Costa Rica’s natural wonders are drawing more travelers than ever. Many of them head to the country’s northwest corner to surf and dip into hot springs on the Nicoya Peninsula or zip-line and raft in nearby Montezuma, overwhelming destinations like Playa Tamarindo and Jaco during the December to April dry season. To escape the crowds and tune into the more rustic, untapped side of Costa Rica, head south of these locations to the country’s mid-Pacific coast.
No matter the time of year, the towns of Manuel Antonio, Dominical, and Uvita prove that Costa Rica is the ultimate destination for both adventuring and relaxing. Start your journey in the town of Manuel Antonio, a three-hour drive from the capital city of San Jose and just over an hour south of Jaco, and work your way down to Uvita. Along the way, you’ll explore wildlife, national parks, and waterfalls — and have plenty of time to relax on the beach with a cold pipa (coconut). Here are the top things to do there.
Hike and surf at Manuel Antonio National Park.
If you’ve come to Costa Rica hoping to glimpse sloths, racoons, and monkeys, do not miss Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is teeming with dense wildlife — howler and squirrel monkeys, iguanas, and hundreds of species of birds also live in what is actually quite a small natural reserve.
The park sits right on the beach in Manuel Antonio and can easily be accessed after a morning surf session. You can choose to either relax on the gorgeous, rustic beaches or hike through the rainforest to experience the density of the jungle. For a more challenging adventure, hike the Punta Catedral trail, which offers beautiful views and steep inclines. The park is open from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM and is closed Mondays. Guided tours are available for scuba diving, zip-lining, or getting offshore in a catamaran.
Jump off the Nauyaca Waterfalls.
After visiting the park, head less than an hour south of Manuel Antonio to one of the loveliest cascades in all of Costa Rica, the Nauyaca Waterfalls, located outside of the town of Dominical. Beyond stunning scenery, the falls offer the opportunity to swim or, for those feeling gutsy, even jump into the water from the top of the catarata (waterfall) into the pool below. The surrounding flora is thick and teeming with life. If you have a waterproof camera, or at least a waterproof case for your smartphone, bring it along for the 2.5-mile trek through the jungle to the waterfalls. If hiking isn’t your jam, for $70 you can ride in on horseback.
Horseback riding is in fact the most unique way to see Costa Rica — even beyond the Nauyaca Waterfalls. Companies such as Bahia Adventures take visitors on guided rides through Rancho de Merced, up through the hills outside of Dominical and Uvita, or along the beach. Plan to spend about $50 per person for a tour.
Another easy-to-access waterfall is the Uvita Waterfall, located just north of Uvita, off Calle Bejuco, with a quick five-minute hike necessary to get to the base. Plan to pay 1,000 colones, fewer than $2, for access to swimming, relaxing, or even sliding down the waterfall into the water. Pack your bag full of ice and Pilsen, a local Costa Rican beer, and relax at the falls for a couple of hours on a hot afternoon.
Try the gelato, coffee, and other tasty things — including beer.
Small food stands called sodas can be found across Costa Rica. While stopping at one for lunch is an essential Tico — that means “Costa Rican” — experience, nowhere outside the capital is the quality and variety of food options available stronger than it is along the Pacific coast, particularly near Dominical and Uvita. The southwest region is also home to one of the country’s top craft breweries and some cozy cafes and bars. A few top finds include:
- Sibu Cafe: You can’t miss this spot as it’s located directly off the main highway north of Uvita. Espresso can be surprisingly hard to find in Costa Rica, but the serving here is top-notch, particularly when paired with a passionfruit cheesecake or something heartier like fresh Dorado fish with rosemary potatoes. After ingesting nothing but black drip coffee and rice and beans — gallo pinto, in local parlance — for breakfast across much of the country, you’ll be delighted to indulge in finer delicacies.
- Gelato: This cleverly named ice cream parlor is right next door to Sibu. Its ice cream is made from 100 percent natural ingredients, and you can find vegan options, as well.
- Fuego Brewing Company: Located in the bohemian surfer town of Dominical, this is the best stop for a locally crafted beer, especially after a salty surf session. Its claim to fame is using natural spring water tapped from the source itself. If you’re a true beer lover and looking for an experience, take a tour of the brewery and sample all of the craft beers they create in-house.
- Barba Roja: Not sure how “red beard” is relevant to this place, but it is a catchy name. This restaurant in Manuel Antonio is one of the top places in Costa Rica for cocktail-fueled, coastal sunset views. It also hosts live music and, on some nights, dueling pianos.
Conquer your fear and get on a surfboard.
To the uninitiated, surfing can appear an intimidating prospect. You need to try surfing in Costa Rica as the country is famous for its swells and steady waves. Manuel Antonio, Dominical, and Uvita are all perfect stops for those looking to hop on a surfboard, and lessons abound for beginners in all three locations. Playa Dominical (in Dominical) is a great place for newbies, as is Playa Manuel Antonio. If you plan to head out on your own, check Magic Seaweed to get the surf report as the waves can get massive, and you don’t want to be caught in a huge swell. Or maybe you do, in which case these beaches are also for you.
The region, Dominical in particular, is home to multiple destination surf camps, including Dominical Surf School and Sunset Surf. A camp can be a good way to progress with an instructor or group, as you’ll have multiple days to practice and experience different waves and conditions. It’s far pricier than simply renting a board from one of the beachside stands, but if you can afford to drop $1,000-1,500 for a week, you’ll likely save yourself multiple bouts of profanity-laden frustration on the water.
Take a yoga class.
Costa Rica has multiple Bali-esque wellness flavors to it, with the pervasiveness of yoga studios being one of the most visible. Danyasa is an eco-resort and yoga retreat center that also offers yoga classes open to the public. The studio is hidden off the main road in Dominical, located right next to the Fuego Brew Company. Its classes are inclusive and fun, free of pretension, and the space is beautiful. Take a traditional hatha-style class to stretch out your surfed-out muscles, or indulge in a more exotic experience like a cacao ceremony.
Spot humpback whales at Marino Ballena National Park.
Sloths and monkeys are found inland and are commonly seen by even tourists not possessing the keenest of wildlife-spotting eyes. Whales and dolphins are less commonly spotted in the area, Marino Ballena National Park being the exception. Here you can spot humpback whales passing through twice annually on their migration path from north to south and vice versa. Dolphins are common throughout much of the year, as are sea turtles and stingrays, all of which you can experience on a free guided tour. Amusingly, at low tide, the coast of the park itself takes on the shape of a whale’s tail.
If you want a closer look at the whales outside of migration season, which typically runs most of the year from July to March, book a boat tour out into the gulf. Costa Rica is known to be home to over 30 different species of whales and dolphins, including the sought-after humpback whale. Come during Costa Rica’s winter season from July to December, and you’re all but guaranteed to see these beautiful creatures playing in the water.
Drink a pipa on the beach.
If you’re used to crowded, hotel-lined beaches, prepare to be astounded by the bare, empty coastlines of Costa Rica. Due to various building laws, the coastal areas are almost all completely free of overdevelopment. The mid-Pacific coast of Costa Rica has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, so when a day to yourself is in order, grab yourself a cold pipa coconut drink from a beachside vendor and a good book, and plop your towel down on the nearest beach.