On the mainland south of Puntarenas, the coast road (sometimes signposted as the Costanera Sur) leads down to Quepos and continues, in various states of paving, south to Dominical (covered in Chapter 7). At first, the landscape is sparse and hilly, with the coast coming into view only intermittently, but things improve considerably once you’re past the huge trucks heading to the container port and refineries at hideous Puerto Caldera, the terminus of the new toll road linking San José and the Pacific. About 30km southeast of Puerto Caldera, just across the wide crocodile-ridden mouth of the Río Tárcoles, Parque Nacional Carara encompasses a range of habitats and is known for its rich birdlife. Beyond Carara, and a different beast altogether, is the resort of Jacó, which thanks to its relative proximity to San José is more popular than it might otherwise be. Better beaches (and an expanding surf scene) lie further south, particularly at Playa Hermosa and Playas Esterillos. From here, it’s an uneventful 45km to Quepos and Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, the last stretch along the coast from the hamlet of Parrita comprising a long corridor of African oil-palm plantations, a moody landscape of stout, brooding tree sentinels.
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- Parque Nacional Carara
Just over two hours from San José, Jacó sits in a hot coastal plain behind the broad Playa Jacó, the closest beach to the capital. An established seaside attraction, the resort draws a mix of surfers, package tourists, holidaying Ticos and retired North American baby-boomers, along with a less savoury selection of drug dealers and prostitutes. Jacó has seen some of the most excessive development along the Pacific, but the partying crowd don’t seem to mind too much. And as a base from which to explore the surf beaches along this stretch of coast, its multitude of amenities takes some beating.
Grey-sand Playa Hermosa, 5km south of Jacó, has long been a playground for hot-shot surfers. Pummelled by formidable waves, the 10km-long strip rivals Dominical for having the most consistent beach breaks on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Given its proximity to Jacó, it was inevitable the development craze would reach here, too, and condos are now going up along the beachfront at a rapid pace. The area is being sold as a more upmarket version of Jacó – a coastal getaway without the noise, pollution, drugs and prostitution plaguing its neighbour…at least for now.
Hermosa is definitely not a beach for a casual dip (the riptides here are formidable), nor for novice surfers. Steep sand bars cause waves to break hard, fast and close to the shore, most impressively during the rainy season between May and August – with the best breakers in front of Terraza del Pacifico and the Backyard Hotel. On Saturday afternoons, you can watch how it should be done, when local surfers and gung-ho visitors tackle the waves as part of the Backyard Surf Series (4pm; free to enter).
Further south of the hotel strip, the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Playa Hermosa y Punta Mala protects a nesting site for olive ridley turtles, which come ashore to lay their eggs between August and December; it’s off-limits to the public, but you can visit the turtle hatchery at the ranger station, a gridded block of beach being used to monitor the species’ reproduction rates in this part of the Pacific.