Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region boasts several of the country’s most popular tourist spots, including the number-one attraction, the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde (the Monteverde Cloudforest Biological Reserve), draped over the ridge of the Cordillera de Tilarán. Along with nearby Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde protects some of the last remaining pristine cloudforest in the Americas.
With the exception of the cool climate of Monteverde, the region is tropical and drier than in the south of the country – temperatures can be uncomfortably high, with a dry-season average of about 30°C (86°F), and even in the much quieter wet season (Quepos and Manuel Antonio, in particular, receive torrential afternoon rains) temperatures don’t cool down by much.
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.
Being a popular tourist town, Jaco is not short of things to do. Activities include surfing, horse-back riding, fishing, kayaking, rafting and ATV tours. For an activity that is not as action-packed but just as rewarding take a tour around the coast on a catamaran whilst sipping wine and enjoying the sunset.
Nearby Jaco is Manuel Antonio National Park, which offers a range of wildlife in the form of plant and bird species, and Carara Biological Reserve which is home to macaws, monkeys and jaguars. When visiting Carara there is also the option to stop off at a 2,000-year-old pre-Colombian archaeological site for a dose of history amongst your wildlife adventure.
Jaco is well-known as being a traveller friendly town with a thriving party atmosphere. The nightlife is active, with many bars staying open until the early hours of the morning.
Costa Rica’s tropical climate means that the temperature in Jaco is pleasant all year round. There are however distinct dry and wet seasons. The dry season is from December to May, and the wet season is from April to November with peak rainfall hitting in October. Don't let the wet season put you off however, as there is a charm in waiting out a tropical rainstorm in a cafe.
Ecologically vital Parque Nacional Carara, 90km west of San José, occupies a transition area between the hot tropical lowlands of the north and the humid, more verdant climate of the southern Pacific coast. Consequently, the park teems with wildlife, from monkeys to margays and motmots to manakins.
Carara’s well-maintained trails are split between the heavily canopied area near the park’s ranger station and the more open terrain around Laguna Meándrica, an oxbow lake that is home to crocodiles: it’s accessed from a trailhead 2km north along the highway, towards the Río Tárcoles Bridge. At the ranger station, the loop trails of Sendero Las Aráceas (1.2km; 1hr) and Sendero Quebrada Bonita (1.5km; 1hr 30min) take in primary and transitionary forest and are reliable places to spot agouti and other small rodents; you can also often see great tinamou on the paths here, and sometimes even catch the spectacular leks of orange-collared manikins. Both routes are reached via the Sendero Encuentro de Ecosistemas, a 1.2km loop near the ranger station that is accessible to wheelchair users. Birdwatching is perhaps even better along the rivers and in the clearings on the Sendero Laguna Meándrica (4.3km; 2–4hr), where the wide range of avifauna includes boat-billed herons. Whichever trail you take, it’s worth hiring a guide from the ranger station, as they can also take you into areas that tourists aren’t allowed on their own.
Much of Carara’s bounty of wildlife is of the unnerving sort: huge crocodiles lounge in the bankside mud of the Río Tárcoles (“Carara” means “crocodile” in the language of the pre-Columbian inhabitants, the Huetar), while snakes (19 out of Costa Rica’s 22 poisonous species) slither about. Mammals include monkeys (mantled howler and white-faced capuchin), armadillos, agoutis (commonly seen), aggressive collared peccaries and most of the large cats, including jaguars and ocelots. Birding is excellent, and this is one of the best places in the country to see the brightly coloured scarlet macaw in its natural habitat – at dawn and dusk, they migrate between the lowland tropical forest areas and the swampy mangroves, soaring over in a burst of red and blue against the darkened sky. Other birds that frequent the treetops include trogons (five species), toucans (both chestnut-mandibled and keel-billed) and guans, while riverside birds include anhingas (or snake birds), the coot-like purple gallinule and storks.