Travel Guide to Jacó, Costa Rica

About Jacó

Jacó Beach is immensely popular because it is a short drive away from San Jose, making it a great day trip for tourists and Costa Rican visitors alike. Jacó is so close to San José, Costa Rican college students have been known to skip class to go spend a day at the beach (Don’t ask me how I know this!) Another great point of Jacó is that it caters to every budget: from cheap meals and hostels for surfers to some really fancy accommodations and tours for those with more spending power.   

Costa Rica Travel Tip: The correct way to pronounce its name is hack-OH, with the stress in the oh sound. Saying it right will earn you points with the locals from the first moment!

Photo of Jacó Beach on a random Monday during rainy season.
Jacó Beach during rainy season.

The Central Pacific coast area in Costa Rica spans from north of Jacó to just south of Manuel Antonio National Park, and it is frequented by locals and visitors for its natural beauty and great accessibility. Jacó is a great base from which to explore the beauties the Central Pacific has to offer: beaches, National parks, and more. We will tell you more about those later on.

Jacó, Costa Rica started becoming popular in the 1990s, when both surfers and ex-pats discovered its beautiful sand beaches and nice weather. The city grew in leaps and bounds, going from a one-street beach town to a fully developed coastal city with high rises, fast-food chain restaurants, and several full-size supermarkets. With growth came trouble, of course – drugs, violence, and prostitution were for some time synonymous with Jacó. Things have settled down, and the town has made big efforts to remain safe and friendly to all visitors. One of these efforts is the cool Jacó Walk, an open-air shopping center with a nature walk, restaurants, a kids’ area, and even a craft beer pub.

Getting there

You cannot fly directly to Jacó, Costa Rica, but it’s close to local and international airports. If you fly into Juan Santamaria Airport, Jacó is just over an hour away by car.  

Buses are frequent, and take about 2 hours to get to Jacó from downtown San Jose. Catch a bus at the well-known Coca Cola bus station, they leave several times every day. Mind your possessions, and be extra vigilant after dark – like any city, it can get a little dodgy after hours.

Shuttle buses are also an option, and they depart twice a day towards the Pacific Coast. You can take a shuttle from downtown San Jose, several hotels, and the international airport. Last time we checked, the price was $45 per person each way, and an additional $15 for a surfboard.

If you have a rental car, driving is an easy and quick option. There is a relatively new toll road, the Caldera Route 27, which will get you there in an hour and a half. I love leaving San Jose around 4pm because then you get to enjoy the sunset throughout most of the drive. 

Another plus of driving to Jacó is the “crocodile bridge”. The bridge over the River Tárcoles is a great place to see large crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverside. Some enterprising locals have started throwing yummy scraps so the tourists can see the crocodiles rush to snap them up – this is not really recommended, so try not to encourage them. The Tarcoles bridge is a great place to take a break, stretch your legs, and get a snack at one of the many small restaurants and shops that have sprouted near the bridge. Please exercise caution: the crocodiles look great from the bridge but don’t even think of getting closer to them. Also, the railing on the bridge is not very high, so don’t lean too far over.

Surfing

Jacó was first “discovered” by surfers, and continues to be a major surfing destination to this day. Surfing at Jacó beach itself is ok, but the beach tends to get crowded and dirty. It’s a great place to set up camp if you want to surf in the better neighboring beaches because Jacó has plenty of cheap lodging and surf shops. There are also many good surf schools in Jacó, and experts say the low tide whitewater reform is especially good for beginners.

Costa Rican surf team is based in Jacó.

If you are serious about your surfing you can try neighboring beaches such as: 

  • Boca Barranca: a 45 min drive from Jacó, it has one of the longest left breaking waves in the whole world.
  • Playa Bejuco: this one is just 25 minutes away from Jacó and offers barreling beach breaks, according to the experts.
  • Caldera: the water tends to be murky, but the wedging barrels are popular with local bodyboarders. 

Sightseeing and Tours

The tourism industry is alive and well in Jacó, and you can book all sorts of day trips and tours with ease. Let’s talk about them in some detail:

Sport fishing

If fishing is your jam, get ready to have a great time! Jacó offers plenty of fishing tours, equipment, and guides. You can fish inshore or go fishing on a boat, and there are both half-day and full-day tours available. The most commonly caught fish are mahi-mahi, red snapper, roosterfish, marlin, sailfish, and even tuna. Book your own charter boat or join a group for a fun fishing experience. If you get lucky, you may catch dinner!

ATV tours

A popular activity for travelers, ATV tours in Jacó come in all shapes and sizes. You can go on a 2-hour ride and get to cross rivers, drive through the jungle and explore secluded beaches. There are half-day tours that take you further away and may include time for a dip in tidal pools, as well as a snack or meal. And if you are really serious about going off-road, you can take a full-day tour and go see waterfalls, do some ziplining at Carara National Park and even drive back to the Tarcoles River to see the crocodiles up close (but still safely.)

Horseback riding

Horseback riding at the beach is one of the great pleasures in life, and Jacó is a great place to do it because of its wide, flat beach that goes on for miles. If you are a novice to horses, take a short tour and enjoy 90 minutes with a friendly horse, trotting over beaches and in the forest. If you are a more experienced rider and want adventure and excitement, there are longer tours that range from 3 to 6 hours and may include waterfall visits and zipline experiences.  

Day trips from Jacó

Manuel Antonio National Park 

Just an hour away from Jacó lies a natural paradise. We highly recommend taking a guided hike with an expert guide. They will be able to show you the many natural wonders lying between Manuel Antonio’s white-sand beaches. This national park is the home for 109 mammal species, including 3 species of monkeys, agouti, and sloth. Do you enjoy bird watching? Prepare your binoculars for the 184 species of birds that live here.

Bijagual Waterfall 

this is a half-day horseback tour, and the entire family will love it. Kids from 8 onwards can join! This tour will take you up the mountains, with spectacular views of the coast and the local villages. The waterfall itself is beautiful, and there’s time for a swim in the pool at its base.

Canopy & Zipline

Your humble writer has a terrible fear of heights, but if you don’t, this could be a very fun activity. A series of walkways and ziplines suspended 60-132 feet above the rain forest floor will allow you to see the forest as if you were a bird. This 3-4 hour long tour includes guides, snacks, and a visit to Playa Blanca after you’re done flying like a bird. 

Carara National Park

Carara Biological Reserve is small, but it has a great advantage over larger conservation areas. Its location places it between dry forest and humid forest areas, so it houses plants and animals from both kinds of forest. Don’t skimp on an expert guide: they will help you see the local fauna including monkeys and spider macaws.

Jungle River and Crocodile experience 

Crocodile swimming in the Tarcoles River.

Travel by boat over the Tarcoles river and see the crocodiles as close as possible. This tour is exciting, yet perfectly safe, and you will see a lot of wildlife besides the huge American crocodiles that live in the Tarcoles River. Don’t forget to bring plenty of sunblock, binoculars and your camera on this 3-hour tour. 

Rainforest Aerial tram 

Again, not something I would do, but my fear of heights keeps me from many enjoyable experiences, and this is probably one of them. The Aerial Tram Park is a 222-acre eco-tourism project that allows visitors to see nature from many points of view. Enjoy the smooth ride 130 feet above the ground, or stay grounded like me and explore the herbarium, butterfly garden, and orchid collection.

Tortuga Island cruise

This tour is very popular with Costa Ricans as well as visitors, and for good reason. It’s a full-day tour, and the boat ride to Isla Tortuga is equipped with snacks and a meal. Prepare to enjoy the sea at its best and see lots of different animals during your tour.

Food

You can eat very well in Jacó for little money, and you can eat even better if you have the budget for it. 

As a surfer town, Jacó is full of hole-in-the-wall places that will sell you a large meal for $5 or less. Keep an eye out for the word “SODA” – they do not sell pop or soft drinks, it’s a local fast food place where you can usually get tacos (Tico style), burgers, and deep-fried everything. Costa Ricans have an undying love for fried and BBQ chicken, so you will find plenty of those for a great price too. Ceviche is a local dish made with fresh, raw fish marinated in lime juice and spices, and we recommend you try it. Since the fish in Jacó is usually super fresh, the ceviche is usually delicious and cheap.   

Some places that started catering to surfers found great success: TacoBar, founded in 2007, won hearts with its amazing fish tacos, gigantic smoothies, and $3 breakfasts. Their restaurant got so successful, they have opened new ones in various spots in San Jose. 

Many visitors have stayed in Jacó through the years, making it a very cosmopolitan beach town. You will find really good, authentic Italian gelato al El Barco. There’s also NY style pizza at Pizza House, several Argentinean style steakhouses, a kosher Mediterranean restaurant and more. Sushi tends to be very good in Jacó, because of the amazing freshly caught fish. If you enjoy sushi, you’re in for a treat. 

Our local experts report that one of the fanciest meals you can get in Jacó is Graffiti Cafe, a fine dining experience that is so popular you might need to make reservations if you want to feast on their fancy burgers and tuna tartare.   

Shopping

You could arrive in Jacó with nothing but your credit card, and get everything you need without breaking a sweat. Jacó’s main street has plenty of stores and shopping centers with anything you might desire or need. Clothes, surfing and fishing gear, art and souvenirs, shoes… 

There are several full-size supermarkets, where you can buy the same things you’d buy in San Jose or any main city. Pali and Maxi pali will be cheaper, no-frills, and may have a smaller selection of the finer goods. Mas x Menos and Automercado will give you better customer experience and have more options, but they will charge accordingly. There are also many specialty stores: organic, kosher, macrobiotic. Jacó has countless pharmacies, and there are even a few pet shops in the mix. Whatever you seek, you can probably buy. Did we mention there’s a farmer’s market on Fridays? Check it out for fresh produce, homemade baked goods, and even specialties like kombucha.

If you want souvenirs for the family back home, Tico Pod is a big favorite. They specialize in local art, crafts, and cool designs by Costa Rican designers. They source their souvenirs and gifts from local artisans around the Jacó area and from all over Costa Rica. This has to be said because many souvenir shops sell goods made in Guatemala, Peru, and even places as far as India and Indonesia. Not bad if you want a cheap sarong, but not great if you want an authentic reminder of your time in Costa Rica.

Nightlife

You can party in Jacó, and that’s a fact. There have been times in Jacó’s history in which the partying got out of hand, and rampant drug trade, gambling, and prostitution made the town unsafe. Many efforts have been made to rein in that aspect of the Jacó nightlife, and now it is a reasonably safe town in which you can have a lot of fun until the sun rises. 

So what kind of night out are you looking for?

Casual drinks

There are many nice places in Jacó where you can enjoy some cocktails and appetizers while enjoying the warm night breeze. Locals recommend Senor Harry’s for its Tex Mex cuisine and drinks, and Swell is a fun surfer bar with pool tables, foosball, and darts. Take a walk down Jacó’s main road and you will be spoiled for choice, with many bars, lounges, and open-air venues ready to serve you a frosty beer or a well-shaken cocktail.

Clubbing

If you like to dance, you will have a great time in Jacó’s many clubs and discos. You will find Latin dancing at its best at the popular Luna Lounge, a big favorite of the locals. Salsa, cumbia and other Latin rhythms allow local dancers to show off their best moves, and you will have a good time whether you know how to dance or not.

For a Miami Beach vibe try the fancier Le Loft, where the best local and international DJs take turns spinning for a pretty crowd. You may forget you’re at the beach amid the colored lights and cosmopolitan grooves, but you will definitely get your dance on.

My personal recommendation would be Jacó Blu Beach Club, an open-air club by an oceanfront pool. It is pricey, but dancing under the stars with the whole Pacific Ocean in front of you is a really good way to spend a night out. 

Gambling

When we say Jacó has something for everyone, we mean it. The little beach town that could has not just one but two proper casinos. Croc’s Resort and Casino offers a tropical-slash-Vegas vibe with various lounges and a small club with live shows (but more on those later.) 

Hotel Cocal and Casino has a more traditional Costa Rican-style casino, where you can enjoy some drinks at the poolside bar and splash some chips around at their gaming lounge.

Live Music

Orange Pub has been in Jacó for decades, and it’s still a great place to catch a live show – they favor rock bands, but there’s a varied schedule of musicians who roll into Jacó for a gig. The Green Room Cafe is also popular for their vegetarian food, bohemian decor, and their busy stage, which regularly showcases local talent.

MarieGomez

Marie is a Costa Rican writer and business professional. She likes to share what she knows about her country.

Recent Content