The Central Pacific Region in Costa Rica
This is the area for surfers – but eco-tourists have discovered this area also. This area encompasses Puntarenas to the Nicoya Peninsula and down to Dominical.
Jacó and Manuel Antonio are Costa Rica’s two most developed beaches, while Puntarenas, a former seaport, offers the most urban beach setting in the country. (A short day trip from San José). If you’re looking to get away from it all, without traveling too far or spending too much, Dominical is a great choice on this coast.
This is also where you’ll find some of Costa Rica’s most popular and spectacular national parks and biological reserves: Manuel Antonio National Park, home of three-toed sloths and white-faced monkeys; Chirripó National Park, a misty cloud forest that becomes a barren páramo (a region above 3,000m/10,000 ft.) at the peak of its namesake, Mount Chirripó; and Carara Biological Reserve, one of the last places in Costa Rica where you can see the disappearing dry forest join the damp, humid forests that extend south down the coast. You might even glimpse a beautiful scarlet macaw!
Puntarenas – This small Pacific coast city, about 50 mi/80 km west of San Jose, is making a comeback as a port and resort town. Built on a narrow peninsula, its central location on the west coast has always made it a good place from which to visit nearby national parks. It has also been the best place to catch ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula or to take day cruises to nearby islands. The beach is clean and refurbished with sand. The dock area, where large cruise ships dock, has been transformed into a pleasant place to stroll. New restaurants and shops now line the Malecon, a pedestrian walkway that runs along the waterfront north of town. Ticos on the weekend holiday are again mingling with tourists there. Take an hour or so to explore the city—it’s a good place to shop for supplies and souvenirs, have coffee, and take photos.
Manuel Antonio National Park – One of the most popular parks in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio has become the focus of the debate that concerns Costa Rica as a whole. It was intended to preserve nature, but its popularity threatens the environment. Responding to some of the ill effects of mass visitation (including pollution from hotels and automobiles and dangerous interactions between humans and wildlife), the government has taken steps to limit the number of visitors to Manuel Antonio: Camping is no longer allowed; the park is closed on Monday; only 600 visitors are allowed in per day; and, like other parks in the country, the entrance fee has been raised to deter visitors. (It now costs about US$10.)
After wading through an estuary at the entrance to the park (anywhere from ankle deep to waist deep, depending on the tides), you can choose from a number of exceptional white-sand beaches. Playa Espadilla Sur—also called Second Beach—is especially good for snorkeling and swimming.
A network of trails runs through the forest, allowing you to observe an abundance of wildlife: birds, white-faced capuchin monkeys, coatis, sloths, and colorful crabs and lizards. There are a number of activities that you can enjoy in the area surrounding the park, including rafting, surfing, sea kayaking, horseback riding, and sportfishing (especially for sailfish mid-December-late April). One excursion to consider is the Canopy-Safari trip, which includes breakfast, a jeep ride into the forest, and zip-lining and rappeling through the forest. You can go in the morning and spend time on the beach when you return.
If you’re planning to stay several days in the Manuel Antonio area, try to get a room at one of the hotels that line the road between the park and the town of Quepos. They’re more expensive than those in town, and you must book well in advance, but they’re worth it: Many are discreetly built into the jungle and bring you close to the wildlife. In Quepos you will find a large number of shops and art galleries where you can catch up on your souvenir shopping…but not much in the way of hotels and resorts.
After visiting the park, you may want to stop at Jardin Gaia, an animal shelter along the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. It provides temporary care for injured animals and those confiscated from poachers. You may see toucans, Red-lored parrots, and endangered squirrel monkeys, as well as dozens of scarlet macaws flying around their cage like a flag ceremony. 30 mi/48 km south of San Jose.
Chirripó National Park – The main attraction in this park on the northwest corner of La Amistad International Park is Mount Chirripó. At 12,600 ft/3,840 m, it is Costa Rica’s highest peak. From here you can see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea at the same time. You’ll also see lakes of glacial origin, cloud forests, and paramo—a collection of shrubs and herbs that are common to the Andes Mountains in South America. This park can only be entered on foot, and it’s a grueling hike—two-days minimum each way, but it’s phenomonal. There are cozy, mountaintop cabins where visitors can sleep and recuperate. Entrance fees and cabin space must be prepaid at the MINAE office in San Gerardo de Rivas. If you’re interested in visiting, be sure to check whether the park is open. 60 mi/100 km southeast of San Jose.