Shuttles from Los Suenos Marriott to Central Pacific




Why Go?

Costa Rica Central Pacific MapStretching from the rough-and-ready port of Puntarenas to the tiny town of Uvita, the central Pacific coast is home to both wet and dry tropical rainforests, sun-drenched sandy beaches and a healthy dose of wildlife. On shore, national parks protect endangered squirrel monkeys and scarlet macaws, while offshore waters are home to migrating whales and pods of dolphins.

With so much biodiversity packed into a small geography ic area, it’s no wonder the coastal region is often thought of as Costa Rica in miniature. Given its close proximity to San José and the Central Valley and highlands, and its well developed system of paved roads, this part of the country is a favorite weekend getaway for domestic and international travelers.

While threats of unregulated growth and environmental damage are real, it’s also important to see the bigger picture, namely the stunning nature that first put the central Pacific coast on the map.

When to Go

̈ West of the Cordillera Central, rains fall heavily between April and November. The hillsides are particularly lush and green during this time

̈ In summer (December to March) little rain falls, leaving the countryside dry and barren looking.

̈ Festival fans will want to visit from around mid January to late February, when music and art gatherings light up Jacó and Uvita.


Prior to the tourism boom in Costa Rica, the central Pacific coast – particularly the Quepos port area – was historically one of the country’s largest banana-producing regions. However, in response to the 1940 banana blight that affected most of Central America, the United Fruit Company (also known as Chiquita Banana) introduced African palms to the area. Native to West Africa, these palms are primarily cultivated for their large, reddish fruits, which are pressed to produce a variety of cooking oils.

Although the banana blight finally ended in the 1960s, the palm plantations were firmly entrenched and starting to turn a profit. Since palm oil is easily transported in tanker trucks, Quepos was able to close its shipping port in the 1970s, which freed up resources and allowed the city to invest more heavily in the palm-oil industry. In 1995 the plantations were sold to Palma Tica, which continues to operate them today. With the exception of commercial fishing and tourism, the palm-oil plantations serve as the primary source of employment in the Quepos area.

In more recent years, this stretch of the Pacific has grown increasingly popular with the package-holiday crowd, as it’s quite easy – particularly for North Americans – to squeeze in a one-week retreat and be back to work on Monday. Unable to resist the draw of paradise, a good number of baby boomers nearing retirement have relocated to these warmer climes.

This demographic shift has been facilitated by the Costa Rican government’s decade sold policy of offering tax incentives and legal residence to foreigners who buy property or start businesses and enterprises in the country. Foreign investment has thus far blessed this region with vitally needed economic stimuli, though the rising cost of living has priced a significant percentage of local Ticos out of the market.

A sparkling new marina at Quepos has brought in a larger volume of tourists visiting Costa Rica on yachts and cruise ships, and several exclusive high-end gated communities continue to attract an even greater number of wealthy immigrants. Things are indeed changing quickly along this stretch of coastline, though it’s difficult to imagine that the authenticity of the coastal fishing villages, agricultural plantations and protected areas could ever be lost.


The northern reaches of the central Pacific coast extend from the maritime port of Puntarenas, a historic shipping hub that has fallen on harder times, to the booming town of Quepos, which is the main access point for Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. In between are vast swaths of forested hillsides and wilderness beaches, which together protect large concentrations of remarkable wildlife. However, the local spotlight is fixed firmly on the surf city of Jacó, which plays host to a colorful cast of characters.



Port cities the world over have a reputation for polluted waters, seedy streets and slow decay, which might be a traveler’s first impression of little Puntarenas, Costa Rica’s gateway to the Pacific. But just under the surface are some down-to-earth charms – ones largely absent in the country’s most heavily traveled regions. As the closest coastal town to San José, Puntarenas has long been a popular escape for landlocked Ticos (Costa Ricans) on the weekend, but during the week activity along the oceanfront promenade slows to an amenably languid pace, all the better to enjoy the beachfront sodas (informal lunch counters), tiny museums and busy market.

The city’s ferry terminal is a convenient way to connect to pristine beaches on the central Pacific coast or to southern Nicoya. While most travelers are only stopping by en route to the greener pastures and bluer seas elsewhere, those who get stuck here overnight could do a lot worse.


Prior to the mid-20th century, Puntarenas was the largest and most significant openwater port in Costa Rica. Some of the finest coffees to fill European cups were carried to the continent on Puntarenas-registered freighters, and the steady flow of capital transformed Puntarenas into the ‘Pearl of the Pacific.’ However, after the construction of the railway leading from the Central Valley to Puerto Limón in 1890, a more direct shipping route to Europe initiated the city’s decline in importance, though Puntarenas did manage to remain a major port on the Pacific coast. Visitors get a whiff of the city’s glory in the lovely stone church at its center, but modern history has left many unattractive sights: polluted waters, eroding structures and tacky souvenir stands that close up when the hulking cruise ships leave port.

Sights & Activities

Museo Histórico Marino (Tel: 2661-5036,. 2256-4139;. Av. Central. btwn. Calles. 3.&.5;.h8am-1pm.&.2-5pm.tue-sun) This museum describes the history of Puntarenas through audiovisual presentations, old photos and artifacts.

Casa de la Cultura  (Tel: 2661-1394;. Av. Central. btwn. Calles. 3. &. 5;. h 10am-4pm. Mon-fri) Casa de la Cultura has an art gallery with occasional exhibits as well as a performance space offering seasonal cultural events.

Parque Marino del Pacífico  (Tel: 2661-5272;.www.parquemarino .org;.adult/child. under.12yr.US$10/5;.h9am-5pm.tue-sun) This marine park has an aquarium that showcases manta rays and other creatures from the Pacific. The park sits on the site of the old train station and has a tiny splash pool, snack bar, gift shop and information center.

Paseo de los Turistas  (tourists’. Promenade) Stroll beside the beach on the Paseo de los Turistas, a pedestrian boulevard stretching along the southern edge of town. Cruise ships make day visits to the eastern end of this road, and a variety of souvenir stalls and sodas are there to greet passengers. On weekend nights, this is the place to knock back beers and find the party.


Tour operators will greet passengers disembarking from cruise ships. Quality and price are greatly variable, but a few come highly recommended.

Calypso Cruises  (Tel: 2256-2727,. 2661-0585;.;. Av. 3,. near. Calle. 9;. day. trips. adult/student/ child. under. 7yr. US$139/129/75) This longestablished, top-class, gringo-owned catamaran makes day trips to Tortuga’s brilliant white beaches. Trips come with a picnic lunch, fresh fruit, snacks and booze. The same company also operates Puntarenas’ only fine-dining establishment, El Shrimp Shack.

Odyssey Tours  (Tel: 8994-6245,. 2635-2221,. 8319-1315;.;. c ) Diego and Alvaro, a pair of friendly bilingual brothers, host a variety of customizable day tours and come with a slew of excellent recommendations. Costa Rica’s full suite of adventures are on offer: white-water rafting, trips to local canopy walks and nearby national parks.

Festivals & Events

Puntarenas is one of the seaside towns that celebrates the Fiesta de La Virgen del Mar (festival of the virgin of the sea) on the Saturday closest to July 16. Fishing boats and elegant yachts are bedecked with lights, flags and decorations and sail around the harbor, seeking protection from the Virgin as they begin another year at sea. There are also boat races, a carnival, and plenty of food, drinking and dancing.


There’s no shortage of accommodations in Puntarenas, though plenty of the very cheapest ones cater to the clientele that want to pay by the hour. Also, high humidity and lots of rain makes even the most upscale options muggy, so make sure there’s a fan.

Hotel Cabezas  (Tel: 2661-1045;. Av. 1. btwn. Calles. 2. &. 4;. s/d. without. bathroom. US$14/24,. with. bathroom. US$20/30;. pW) This no-nonsense budget option is an excellent choice. Pastel-painted rooms have functional overhead fans and screened windows, which means you’ll sleep deeply without needing air-con. Although you certainly shouldn’t leave your valuables strewn about, this hotel is safe, secure and surprisingly quiet.

Cabinas Joyce CABiNA.$ (Tel: 8706-9101,.2661-4290;.cnr.Calle.4.&.Av.2;.s.from. US$24,.d.US$30-60;.p n a W ) This is the best option near the bus station; a spotless little joint of tiled rooms overseen with a hawkish eye by the cantankerous, if lovable, Joyce.

Hotel La Punta HOtel.$$ (Tel: 2661-0696;. www.hotellapunta .net;. cnr. Av. 1. &. Calle. 35;. s/d. US$70/80;. p a W s ) For earlymorning ferry departures, Hotel La Punta is an appealing choice. Conveniently located one block from the dock, its 10 rooms are arranged around a landscaped courtyard and small pool. Comfortable accommodations feature terra-cotta floors, cable TV and fridge.

Hotel Tioga HOtel.$$ (Tel: 2661-0271;.;. Paseo. de. los. turistas. btwn. Calles. 17. &. 19;. d. deluxe/balcony. incl. breakfast. from. US$85/96;. p a W s ) Opened in 1959, this is the most established hotel in Puntarenas. It’s worth paying a bit more for the balcony rooms, which have sweeping views of the beachfront.

Double Tree Resort by   Hilton Central Pacific  (Tel: 2663-0808,. 800-555-5555;.; all-inclusive packages per person from. US$290,. child. under. 12yr. US$51;. p a i W s ) This all-inclusive, family-friendly resort gets top billing for its enormously curvaceous swimming pool, immense offering of water sports and around-the-clock entertainment. While there are certainly nicer beaches down the coastline, there is excellent value to be had here, especially if you book in advance online.


The freshest, cheapest food is available in the small stands and sodas near the Central Market. This is also the stomping ground of a motley mix of sailors, drunks and prostitutes, but the scene is raffish rather than dangerous – during the day, at least. There are more sodas along the Paseo de los Turistas between Calles Central and 3, but most of the sit-down options around there are touristy and overpriced.

Self-caterers can head to the Mega Super (Tel: 2661-5301;.Calle.3.btwn.Avs.1.&.3) supermarket or the Central Market, where you can find cut-to-order tuna steaks for a pittance.

La Casona (Tel: 2661-1626;. cnr. Av. 1. &. Calle. 9;. casados. US$512;. h 8am-8pm) This bright-yellow house is marked with a small, modest sign, but it’s an incredibly popular lunch spot, attracting countless locals who jam onto the shaded, greenery-laden deck across from Parque Mora y Cañas. Portions are heaped, and soups are served in bathtub-sized bowls – bring your appetite.

Marisquería Kaite Negro (Tel: 2661-5566;.cnr.Av.1.&.Calle.19;.dishes.US$6-12;. h10am-late) On the north side of town, this rambling restaurant is popular with locals, and serves good seafood and a variety of tasty bocas (appetizers). If you really want to see the place swinging, the open-air courtyard comes to life on weekends with live music and all-night dancing.

El Shrimp Shack (Tel: 2661-0585;.Av.3.btwn.Calles.7.&.3;.meals.US$718;. h 11:30am-3:30pm. tue-sun;. a ) Offering the most upscale dining in Puntarenas, El Shrimp Shack’s silly name belies a gracious interior – wood-paneled walls, marble topped tables, antique light sconces and a stunning stained-glass ceiling, all within a century-old house with harbor views. Shrimp dishes feature prominently, though other options include burgers and excellent ceviche (seafood marinated in lemon or lime juice, garlic and seasonings).

La Yunta Steakhouse (Tel: 2661-3216;. Paseo. de. los. turistas. btwn. Calles. 19.&.21;.meals.US$6-20;.h8am-midnight) A favorite with the cruise-ship crowd, this long running steakhouse has professional service (bow ties!), a tiered veranda overlooking the boardwalk and ocean, and impressive portions of well-prepared, tender meat. The menu is rounded out by seafood.

Drinking & Nightlife

Entertainment in the port tends to revolve around boozing and flirting, though occasionally there’s a more highbrow offering at the Casa de la Cultura (p353). On the weekends, follow crowds of Ticos to the countless bars lining the Paseo de los Turistas.

El Oasis del Pacífico (Tel: 2661-6368;;. h9am-10pm.sun-thu,.to.1am.fri.&.sat) A popular spot with a lengthy bar and a warehouse sized dance floor; during the day, pay a small fee to use the shower facilities.

Capitán Moreno’s  (Tel: 2661-6888;. cnr. Paseo. de. los. turistas. &. Calle. 13;.h11am-6pm.Mon-fri,.10am-8pm.sat.&.sun) A time-honored spot for shaking some booty, with a huge dance floor right on the beach.

Around Puntarenas

The road heading south from Puntarenas skirts the coastline, and a few kilometers out of town you’ll start to see the forested peaks of the Cordillera de Tilarán in the distance. Just as the port city fades away, the water gets cleaner, the air crisper and the vegetation more lush. At this point, you should take a deep breath and heave a sigh of relief – the Pacific coastline gets a whole lot more beautiful as you head further south.

About 8km south of Puntarenas is Playa San Isidro, the first ‘real’ beach on the central Pacific coast. Although it is popular with beachcombers from Puntarenas, surfers prefer to push on 4km south to Boca Barranca, which some say is the third-longest left-hand surf break in the world. Conditions are best at low tide, and it is possible to surf here year-round. However, be advised that there isn’t much in the way of services out here, so be sure that you’re confident in the water and seek local advice before hitting the break.

Just beyond the river mouth is a pair of beaches known as Playa Doña Ana and El Segundo, which are relatively undeveloped and have an isolated and unhurried feel to them. Surfers can find some decent breaks here, too, though, like Playa San Isidro, they are more popular for Tico beachcombers on day trips from Puntarenas, especially during weekends in high season. There are snack bars, picnic shelters and changing areas, and supervised swimming areas.

The next stop along the coast is Mata de Limón, a picturesque little hamlet that is situated on a mangrove lagoon and locally famous for its bird-watching. If you arrive during low tide, flocks of feathered creatures descend on the lagoon to scrounge for tasty morsels. Mata de Limón is divided by a river, with the lagoon and most facilities on the south side.

A major port on the Pacific coast is Puerto Caldera, which you pass soon after leaving Mata de Limón. There aren’t any sights here, and the beach is unremarkable unless you’re a surfer, in which case there are a few good breaks to be had (though be careful, as the beach is rocky in places).

Buses heading for the Caldera port depart hourly from the market in Puntarenas, and can easily drop you off at any of the spots described here. If you’re driving, the break at Boca Barranca is located near the bridge on the Costanera Sur (South Coastal Hwy), while the entrance to Playa Doña Ana and El Segundo is a little further south (look for a sign that says ‘Paradero Turístico Doña Ana’). The turnoff for Mata de Limón is about 5.5km south of Playa Doña Ana.

Parque Nacional Carara

Situated at the mouth of the Río Tárcoles, this 52-sq-km park is only 50km southeast of Puntarenas by road or about 90km west of San José via the Orotina highway. During our last visit, the visitor center visible from the road was a half-remodeled mess, though there were murmurs of a renovation. A short paved trail begins at the Carara ranger station (3km south of río tárcoles; admission.US$10; h 7am-4pm. Dec-Apr,. 8am-4pm. May-Nov), where there are bathrooms, picnic tables and a short, wheelchair-accessible nature trail. Guides can be hired here for US$25 per person (two-person minimum) for a two-hour hike.

The dry season from December to April is the easiest time to go, though the animals are still there in the wet months. March and April are the driest months. Rainfall is almost 3000mm annually, which is less than in the rainforests further south. It’s fairly hot, with average temperatures of 25°C (77°F) to 28°C (82°F), but it’s cooler within the rainforest. An umbrella is important in the wet season and occasionally needed in the dry months. Make sure you have insect repellent.


With the help of a hired guide, it’s possible to visit the archaeological remains of various indigenous burial sites located within the park, though they’re tiny and unexciting compared to anything you might see in Mexico or Guatemala. At the time of the Europeans’ arrival in Costa Rica, these sites were located in an area inhabited by an indigenous group known as the Huetar (Carara means ‘crocodile’ in the Huetar language). Unfortunately, not much is known about this group, as little cultural evidence was left behind. Today the few remaining

Huetar are confined to several small villages in the Central Valley.

If you’re driving from Puntarenas or San José, pull over to the left immediately after crossing the Río Tárcoles bridge, also known as Crocodile Bridge. If you scan the sandbanks below the bridge, you’ll have a fairly good chance of seeing as many as 30 basking crocodiles. Although they’re visible year-round, the best time for viewing is low tide during the dry season. Binoculars will help a great deal.

Crocodiles this large are generally rare in Costa Rica as they’ve been hunted vigorously for their leather. However, the crocs are tolerated here as they feature prominently in a number of wildlife tours that depart from Tárcoles. And, of course, the crocs don’t mind, as they’re hand-fed virtually every day.



The most exciting bird for many visitors to see, especially in June or July, is the brilliantly patterned scarlet macaw, a rare bird that is commonly seen in the Parque Nacional Carara. Its distinctive call echoes loudly through the canopy, usually moments before a pair appears against the blue sky. If you’re having problems spotting them, it may help to inquire at the ranger station, which keeps tabs on where nesting pairs are located.

Dominated by open secondary forest punctuated by patches of dense, mature forest and wetlands, Carara offers some superb bird-watching. More than 400 species of bird inhabit the reserve, though your chances of spotting rarer species will be greatly enhanced with the help of an experienced

guide. Some commonly sighted species include orange-billed sparrows, five kinds of trogon, crimson-fronted parakeets, blue headed parrots, golden-naped woodpeckers, rose-throated becards, gray-headed tanagers, long-tailed manikins and rufous-tailed jacamars ( just to name a few!).

Birds aside, the trails at Carara are home to several mammal species, including red brockets, white-tailed deer, collared peccaries, monkeys, sloths and agoutis. The national park is also home to one of Costa Rica’s largest populations of tayras, weasellike animals that scurry along the forest floor. And, although most travelers aren’t too keen on stumbling upon an American crocodile, some truly monstrous specimens can be viewed from a safe distance at the nearby Crocodile Bridge.

According to the park rangers, the best chance of spotting wildlife is at 7am, when the park opens.


Some 600m south of the Crocodile Bridge on the left-hand side is a locked gate leading to the Sendero Laguna Meándrica. This trail penetrates deep into the reserve and passes through open secondary forest and patches of dense mature forest and wetlands. About 4km from the entrance is Laguna Meándrica, which has large populations of heron, smooth bill and kingfisher. If you continue past the lagoon, you’ll have a good chance of spotting mammals and the occasional crocodile, though you will have to turn back to exit.

Another 2km south of the trailhead is the Carara ranger station. About 1km further south are two loop trails. The first, Sendero Las Araceas, is 1.2km long and can be combined with the second, Sendero Quebrada Bonita (another 1.5km). Both trails pass through primary forest, which is characteristic of most of the park.



With a shocking bright-red body, blue-and-yellow wings, a long, red tail and a white face, the scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is one of the most visually arresting birds in the neotropical rainforest. It also mates for life and can live up to 75 years, flying across the forest canopy in pairs, squawking like pterodactyls – there are few birds in Costa Rica with such character, presence and beauty.

Prior to the 1960s the scarlet macaw was distributed across much of Costa Rica, though trapping, poaching, habitat destruction and increased use of pesticides devastated the population. By the 1990s the distribution was reduced to two isolated pockets: the Península de Osa and Parque Nacional Carara.

Fortunately, these charismatic creatures are thriving in large colonies at both locales, and sightings are virtually guaranteed if you have the time and patience to spare. Furthermore, despite this fragmentation, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature continues to evaluate the species as ‘Least Concern,’ which bodes well for the future of this truly emblematic rainforest denizen.


Sleeping & Eating

Camping is not allowed, and there’s nowhere to stay in the park. As a result, most people come on day trips from neighboring towns and cities such as Jacó.

Restaurante Los Cocodrilos  (Tel: 2428-2308;. mains. US$5-12;. h 6am-8pm;. p ) Located on the north side of the Río Tárcoles bridge, this is the nearest place to get a decent meal. It has inexpensive, filling meals and is extremely popular with travelers stopping to check out the crocodiles.

Tárcoles & Around

The small, unassuming town of Tárcoles is little more than a few rows of houses strung along a series of dirt roads that parallel the ocean. As you’d imagine, this tiny Tico town isn’t much of a tourist draw, though the surrounding area is perfect for fans of the superlative, especially if you’re interested in seeing the country’s tallest waterfall and some of its biggest crocodiles.

About 2km south of the Carara ranger station (p356) is the Tárcoles turnoff to the right (west) and the Hotel Villa Lapas turnoff to the left. To get to Tárcoles, turn right and drive for 1km, then go right at the T-junction to the village. Local buses between Orotina and Bijagual can drop you off at the entrance to the Parque Nacional Carara.



The area encompassed by Parque Nacional Carara was once home to a legendary indigenous hero, a local cacique (chief) named Garabito. commanding a vast area from the Golfo de Nicoya to the Central Valley, he led a fierce struggle against the Spanish in the mid-16th century.

At the time, a favorite tactic of the Spanish conquistadors throughout Latin America to weaken native resistance was to turn tribes against each other and decapitate the tribal leadership – literally. Although each story has grisly variations, the fate of captured caciques often involved public humiliation at a show trial, brutal torture and decapitation. Sometimes, the heads of caciques would be mounted and displayed.

Garabito was a different story. The popular chieftain constantly disrupted the Spanish establishment in the Pacific region and, in 1560, Guatemalan high command dispatched a military force to arrest him. Garabito, who claimed to have never spent two nights in the same bed, eluded capture, but the Spanish managed to seize his wife, Biriteka, as
a hostage. Garabito countered by having one of his followers dress up as the chieftain and allow himself to be captured. While the camp celebrated catching who they thought was Garabito, the real Garabito escaped with his wife. The ruse is a celebrated victory
of Costa Rica’s indigenous underdogs, but eventually Garabito too had to accept defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Senior in years and lacking the support that had fueled his earlier series of rebellions, Garabito surrendered in the 1570s, and was even baptized as a Christian.


Sights & Activities

Catarata Manantial de Agua Viva  (Tel: 8831-2980;. admission. US$20;. h 8am-3pm) This 200m-high waterfall is claimed to be the highest in the country. From the waterfall, it’s a steep 3km hike down into the valley; at the bottom, the river continues through a series of natural swimming holes. The falls are most dramatic at their fullest, during the rainy season, though the serene rainforest setting is beautiful any time of year.

Keep an eye out for brightly colored poison-dart frogs as well as the occasional pair of scarlet macaws. A 5km dirt road past Hotel Villa Lapas leads to the primary entrance to the falls.

Jardín Pura Vida  (Tel: 2637-0346;. admission. US$20;. h 8am-5pm) In the town of Bijagual, this private botanical garden offers great vistas of Manantial de Agua Viva cascading down the side of a cliff, and there are some easy but altogether pleasant hiking trails. There is a small restaurant on the grounds, and you can also arrange horseback riding and tours through the area.

At the time of writing the Jardín was up for sale, so its future is uncertain.


This area is known for crocodile-watching tours, and travelers anywhere near this part of the coast will be bombarded with advertisements and flyers for them. Although it will be hard for adrenaline junkies to resist, these tours have a dubious impact on the natural habitat of the magnificent animals who lurk in the mudflats of the Río Tárcoles. Although they are definitely a spectacle to behold, it’s frustrating to watch the crocodiles being hand-fed by the tour guides. If you do visit the crocodiles on a tour, ask a lot of questions and do your part to encourage responsible interaction with the animals. Tours usually cost US$25 per person for two hours.

Both Crocodile Man (Tel: 2637-0771;. and Jungle Crocodile Safari (Tel: 2637-0656;. ) have offices in Tárcoles. The tours leave from town or you can arrange to be picked up at your hotel.

Sleeping & Eating

Hotel Villa Lapas (Tel: 2439-1816,. 2637-0232;.;. allinclusive.r.from.US$130;.paWs) Located on a private reserve comprising both secondary rainforest and tropical gardens, this resort offers rooms housed in an attractive Spanish colonial–style lodge. Guests can unwind in relative comfort in between guided hikes, bird-watching trips, canopy tours and soaks in the pool. Geared towards a birding crowd, the pace here is slow and low-key.

Alongside the Río Tarcolito, the hotel grounds include the kitschy ‘Santa Lucia Town,’ which has a couple of souvenir shops and a wedding chapel.

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