There is no place more controversial in Costa Rica than Jaco.
Jaco is the closest beach town for tourists coming from the San Jose international airport. It’s about an hour and a half to two hour drive. That close proximity, to many, has been its downfall. For years Jaco was a dirt cheap destination for travelers looking for debauchery. Those looking to buy drugs, or a good time with a hooker could certainly find both in Jaco.
These types of travelers never left, and on their heels came investors and retirees from the United States. The result of both types of folks flocking to Jaco? High rise condos, English signs everywhere, shitty American food, and crime. In addition, the high price of the area catered towards those with an American salary have in many ways pushed the local people out, and suppressed the culture. It has made way for a new wave, hybrid, Costa Rica meets trashy American ethos.
This has been the case for years now, and every year it gets worse.
Jaco’s Unconventional Appeal
I first visited Jaco four years ago looking for great nightlife and experiences at cheap prices. My husband (then boyfriend) had visited with friends, and considering it was the only town I had heard of in the country, I went. I stayed for one week with my girlfriends, and I fell in love. As someone who lives in New York City and had very little travel experience at the time, Jaco felt like the most exotic and exciting place one could visit.
Truth be told, I’m an urbanite. I love the chaos, grittiness, and edgy feeling of big cities. I’m also a writer, and a creative in this way, and so naturally, I enjoy places that are a touch unsettling and dangerous. It’s where I draw my best ideas from, and it excites me. Who the hell finds the inspiration to be creative in a place like the fucking Maldives? No true, self respecting, author – that’s for sure.
“Who the hell finds the inspiration to be creative in a place like the fucking Maldives? No true, self respecting, author – that’s for sure. “
The truth? I loved seeing the prostitutes walk around at night and try to pick up men. It was thrilling ducking into sketchy little makeshift bars with my friends in the dead of night while the rain poured down around us. I liked walking around the graffiti covered streets, trying to find a place that looked good for a drink. I laughed while piling into a small taxi, buzzed at the end of the night with four of my friends and no one giving a shit if we wore seat belts and smacked our heads against the car windows as a result. All of this thrilled me.
So, with the image I’ve painted, why in God’s name would I choose Jaco for a family vacation?
Simply put, because Jaco is so much more than its hookers and giant Walmart.
All That Jaco Offers
Jaco has the opportunity for adventure:
It’s beaches are more than perfect for lounging and relaxing.
Plus, it’s a great place to learn to surf, or to practice surfing if it’s a skill that you already have
It’s absolutely beautiful, and the sunsets are world class.
It’s a great central location to take day trips from:
It is family friendly. I never met a single local or employee who didn’t dote over our son. We were never made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of his sometimes less than perfect behavior.
No one seemed to think it was weird to bring him to late night dinners or live music venues.
If you walk around in the day or night, you will see tons of other families around grabbing gelato, having meals together, and playing at the beach.
What I’ve learned is, whatever you go looking for, you will find. If you are looking for the sinister and more dark aspects of travel – such as sex tourism – you will find it. If you are looking for places that feel like America, but are actually in Costa Rica, sure you can find it. There are hamburger joints with English menus aplenty.
However, if you want to interact with locals and learn about Costa Rican culture, there is plenty of opportunity for that as well.
I love that Jaco has a bite to it, but is also really friendly and approachable. When one thinks of art in Europe, we think classical paintings. We met some really wonderful people from Jaco who are always up for having a conversation, and are never without a smile. However, nearly every one of them has some form of well done, badass looking tattoo and often more than one. It became a rarity to meet a Jaco local who did not have tattoos. Every tattoo I inquired about told a story of childhood memories, hopes, dreams, or was a tribute to a loved one.
When one thinks of art in Jaco, the mediums are largely street art and body art. One of the best examples of this is when engaging with the locals. Jaco could easily be viewed with the same romantic intrigue as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Birmingham in the UK, or Berlin, Germany. It’s only Achilles heel was perhaps its accessibility to the wrong kind of tourists who took an interest in its low costs. By the way, Jaco is no longer inexpensive. My husband and I both having gone years ago (on separate occasions) were surprised that a roundabout 23% tax was imposed! So, prices in Jaco are now comparable to that of New York.
I have few qualms with Jaco. I have few qualms with any destination that I visit, truth be told. However, I think it will be a while before we return. There are so many other places we would like to visit for starters. Second, the now sky high prices of things like dining experiences and excursions will prevent us from returning as our family grows. I hope someday, however, to return to Costa Rica and perhaps see a new part of the country. I would hate to think I will never return. After all, it holds a special place in my heart, click here to see why.
Would I recommend it? I think it depends on what you’re looking for. It has a great mix of beaches, accessibility to other parts of the country, local excursions, and great food. It’s a beach town with the “grit” of a city in many respects.
Is it safe? That depends on your version of safe. Jaco is relatively safe if you practice precautions. I wouldn’t walk around at night, especially alone. I would take a registered cab instead. Have a plan before you go out at night and don’t wander aimlessly, unless you are on the main strip. In the populated areas of Jaco there are always many people and families around. For a more in depth look at Jaco and Costa Rica, check out all of my other posts on the country!