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[Maps of Central Pacific] [Part one of this article] [Text only version.]
The traditional vacation destination for Ticos, Costa Rica's central Pacific coast is where many foreign visitors first discover this country's allure
Part 2
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Pacific Playground
 text and photos by
Michael L. Smith

neverending beaches

Herradura Beach is a small, quiet, protected cove with just enough infrastructure to make it comfortable. Sportfishing charters, visits to Tortuga Island and romantic sunset tours round out a full fare of water related activities including snorkeling, water trikes, windsurfing and water skiing. SCUBA diving trips are also available in this area from JD's Watersports at Punta Leona.

Jacó Beach is what Herradura isn't. This is where Ticos traditionally come to play in the sun. There's plenty of infrastructure, shopping, nightlife and accommodations to provide anything one might want in a beach vacation. A plethora of activities abound and tours can be arranged to most other parts of the country as well as the broad selection available in the surrounding area. The tour desk at the Best Western Jacó Beach (formerly Jacó Beach Resort) can help you bicycle your way through town, book passage on a white water river, or choose any of myriad activities in between.

Playa Hermosa, south of Jaco Beach

The road follows the coast out of Jacó providing spectacular scenery along the beaches. At the top of the hill is a great spot for a final look back on Jacó. A little further is a perfect view looking down on the long, black expanse of Playa Hermosa. There is a lot of uncrowded beach along this stretch. Many gravel roads provide easy access to these oases with names like Esterillos Oeste, Bejuco and Palma. They are characterized by grand expanses of empty beach and minimal established infrastructure--a few local families, a small restaurant or two, a couple of seaside cabins.

Parrita is a traditional gas and rest stop on the way to Quepos--a place to brush off the dust of the kilometers traversing the African Oil Palm groves. With the improvement of the road in this area, stopping in Parrita is not so common. However, it is a good central location to explore the region and its many attractions. Jacó and Quepos are an easy drive from here and those 42 kilometers of lovely beaches in between are on Parrita's doorstep. One of the most compelling reasons to consider stopping here is that prices are significantly lower than in the higher-traffic areas nearby.

There is easy access from Parrita to all the attractions in the area which include Class III white water rafting, jungle hiking, cruises through the mangrove estuaries of Damas Island, horseback riding, tours of the oil palm plantations, as well as the usual assortment of beach and water activities. Check with the two Yolanda's at Café Yoli at the entrance to the city. Between them they speak five languages and have the scoop on what's available in this area. If you're in the mood for pizza, the best to be found on the central Pacific is here at Café Yoli.

Despacio Puente Angosto

The roadway between Parrita and Quepos is wide and smooth with only a few small potholes. However, most of the bridges have not yet been improved--they are still one car wide and without guard rails. Heed the warnings of the big yellow signs proclaiming despacio puente angosto and slow down. The approaches are very rough as well and require negotiating the crossings at a snail's pace.

Quepos is well known by sportfishing enthusiasts. The blue water off this coast provides exceptional challenge and excitement for seasoned, as well as occasional, anglers. International billfishing tournaments in these waters routinely tie and break world records.

This small fishing village turned resort has a variety of accommodations and restaurants making it a good alternative to the higher prices and crowded conditions often found closer to the national park. Several tour companies operate out of the city, offering jaunts into the jungle, up various rivers and through the estuaries. Mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking complement the various water activities that include sea kayaking, jet skis, waterskiing, parasailing and snorkeling.

Steve Wofford at Taximar runs SCUBA dives all along this section of the coast, but says the best is at Caño Island where you can expect clear water and eventful dives 250 days out of the year. The underwater topography along the coast includes a fifteen-mile long ridge with a few caves and many good spots from Dominical to Uvita. He also operates very successful dolphin watch cruises that give you the opportunity to swim with the dolphins. Steve says his whale watch cruises at Ballena National Marine Park are 90% successful at spotting the giant Orcas migrating from the Antarctic.

Manuel Antonio Beach at Manuel Antonio National Park

everybody's favorite

Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the country and the most popular, with locals and foreigners alike. Two gorgeous white sand beaches sloping to the gentle surf are lined by the hilly evergreen forest providing natural shade from the tropical sun. Several trails lead through dense jungle growth to hidden sandy coves and magnificent lookouts over the ocean and beaches.

Despite its small size and great popularity, Manuel Antonio has managed to remain one of the premiere nature spots in the country. The mountains literally meet the sea here and the ecosystem is teeming with land, sea and air species. If there is one place to visit in this country and be assured of seeing animals in the wild, this is it. Just a couple hours walking the park's trails are likely to present various colorful and majestic birds, white-faced monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, coatis, pacas, brilliantly colored land crabs, a variety of multi-hued butterflies, and interesting insects. The endangered squirrel monkey and a subspecies of the squirrel monkey endemic to Costa Rica are also frequently seen. In all, over 100 species of animals and nearly 200 species of birds have been identified in this park.

Three-toed sloth

The area between Quepos and Manuel Antonio has been commercialized with dozens of hotels and restaurants offering the visitor a wide variety of accommodations and dining choices. Camping is available in some areas near the park and dozens of roadside vendors offer all manner of foods, drinks and souvenirs.

Near Manuel Antonio is Jardin Gaia. Named as Costa Rica's first official Wildlife Rescue Center in 1995, it receives injured and confiscated animals and attempts to rehabilitate them for return to the wild. In the six years since its inception, Jardin Gaia has received over 400 birds and 100 animals, many being species on the endangered list. The Center has several ongoing research and education projects in operation in the local area and manned by international volunteers who come to work for a couple of weeks to several months. For a five dollar donation visitors to the center receive a guided tour of the facilities, explanations of the ecological projects, and are introduced to the current animal residents.

The region south along the coast from Quepos to Dominical is sparsely populated. Miles of deserted beaches and a few farms and ranches occupying the narrow flatlands between the mountains and the sea are characteristic of the very picturesque drive.

The infrastructure of Costa Rica's central Pacific coast has developed to provide everything anyone could possibly want while enjoying the gifts of nature "at the beach." Vacationers looking for an encounter with nature, a leisurely rest on the beach or an activity-laden adventure in the tropics are sure to find what they are looking for on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast.

Playa ESPADILLA SUR at Manuel Antonio National Park

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