The Central Pacific region comprises a thin coastal plain narrowing to the southeast and backed by steep-sided mountains cloaked in dense forest. The coast is lined by long gray-sand beaches renowned for fantastic surf. It is distinguished from more northerly shores by its wetter climate. The region becomes gradually humid southward, with the vegetation growing ever more luxuriant. It’s no surprise, then, that this region has some of the nation’s prime national parks.

The area is easily explored along the coast highway, with side roads branching off into the mountains or beaches.Rivers cascade down from the mountains, providing opportunities to hike to spectacular waterfalls. The rivers slow to a crawl amid extensive mangrove swamps separated by miles-long sandy swaths punctuated by craggy headlands. One river, the Río Tárcoles, is home to a large population of crocodiles. The resort town of Jacó, the sportfishing town of Quepos, and more relaxed Manuel Antonio are now highly developed for tourism. South of Jacó, vast groves of African palms smother the coastal plains. Interspersed among them are orderly workers’ villages, with gaily painted plantation houses raised on stilts.

Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio National Park. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio National Park. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Highway 34, the Costanera Sur, runs the length of the coast, linking the region with Puntarenas and Guanacaste to the north and Golfo Dulce and Osa southward. It is paved the entire way with the intent that Highway 34 will become the new Pan-American Highway, linking Nicaragua and Panamá, doing away with the need to head up over Cerro de la Muerte, thus shortening the route considerably.

Planning Your Time

The Central Pacific zone is predominantly a beach destination. The area is easily explored along the coast highway, with side roads branching off into the mountains or beaches. Allocate at least one week to explore the entire region north to south. Three days is sufficient if you want to concentrate on either Manuel Antonio, Jacó, or Dominical—the three main destinations.

Maps - Costa Rica 10e - Central Pacific

Central Pacific

The most developed of the beach resorts is Jacó, long a staple of Canadian package charter groups but also an in-vogue destination for surfers, Tico youth, and sportfishing enthusiasts. If you like an active nightlife, this is also for you, but I find the place overrated; the beach is mediocre at best, and prostitution is overt. If quality is your gig, head to Manuel Antonio, combining great beaches, a vast choice of hotels, excellent restaurants, and guaranteed wildlife viewing in the tiny and, frankly, overcrowded national park. The gateway to Manuel Antonio is the nearby sportfishing town of Quepos, a secondary base popular with budget travelers and sportfishers.

From the Central Highlands, Highway 3 (the old highway via Atenas; it’s a steep switchback) and the faster Autopista del Sol (from San José) toll highway descend to Orotina, gateway to the Central Pacific. Six kilometers (4 miles) west of Orotina, Highway 3 and the Autopista del Sur merge with Highway 27 (which runs west to Puntarenas) and Highway 34 south to Jacó and Manuel Antonio.

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.