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!
When I look back on my young life, I feel blessed to have had an idyllic childhood. While we never flew to Italy or Morocco, my parents had an adventurous spirit. I remember taking road trips, traveling to Florida often, and visiting the Caribbean with our family.
From those memories, a love of exploration was cultivated. However, I did not travel in high school or even college. Instead, I got lost in the small town way of thinking and found myself doing the same things every weekend. Then, at 24 years old, I took my first international trip as an adult to Costa Rica. I went with a group of girlfriends and we had a blast. Years later we can still easily laugh about and reminisce on all of the memories that we made.
Naturally, when the opportunity to visit Costa Rica years later a second time presented itself, I gave an enthusiastic “hell yes”. This time, I wouldn’t be going with my gal-pals. As a married woman and mother, I would be going with my husband and 10 month old son.
So how did the two trips compare? What did I learn after going back a second time – in a completely different place in my life?
Damn. I remember coming home from Costa Rica and feeling like I had seen some shit. I think to some extent – everyone feels that way after their first international trip. People at home just can’t relate and don’t get it. But, really. I had done things that for me were incredibly adventurous. Things I would never have thought I would find myself doing.
Costa Rica is known for its adventure tourism, and ziplining is more or less a right of passage. If you talk to anyone on a trip to Costa Rica or has been to the country – odds are – they’ve ziplined. Considering so many people zipline, before going it doesn’t even feel like such a big deal. However, I can assure you, once you’re looking down over the edge of your first platform…it is a very big deal. My girl friends and I went through the Los Suenos company for our ziplining adventure. n my opinion, I highly recommend them if you plan on going – professional, enthusiastic, and they provide free transportation to and from the hotels!
While getting suited up, I remember all of us girls jesting with one another and making jokes about falling out of the trees. I put on a brave face, but inside, I was a nervous wreck. During each step of the process, my heart would pound just a touch more. When it was our group’s turn – I was really shocked that I raised my hand to go first.
It was almost as if my hand has a mind of its own. I gripped the rope with both hands and pushed off the platform. The wind rushed through every inch of me. I had never been simultaneously thrilled and terrified at once until this point.
I was thrilled because I had a full realization of how high in the air I was flying. It was me, and the trees. All I heard was the “whirring” of the line and my yelling to myself “Oh my God! Woohoo!” My heart was pounding once I landed. It was weird because even though I had the thrill of a lifetime – I remember saying, “I don’t want to go again.” Of course, there is no other option. I finished the course.
A few times I even got stuck and had to climb my way to the landing platform. I was so proud of myself, I felt like a professional. I don’t think I stopped shaking or smiling the entire time. However, one time was more than enough for me.
The Hike From Hell
I don’t remember who started it- but at some point all of us got it in our heads that the quintessential Costa Rican experience would be to see a waterfall. The entire week we were in Jaco we scoured for the perfect guide and the perfect excursion. Somehow, we found Ronald, his driver Andy, and Nauyaca waterfall in Dominical.
How do I begin to describe Ronald? He is the Costa Rican version of Zamir from Parts Unknown. Ronald makes you do things you’d rather not do, and are really annoyed about, but always with a positive outcome. Often, he has a vision that is usually pretty hard to see at first. Also, he has an enthusiasm that feels oppressive, especially when you’re hot and hungover. However, he is knowledgeable, happy-go-lucky, and was committed, I mean, FULLY committed to making our day memorable. He’s an exceptional human and made the trip worthwhile – we still talk about him to this day.
None of us are athletes, yet somehow, decided a five mile hike upwards in mud and cowshit would be the perfect experience. This hike is so trying, to long, so hot – I remember thinking, “is this legal?” at least 500 times on the walk. There are parts of the walk which are uphill and too many times we slid, pulled, at weeds for stability, and had to put our bare hands on the ground to steady ourselves. I have never been so angry, so frustrated, or laughed so hard in all my life. The further we got along on our hike, the more I felt like I was in a different world.
What’s more – everything felt undiscovered. We were the only ones around wherever we went. We passed sheep on a really high mountain, unique bugs, and wide open fields. In addition to angry, frustrated, and giggling – I was also left quite speechless at times. I’d never experienced nature in the capacity that I saw during our hike. There were so many sites that took my breath away, and I was hardly sure they were real. Sometimes the mountains and fields seemed to go on forever.
The first view of Nauyaca waterfall took my breath away. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. There are seven levels at the bottom and even more at the top and the water cascades down powerfully into a giant and freezing lake. By that time we were drenched in sweat and couldn’t wait to dive in. Although – that was no easy task either. The first few feet into the water are extremely slippery and I definitely busted my ass more than once. The water is so cold that it numbs your body, but looking at the falls from the lake makes you forget all of that.
The people climbing up high onto the falls make it look easy, but it’s definitely not! It’s extremely slippery and the jump from even the first level of rocks into the water is scary! This was one of my fondest travel memories even to this day.
The hike back down was interesting to say the least. It began raining, and we began getting hot again and just wanted to get the fuck back to the hotel. The mud and cow shit became wildly slippery and our friend, Morgan, went sliding and landed on her back. She fell so hard that the tongue of her sneaker was all the way out to the side. We were really worried and I remember Amanda and I running to her and immediately thinking we needed to clean out her wounds. “NO!” Ronald exclaimed.
“I know what to do.” His plan…was…weird. “First, I need one of your friends to push your back.” *Insert WTF meme here.* “Now, listen to me, I’m going to tie your shoe very tight, this will fix most of the problem.” We had no idea why he thought to do this, and we still don’t. We went from shock and fear to outright CRYING from laughing. No one can retell this story with a straight face – it’s so absurd. It took Morgan a really long time to heal from that fall, God knows how much longer had Ronald not tied her shoe really tight.
We still went through Los Suenos tours – and this time I watched from afar as people suited up for the adventure of a lifetime. I remembered fondly that I had once been them. However, I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go soaring through the trees again! Now, we were embarking on a different journey offered at the adventure site – a chocolate tour.
We were able to follow the entire process of chocolate from start to finish. We tasted chocolate at each stage of the process. I have seen images of the giant cocoa fruit, and have always been curious what it tastes like. I finally figured it out, and the answer is Styrofoam. Generally, you scoop out the seeds and chew off the flesh around them.
Each stage of the process becomes sweeter and sweeter. We were even able to see that there is a noticeable difference in quality between chocolate that is handmade versus made by a machine. If you follow my adventures enough – you will see that I am a huge fan of ancient civilizations and Shamanism.
One story that stands out to me from high school history class is Cacao. Cacao is essentially hot chocolate. The Mayan people would make the drink and considered it a gift from the gods. Beginning in the 8th century (AD) the image of the Cacao god began to appear on pottery. I always imagined what this drink might taste like. No seriously – I spent a fuck ton of my childhood imagining what Cacao might taste like. I pictured bubbles and it being cold for some reason, but super thick and mildly sweet. I also pictured people drinking it through a straw. Basically, I pictured chocolate milk.
I’m happy to say that I finally got to try it! It was essentially hot chocolate, but with a much more earthy and natural taste.
On our girls’ trip, we were apparently ALL about self care before it was even a thing. We treated ourselves to massages and yoga class on the terrace of our hotel:
We also took a four hour ride (each way!) to visit the Baldi Hot Springs at the base of Arenal volcano.
Baldi Hot Springs is a resort which offers a fuck ton of thermal baths to soak and relax in. Some have the look of a jacuzzi, some are more like pools, and others have water slides and waterfalls! The temperature of the baths range from hot to scolding hot, and a few cold pools to dip into as well.
Yes, it’s possible to unwind and relax with a baby. Every morning we would take Henry to the pool and the three of us would splash around. The hotel had a baby floaty and Henry enjoyed peddling his legs underwater and being able to move on his own. We started him off in the kiddie pool, and wondered why more of the children weren’t using it.
Then one day, we saw an iguana take a massive crap in it, and quickly switched exclusively to the big pool. Arthur and I were so much, and family time between the three of us is pretty much exclusive to the weekend, and sometimes, one day a week. It was such a joy and so relaxing to laze around in the pool with my two boys without a care in the world.
Sometimes, Arthur would swim with Henry and I’d make my way over to the deep end and just float. My ears would be submerged and I couldn’t hear a thing. I would just stare at the palm trees and be in the moment. I would just think to myself how grateful, lucky, and happy I was to be in Costa Rica with my family. When there is no clutter in your mind, no anger in your heart, and no maelstrom in your soul – that is the definition of relaxation. A smile on everyone’s face and a few laughs along the way doesn’t hurt either!
We made a whole event out of watching the sunset. Villa Calletas is THE place to watch the sun go down over the water. The big draw is their stone amphitheater made solely for watching the sunset. It was so much fun to grab our bougie drinks, sit in the amphitheater, and watch the sun go down while having some much needed girl time and talk. We got dressed up, did our make up, and took some great photos!
While we couldn’t make our way to Villa Calletas this time around, the view from our balcony was just as stunning. The sunset in Costa Rica is perfect no matter where you are watching from. In this case, each evening, Henry napped in the room while we sat outside on our rocking chairs. Arthur grabbed us each a frozen drink as we talked about life and watched the brilliant orange sun go down over the water. We would talk about where we saw ourselves in a year, five years, ten, retired. We would talk about our dreams and our hopes. It was really nice to re-connect on such a deep level with such a romantic backdrop.
I jumped at the chance to see monkeys up close and personal. On our trip to Baldi hot springs, our guide offered to stop at some random-ass house where guests can interact with the tiny tree dwellers. We paid $20 each to feed and hold them – which was definitely a fucking rip-off. But, experiences build experience – even negative ones. In my mind, I probably would have paid any price to experience something that I felt was so exotic.
I still remember my heart beating as I washed my hands and walked to the tree after. The alpha climbed down and inspected us, even showing his teeth once to let us know he was the boss. After he gave us the “all clear” many more monkeys joined. I was sniffed, climbed on, and nearly had my sunglasses stolen. My hair was yanked, my arms were scratched, and I loved every second.
There was plenty of time to explore the beaches on our girls trip! We laid out, drank daiquiris, and ate poke bowls at Playa Hermosa. I had never seen a black sand beach before and the ethereal fog among the palm trees made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park. While we had plenty of time to enjoy the beach, we didn’t spend a lot of time there. Our schedule was jam packed!
Beach Time Now
In terms of the beach, there is not a lot of difference between Costa Rica then and now! I was still wowed by the unique aesthetics of Costa Rican beaches. That familiar foggy, pre-dawn, jungle-esque feeling was all around. We spent our entire first day just walking up and down the shoreline and exploring.
As a family, we made it a point to get to the beach every day. Often, we would only stay for 20 – 30 minutes. Henry as a baby is susceptible to heat stroke, especially being completely covered because he can burn easily. We would go into our air conditioned room where he could have playtime. That wound up being fine with me, I’m not someone who can lay out on the sweltering sand all day.
Arthur got to get a good surf lesson in while Henry took a nap in his beach tent and I did some relaxing and tanning. All in all, I was surprised by how much didn’t change. I was surprised that it was still possible to have a normal beach outing and do our usual stuff. Something that did change was that we used the beautiful beach behind the hotel to do a family photo shoot. I used to heavily make fun of travel bloggers who partook in professional photos. (I hate false candid.) However, I definitely see the value after getting them back. Professional photographers are able to come up with unique poses in flattering angles. These will be photos our family will cherish for a lifetime.
Crew Hang Outs Then
Our first morning in Costa Rica started with a bang. We took a catamaran cruise to Isla Tortuga, and we started drinking insanely early in the morning – I really think it had to be around eight a.m. After a great breakfast, we boarded the boat with dozens of other young people. We laid out on the nets in front of the boat, vibed to music, and talked SO much shit about people back home.
I remember first pulling up to the island and being inspired for a novel instantaneously. With the swaying palm trees, strong sun, warm sand, and lapping waves – I was transported to somewhere remote and relaxing. We drank beer and I tried ceviche for the first time and thought it was the most amazing blend of tastes in the world. I can still taste the freshness of the fish and tanginess of the citrus on my tongue! My best friend and I re-made the dish shortly after getting home.
The day was an endless barrage of eating, drinking beer, tanning, swimming, and napping in hammocks. I remember walking into the water (in a fucking TWO PIECE) and feeling a sharp pain on my ass cheek. The island was so remote that I thought an islander shot me with a blow dart. I looked down, and I had been stung by a bee – good thing I’m not allergic!
My favorite memory of the day was snorkeling. A small, rickety, boat took several of us out to sea. When the driver pointed to each person – you were expected to throw your body backward into the water so as not to capsize the boat. I got so nervous that I jumped up on the seat and dove into the water – causing a COMPLETE panic on the boat.
The resistance in the water was really strong – I specifically remember us being afraid of that. One of the guides dove to the bottom of the sea and pulled up some type of mollusk. “Cool, I wish I could dive like you.” I remember saying. “Yes?” The next thing I know he was deflating my life vest, thinking I wanted to go under water, and I was screaming NO while my friends cackled. It was a day full of that childish, side clenching, ear to ear smiling laughter – and I’ll never forget it.
Crew Hang Outs Now
We were still able to embark on excursions, but we had to definitely scale back the pace of how we travel. We only did two excursions on our two week trip, and one per day. One was the chocolate tour from above and the other was the monkey mangrove tour. The other days we were either taking Spanish lessons at Academia Tica, or just lounging and relaxing at the resort. Even on the days we hung back, we still would go out for lunch and take walks around the town. Life moves at a slower pace now.
I noticed we also had to be very cognizant of time. Whenever we looked for an excursion, we had to consider if Henry could withstand being on “go mode” for X amount of hours. His max is about four to six hours, which is pretty freaking good for a baby. If a parent is reading, work your way up to this slowly! We also had to consider safety and be realistic. Would I have loved to visit Isla Tortuga again? Yes.
However, realistically, could I imagine taking my 10 month old on a catamaran ride for two hours each way? No. Can I imagine us being stuck on an island all day long with no way of getting back if Henry was cranky, sick, or we ran out of food? No. So, it wasn’t so much about NOT doing so much as it was adjusting what we do and how we do it.
Night Life Then
We went to the few bigger bars and clubs that Jaco had to offer. For some reason they all seem to be colors…”Orange” or “Blu.” I don’t recall being too wild and crazy, but I remember the freedom of being able to have four of five drinks with no responsibilities in the morning other than excursions. Flash forward, for a moment, to 2020. We took taxis everywhere at night at the advice of our concierge. Jaco can be pretty sketchy at night. For that reason I was shocked at remembering how we would walk around at night – sometimes late at night – to different clubs and bars. Although I do remember one night of piling into a taxi cab, barely fitting, and DEFINITELY no seat belts being worn.
On our trip to Costa Rica – we turned in fairy early – usually by 10:00. I’ll be honest with you right now…I FUCKING LOVE IT. There is no greater joy than collapsing into clean sheets after spending all day in the sun. I didn’t long for one bit for being out until 2 in the morning and spending the next day sick from a hangover.
That is not to say we spent every evening in our polo sweaters playing checkers. We were still able to enjoy all of the “adult” things that we like. We drank margaritas, caught a lot of live music, walked the strip, and bullshitted over beers and greasy food on the beach. Henry slept through most of this and we were able to have legitimate adult time.
What I Learned
I will always cherish the memories I made as a young woman who traveled the world. I’m so happy that at an early age, I invested in traveling when many of my peers were content to blow every last dollar at the same bars every weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I did plenty of that before I saw the light – but I got out early. My travels were full of time to do whatever I wanted without a care in the world beyond seeing everything on my itinerary and nursing a hangover.
Things are different now, but I have to be honest – not so much so. For the most part, when we travel, we are still able to do everything we want. We’ve still been able to eat out at restaurants, go on excursions, and engage in local culture and unique experiences. I now have the added benefit of seeing the world through the most innocent and excited eyes. I’m so grateful to get to share so much of the world and travel with him and my husband. Both trips to Costa Rica were so very memorable. I hope I will get to go back someday, I’m sure I will. Life is long. Arthur and I talk about retiring in Costa Rica. Maybe! Who knows? Writing this piece has been refreshing. It was really eye opening for me to see how my trips to Costa Rica from then to now have changed.
Costa Rica was the first international destination that I visited as an adult. A memory that stands out vividly was having a really great time at the Green Room. When I re-visited a few weeks ago with my husband and baby in tow, I was not disappointed. The aesthetics and overall vibe of the Green Room are incredible. The decor reminds me of the ruin pubs of Budapest, but set in the jungle. Guests begin by walking through an outdoor area where trees are abundant, as are several dining tables.
The furniture is funky and varies a lot. There is no doubt that the Green room has an artistic and natural style. It almost feels as though you are in a hidden park, or backyard. By the maitre’d booth, there is an area for children to draw and create their own artistic pieces.
We sat indoors because the outdoor area was full. The vibe is still strong inside and exudes creativity. We enjoyed watching the mini-light show display on a fence illuminate sporadically.
Wherever there is an opportunity for avant-garde, the Green Room takes it. My favorite was the hall of mirrors I passed when visiting the restroom. I’m going to throw this at you, and hope it makes sense. The Green Room feels like camping in the jungle, an artisan market, a hippie camp, and art convention all in one. There.
The menu reflects the eco vibe of the restaurant. There were so many mouth watering and truly unique dishes to choose from. I had to go with the sweet potato and coconut crusted Mahi Mahi – although it wasn’t an easy choice! I was worried that the flavors would fall short – I’m happy to say they definitely did not. The fish was very light and fresh. It definitely took on so much of the flavor of the crust. Speaking of, the crust is soft and savory. The entire dish is incredibly tender and has a hearty, fruity, taste.
If we can back up a moment, you cannot possibly go wrong order the guacamole with plantain chips. As I mentioned earlier – one of my fondest memories from my first trip to Costa Rica was The Green Room. For years I could remember drinking hibiscus flavored beer, and have never found it anywhere since. You can bet your ass I got a bunch of them upon my return! For some reason I remember the hibiscus taste coming in a bit stronger last time – but it was still as refreshing as I remembered. There are a ton of craft beers available to try, and if you’re extra nice, you can try before you buy.
No bohemian fantasy of a restaurant is complete without live music! On the particular night that we went, there was a woman performing with THE most soulful and booming voice – it was really unexpected. Every song she covered has an island-esque vibe and undoubtedly added to the ambiance. I really feel that one cannot talk about eating in Jaco, Costa Rica without having gone here. It encapsulates so much of the ethos.
The most talked about and well known eatery in Jaco right now is undoubtedly Graffiti. Established in 2010, Graffiti has stayed true to the roots of the area while also creating a very appealing chic, modern, and eclectic mecca for foodies who visit from the world over. The trendy ideal might throw some off as that component doesn’t necessarily fit with one’s image of Jaco.
There’s no doubt about it – Jaco is a gritty city. It’s infamous for (but not exclusive to) its hookers, graffiti art, giant Walmart, and ever increasing drug scene. Graffiti marries the two concepts perfectly. Appropriately, Graffiti has branded itself as “ghetto gourmet.” If the woke mafia could pick their draws up from off the floor, I’d like to applaud this initiative.
Graffiti showcases art – namely street style art from local creatives in the area. The pieces on display are urban and include unique pieces such as skateboards used as canvases for art. However, the indoor portion of the restaurant with its glass paned walls could easily be confused as a small beachy museum. Graffiti is the perfect restaurant for those with an elevated taste and appreciation for locally sourced and ingenious cuisine, but hate the out of touch snobbery of fine dining.
It goes without saying that every option on the cocktail list seems like a good one. Cold Brew Colada, Blackberry G & T, Passion Thyme Gin Fizz…the choices are endless and difficult to make. Going with the Wildberry Basil Lemonade is the move in my opinion. It’s refreshing and light and perfect on a hot evening.
The crowned jewel of Graffiti is its coffee and cacao rubbed beef tenderloin. It is tender, juicy, and packed with flavor. It’s surprising that the coffee and cacao flavors actually do stand out on the palette – for that alone I was impressed. The portion is more than generous and the crispy onions that come atop the entree…simply to die for. Don’t miss out on the deconstructed fish tacos either, you are in Costa Rica afterall! If you’re eating in Jaco, Costa Rica – this is a must visit.
El Hicaco Seafood
El Hicaco Seafood is the pearl of Jaco. Set directly on the beach it is the perfect spot for a dreamy sunset dinner. Watching the waves roll onto the beach and the palm trees sway is pure bliss. Make no mistake – this is no little taco hut. The wooden wire cages around the lights, palm leaf fans, and bamboo details create a minimalistic yet sophisticated beachy ambiance. The clean white aesthetic inside help El Hicaco stand out as an elevated seafood experience.
The surf and turf is a popular option at El Hicaco. If you order a dish without any seafood component – you’re nuts. The restaurant does seafood perfectly, in spite of that, my entree was way too big to finish. I ordered the lobster tails sauteed in butter and God knows what else. They’re meaty, flavorful, and easy to get out of the shell. The tails paired with a daquiri as the sound of the waves roll in – paradise.
Whenever I find a Mexican establishment anywhere in the world – I feel at home. I’m not even a fraction Mexican, but I truly feel this way. It might be that Mexican culture is so warm and inviting. I’ve never met a Mexican person who was not genuine – especially in the service and tourism industry. The people are incredibly hard working and go massive lengths to satisfy clients and customers. Senor Harry’s is a great example of such ethos.
I wish I lived at Senor Harry’s. The staff is really accommodating, kind, and welcoming. Our maitre’d let us have our pick of table and went out of his way to consider our sleeping child. We had a great laugh trying to navigate our bulky stroller through the tables and another waiter joined in on the hysterics. “No problem, I love funny moments like this. That’s pura vida, right?” the maitre’d happily announced. From that moment on I fell in love with Senor Harrys.
If you don’t like Mexican or Tex Mex food – you’re just not human. Senor Harrys serves up the soul nourishing, heart warming, stomach pleasing dishes that make you do a little dance in your seat. The drinks are strong enough to give you the courage to take your little dance onto the live music stage. The restaurant is HUGE and does offer live music on the weekends. Each night of the week there is some kind of fun offering at Senor Harry’s. This includes one dollar margarita night on Mondays and free bachata lessons on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Senor Harry’s offers all of the fan favorites – quesadillas, burritos, tacos and much more. The tableside guacamole if a must, and with any luck your guac preparer will be as friendly as ours. The frozen watermelon – equal parts delicious and strong – is divine. Look to their drink menu for other fun cocktails. The drinks are concocted with iconic natural sites of Costa Rica in mind.
Hotel Club Del Mar – Las Sandalias
This one is going to take a lot of people by surprise. Hotel Club Del Mar offers really really good food. Its clientele is mostly limited to the guests staying at the resort. That is how I came to know its food in the first place. There are certain details that stand out to me from my last trip to Jaco. The food at Hotel Club Del Mar is one of them, it was just exceptional and comforting. I ate here several times and the food was always on point.
I came back to re-assess and wasn’t disappointed. Most of the staff was surprised that we weren’t staying at the resort and still chose to eat here. Step up your marketing game and get people in – because it’s an excellent eatery!
The banana daiquiri is the best I had in the city, and I have order them from everywhere I visited in this post. The comida tipica is exceptional and fairly priced. I ordered the fish option although you can also choose other types of protein. It was fresh and flavorful. The rice and beans which accompanied were filling and well seasoned. On a hot day, be sure to order a bowl of gazpacho. It’s tangy, creamy, and could rival the gazpacho in Seville. I’m drooling just thinking about it.
Morales Steak House
The Morales House just feels like Jaco. The city for the most part has a rough and tumble, street, type of vibe to it. If Jaco were a person it would probably never cry, keep its distance, but also kick your ass if it needed to – no questions asked.
Morales House is a no frills outdoor joint. It is equipped with no less than 9,000 televisions all showing UFC matches simultaneously. The atmosphere is busy, lively, and comfortable. It is rustic, no frills, and there is always a crowd. It’s a fantastic place to grab a cold beer, watch a fight, and dive into their meat-centric menu. You can’t go wrong with a classic steak, potato, and veggie option here. Meat is their specialty.
This restaurant isn’t in Jaco – it is found in Manuel Antonio which isn’t impossibly far away. I wanted to squeeze in a small review because I’d been yearning to go and finally got the chance.
El Avion is incredibly popular with tourists because of two reasosn.
First – the impossibly amazing view:
Second – It is inside of an airplane!
Beyond the drinks which will get you butt-wasted – the food is nothing to write home about. It’s not bad, but it’s basic. I wouldn’t visit here hoping to have comida tipica. Generally the rule is the better the view – the more sub-par the food. No exception at El Avion. As I said, the food isn’t bad – but no wow factor. Come, have a burger and strong drink and enjoy what might be the best view in Manuel Antonio.
I would fly to Costa Rica just for this fucking gelato. Period. The play on the name is genius, because Jaco does have more of a rebellious spirit than a beauty to it – and I love it. You will definitely be surprised how closely this gelato comes to that of Italy and Spain – I was impressed. If you are an aesthetics person you will love the cozy and artsy cafe vibe. The flavors are endless and unique. Some of the more interesting ones include Madagascar vanilla, lavendar, matcha, dragonfruit, iced espresso, lime ginger, and Nutella. There are around 20 different flavors to choose from daily along with coffee and affogato. Don’t be surprised if there is a line around the block.
If you visit Costa Rica – without a doubt you will pass some type of “soda.” I was going to make a corny joke, but I decided against it. (Da-hurr, soda?! Not the kind you drink, everyone…) A soda in Costa Rica is an eatery that serves traditional Costa Rican fare. Typically the food is buffet style (although not always.) It typically comes at a reasonable price. The atmosphere tends to be rustic and no fuss – and anytime you walk into that situation – you know the food will be good. If the soda you walk into seems to have an entire family working behind the counter – even better. I fell in love with Costa Rican breakfast at a remote soda.
Costa Rican Breakfast
When you hear the contents of a “Costa Rican breakfast” it largely sounds like none of it should go together, but somehow, it does. Typically, such breakfasts are referred to as Gallo Pinto. While there is some variation, it is safe to say that Gallo Pinto almost always looks different compared to the classic American breakfast to which many of us are accustomed. As I’ve had it, Gallo Pinto consists of mixed rice and black beans. In addition there are eggs any style, a tortilla, sweet plantains, and of course, sour cream.
I might have lost some of you at the last two, but TRUST ME, it somehow freaking works. This combination is sweet and savory at its best. It WILL leave a pool of saliva in your jaw. I have not been able to stop talking about breakfast in Costa Rica for well over two weeks at this point. Bare in mind – this whole opportunity on your dish is utterly a waste if you don’t dress your eggs in Lizano.
Many think the biodiversity of the country if Costa Rica’s national treasure. Fuck that. Lizano is clearly the superior option. The salsa is unique to Costa Rica. It comes in what looks like a hot sauce bottle. The standard flavor is NOT spicy, just very flavorful. I’d describe it as Latin salsa mixed with British malt or vinegar sauce.
I have an obsessive interest in street food. I mean, I don’t like to be standing when I eat it, but I love street food. In many of my blog posts I’ve waxed poetic about street foods from around the world. I need to add yet another to my list, and I’m drooling on the keyboard as I do so…salchipapas. There are so many takes on the quick dish, but let me give you an overview. Imagine a plate of french fries, slived pan fried sausage (a level better than hot dogs), and an array of condiments including, but not limited to mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard.
There are several places that will add coleslaw into the mix as well. Salchipapas are meant to be shared, of course. It was great to kick back at the beach with my husband, and to nosh on a basket of salchipapas at night while getting lost in political discussion fueled by beer and frozen drinks. This is literally the perfect accompaniment to an evening of drinking and discourse.
What I Learned Is – Parent Tips
We were able to take our nine month old son to all of these restaurants. After reading this post, you can see how they all differ. From the high end to the rowdy, he was welcomed everywhere. In my experience, Costa Rican people adore children and do not think it’s weird to bring your child out to dinner late at night.
Henry was exceptional for most of the meals we shared as a family. However, on the rare occasion that he did cry and scream, it was only other American tourists who raised an eyebrow – never locals. If anything, those in service positions only asked how they could help and wanted to love on Henry as much as possible.
Costa Rica is a great place to experiment with dining styles for little ones. The overall culture is relaxed and tolerant. Most eateries offer outdoor seating. If you absolute beast (little one) starts acting up, all you have to do is push your stroller a few steps away to be out of everyone’s hair. No need to worry about doing the parent-walk-of-shame out of a crowded indoor restaurant.
In Jaco, understand that options for highchairs and basic at best. For the most part they are non functional and may not even have lap belts. Bring your own stroller – almost as cool as bring your own booze…almost.
Come prepared with a personal fan, water/Pedialyte, and toys. As stated – many eateries are outdoors where it may be very hot – even at night. Keep the kids hydrated, cool, and entertained.
I have long been a fan of the day long layover. By opting for a 12 hour layover or day trips, I’ve been able to see some of my most desired locations at a fraction of the price. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is also the quickest way to exhaust oneself. Taking a 12 hour layover in Lisbon two years ago before reaching Romania left me staying up for 48 hours! I’ve never not been exhausted by one of these long haul mini-trips.
I thought for a while that I would never be able to do these types of trips with a child. I personally could pull through prolonged sleepless hours and crash on the plane, but a 9 month old? Let’s all laugh together, BAHAHAHAH. Even if you’re not a parent, surely you realize what hell this would be.
So, I did it anyway. We decided to explore San Jose, Costa Rica in one day! After a week on the Costa coastline, we spent 12 hours in San Jose before jumping on a red eye flight. San Jose has a reputation of being dangerous, gritty, and crime ridden. And if you know me, you know that is exactly why I went to see it. I love cities that have an edge to them. Most people do not visit Central America for its cities. The region is more known for its bounty of beaches. However, in the past few years since moving to Brooklyn, I’ve taken on the persona of urbanite. Therefore, we traveled to the city.
Long Layover Hack
A long day in a bustling city sounds painful when involving an infant, right? Not if you rent a hotel room for the day.
We paid exactly $48 dollars for a room at the Hotel Cultura Plaza. It was a walking distance to everything that we wanted to see. We paid this even though we would be leaving hours before check out and not actually staying over. Let me say, it was worth every penny. The room was pristine, modern, and was just enough space for the three of us and our belongings.
Having the room for the day allowed us to have a “home base”. We were able to go in and out of our luggage as we pleased. Its central proximity to sites allowed us to return to the room when we were too hot, needed to change a diaper, or wanted to change clothes. It was a Godsend to be able to shower and change into comfy clothes right before we left for the airport. The best part? At around 6:30 we were spent – we didn’t have the energy for any more sites. It was amazing for the three of us to lay in bed, watch movies, cuddle up, and sleep before a long five hour flight!
To recap, day trips with kids are possible, but book that cheap-ass room before you go.
The Jade Museum
I know what you’re thinking. Because it was exactly what I was thinking when I found out that the Jade Museum was a top attraction in San Jose. Jade? As in the stone? An entire museum…dedicated to…a particular type of stone? Like…a rock, kind of? Stick with me, I promise the Jade Museum is dope!
The Jade Museum boasts five floors of jade discovered in the Americas. It has the world’s largest collection. The historical significance of jade in early Costa Rican people is significant and trippy. The Jade Museum is one place that I could certainly have spent the entire day exploring. I say that without a shred of exaggeration. The words, “this is so cool” left my lips no less than a hundred times during my exploration.
I have an utter fascination with weirdly specific parts of history. I’m especially interested in the spiritual beliefs and traditions of ancient societies. In particular, I’m captivated by anything involving Shamanism. If you know anyone in need of someone to do investigative reporting in this area – I’m your broad!
I love the idea of connecting with nature, spirituality, and the occasional hallucinogenic as a form of healing both physically and emotionally. Shamanism seems so mystical and so pure. My mind blows wide open when I consider its role in a history that spans hundreds of years. In pre-Colombian Costa Rica – Shamans relied heavily on jade and believed in its potential for healing.
It was long believed that spirits could shapeshift and take on the form of various creatures, turn invisible, and manifest through instruments of the shamans such as stones and jade pendants. Spirits were thought to dictate nearly everything in life from illness to protection of nature, animals, and people. Spirits could be both good and evil simultaneously. This is why so many of the jade objects depict having two heads.
When a person in the tribe fell sick, Shamans used jade stones (considered magical) to communicate with the spirit of the ill person. In earlier days, people believed that Shamans could shape shift into animals particularly at night made possible through the stone.
Although much isn’t known, Shamanism was practiced by a small amount of females in Costa Rica. Mainly elderly women could be educated in the ways of Shamanism to hold priestess positions. Certain jade objects depict women in authority over ceremonial proceedings.
There were two rooms entitled “day” and “night.” In the day room you are able to see how Costa Ricans built their homes and used jade in their day to day living such as for jewelry and curing illness.
It is no surprise that my wild ass like the night room much better. It was full of stories of war, burials, sacrifice, and more Shamanic and spiritual uses of jade.
Teatro Nacional de…Costa Rica?
I’ve long been writing a novel set in Costa Rica. I’ve been working out a scene that takes place in the Teatro Nacional Costa Rica. Luckily, there are so many pictures on the internet to use as inspiration. However, it’s been a dream of mine since beginning the novel to see it in person. That was four years ago, on my first trip to Costa Rica where I decided to write my book. I finally was able to soak in every detail during my visit to the city. Seeing this theater was paramount to my experience of San Jose, Costa Rica in one day!
We arrived just in time for the last English speaking tour of the theater for the day. Talk about serendipity. Might have been a nod from the universe telling me to “soldier on” with my pursuit of writing. That’s what I would like to think anyway.
When one thinks of Latin America, the image of a classical European style theater house does not usually come to mind. However, the Teatro Nacional is one such place. It doesn’t seem as though it blends in at all with the overall aesthetics of the modern and somewhat gritty capital city. Afterall, it certainly has an old world look and is most certainly not modern. It definitely does not fit in with the graffiti clad streets of San Jose. It’s not inconceivable that the theater may be a transplant from another country entirely. However, San Jose is the original and only home of the theater. Although, Italy can lay claim to its many statues.
The affluent families of San Jose in the 1800s could afford to send their children to Europe to study. Their children would return with stories of grand performances that they witnessed in the most stunning of venues. The families soon sought their own venue for performances. Thus the theater was erected with inspiration from Europe.
As soon as we entered the theater, my imagination went wild. I saw visions of ladies in giant ball gowns and men in tuxedos laughing haughtily and checking out the other guests who arrived in their finest around them. The marble statues imported from Italy and gold trim in the lobby create an elegant aesthetic that helps embolden such visions.
A DNA test that I took claims that I share a bloodline with Marie Antoinette. Seeing as my heart skips a beat in any place that resembles Versailles, I concur. The regal, airy, high class charm of the theater does indeed remind one of the sun king’s palace.
After entrance, the tour moves into a vestibule. An unassuming, naturally pretty young woman introduced herself as our tour guide and discussed each statue around us. I’ll leave the detailed history to the photo captions. Instead, I’ll just say that things did not go as expected in all of the best ways. A man, who definitely had airs of importance looked assumingly at our guide. He began insulting her and saying he didn’t think she knew anything about the theater at all.
The tour looked around awkwardly at each other. I love an awkward moment just as much as anyone. Perhaps more awkward is my mistaking this man for Lin Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton creator and genius. Things made more sense when we learned that our tour guide and her associate were ACTORS. As such, they would take turns leading while the other dressed in period clothing. Both would assume the role of various important political people who were pivotal to the development of the theater.
We were able to tour the reception room where important guests and patrons would gather. The smoking rooms on each side allow the chance to fawn over impressive art. Most interesting was golden champagne fountains in each corner of the room. The best, however, was when Lin Manuel Miranda pretty much called us all garbage people/trash for wearing flip flops and jeans to the gala. I was really impressed with his ability to see me for who I am.
The views of the stage from the balcony seating took my breath away. We were able to see the box where the president of Costa Rica sits for performances. The seat is only for him. It is front and center in a special spacious box.
In the earlier days, important patrons would sit in these balcony seats. It was surprising that their view of the stage did not offer a favorable view of the stage. In a similar situation to the Globe, these seats intended purpose was to show off the patrons. They did not care about the performance so much as being the performance.
After looking at so many photographs of the Teatro Nacional for several years, it was surreal to see it in real life. I was able to run through so many scenes that I created against the backdrop of the actual theater.
Over-Ordering from a Menu – The Pride of Americans
I easily gained 10 pounds just from our meal during dinner. Nuestra Tierra boasts a ginormous menu full of various Costa Rican dishes. It’s heavy with tourists, but the menu seemed promising.
After a long day of exploring, alcohol is well deserved and to be honest – needed. I ordered a glass of the red house sangria. I have no idea about the ingredients- but half a glass was more than enough. Being a new mom has a lot of challenges, I’m not sure I’d count newly being a lightweight this as one. I think it’s more of a money saver.
We ordered a HUGE platter of food which included rice and beans, several types of meat, fried yucca, and plantains. I felt so guilty because we didn’t even make a dent in the damn platter. The only thing more American would have been finding a Krispy Kreme after dinner. I’ll be honest, the platter did not impress me. We both thought it would be much better. For the most part it was bland, and a lot of the meat was difficult to get through due to texture. There is also a real chance that the restaurant mixed up fried yucca with fried rocks.
The stand out dish, believe it or not was a side dish. SO, side chicks. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be number one. It was a banana that was fried and covered in cheese and it was EVERYTHING. The banana was naturally sweet and cooked in oil. The cheese covering it added even more grease and a fried, stringy, goodness. The two when mixed together formed a savory and sweet connection that shouldn’t have worked, but totally did. This is the ULTIMATE booze accompaniment or stoner snack. I can’t wait to try to re-create it at home.
Out of all of the toys offered to Henry, he only wanted to play with a piece of oily, battered, cheese. I took it from him several times, each of which he screamed. Other diners looked at us as though we were in fact beating him with the cheese. Exhausted from sightseeing and relaxed from booze – I let him have it. He spent the better half of half an hour breaking it up into pieces and smacking it against every surface imaginable. At one point he smashed it into my hair and face. Even at 9 months old you apparently have to pick your battles.
After he grew bored of that, he desperately needed a diaper change. There was no changing station and so I changed him (tipsy mind you) on the floor of the restroom. Yes, I used his changing pad obviously – keyboard warriors. The light was an eco light and would shut off every 45 seconds unless I stood up and jumped. The sight of my son giggling and trying to flip over, as I try to change his diaper in the dark while jumping up from a kneeling position every 45 seconds was a sight to be seen.
The Most Brilliant Moment
The universe and stars aligned to bring together the most miraculous experience of my time in the city. Arthur, Henry, and I scaled a hill not knowing what we would find up top. It was easy to see there were a lot of people at the top of the hill. It was not easy to see why.
Upon reaching the top we saw no less than HUNDREDS of locals were gathered around. I heard a familiar cadanced, spit fire, style of music coming from the middle of the crowd. Every so often the crowd would shout “OHHHHH!” in absolute approval. There was a rap battle happening, and it was fucking magnificent. I love hip hop and rap. I’m always astounded how the uniquely Black American style of music has made its way around the world as a popular style of music.
I have no understanding whatsoever of what was happening within the lyrics. However, in a sea of strangers who looked nothing like me – I felt blissfully at home. The rhythm and feelings generated by this style of music transcend language and culture. It was easy to feel the passion and energy from the performers and crowd. I was ecstatic to witness such a pure local event. We seemed to be the only visitors. It’s exciting to be able to become lost in a scene. I enjoyed every moment.
While nature is in vogue, I love cities. This is especially true for ones with a bite to them. I’m all about scouring through concrete jungles to find gems and getting lost late into the evening. While my wild nights aren’t typically so wild with baby in tow, I was able to explore an environment that I love.