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Exploring San Juan and the Central Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

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by Bella Genta Well Traveled Insider Well Traveled Insider
3 months ago

You'll most likely fly into the country’s largest airport, SJO, but don’t feel obligated to stick around town. The best things to do in Costa Rica are outside of the capital, so head straight to the beach or mountains. 

SAN JOSÉ RECS

If you do need to kill some time in San Jose, definitely plan to stay in the Escalante or Barrio Dent area. Hipster vibes meet amazing food and shopping. 

SLEEP:

Most of the luxury hotels (like the Real InterContinental) are in the Escazu neighborhood, about 30 minutes away, but you’ll be surrounded by malls and financial buildings.

For a night or two in San Jose, I’d check out AirB&B and stay close to the action! Again, Barrio Dent and Escalente are your best bet.

EAT:

LuvBurger: The BEST (if not the only) vegan burger join in town. Cute, open atmosphere right next to the university on a block with coffee shops and grocery stores. They also have “bierabucha” - a hoppier, beer-inspired kombucha but with all the fruity flavor.

Lupulus Beer Shop: Gastropub with outdoor seating in the trendy neighborhood of Escalante. Inside an old hacienda but re-imagined with beer on tap and killer cocktails.

Kalu Cafe: Again, Barrio Escante. Perfect place for a mid-day lunch and coffee stop - and the best passion fruit pie I’ve ever had. They also have an attached store with sustainably made jewelry, clothing, and bags.

PLAY:

MADC Museum: Contemporary Art museum featuring the work of several Central American artists. Great way to spend an afternoon avoiding rain.

Antik: Three story club in San Jose offering something for everyone. Basement is usually EDM, ground floor is more mellow wine bar vibes, and upstairs/balcony plays Reggaeton all night long. Make sure you bring comfy dancing shoes!

Feria Verde de Aranjuez: The best outdoor market in all of Costa Rica. Organic produce, food trucks, jewelry and other health products. They also have yoga classes and live music every week. Only open on Sundays, early morning to early afternoon-ish.

Explore the Central Pacific Coast: Once you’re ready to head outside of town, I recommend traveling southwest to Jaco, Manuel Antonio and/or Uvita. Driving in Costa Rica is easy compared to D.C., New York, or LA, and the roads are well maintained. Car rentals are also inexpensive and give you the freedom to explore up and down the coast. However, if you’re more comfortable having someone else navigate, I recommend hiring a shuttle service from San Jose. I used to take the public bus, though this is definitely not for the faint of heart nor non-Spanish speakers.

I grouped these three cities together because they are easily accessible by car and within 3 hours from the capital city of San Jose. To do them all, you only need about 8 days, though a full 10 would probably be more relaxed.

JACO RECS:

Jacó is a town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, southwest of the capital city, San José. It's known for its surf beaches and nightlife, and as a gateway to national parks.

SLEEP:

Selina Jaco is, yes, a hostel. BUT, it’s the only one directly on the beach and offers a fun, party vibe. From the pool, you can see the bar, the beach, the sunset, and the nightly volleyball match between guests. What more could you want!? I highly recommend getting a private bed/bath (~$40/night). You even have the option to stay in their “tube rooms” for a totally unique experience.

PLAY:

Party on Pastor Diaz Avenue, which is the main street lined with bars and clubs. You can find a party to join easily on any Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. I recommend starting your night at Jaco Bar and walking north from there.

“Hidden Waterfalls Hike”: A ton of places will offer this tour -- some say it takes you to seven waterfalls, others will say ten. I guess it depends on what you count as a waterfall? I recommend going with the tour company used by the Selina hostel as they speak English and give you a more private experience. Beautiful hike with a swimming option at the last (and biggest!) waterfall.

Surf: Another great thing about the Selina is that surfboard rentals are offered in house. Jaco is known for its baby waves, so it's a great place to practice before heading to the biggest beaches on the NW Pacific or the Nicoya Peninsula.

Marveca Swimwear: Don’t. Even. Get. Me. Started. I am absolutely obsessed with this swimwear line. Reverse prints and designs. They can custom make bikinis you design in... 24 hours. They are all surf-safe too and won’t leave you adjusting your top every two seconds.

EAT:

Tacobar: Great prices and even better tacos. Open salad bar with all the toppings for taco-building. I recommend the fish tacos!

Ohana: My favorite restaurant in town. Serving sushi and the best ginger margaritas (you have to at least try one!). Major key -- ordering your margarita to go and enjoying on the beach with a famous Costa Rican sunset.

MANUEL ANTONIO RECS

Manuel Antonio, on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, is where beach vibes and lush rainforest meet. Just north of the national park, it's got that lively resort town buzz.

SLEEP:

Gaia Hotel & Reserve: Super luxurious, adults-only hotel with a beautiful view of the jungle. Bonus points for having a spa and sauna in house.

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Sleep

Gaia Hotel & Reserve

Average Nightly Rate

Starting at $300+
$$$$
Pool Time Spa Time
Details

Hotel Costa Verde: Definitely not as high-end as the Gaia, but still a totally lovely and peaceful atmosphere. You still get the amazing jungle view, coupled with a ten minute walk to the beach, so it's the best of both worlds!  It also puts sustainability at the forefront of its mission and operations -- bonus, bonus points. They offer tour options in-house like hiking and horseback riding.

EAT

Buena Vista Restaurante: Though not glam, this laid-back, open air restaurant is super romantic. It’s also one of the only dining options that’s directly on the beach.

Falafel Bar: I know falafel is not a ‘typical’ Costa Rica dish… but hear me out. The food is great and it's a ‘fast casual’ option to get something light on your way to the beach or national park.

Emilio’s Cafe: Such a cute, little cafe with a laid-back vibe and open terrace. You could stop here any time of day and find something - quick coffee and pastry, local beer  and local eats at night, and even live music on the weekends.

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Eat

Emilio’s Cafe

Typical price per person

$25-50
$$$$
Scenic Views Casual Dining
Details
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Eat

Buena Vista Beach Club Bar & Grill

Typical price per person

$25-50
$$$$
Scenic Views Beachfront
Details

PLAY

Manuel Antonio National Park: This is the main reason people travel to Manuel Antonio, and it's definitely a must-do. I recommend going early to beat the heat and the crowds. Also be sure to pre-buy tickets online. From years of tourism, the capuchin monkeys in this park are… bold. They won’t let you bring any food or drinks (other than water) into the park because the monkeys will steal it. So, don’t bother packing a picnic. Last recommendation, to see less common monkeys (like squirrel monkeys) and sloths, I recommend hiring a guide at the entrance. It really does make a difference when it comes to learning about the animals and plants and is a great way to support local business.

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Play

Manuel Antonio National Park

Typical price per person

$0-25
$$$$
Family Friendly Getting Outdoors
Details

Catamaran Tour: A welcome bit of quiet and luxury. Rent a catamaran to see Manuel Antonio from a different perspective and even visit the (semi) private, secluded Playa Biesanz for some snorkeling in deepest blue/green water ever.

Adventure: Manuel Antonio truly offers every classic Costa Rican adventure experience. You can hike, kayak, or zipline at just about any tour company there. However, I recommend El Santuario Canopy Adventure - a really beautiful location but they also have the best guides. They are hilarious and really make you feel safe throughout the experience.

UVITA RECS

Nestled along Costa Rica's Southern Pacific Coast, Uvita is a hidden gem known for its stunning beaches and lush rainforests. Home to the famous Whale's Tail sandbar, this tranquil town offers a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure for nature enthusiasts.

SLEEP

Oxygen Jungle Villas & Spa: Probably the nicest place I’ve ever stayed. Beautiful jungle bungalows overlooking the jungle. Total tranquility.

Hotel Faremiti Uvita: Mid-tier hotel in Uvita that boasts modern design within a peaceful jardin atmosphere.

EAT

Sabor Espanol Uvita: Spanish (like from Spain) cuisine and impressive wine list, at least for Costa Rica. Nicer restaurant but still with the laid-back indoor/outdoor vibe.

Sibu Restaurant & Coffee Store: Cute place to stop for breakfast or lunch. Really reasonably priced for beautiful yogurt and smoothie bowls, all with local ingredients!

PLAY

Parque Nacional Marino Ballena: Again, this is THE reason people head to Uvita. The National Park sticks out into a peninsula that is literally shaped like a whale fluke (tail). Beautiful park with the main attraction and namesake as whale watching. Twice annually, humpback whales and their babies migrate through the park. If your trip is planned right you’ll be in Ballena between late July and early November or late December to early April. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Enjoy!

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Bella Genta

Biodiversity conservation and natural climate solutions professional. Currently based in Lima, Peru with my two pups. Filipino/ Sicilian mix that has found herself in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Morocco, the Netherlands, Spain … and counting!

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