It doesn’t take long to figure out why Costa Rica is consistently ranked the most visited country in Central America. Twenty-six beautiful national parks lie within and countless idyllic beach and surf towns dot both its Caribbean and Pacific coasts. You can hardly go wrong wherever you go, but backpackers tend to favour the Caribbean side, since there is less of a ‘tourist vibe’.
I’m not sure I get this ‘tourist vibe’. I get that the Pacific side of Costa Rica is more popular as a vacation destination and generally more developed in terms of infrastructure, but the Caribbean side is by no means off the beaten track. I’ll admit I felt suitably isolated and 100% relaxed in Tortuguero National Park, but the surfing hub of Puerto Viejo, for instance, which I’d been led to believe was way more ‘chill’ than surf towns on the Pacific side, was actually a non-stop party with probably the highest hostel-per-square-km ratio I’ve ever encountered.
If I’d understood ‘tourist vibe’ correctly then Puerto Viejo’s was suffocating. If you want to chill you’ve to cycle, hitch-hike or take a taxi out of town to a beach 10km away. However, this was during Semana Santa which is one of the busiest times of the year.
But what, based on that experience, could I expect to find in the Pacific coast town of Jacó the following week? Coachloads of tourists arriving every hour by the dozen? Herds of backpackers being shepherded from one party hostel to the next? I’ll admit I wasn’t feeling so optimistic.
Jaco Ropes Adventure Park
One thing I could feel excited about, however, was the promise of an adrenaline rush or two at Jaco Ropes Adventure Park, a local climbing and obstacle course company that opened for business a few months ago. I’m not so good with heights, but I’ll rise to the challenge when given the opportunity (though you’d have to pay me to do a bungee jump) and after taking it slow since high-diving in Mexico and snorkeling with sharks in Belize, I felt it was high time I got my blood pumping once more.
From tightrope walking and tyre-swinging to zip-lining and even ‘surfing’, I definitely got the rush I’d been hoping for at Jaco Ropes. I was even lucky enough to have the park all to myself, discounting my guides Robert and Peter (who I will thank again for putting up with my incessant swearing and occasional whimpering). Once I got into the rhythm, the sense of fear was quickly replaced by one of exhilaration, with perhaps the exception of the tyre-swinging obstacle. That one had me quaking in my boots, but after about 10 minutes and perhaps a personal record for number of expletives per second, I made it safely across (it took the guides 30 seconds). Some of the obstacles were what you’d expect from any ropes adventure park – a swing bridge, monkey hoops and a rappel for the finale, for example – whereas others were far from conventional, such as having to balance on a surfboard as I was propelled from one tree to another!
All the obstacles at Jaco Ropes are of course completely safe, and all the proper equipment is used, including two safety lanyards to guarantee you are always safe and secure. What’s more the obstacles are also suitable for kids (and thank God there were none there to embarrass me at the time), so the park is ideal for groups of friends and a family day out.
And if you’re lucky, you might spot one of the resident toucans venturing from their hideaway!
Other Things to do in Jaco
Monkey hoops and tree-surfing aside, there was, to my pleasant surprise, a bit more to Jaco than I’d expected. Yes, it has been remoulded – probably beyond recognition for anyone who visited more than a few years ago – to be tourist-purposed, but it was no more ‘touristy’ than the Caribbean coast’s Puerto Viejo. If you’d like to explore further than the beach, there are several wildlife refuges – a sloth sanctuary among them – and opportunities to go canyoning or cliff jumping at the waterfalls just a few kms outside of Jacó. The town is also renowned for its surfing and I passed plenty of schools when out exploring, although I will say the prices made me wince a little.
Where to stay in Jaco
Costa Rica is expensive no matter what your budget, but backpackers traveling on the cheap can expect to pay around $15 for a dorm bed at a decent hostel in Jacó. I stayed at Room2Board Hostel, a big place with comfortable beds, bed fans (the ventilating kind), a kitchen, restaurant, bar, large terrace with hammocks and – most importantly – a swimming pool. They even have their own surf school. However, if you’re looking for peace and quiet you’re probably better off somewhere else.
How to get to Jaco
There is a direct bus leaving from the 7-10 bus terminal in San Jose every couple of hours. You must buy your ticket on the second floor of the building and then head back downstairs where you wait to board. The ticket costs around 2.500 colones ($5). Here is a more detailed post for more information on taking the bus from San Jose to Jaco (mytanfeet.com).
From Liberia it’s a bit more complicated, since you’ll first need to take the bus to Puntarenas, where you change for Jacó. Here are the schedules for buses leaving from Liberia and Puntarenas (costa-rica-guide.com).
A closing thought…
So is Jacó worth a visit while backpacking Costa Rica? Is the pacific side of Costa Rica overrun with tourists to the point where it begins to lose its identity? It’s certainly not off the beaten path, but in that sense neither are large chunks of the Caribbean coast. But at what point does a path become beaten anyway? In Costa Rica it hardly matters. The bottom line is that there you never run out of awesome things to do in Costa Rica, whether you’re a nature lover or an adrenaline junkie. It might be expensive as hell but you are in for a treat.
Recommended Further Reading:
- ‘Tips for Visiting Playa Jaco‘, Mytanfeet
- ‘Jaco: Costa Rica’s Booming Beach Town‘, Two Weeks in Costa Rica
- ‘Costa Rica Travel Guide‘, Nomadic Matt
Many thanks to Jaco Ropes for inviting me to test out their new adventure park in Jaco. The aim of this blog is to inform and promote adventurous travel/activities, so occasionally I get lucky like that, but as always all opinions are my own, and I received no monetary compensation.
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