Last Updated on January 5, 2024
Jaco, Costa Rico is a popular and fun beach town located on Costa Rica’s stunning Pacific Coast, approximately 60 miles west of the capital city of San Jose.
The tiny hamlet in the province of Puntarenas is the ultimate hideaway for sun seekers and active travelers given that it’s well-known for its magnificent beaches, lively nightlife, access to the many wonders of nature and some of the most stunning sunsets in the world. This area alone provides quite a myriad of options for those traveling to Costa Rica.
With rolling green hills of jungle and farm pasture, Jaco sits on an arc on a wide cove with rocky promontories on each side. Though there are plenty of things to do in Jaco, most visitors don’t come to Costa Rica just to hang out in one location. Not when there’s so much to explore in this huge slice of nature’s paradise.
Our family vacation provided many bucket list items to check off during our visit. And these day trips we took from the Jaco/Puntarenas area were unforgettable.
Jaco to Manuel Antonio National Park
Top of our list and one of the main attractions in the area is Manuel Antonio National Park, established in 1972. The 683-acre park is renowned for its rich biodiversity with an immense variety of flora and fauna.
Since this was our visit to the area and Costa Rica, we decided to hire a local guide who was born, raised and lives in the Pacific Coastal region. Professional guide Daniel Bolaños has worked with several eco-tourist companies including Tucanes Tours and is currently working with Road Scholar.
Our eagle-eyed guide led our family of four adults on hiking trails through the tropical rainforest leading to awe-inspiring landscapes, magnificent white-sand beaches, diverse wildlife and lush rainforests. The park is home to white-faced capuchins, howlers, spider and squirrel monkeys, sloths, over 350 bird species and more. Lucky for us, we spotted more wildlife than we could count!
To protect the ecosystem of the park, a maximum of only 600 visitors on weekdays and 800 on weekends is allowed, though the park did not seem crowded at all during our spring visit.
Word of warning: guests are not allowed to bring food into the park and feeding the animals is forbidden, as this can result in aggressive behaviors. However, human nature is such that unfortunately, not everyone listens.
One family walked away from a backpack only to have a capuchin jump down from the tree with his partner-in-crime, rip open and backpack in less than a minute, and steal all the snacks inside. It was quite a show!
Waterfalls near Jaco, Costa Rica
It’s no secret that one of the big reasons we came to Costa Rica was to marvel at its many glorious waterfalls.
Once again, having a guide is so important when entering the jungles of Costa Rica to experience its awe-inspiring waterfalls. Most of these are accessible only by foot. Guides know these areas like the backs of their hands and can ensure hiker’s safety along the way until reaching these impressive cascades.
At 600 feet, the towering Bijagual Waterfall is one of Costa Rica’s tallest. Located approximately 45 minutes from Jaco on the Central Pacific Coast in the mountainous region of Bijagual, the waterfall is accessible partly by horseback through a lush verdant forest. Riders then hike a relatively short distance to the base of the roaring falls. At the base of the falls, three natural pools about six feet deep make for a relaxing swim to cool off after the hike down.
If you have time for a longer day trip, plan a visit to Nauyaca Falls, also known as Santo Cristo and Barú Falls.
Situated near the town of Dominical which is about a 1.5-hour drive from Jaco, the Nauyaca Waterfalls are known for their stunning beauty and are among the largest cascades in Costa Rica. The falls consist of two tiers that tumble into glorious warm-water swimming pools at the base of the falls.
Access to Nauyaca involves a hike or horseback ride through the rainforest and if you choose the horseback option, the Nauyaca Waterfalls Horseback Riding Tour is the one to take.
Jaco, Costa Rica Excursions
Visitors staying in the Jaco, Puntarenas region have so many options for outdoor experiences and excursions. So obviously, you’ll want to prioritize what you and your family or friends are really wanting to do.
Let me share the day trip that stood out as one of our absolute favorites – a jet ski adventure.
Costa Rica’s Central Coast is all about the water and the beaches. And to experience more of its natural beauty and explore some of its more secluded seductive white sands, we headed out on two-man jet skis with a local guide we found on Herradura Beach. We took the choice of a half-day adventure, though it ended up being more like five hours of crazy fun and exploration.
Departing from Herradura Bay, we viewed beaches, cliffs, and coves from a completely different perspective. We zipped past Herradura Island, the protected nature reserves of Punta Leona, and the surfer’s dream beach of Punta Canejo.
Playa Escondido, located in a secluded jungle cove, is renowned as one of Costa Rica’s most secretive beaches and exotic hideaways. To our surprise, we encountered yet another waterfall just steps from the beach, created by a stream flowing down from the mountains above. Due to a rainy spell just before our trip, the waterfalls were moving at full volume, making it the perfect place for back massages from its forceful barrage of water.
Ready for a short beach break, a local called us over to see a family of spider monkeys (the one monkey that had eluded us until now). Not to be outdone as we headed back to our jet skis, a pair of sea turtles were swimming in the crystal-clear tourmaline waters right next to us.
Playa Fantasia, Jaco’s Garden of Eden, was our last beach stop (you can take a day trip to Playa Fantasia here by catamaran) before our trip back to Herradura Beach. This piece of paradise accessible only by boat is rich in tropical wildlife. It’s also extremely private and isolated. Our thoughts were “If we were ever stranded on an island, this would be the place.”
The Playa is surrounded by two large volcanic reef formations where underwater coves and groves are rich with marine life. The snorkeling here is superb. And the powerful surf outside the reefs made for a thrilling ride back.
Snorkeling in Jaco, Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a tropical climate with a dry season from December to April, and a rainy one from May to November. Water temperatures don’t vary greatly throughout the year with the Pacific Coast running almost a constant 80 to 82 degrees.
While Jaco Beach is certainly a paradise spot with amazing surfing and swimming conditions, it’s not necessarily the best place for snorkeling.
But no worries, as we’ve got you covered in other places you’ll love.
Tortuga Island is an experience you won’t want to miss. Located just off the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, about a 40-minute drive from Jaco, this former stop-off for tall ship pirates like Blackbeard and Henry Morgan sports some of the calmest and crystal-clear waters in all of Costa Rica.
The ocean here is teeming with aquatic life along with vibrant, healthy coral reefs and with a visibility of up to 98 feet, snorkelers can explore a plethora of fascinating rock formations home to a wealth of sea creatures.
Those who love to kayak and snorkel will love paddling the open Pacific waters off Playa Agujas providing an exhilarating adventure. In addition, guided kayak tours are also available to explore Manuel Antonio’s stunning coastline and secret hidden coves, not to mention the breathtaking views.
Beach Day Trips from Jaco, Costa Rica
Arguably, the best beaches in the Jaco area are Playa Mantas and the adjacent, Playa Blanca. These are only about a 20-minute drive north of Jaco. Playa Herradura near Los Sueños Marriott offers a sheltered cove with calm waters ideal for swimming, kayaking and paddleboarding.
Playa Estrillos Oeste, considered a local’s beach is about 25 minutes south of Jaco in the town of Estrillos Oeste, a local town with a sizeable number of expats. Though it’s a surfing beach, it also has amazing tidepools forming at low and mid tide.
If you’re willing to venture out, Islas Tortuga lying just off the southeastern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula are uninhabited islands home to some of the most pristine beaches in all of Costa Rica (see note above regarding snorkeling). Taxi boat service is available between Jaco and Montezuma, the one-hour trip offering the chance to spot dolphins, humpback whales, manta rays, turtles and more.
If you book a tour, you can be picked up at your hotel and driven to the Montezuma marina. From here, a boat ride takes 45 minutes to get to these incredibly beautiful islands.
Hope this roundup of day trips from Jaco will help make your next vacation to the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica fun and filled with memories. After all, Costa Rica is never a “one-and-done” destination.
Looking for more to do in Jaco? Check out my friend Sharon’s list of best things to do in Jaco.