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The Central Pacific is a narrow coastal strip, flanked by the jungle-swathed mountains of the Cordillera de Tamalmanca and the surf of some of Costa Rica's most breathtaking beaches. This region - one of the nation's most popular tourist destinations - offers visitors superlative white-water rafting, outstanding explorations of nature, and a plethora of beach activities, from surfing to volleyball. The Central Pacific's greatest crowd-puller is probably Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, a magnificent beach-front reserve, surrounded by more than 70 exceptional hotels. At the northern end of this region, visitors are drawn by one of the nation's most popular resort towns. Jacó has long been a pillar of Costa Rican tourism, and its proximity to San José makes it a convenient spring board for those touring the west coast. Between Manuel Antonio and Jacó is the small, but steadily growing, town of Quepos, the sport fishing capital of the country, if not the world.
Major Cities of the Central Pacific Region
The Central Pacific's most notable northern city is a place where visitors come in hordes throughout the year. Jacó is a sophisticated, yet unpretentious hamlet about one and a half hours from San José, and 10 kilometers south of the beautiful wildlife reserve, Reserva Biológica Carara. The town boasts palatial resorts, international cuisine, and a hip and quirky nightlife that can only come from the free-spirited surfing community. In addition, the luxurious Los Suenos Marriott Beach and Golf Resort, just north at Playa Herradura, now offers tourists a 250-slip marina, tennis courts, an upscale spa, an 18-hole championship golf course, and breathtaking beachfront rooms.
About 7 kilometers up the coast from Manuel Antonio, is the sport fishing hot-spot, Quepos. In fact, Marlin Magazine called Quepos the second best destination in the world for "all around action". Once an important banana plantation hub, Quepos is now a major tourist destination. Its upbeat tourist district boasts small and cozy hotels, trendy restaurants, and a very active nightclub scene. Generally, the lodging in Quepos is clean, comfortable, and significantly less expensive than hotels around Manuel Antonio.
What has long been a small fishing community beside the mouth of the Río Barú is now one of Costa Rica's hippest surfing hamlets. Dominical boasts a 2-mile stretch of gray-sand shoreline, starting from the township at the Río Barú estuary and running south to the rough and craggy headlands of Punta Dominical. The area is enjoyable to a variety of tourists - from the young surfing crowd to the middle-aged tourists and residents seeking seclusion and relaxation. The party-seeking, college-aged visitors can revel at establishments in town like San Clemente, Roca Verde, and the Restaurante su Raza, while hotels and cottages surrounding Dominical proper accommodate those looking for peace and privacy.
Major Lakes, Rivers & Beaches
While the Central Pacific is renown for several of its most popular beaches, this majestic, pencil-thin region has a host of smaller, secluded shores, completely untouched by the area's burgeoning tourist industry.
The location of the Los Suenos Marriott and the clifftop resort, Villa Caletas, Playa Herradura is a beautiful gray-sand beach, flanked by towering headlands. Riptides can be powerful in certain areas of the 2-mile stretch, however, so be careful and know where it's safe to swim. Horseback riding is a popular activity here, and there are several reputable stables offering guided tours.
The closest beach to San José, Playa Jacó has always had a beach-goers appeal. More recently though, there has been a push to generate an ecotourism market, catering to those who not only desire fun on the beach, but who also want to learn about the flora and fauna of the inland jungle.
Further south, Playa Hermosa accommodates both the young surfer crowd and those desiring more upscale accommodations. This popular destination, offering tourists an expansive 6-miles, white-sand beach, is the site of an annual international surfing championship. Just past Punta Judas, on the way to Quepos, beaches like Playas Esterillos Oeste, Esterillos Este, and Palo Seco are known for the water sports and the scenic wetlands that back the shoreline.
South of Quepos, the spectacular beaches of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio present some of the country's most breathtaking ocean views. Covered in silvery white sand, boasting an expansive coral reef, and backed by a verdant rain forest, the four beaches of Manuel Antonio offer travelers a host of beach, surf and natural attractions. From scuba diving and surfing to hiking and turtle-watching, it's no wonder that Playas Espadilla, Espadilla Sur, Escondida, and, the most spectacular, Playa Manuel Antonio are among the most popular destinations of travelers to Costa Rica.
From Manuel Antonio to Dominical, the rugged Costenera Highway is closely edged by forest-draped cliffs on one side, and a heavy network of mangrove along the shore. There are several remote beaches along this road like Playa Matapalo and Playa Barú. The latter is a part of a spectacular private reserve, called Hacienda Barú, that offers a host of natural attractions.
The strong surf at Playa Dominical has long been a surfer's paradise, however, the gentler waters of Playa Dominicalito, just two miles down the coast, is where many tourists gather to swim and boogie board. Just eight kilometers north of Dominical is Nauyaca Falls, a popular destination for travelers to reach by horseback. The falls are composed of two cascades, plunging more than 200 feet into a relaxing warm-water swimming pond. The scenic journey by horseback, managed by several stables in the area, takes about 2 hours.
Costa Rica's largest coral reef and the location of humpback whale mating is protected by the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, a 15-kilometer stretch of shoreline from Punta Uvita to Punta Piñuela. Within the park, Playa Ballena offers visitors a safer, gentler surf, perfect for snorkeling and swimming for the whole family.
Nearby, Playa Tortuga is a breathtaking sugar-white beach featuring occasional whale and dolphin sightings and magnificent turtle-watching. Playa Tortuga can be easily accessed by the town of Ocotal, a hip and laid-back French community featuring a variety of shops and excellent French restaurants.
Parks and Reserves
Reserva Biológica Carara
The Carara Reserve is small in size, but huge in importance. The park encompasses the convergence zone between the dry forests of Central America and the wet forests of South America. In fact, Carara stands as the last transitional forest of its kind on the isthmus.
Access to the Carara Biological Reserve is convenient and movement within the park is easy and uncomplicated. Firstly, the park is located in Orotina, in close proximity to San José. Visitors can get there in less than an hour by car and only slightly longer by bus. Secondly, the park is relatively flat and features an impressive network of trails, highlighting its most beautiful attributes, including a 3-mile trek along the Rió Tárcoles.
Carrara is rich in diversity and great in abundance. Capuchin monkeys, parrots and toucans abound, and visitors are guaranteed to see these species during any visit. Depending on the season and the time of day, ocelots, anteaters, endangered spider monkeys, and racoon-like coatis can also be spotted lurking in the forest.
High in the hills of the southern end of the park, Catarata Manantial de Agua Viva is a multi-tiered waterfall that boasts a total descent of 600 feet. Its a beautiful one-hour, hike uphill to the falls, and cooling off should be a cinch considering the number of interconnected pools you'll find at the top.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Regarded as one of the country's most spectacular national parks, Manuel Antonio presents travelers with the best of what Costa Rica has to offer. Probably its greatest attribute is the forest-covered peninsula that dangles from the coast like an earring. Known as Punta Catedral, this peninsula is characterized as a tombolo, or former island that, over the course of thousands of years, has attached itself to the mainland. Almost completely surrounded by the Pacific, this extremely rare land formation offers some of the most impressive view of the Pacific coast.
While surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving are great ways to experience the waters off of Manuel Antonio, hiking through the jungles of the park is the best way to truly appreciate its natural splendor. The entrance to the park (US$6) is about a half-mile east of Manuel Antonio proper and the trail starts on the east side of Playa Espadilla. The trek into the park follows a well-maintained and relatively undemanding trail, known as the Sendero Perezoso, or "sloth trail". Along the way, hikers are almost guaranteed to see a great number of animals, including howler and white-faced monkeys, sloth, iguanas, coatis and myriad birds species.
The most highly regarded hike, however, is the trail to the summit of Punta Catedral. It starts on Playa Espadilla Sur, located on the west side of the tombolo. The trek follows a steep, circular route that takes about an hour, and the rewards are worth every step. On the summit of Punta Catedral, a clifftop more than 300 feet above the water, the panoramic views of the park and the Pacific are stunning.
Located one kilometer north of Dominical, this privately-owned reserve is packed with natural delights. Rain forest, mangrove, pastureland, and a cocoa plantation occupy the park, giving visitors a variety of hiking environments. Birding is very good here throughout the year, and the beautiful Playa Barú is the site of egg-laying by the Olive Ridley and the Hawksbill turtles. While strolling through the forest, visitors are able to spot coatis, ocelots, anteaters, white-faced monkeys, and even jaguarundis. In addition, the park's Interpretive Center is an insightful resourse to learn more about these species. For those who want to take their experience to the next level, Hacienda Barú also offers canopy platforms, "Flight of the Toucan" ziplines, and guided tree climbing.
Parque Nacional Marino Ballena
Named after the Pacific humpback whale, which mates within its borders every winter, Marino Ballena National Park encompass over 11,000 acres of inshore area, extending out from the shoreline more than 10 miles. Also protected by the park is the nation's largest coral reef, located off of a tiny island that creates a waning tombolo with Punta Uvita. Below the surface of the water is where you'll witness the park's true splendor. Coral, sponges, and countless fish species inhabit this lively and dynamic underwater world.
Rainmaker Nature Reserve
Rainmaker is a small (1,500 acres), private reserve that possesses a great deal of biological importance. Located within the Quepos Biological Corridor on the coastal side of the Fila Chonta mountain range, this lush forest environment, connecting several far-reaching forest reserves, provides an avenue by which animals can maintain their regular migratory patterns. There are many attractions for tourists at Rainmaker: check out the Damas Caves, featuring beautiful stalagmites; hike the trails to a number of mountain waterfalls and pools; or walk amongst the canopy critters on expansive suspension bridges.
Specific Plants and Animals of the Region
Most notably, crocodiles are common throughout the Central Pacific. They occupy the many streams and rivers that empty into the ocean, and can often be found around the lagoons, wetlands, and estuaries just behind the coastline. Beware of these creatures. While they are not as aggressive as they are reputed to be, crocodiles should be avoided at all cost.
How to Get There
Buses to Quepos and Manuel Antonio leave from the Coca Cola Station in San José throughout the day. These buses can be very full preceding a weekend or holiday, so make sure you reserve your ticket in advance. Many other destinations in the Central Pacific can be reached via bus routes out of San Isidro.