Beach Town Hopping from Manuel Antonio to Herradura
We had originally planned for Manuel Antonio National Park to take up the majority of our day, but we found ourselves with an entire day ahead of us to explore after exiting in the early afternoon. With nothing on our agenda, we decided to take it slow and cruise back to Herradura on a beach town hopping ceviche crawl, with a few stops along the way.
Firstly, let me start by saying that renting a car in Costa Rica is absolutely the way to go. We were focused on the Pacific side, mostly in Herradura and Jacó, but we were pleasantly surprised by how well established and maintained the roads are in Costa Rica. The drive from San Jose to Herradura was a simple one – well paved roads, perfectly painted, with good signage along the way. We were thrilled to see that the roads from Herradura down to Manuel Antonio were the same. We didn’t encounter any traffic on this route, and the roads were all in exceptional condition. Considering the flexibility offered through renting a car, it makes a ton of sense – we would do it again next time! The only issue we ever encountered was nighttime driving when the roads aren’t overly well-lit. Drive a bit more slowly than normal – and be sure to opt for the GPS! – and you’ll be totally fine.
Manuel Antonio | Jungle Beach Scene
Playa Manuel Antonio sits within the borders of Manuel Antonio National Park, and was ranked as one of the world’s top 25 beaches by TripAdvisor. After seeing other beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific side, I understand the allure. The beach is a long, calm stretch of sand with verdant jungle behind you and turquoise waters ahead.
The biggest downside is that it’s known; its beauty is no secret, plus it’s within the national park. Since people have already paid an entry fee to be granted access to the space, you’ll find yourself trying to find a sliver of sand to call your own. That being said, if you come prepared with a beach towel and a picnic lunch, it’s a gorgeous spot for a lazy day in the sun after a literal walk in the park, catching glimpses of the wildlife that calls the area home.
GO FOR: A refreshing cool down after hours of exploring Manuel Antonio National Park – the lush green landscape surrounding the beach makes for a dramatic backdrop.
Playa Espadilla | Water Sports with a View
Right outside of the boundaries of Manuel Antonio National Park, Playa Espadilla is a gorgeous stretch of beach with a quintessential beach town vibe. You’ll see paragliders taking flight overhead and colorful surf boards propped up against the palms that line the sandy stretch. Opposite the beach are shops and restaurants, perfectly positioned for glimpsing the water and the sun worshippers across the way. Visitors can rent beach chairs for daytime lazing or take a stab at more active pursuits.
After our morning in Manuel Antonio National Park, we opted to eat at Marlin’s, a cool beachy restaurant serving up ceviche and sangria for travelers looking for a bite and a reprieve from the scorching sun. After experiencing Jacó previously (more on that below), we were pleasantly surprised by the charming beach town vibe of the area, which is clearly a haven for backpackers, budget travelers, and adventure enthusiasts. We saw more hotels and hostels in Quepos (on the outskirts of the park) than anywhere we had visited, but the vibe still managed to maintain a feel that was laid back cool, not seedy. Before heading to Costa Rica, Playa Espadilla was very much what I had envisioned of the beach towns broadly: a bit crowded but not hugely overrun, with great spots to eat and drink in a relatively clean setting.
GO FOR: Paragliding and water sports with gorgeous beach views! Enjoy some souvenir shopping (albeit most are a bit kitschy) and some beachy bites while admiring the vibrant colors.
Playa Hermosa | Catch a Wave
A surfer’s haven, Playa Hermosa’s black sand beach and consistent surf call to travelers looking for days catching serious waves, punctuated with refreshing sips and bites from casual beachfront establishments. Houses on the beach are equipped with slats for surfers to rest their boards after a day on the water, and the vibe of the tiny community is utterly charming and reminiscent of smaller beach towns in California.
During our time at Playa Hermosa, there was but one surfer out at sea while we walked down the beach to scope out the scene. We walked along the water to take in our surroundings, a landscape very different to what we’d seen in Manuel Antonio. The sand’s dark shade means it’s blistering hot during the day so wear sandals and seek out shady patches to cool off.
After having left more densely populated areas, Hermosa provided for moments to deeply breathe in the sea air. A long, dark stretch lined with palms and orphaned coconuts, it’s a place to enjoy life’s simple pleasures and watch the world go by. There are a few restaurants in town, but we were drawn to Backyard BBQ, a cool indoor-outdoor space that offers easy beach food in a casual setting. We sat outside on surfboard-style tables while washing fresh ceviche down with cold drinks. Colorful adirondack chairs on the lawn are perfect for soaking up some rays with a beverage in hand.
During our mid-day stop the restaurant was relatively quiet, but it’s no surprise that it draws a crowd for sunsets and on Saturdays, when they host surfing competitions. Having seen some vibrant sunsets at Villa Caletas, I can imagine that they’re equally captivating from Playa Hermosa, setting right over the sea.
GO FOR: Surfing. Plain and simple, this is the ultimate surf town with a laid back vibe that’s all kinds of vacation mode mentality. Not a surfer? Go to catch the sunset during Backyard BBQ’s Happy Hour.
Jacó Beach | Backpacker’s Paradise
Scott and I visited Jacó during our first full day in Costa Rica. We opted to get off property and explore the nearby area to see what was on offer in the famous beach town. This was our first time in CR but I had heard of Jacó. I knew it mostly as a draw for backpackers making their way along a well-traveled Central American route and for North American escapees looking to live a more balanced life abroad. I had envisioned an area more like we had seen at Playa Espadilla, a charming town with a beachy vibe and great bars and restaurants along the beach.
That’s not quite what we experienced. Honestly, after our first night in Jacó, we didn’t feel a real need to return. The area was grittier than I had imagined, and while the main street boasts loads of restaurants and souvenir shops, the stretch lacked any beachside appeal. Kids on the street rode up on bikes – for some reason clearly focused on Scott and I – in hopes that we’d be up for scoring something from them.
As I said in a previous post, I think Costa Rica’s primary draws are its safety and well established tourism infrastructure. Jacó may be a safe town, but it had us feeling a little on edge during our evening stroll. The area lacked a sense of place for us; mostly a long stretch of buildings devoid of character.
That being said, we did stumble across two restaurants that we found to be a great reprieve from the ordinary in Jacó, providing a great burst of life, color and service. Our only disappointment was that we didn’t discover them from the get-go so we could have skipped wasting time at lesser places. For dinner, don’t miss Graffiti. Yes, it’s in a strip mall, but it was the greatest dinner setting we came across – they manage to mask their location very well! Their sister restaurant, Side Street Bistro, is a great spot for lunch, offering complimentary yoga classes on Sundays for those looking for a quintessential Costa Rican add-on. The lunch spot sits near the beach with great fresh juices, healthy sandwich and salad options, and refreshing – and creative! – cocktails for those wanting to really melt into vacation mode.
GO FOR: Jacó wouldn’t be my first choice of places to visit, if I’m being honest, but there’s clearly a thriving backpacker and expat scene with a range of souvenir shops and budget-friendly options for dining. For newbie surfers, this is ranked as one of the better places to learn.
Playa Herradura | Fisherman’s Retreat
For our final stop of the day, we opted to visit Playa Herradura to scope out the nearby scene and different options in close proximity to our hotel. Herradura is home to Los Sueños, where Marriott resort has a sprawling property. When we pulled into the parking lot, we were immediately offered options for fishing charters; a fitting option as Playa Herradura is one of the top destinations in the world for deep-sea fishing (Scott enlightened me). The golden beach was actually refreshingly quiet, with a handful of locals enjoying lunch and a few couples catching some rays. We opted to eat at La Puesta del Sol, a beachfront establishment serving up the best ceviche of the day. The setting was casual perfection, and a great stop for a refreshing bite + sip on the beach.
Afterwards, we went to scope out the scene at Los Sueños, where we saw more high-end fishing boats in one place than I’ve ever seen in my life. The harbour was a genuine parking lot for multi-million dollar boats calling the area home. We dined in Los Sueños one evening, and visited the lounge for cocktails – and shuffle board! – twice. In general, we noticed that good cocktails were rather hard to come by in general, but we were utterly impressed by the bartender at the Terrace Lounge, upstairs from La Lanterna. As Scott remarked, the area is perfect for a guys’ trip: golfing, deep-sea fishing, poolside cocktails, ATVs, zip lining – there are plenty of activities to keep visitors busy for days on end.
GO FOR: Deep sea fishing in Herradura. If you’re looking for an escape that doesn’t require you to leave the property, Los Sueños is a relatively self-contained bubble with options for dining, accommodations, and activities nearby.
Within a few hours, we went from jungly beach landscape to a quiet surfer’s paradise to a mega-resort complex with a luxe edge. Each area had a pretty distinct vibe and while some areas appealed to me more than others, I could see why each area had its unique draws. Overall, while there were certain areas that I enjoyed, I would opt for another area of Costa Rica entirely if we were to return (e.g. Arenal or Monteverde) to delve deeper into the jungle scene vs. the coastal scene. Stay tuned for pictures from our zip lining adventure in Herradura, plus our discovery of Villa Caletas’ best kept secret that’s not really a secret at all.
Have you been to Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast? What did you think?
Which towns would you recommend for people visiting for the first time?