park: A Quiet Paradise
When to visit Carara National Park:
- Dry season, during December-April
What to do:
- Wildlife watching
- Rainforest hikes
- Crocodile tours
Where to go:
- Tarcoles River
- Jacó town
Carara National Park sits in the Central Pacific Conservation Area, on the southern banks of Tarcoles River. Carara lies just about 32 miles (about an hour) west of San José, and is home to one of the largest populations of wild scarlet macaws in the country. Despite the park’s proximity to the city, it does not attract the large number of visitors one might expect
This is why the park is a favorite with bird watchers. An important macaw rehabilitation program began in the mid-1980s, with rangers patrolling against poaching. Rangers also built artificial nests to provide safe homes for the macaws. The population has grown substantially and the program continues today.
Carara remains one of the most important wildlife corridors in Central America. The park connects the dry tropical forest of Guanacasate to the tropical rainforest of the Southern Pacific. Carara is classified as a transitional tropical forest. Make sure to take time to visit the marshlands, ponds, and admire the huge towering cashew trees.
Creatures Big and Small: Carara’s Wildlife
The park is predominantly formed by primary rainforest, which makes it ideal for the huge variety of birds that nest in the dense trees.In addition, it’s the home of mammals large and small, as well as a wide array of reptiles.
Some of the most appealing bird species in Carara are woodpeckers, hummingbirds, antbirds and manakins. Other notable animals include crocodiles (which can be seen up close on guided boat tours), agouti, kinkajous and the rare white-tailed deer.
Since its foundation in 1978, Carara National Park has attracted a variety of visitors with their wider natural diversity than the slightly more famous Manuel Antonio National Park. To make the most of your experience, arrive early in the morning, as birds are most active around sunrise and sundown.
Puntarenas: A Getaway to Nicoya
When to visit Puntarenas:
- During high season, in late November-late April
What to do:
- Scuba diving
- Chartered boat cruises
- Canopy tours
Where to go:
- Peñas Blancas National Park
- Carara National Park
- Tortuga Island
- Puntarenas Marine Park
- Local art gallery
- Marine History Museum
Puntarenas is both a city and a province in Costa Rica, so don’t get confused!
The province is named after its capital and administrative center. Puntarenas literally means “sandy point” in Spanish, and that’s exactly what it is built on: a sandy spit of land sticking out into the Gulf of Nicoya, surrounded on three sides by water. Long and thin, Puntarenas is no more than 5 blocks wide and more than 25 blocks long.
Puntarenas is also the closest coastal town to San Jose. As the biggest port on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, Puntarenas is a key destination for cruise ships, a gateway to the Nicoya Peninsula, and the most important port for import and export on the Pacific.
The town itself is popular with locals for weekend trips to the beach or outings for fresh seafood dinners. The city’s ferry terminal is the only place to catch the ferry (car and foot) to the Southern Nicoya Peninsula.
Cultural and Outdoor Activities
The locals in Puntarenas are very friendly and welcoming to tourists, exemplifying the “pura vida” lifestyle for which Costa Rica is famous.
Visitors can while away a lazy afternoon at one of the many bars and restaurants in the area. Chartered sail boats depart regularly from several piers, offering tourists the chance to soak up the sun on a relaxing cruise around the Gulf of Nicoya or try their hand at sportfishing. Some of Costa Rica’s most impressive national parks are also just a short drive (or boat ride) away.
Many of the activities in Puntarenas revolve around the magnificent beaches that can be reached from the city. With breathtaking views, clean white sand and warm waters year-round, it’s easy to see why the Gulf of Nicoya is so popular.
For wildlife enthusiasts, a trip to the Puntarenas Marine Park is a must. This extensive aquarium and sealife center is home to some of the most exotic creatures in the Pacific Ocean, including manta rays, catsharks, anemones and other fascinating marine life.
There are also two annual festivals that are worth checking out in Puntarenas. The first is the renowned Puntarenas Carnival, a lively parade that takes place in February.
It features live music from across Central and South America, as well as fireworks displays, sporting competitions, a flamboyant procession of costumed revelers and the crowning of the Puntarenas Carnival Queen.
The second celebration is the Festival of the Virgin of the Sea, which pays tribute to the patron saint of the Gulf of Nicoya, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Every July, during the festivities, local ships are decorated with floral wreaths, and locals take to the streets to celebrate the blessings of Mount Carmel.
The History of Puntarenas
Known simply as “El Puerto” (“the port”) by the majority of Costa Ricans, Puntarenas was the country’s main seaport. It was developed in the 1840’s as a transit center for the Central Valley coffee crop, which arrived at the ships first by ox cart and then by rail.
Since those days, the port and the town have become less prominent, although Puntarenas still hosts a large fishing fleet. The main seaport for Costa Rica is now at Caldera, a few miles south.
Puntarenas is still a popular beach destination for Central Valley Costa Ricans, being the closest beach to San Jose, and the main beach strip is crowded most weekends. Most visitors will see Puntarenas when they use the ferry terminal to cross to the more pristine beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Visiting Puntarenas: What to Expect
Puntarenas and the surrounding area have an abundance of places to stay, from beachfront cabinas to luxury resorts overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya.
During the height of the tourist season, competition for rooms can be intense due to the city’s transportation connections to the Gulf of Nicoya, so travelers may want to book early to avoid disappointment.
The humidity can be uncomfortable during the high season, so when reserving a place to stay, ensure the hotel or guest house has rooms with a fan or air conditioning.
The majority of Puntarenas’ restaurants are small, charming and intimate family-owned eateries. These establishments specialize in dishes using freshly caught fish, as Puntarenas is known for the quality of its seafood.
There are also plenty of food cart vendors throughout the city, so grabbing a quick bite on the go is never a problem.
Esterillos Beach: Surfing at the River’s Mouth
When to visit Esterillos Beach:
What to do:
- Deep sea fishing
Where to go:
- Hermosa beach
- Jacó town
Esterillos is situated on the Central Pacific coast, about halfway between Jaco and Manuel Antonio. Its warm brown-colored sand stretches for miles and miles, and it’s known for the nearby beach village of Esterillos Oeste.
This is a relatively undiscovered beach that you can visit and walk for miles without seeing another person. It’s a real off-the-beaten-track destination while still being pretty close to various towns.
Stretching along the coastline, Esterillos is divided into four smaller beaches: Esterillos Oeste, Esterillos Centro, Esterillos Este and Bejuco Beach. Each has its own access from the coastal highway.
The name Esterillos comes from the Spanish words “esteros” and “rios” (estuaries and rivers), and each of the four beaches is separated from each other by river mouths emptying into the ocean. Esterillos Oeste is the most populated, although it’s still quiet and laid-back compared to other beach areas of Costa Rica.
As a surf destination, the beaches of Esterillos have much to offer. Oeste is known for its long-breaking rights and the inside barreling beach break. Centro, Este and Bejuco also have great surf – more river mouths and beach breaks.
Aside from the surf, the area offers great beachcombing and relaxing. For wildlife lovers, scarlet macaws, monkeys, sloths, and turtles can be observed. For fishing, red snapper, snook, sea bass, mackerel, tuna, barracuda, and corvina are the most common catch.
Local panga boats and one or two larger fishing boats may be available for rent with the pilot for a day offshore. Take your catch to one of the local restaurants and they will happily prepare it for you at little cost too!
Visitors must be very careful about swimming anywhere near Esterillos. The undertow is savage, and swimmers are often taken by surprise. It’s best for beachcombing and wading.
Esterillos is often bypassed by people visiting the larger, better-known centers of Jaco or Manuel Antonio, but those who do drop by to check things out often end up staying for a lot longer than planned!
Herradura Beach: Relaxing & Sportfishing
When to visit Herradura Beach:
What to do:
- Sports fishing
- Canopy tours
- Horseback riding
Where to go:
- Carara National Park
- Tarcoles River
- Punta Leona Refuge
Herradura is a quiet little beach town 1.5 miles (4 kilometers) North of Jaco in the province of Puntarenas.
Until recently it was totally unknown and only frequented by the locals, but the appearance of Los Sueños Marriot Ocean and Golf Resort, as well as the proximity of Jaco, accelerated its growth and it has become a bit of a tourist hotspot. It is excellent for a quick escape due to its proximity to San Jose, only just over an hour away.
The name Herradura means horseshoe and it is easy to see why it was given such a name: the perfectly shaped grey sanded bay is lined by coconut trees and a variety of seafood restaurants. It is the perfect place for a romantic dinner under a starry night sky.
Herradura beach has a good choice of hotels, villas and condominiums, a great variety of shops, a small mall including a supermarket, pharmacies, a bakery, and all the necessary facilities.
While it has certainly seen many changes over these last few years, Herradura is a welcome change for those who want to spend the day on a quiet and remote beach.
On the road to Herradura there are many points of interest. The Carara National Park is known for its crocodiles in the Tarcoles river, and its myriads of birds. See its amazing mangroves set in one of the last the transitional forests left in Central America.
Next is the Punta Leona Refuge that is also part of the transitional forest, a mixture of the dry forests of the Northwest and the rainforests of the Southwest.
Further down the road you will see Villas Caletas, a hotel and restaurant with a look and views to die for. Inspired by French Colonial architecture and Victorian style, this is old-world architecture its best, set in extraordinary natural settings.
Thanks to its calm waters, Herradura beach is the best swimming beach of this region and is also a well-known spot for sportfishing.
Beaches Dotted Along the Central Pacific
Jaco Beach: Laid-Back Surf Spot
One of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations, Jaco beach is a huge draw for surfers. With 2.5 miles of fantastic surf, Jaco draws international surfers and is the home to several surfing competitions each year.
The strong undertow and brown sand make it a not so popular choice for sunbathers, but if visitors want to combine a beach stay with boisterous nightlife, Jaco is a good choice.
Blanca Beach: Day Trip into Nature
Located within the Punta Leona complex, Blanca beach is an incredible ¾ mile stretch of soft white sand. Visitors enjoy clear warm water, gentle waves, and a palm tree frame.
Because of its location within a private reserve, it’s easy for guests to see monkeys, sloths, and tropical birds too. It’s just 90 minutes driving from San Jose, making it very convenient for day-trippers.
Hermosa Beach: Pro Surfing Area
Just 6 miles South of Jaco is one of the most hard-core surfer beaches in the country, Hermosa beach. This area is known for consistently large waves, which draw surfers from all over the world. Hermosa holds a large surfers convention and competition every year as well. This beach is not recommended for casual swimming due to the undertow and rough surf.
Matapalo Beach and Linda Beach: The Central Pacific’s Hidden Gems
South of Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most incredible hidden gems: Matapalo and Linda beach.
Access these beaches from the main road heading south to Dominical. It’s best to have a 4X4 as some areas are rugged driving. Once you arrive you’ll find pristine light sand beaches, trimmed with palm trees and wild almonds.
You can swim in the calm surf, and walk for miles without seeing any signs of development. It’s a great location for a private picnic day at the beach.
Beachtowns Facing the Pacific Ocean
Jaco: Surfing and Partying
Jaco was one of the first towns in the Central Pacific to be hit by the tourism explosion. From a sleepy surfers and backpackers town, to party central of the Pacific Coast.
It’s a popular destination for bachelor party trips, fishing groups, and people looking to take part in the colorful nightlife. Jaco is a good shopping spot by day, but by night if scantily clad working girls will offend you, best to avoid this area. Surfing remains excellent and a top draw too.
Quepos: The Fishing Capital of Costa Rica
Quepos is the gateway town to Manuel Antonio and points south. It’s a sleepy fishing town, with touches of tourism but an authentic vibe. You’ll find good restaurants and shopping, and a big mix of locals and visitors.
The new Pez Vela Marina is the starting point for charter fishing, catamaran sails, and the fresh seafood that is so popular in town and in Manuel Antonio. Most visitors prefer Manuel Antonio, with its lovely boutique hotels, but Quepos remains a good value too.