Beach Bargain Travel Guide – Playa Jacó & Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

When we traveled to Costa Rica for the first time back in 2000 Playa Jacó was a beach village populated by fishermen, surfers and in-the-know backpackers. Not long before that the area was so remote that old-timer fishermen can remember seeing jaguars on the beach. Recently we found a very different Jacó full of bungee jumping towers, sports bars and lots and lots of gringos. The streets were paved and backpacker prices were hard to come by, even if you move on to neighboring Playa Hermosa. Neither beach ranks as the best in Costa Rica but they are among the most accessible at just over 60 miles (100 km) from San Jose. With that in mind, here’s our beach bargain travel guide to these two popular Pacific Coast destinations.

Beach bargain hotels in Playa Hermosa and Jacó

We were looking for a more mellow vibe (and, perhaps, nicer prices) so we hightailed it out of Jacó and drove five miles (eight km) south to Playa Hermosa where we chose to stay at the clean and charming five room Costanera B&B. The surf is a few steps away, the Italian owners were welcoming and the mid-range price (from US$35 double) includes an awesome breakfast.

Though descent truly budget accommodation was hard to find in Jacó we did spend a night at the perfectly acceptable Jaco Inn Hostel in a private room with a shared bathroom for US$25 including use of a shared kitchen. Bring insect repellent.

Playa Hermosa Puntarenas Costa Rica

A rare shot of the two of us together as we wander down Playa Hermosa. Photo courtesy of Dos.

Beach bargain food in Playa Hermosa and Jacó

You can’t miss the signs for Taco Bar along the highway near Jacó and you shouldn’t miss a meal (or three) there either. It’s not a bargain at around US$10 for a plate with two big fish tacos and unlimited access to a delicious and varied salad, sauce and condiments bar. But it is a delicious, fresh splurge that satisfies.

We learned too late that from 4-10 they’ll sell you a two taco plate for the price of a one taco plate but you need to present a flyer (available at some hostels and hotels including the Jacó Inn Hostel) to get that special price. Do not confuse Taco Bar with Jacó Taco. They are not the same.

If you have access to a kitchen at your hostel or hotel you should know that the Auto Mercado in Playa Herradura, four miles (six km) north of Jacó, is the best-stocked supermarket on the Pacific Coast, though there are decent supermarkets in Jacó as well.

What to see and do in Playa Hermosa and Jacó

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback along the Costanera Highway around Jacó . They’re often spotted in the trees on the hillside near a large dusty turn out off the highway just south of Jacó. We saw scarlet macaws there on numerous occasions and it’s worth a shot to try your luck, especially in the morning or late afternoon. Plus, it’s free.

Scarlet Macaws Playa Hermosa Costa Rica

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback near Playa Jacó and we know where you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.

Scarlet Macaws flying Jaco Costa Rica

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback near Playa Jacó and we know where you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.

Scarlet Macaws Costa Rica

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback near Playa Jacó and we know where you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.

To see more macaws and other tropical birds visit Carara National Park (US$10 per person) 14 miles (22 km) north of Jaco. Notably, in May of 2013 Carara unveiled a .75 mile (1.2 km) handicapped accessible walkway, a rarity in Central American parks.

Near the entrance of Carara the Costanera highway crosses the Rio Tarcoles. You will always see vehicles parked by the bridge and people on the bridge looking down at the river. Why? A large group of very large crocodiles lives beneath the bridge.

Lagartos Crocodiles Rio Tarcoles River bridge

On your way to Playa Jacó and Playa Hermosa park and walk onto the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles for safe-distance views of the enormous crocs that live in the river.

We also enjoyed watching our friend Dos take surfing lessons in Jacó where there’s no shortage of surf schools and instructors to choose from.

Learn to surf lessons Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Our friend Dos making the most of the surf on Playa Jacó.

 

Jacó Travel Tips

Chifrijo Costa RicaA few miles after you exit the pay highway from San Jose and enter the Costanera Highway headed to Jacó you will see a handful of roadside stands on your right. Look for one with a handwritten sign that says “Hoy Chifrijo.” Pull into the dusty parking area and be prepared for the best example we had of San Jose’s signature dish. Chifrijo (left) is a big bowl filled with white rice and red beans topped with chopped tender pork then chopped chicharon (fried pork skin) then doused with pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime. The chifrijo they make here (US$5 including a soda) is so good it made our Best Food & Beverages of 2012 list.

 

 

Oh, and learn to pronounce Jacó correctly: it’s Ha-COE with the emphasis on the final syllable.

These two beaches are so popular that we suspect some of you have been here too. Share your own Playa Jacó and Playa Hermosa beach bargain travel tips by leaving a comment, below.

Sunset Jaco Beach Puntarenas Costa Rica

Sunset from Jacó in Costa Rica.

 

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Our Latest Work: Family Travel Freebies, “Foreign” Places Close to Home, New Cool in Cartagena & Spilling the Beans About Coffee

We love adding new magazines, newspapers and websites to our roster of freelance outlets and we love saving readers money on awesome trips so our very first piece for Woman’s Day, full of freebies and tips that will keep your family travel budget on track, was a win/win for us.

Woman's Day Summer Vacation Ttravel

If you’re looking for vacation destinations close to home that deliver some of the charm of Japan, Russia or Germany check out our latest feature for the travel section of the Toronto Sun newspaper which gives you the where and when for planning trips that are so near and yet so far

Toronto Sun Travel - Squint and your in

And we’re continuing to contribute great food and drink pieces to TheLatinKitchen.com, the foodie digital spin-off of Latina magazine. In our latest pieces we get coffee experts from some of the world’s top coffee producing countries to spill the beans about how to buy, store and brew the best coffee possible and tell you all about Demente Tapas Bar, the hippest new addition to Cartagena, Colombia.

Enjoy!

 

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The Turtle Trauma of an Arribada – Playa Ostinal, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Turtle nesting is brutal. First, an enormous female turtle–compelled by an overpowering maternal instinct–hauls her massive self out of the water and lumbers up a sandy beach to the high water line. There she digs a hole using appendages designed for swimming, not shoveling.  Then, if she’s lucky, she’s left in peace to squeeze out dozens of probably doomed turtle eggs. No wonder female sea turtles actually appear to be crying through the whole ordeal. However, normal sea turtle nesting is nothing compared to the turtle trauma that occurs during a turtle arribada like the one we witnessed when we traveled to Playa Ostinal on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Turtle coming out of the sea - Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

A female olive ridley turtle comes ashore on Playa Ostinal in Costa Rica as part of a massive turtle arribada.

Turtle arriving on the beach -Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

A female olive ridley turtle comes ashore on Playa Ostinal in Costa Rica as part of a massive turtle arribada.

A sea turtle nesting orgy

Every year hundreds of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles swarm the black sand of Playa Ostinal over the course of a week or so. The event, which occurs four times a year near shortly before the new moon and can last up to eight days, is called an arribada.

Turtle Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

Two way traffic: Female olive ridley turtles coming and going during a nesting orgy known as an arribada.

The arribadas in Costa Rica are so important to the species that a 33 square mile (85 square kilometer) area around Playa Ostinal was turned into the Ostinal Wildlife Refuge in 1982. The event is also important for local tourism and a cottage industry of turtle guides has sprung up in the area’s otherwise lazy fishing villages.

You can see the spectacle for yourself in our video, below, showing olive ridley turtles emerging from the sea during the arribada on Playa Ostinal.

Turtle coming to lay eggs -Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

Massive turtle nesting events in Costa Rica are a crucial part of the survival of the olive ridely sea turtle species.

Turtle on the beach - Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

Tired, but still trying.

Just our luck

Through no planning on our part we happened to be on the Nicoya Peninsula near the start of the arribada.  The first days of an arribada seem to bring the highest density of turtles but we couldn’t reach the beach until day four of the invasion.

The Globetrotter Girls had posted photos from the first days of the arribada when the beach was swarming with turtles and that’s what we were hoping to see. But when we reached Playa Ostinal on day four we were disappointed to see only several dozen turtles emerging from the gentle surf, laboring up the beach, digging holes or returning to the sea.

Turtles Ostinal  Arribada Nicoya Peninsula Costa Rica

Most of the thousands of olive ridely turtles that take part in the annual arribada nesting frenzy arrive in the first few days. After that, numbers thin out.

Turtle tracks - Turtle Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

Turtle nesting neighbors on Playa Ostinal in Costa Rica.

Still, that was more sea turtles than we’d ever seen in one place before and it allowed us to really observe all stages of the nesting process. For example, when we arrived one female was in the midst of laying her eggs. From a distance we watched her finish and carefully bury the eggs before turning tail and moving slowly back to the water. But, sadly, that’s not where the process ended.

Turtle laying eggs - Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

A female olive ridley turtle in the process of digging a nest in which to lay her eggs on Playa Ostinal in Costa Rica.

Carnage on the beach

The mother turtle wasn’t even five feet away from her newly-made mound before a pack of local stray dogs was digging it up and devouring her just-laid eggs. A gang of vultures soon joined in the feast. It was carnage on the beach.

Bits of white turtle egg shell specks in the black sand all along the high water line was evidence that this feeding frenzy was not an isolated incident. The trees along the beach were heavy with stuffed and smug vultures. Fat-bellied dogs sniffed around half-heartedly.

Turtle eggs - Turtle Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

The white bits in the sand above the water line on Playa Ostinal in Costa Rica are bits of turtle egg shell left behind by feasting vultures and dogs.

We were horrified and we scanned the beach looking for some sort of ranger or Ostinal Wildlife Refuge employee who was in charge of patrolling and protecting the turtles. There was no such person.

We were told later that so many turtles lay so many eggs on this beach during an arribada that locals are allowed to collect a limited number and sell them to a handful of authorized bars which then sell the eggs to customers as snacks (yes, that’s code for “aphrodisiacs”) and the dogs and vultures are allowed to eat what they can.

This was in complete contrast to the almost ridiculously sheltered nesting we’d witnessed on other beaches where concerned biologists and locals carefully dig up nests and re-bury turtle eggs in protected and monitored mounds before hand-releasing the hatchlings.

Olive Ridley Turtle laying eggs -Arribada Ostinal Beach Costa Rica

A turtle mom hard at work, just one of thousands who nest on Playa Ostinal during an arribada.

Turtle timing is everything

During an hour or so on Playa Ostinal we saw several dozen turtles come and go. At least five of them never even dug a nest or laid even a single egg before sort of shrugging and returning to the water. We saw two dead turtles on the beach as well, more food for the scavengers though the vultures seemed stuffed and the dogs were roaming without enthusiasm.

We later learned that the strongest, smartest and most experienced turtles usually arrive early in the arribada with younger, weaker and less mature females arriving later.

We left our first arribada with mixed feelings. We were grateful to have seen the spectacle but disturbed by the carnage and the ineptitude of some of the turtles. How in the world has this species lasted this long? Thankfully, we could retreat to the peace and, yes, harmony of The Harmony Hotel about seven miles (11.5 kilometers) away on Playa Guiones.

Olive Ridley Turtle Ostinal Turtle Arribada Nicoya Costa Rica

Her work is done here.

Arribada Travel Tips

The dirt road to Playa Ostinal can be rough and if you drive there during the rainy season (like we did) be prepared to cross some swollen rivers. During one crossing the water came up to the doors of our truck.

When you arrive in Playa Ostinal you will probably be accosted by many local “guides” who will claim you have to hire one in order to get access to the beach during the arribada. However, we simply parked our truck and wandered the beach on our own so don’t feel compelled to pay for a guide unless you want one.

 

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Some Parks Have it All – Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

We spent time in dozens of national parks as we traveled through the United States so we can say with some degree of expertise that all of them are amazing in their own unique ways—Yellowstone has geothermal marvels, Denali delivers epic peaks, Crater Lake shows off the power of volcanoes. Then there are national parks that have it all, like Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, which was founded on August 9, 1916 and celebrates its 97th birthday today.

Lassen Peak Helen Lake Reflection California

Lassen Peak seen from Helen Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Within its 106,452 acre (43,080 ha) domain Lassen packs in geothermals and summits plus all four types of volcanoes. Over three days of utterly perfect temperatures we manage to explore most of this diverse park from our base in the Summit Lake North Campground.

Meadow view Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Peak seen from a bucolic meadow in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Warming up on the Cinder Cone Trail

As a warm up before tackling 10,457 foot (3,187 meter) Lassen Peak, we decided to climb up Cinder Cone. During the drive to the trailhead we spotted a honey colored black bear a few hundred feet off the road. It was busy ripping apart dead tree trunks in search of a snack and hardly notices us as we passed by.

Brown colored California Black Bear - Lassen Volcanic National Park

This bear was hunting for food inside rotting logs near the road that leads to Cinder Cone in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

The Cinder Cone trail starts off pleasantly enough (except for the disturbing signs warning visitors about river otter attacks in the area), however, the route becomes very steep and very exposed at the base of the Cinder Cone itself.

Climbing Cinder Cone volcanic Crater - Lassen National Park, California

Karen on the Cinder Cone trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

To make matters tougher, the trail runs through deep black cinders, which makes it feel like you’re walking through sand as you inch our way up the side of the dormant cone (two steps forward, one sliding step back, etc.). As usual, the harder the walk the greater the reward and at the top Cinder Cone lies a classic deep crater with a trail right down into it and a lovely path around the rim.

Cinder Cone volcanic Crater - Lassen National Park

Reach the top of Cinder Cone trail and your hike still isn’t through. This loop trail takes you around and into the crater itself.

Cinder Cone Panorama - Lassen Volcanic National Park California

Panoramic view from the top of the Cinder Cone trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. See a larger version of this photo.

Ready for Lassen Peak?

The next morning it was time for Lassen Peak. The five mile (eight kilometer) round trip trail was busy but not packed–we saw maybe 40 other hikers—and, it must be said, it was an easier walk than we’d anticipated, perhaps because Cinder Cone was so much tougher than we’d expected.

Climbing Lassen Peak - Lassen National Park California

A stretch of trail about half way up Lassen Peak.

At the top we found a couple of flat rocks, the perfect place to break out our gourmet picnic of bbq pork sandwiches on onion rolls, grilled corn on the cob and boiled then grilled red potatoes leftover from our campsite dinner the night before.

Summit of Lassen Peak - Lassen National Park California

The summit of Lassen Peak.

As we ate, thousands of butterflies appeared all of them flying around the peak in the same clockwise direction. It was something we’d never seen before and it reminded us of what it feels like when we’re SCUBA diving in a swirling school of barracuda—lucky and bewildered. Less surprising were the swarms of chipmunk beggars who had clearly been spoiled by far too many human handouts.

View from Lassen Peak - Lassen National Park California

A view from the trail up Lassen Peak.

On the way down the Lassen Peak trail a doe and two frisky fawns crossed the trail right behind us before scampering off into a small meadow with mom in perpetual pursuit of her two energetic wanderers.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Peak dominating the skyline in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Welcome to Bumpass Hell

Our final day in Lassen was reserved for the Bumpass Hell trail where we learned that there really was a Mr. Bumpass (we presume he pronounced it Bum Pass) who used to guide visitors among the area’s sprawling fumaroles and boiling pots until he broke through the crust one day and fell into a scalding thermal feature burning his leg so badly that they had to cut it off, hence, the “Hell” part of the trail name.

Before we even reached the geothermal area we could hear the action—a kind of airport runway jet engine roar and hiss that seemed to be coming from all directions at once. After a few minutes of stupidly looking up at the sky trying to spot the planes that must be making all that racket we finally figure it out: we should be looking down.

Bumpass Hell Lassen Volcanic National Park California

The trail network through the geothermal areas of Bumpass Hell.

The Bumpass Hell area is made up of an array of steam vents and patches of bright yellow sulphur and boiling pools full of colorful water and putty-colored mud. It’s every bit as impressive as what we’ve seen in Yellowstone National Park (minus the bison and the elk, of course). Plentiful and blunt warning signs made it clear that if we didn’t watch our step and stay on the trail we could end up just like Mr. Bumpass.

Bumpass Hell geothermal area - Lassen National Park

Fumaroles in the geothermal Bumpass Hell area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Bumpass Hell geothermal Lassen Volcanic National Park California

Boiling mud pots in the Bumpass Hell area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

 

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