Hot holidays should be compulsory for Canadian families. We are feeling hugely grateful for the opportunity to head south to escape the snow, ice, freezing rain and general routine of Toronto life for a week this winter.

Our family with grandparents in TOw spent a hot, sunshiny week in Jaco Beach, Costa Rica, a resort town on the Pacific Ocean about a 1.5-hour drive southwest from the capital city San José. (SJC airport is about a five-hour direct flight from Toronto.)

We chose Costa Rica for guaranteed hot, beautiful beaches and its long list of activities and places to visit. While we love relaxing pool- and ocean-side, we wanted a chance to experience the ‘Pura Vida’ of this corner of the country, its people and be active. Jaco did not disappoint.

I compiled my research and our experiences to share this list of 10 THINGS FOR FAMILIES TO DO IN JACO AREA: 

HANG OUT AT THE BEACH: The 5-km stretch of beach nestled between two forested cliffs is gorgeous. Even thought it’s a resort town, there aren’t a lot of high-rise hotels. It felt fairly quiet during the week and much busier on weekends – it’s the closest beach to San José so we saw a lot more locals on Saturday and Sunday. The beach boardwalk is lined with places to stay and some restaurants and there was definitely a party vibe at the south end. But we stayed in a condo on the far north side of the beach – it was quiet and located right next to the edge the forest. During low tide, it was a fun to explore the tide pools below.

North end of Jaco Beach at low tide.

Trip Tip: For an even quieter beach experience, head to Playa Mantas and the white sandy Playa Blanca north of Playa Herradura about 30 minute drive north of Jaco. They are less known to tourists.

TAKE A SURF LESSON: Costa Rica is known for surfing and every day you’ll see Playa Jaco waves dotted with surfers. There are a number of tents set up renting boards along the beach. But for beginners, we highly recommend taking a surf lesson – they know the best place and time to surf. Our family (including our six-year-old) took lessons with Tortuga Surf Camp. It was one of the highlights of the trip. The instructors are great (the owner once lived in Toronto!) and each wanna-be surfer had their own instructor, which allowed for everyone to surf at their own speed, feel safe and actually get up on the board.

Family Surfing in Jaco Beach

Family surf lesson with Tortuga Surf Camp

TOUR AROUND TOWN: The downtown of Jaco has a mix of touristy shops and restaurants. Make sure you stop by Jaco Walk, a newer open-air shopping centre and pedestrian area with restaurants and a few stores. We ate at Puddlefish Brewery (craft beer!) and Graffiti Resto Café + Wine Bar. They are sister restos with a great menu (plus kids menu) and is located steps away a little playground (with some remote control cars for the toddlers to ‘drive.’) Also, definitely eat at the Green Room – it’s just off the main street. The menu is excellent, with a good craft brew selection and kids menu. The patio is beautiful and we spotted a little tarzan swing.

Trip Tip: There is a Farmers Market with fresh fruits, veggies and breads on Fridays mornings – located off Avenue Pastor Diaz, south of the soccer pitch.

Trip tip: For any of your food/sunscreen/Imperial needs, head to the main grocery store Mas X Menos.

WATCH THE PROS AT THE SURFING CONTEST AT PLAYA HERMOSA: A short 20-min drive south of Jaco is Playa Hermosa. A weekly open surf contest takes place here on Saturdays at 4 p.m. It’s a fun vibe and you can watch from the beach or on the patio of a resto/hotel called The Backyard. I wouldn’t recommend Playa Hermosa for family swimming (or beginner surfers even) as the waves and undertow are much stronger. But the beach is still playable and felt pretty secluded as there is less development. And oh the sunsets:

Trip tip: Photo opp of the J-A-C-O sign en route to Hermosa on the south end of Jaco. We’re told there is also an abandoned building with a beautiful view just a short hike up from the highway there.

VISIT MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK: This is Costa Rica’s most famous national park. Rightly so – Manuel Antonio National Park is beautiful with its well-preserved 126,000 acres of ocean and 1,700 acres of park only a one-hour drive from Jaco. There are four beaches: Playita, Teldoro, Espadilla Sur and Manuel Antonio – the latter two are right in the park. The town of Manual Antonio is located on a hill and the road winds up and back down. If you’re driving, don’t get sucked into the first parking lot (they might tell you it’s the final parking lot before the park – it’s not and it’s not affiliated with the park. So wait until you get to the round-about before parking.) You will also be asked 100x if you have a guide or want a guide. You can pre-book someone to walk you through the park to tell you about and show you the wildlife. They have telescopes to help you spot sloths, monkeys, birds, etc. in the distance. The cost ranges from $20-40 per person. We skipped the tour and walked it on our own and saw sloths, raccoons (normal-sized ones!), deer and white-faced monkeys who were along the beach peeking into tourists’ bags. It was so hot (even at 9 a.m.), that we preferred to spend the most time playing on the beach before walking back out of the park.

Trip tip: I would suggest going when the park opens at 7 a.m. We got there at 8:30 a.m. and there was already a small line-up to get in and the park felt very very busy when we left at 11 a.m. Once it hits capacity, you may need to wait outside the gates before getting in. (Adults are $16 – kids 12 and under are free.) 

This is one of the beaches:

Trip Tip: If you’re into road trips, consider Volcano Arenal in another national park. (We visited there seven years ago and fell in love.) It’s about 3.5 hours in-land from Jaco but worth the trip to hike up a volcano and enjoy the hot springs. 

STAND UP PADDLE BOARDING: Generally the coast is all about the waves. But just 15-minute drive north of Jaco is a more sheltered cove on Playa Herradura. Great for families because the waves are calm – and mom can do SUP! There is a marina and the fancy resort Los Suenos. We went there for lunch. For SUP, we rented from Supherr, a local company located steps from the beach that offer hourly rentals and sunset tours.

SPEND A DAY AT THE ADVENTURE PARK: Ziplines, ATV and Buggy tours, horsebackriding and a massive Tarzan swing are on offer at the Vista Los Suenos Adventure Park in Herradurra, 15 minutes north of Jaco.

CHECK OUT WATERFALLS: There are a number of waterfalls in the area. The Nauyaca Waterfalls two hours south of Jaco near Dominical. Closer to Jaco – about a 20 minute drive – are the Bijagual Waterfalls. These are on a private property and about an hour hike in.

TAKE A CROCODILE RIVER TOUR: This was on our to-do list but we didn’t get a chance. But if your kiddos are into crocs (and iguanas, lizards, monkeys and birds), this boat cruise through the mangrove forest canals is for you. Apparently the guide feeds the crocodiles too.

Trip Tip: En Route to Jaco from airport, stop at Rio Tarcoles to see a crocodiles from the bridge. This area is considered to have the highest population of crocodiles in the world.

Rio Tarcoles Bridge in Jaco.

View from Rio Tarcoles in Jaco, Costa Rica.

GO ON A BOAT TOUR: We’ll be adding a day trip to Tortuga Island the next time we go. The catamaran tours cross the Gulf of Nicoya to the tiny Costa Rican island of Tortuga, which is known for its white sandy beaches and wildlife refuges. Or there are lots of sport fishing excursions available. Deep sea fishing, where you can go 60 minutes off-shore to catch 150-500 lbs marlin or sailfish, is pretty popular, especially from the Los Suenos Marina in Herradurra.

Trip Tip: All of the above is do-able by booking with a tour agency. But you’re bound to their hours and fees. We found renting a car the easiest way to explore the area. Driving was slow (speed limits are 60 km/hr) but the roads feel safe. Definitely use your GPS or rent one with the car as the signage isn’t always straight-forward. While rental costs seem inexpensive, do your research as there is a third-party liability insurance that is compulsory and very expensive.

Have you been to Jaco Beach? Send me a note at info(at)kidsinto(dot)com with any other tips to add or questions. Pura Vida!