Tandem Travel Tales: Jaco, Costa Rica

THE JOURNEY TO JACO

We made our way to Jaco early in the afternoon by way of La Fortuna. It was about a 3.5-hour drive winding up at down the mountain to the shore. Steve was kind enough to drive and I dozed in and out while the sun unknowingly charred my right arm. We arrived ready to unload and relax for a bit before exploring the town. Per usual, we had picked out a rad, open-air loft through Airbnb that was close to the beach owned by a former professional surfer, Emmanuel. There was really only one rule for this place which was to lock the fridge before you go to bed. Don’t worry, there’s a story about that later.

We set ourselves up to be in Jaco over the holidays, Dec 22-26th. We had heard such a spectrum of misguided representations of Jaco. “It’s owned by the Colombian cartel. It’s so dangerous. You’ll be robbed. It’s a crazy party town. You should cancel your reservations, call it a loss, and stay in Quepos.” I recognize that this is all perspective, but I’m going to stand over here on the sidelines and continue to roll my eyes.


View from an overlook south of Jaco

Yes, we witnessed a little bit of sketchiness here and there, but we have seen the same things in Miami, and Portland, and Seattle, and Alaska, and Indianapolis. It’s all about believing that the people around you truly have the best intentions and are only trying to survive. However, what we did discover was that we had *thankfully* scheduled our trip such that we were in Jaco while everyone else was off adventuring in other parts of the country.
By this, I mean that on our way out of Jaco the morning after Christmas there were cars literally rolling bumper to bumper for an hour and a half in the direction of San Juan. We learned that Jaco is the party hot spot for New Year’s Eve, so we were witnessing the great party migration of Costa Rica. Poor suckers.
The long and short is that we went into Jaco with our guard up. We left with an appreciation of what Jaco is, and why it’s a perfect destination for some and not for others.

A FEW INSIGHTS INTO OUR TIME IN JACO:

Tárcoles River

The drive south to Jaco is relatively expected until you get about 15 minutes out. All of a sudden a strip of tourist traps, souvenir shops, and snack stands start to show up. And then all of a sudden you’re driving across an overpass lined with pedestrians on both sides staring into the water. Sometimes you just have to be a spectator, too.
It turns out the overpass looks on to the Tárcoles River which is notorious for its bounty of crocodiles. So many crocodiles. There were at least 50 visible in a 200m2 area and it made my skin squirm just to look at them. Not to mention the “sidewalk” that lines the overpass is maybe the width of your two feet, so pedestrians are walking into traffic to pass one another for a peek. Meh.

All of the crocodiles hanging out in the Tárcoles River

Ceviche

To be honest, we really struggled to fall in love with the food in Costa Rica. It wasn’t because the cuisine didn’t have the potential, it was because we kept finding ourselves in towns that wanted to cater to the tourist diet. I.e. we saw so many pizza and burger joints. It was a little disheartening. But what we did learn was there is no ceviche at Caliche’s Wishbone. This may be the most blatant form of false advertising I’ve ever seen. Don’t trust Google on ceviche in Jaco. Just walk down to Ridiculous Burgers and go to the local ceviche shop two doors down. Sadly not the best, but better than anything else you’re going to find in Jaco unless you want to delve into the high end.

Sodas? What Sodas?

A general rule of thumb, eat where the locals eat. We only stumbled across two sodas in Jaco. One was at the north end across from a country western bar, and the other was at the south end of the strip and is open 24 hours, Marea Alta. Back to the ceviche, we tried it here, and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a cute spot, accessible, structured for large groups, and evidently, the restaurant of choice for late night working gals.

Taco Joint

This place offers redemption in the food department, and also could teach a lesson or two on how to be a hustler. Seriously. They’re operating this whole place off of a mini fridge, serving counter, single sink, and double hot plate. The hustle was real. They actually ended up losing my ticket in the chaos that was the group of 20 people that ordered ahead of us, but that’s alright. The food totally redeemed them and I have so much respect for their operation. Go, hang out, enjoy the atmosphere and street art, and get killer tacos.

Let’s Talk Beer

Craft beer is on the rise in Costa Rica, but it still has a long way to go. We were told by a Canadian expat who owns a craft beer bar in Jaco that there are a lot of politics involved in the brewing industry. Evidently, Imperial and Pilsen, the country’s two macro breweries, have truly monopolized the industry and made it difficult for any startup crafts to survive.
Each time we were able to try something new or unique, we enjoyed it. There’s a lot of strength in the lager and the pilsner, but heavily hopped or malted beers and their variants have a ways to go. Oh, and as far as the Imperial versus Pilsen debate goes, Team Imperial all the way. But drink it cold, a lukewarm Imperial is not on anyone’s list of things to do.


A glimpse into a day on sunny Jaco Beach.

Agua de Pipa! Pipa Fria!

Mmm, what a treat. If you are anywhere near coconut palms in Costa Rica, you’re likely to be offered agua de pipa. Simply put, fresh coconut water. It is absolutely delicious. I’m not going to sell you on the health benefits, but I will sell you on the experience. Have you ever seen someone freehand machete the top of a coconut off and then whip out a hammer-like tapping device, mine out a straw-sized hole, and have the coconut drink-ready in 20 seconds? They’re available roadside, outside of Manuel Antonio, on the beach, and just about everywhere else.

Catch the Surf

Jaco is known for having great surf. Another positive is that there are surf shops on the beach willing to rent you a board for $10-15/day. Steve was elated to hop on a board and test the waves for hours. Personally, the surf was too strong for me. I’m a bit hydrophobic and handled the first five underwater somersaults pretty well, but they were enough for me. We were clearing our ears of sand for almost three weeks afterward.
You can rent chairs and an umbrella for $10 for the whole day. It’s a good way to accomplish a lot of reading and people watching. Also, know the beach is segmented. We didn’t realize it until the second day, but the best surf is at the southernmost part of the beach by Tiki Bar. It’s where all of the local surfers go. And as far as the bathroom options go, just confidently roll into a beachfront hostel like Selina and borrow their facilities. Use your resources when you can.
The overlook from Donna Martha’s. December 2017.

Merry Christmas, Costa Rica style

I learned a lot on Christmas day last year. It was a beautiful learning experience. We woke up, made a nice breakfast, and headed to the beach. Steve grabbed a surfboard and spent time on the waves while I caught up on a lot of reading. We went back to our place for lunch and asked Emanuele if he had any favorite spots to eat. He suggested an off-the-beaten-path spot about 30 minutes up the mountain. He said to drive over two waterfalls, look for the Tarzan Swing, ask for Donna Martha, and try the empanadas.
The spot was at the top of the mountain just northeast of Jaco. It was a beautiful drive, seeing local families having Christmas celebrations roadside while playing waterfalls. We made it to the top and found an open-air restaurant with two women and a man seated inside. I asked for Donna Martha and tried to explain in my broken Spanish that Emanuele, with Nina the dog, sent us. She thought I was asking about her granddaughter, la niña. I tried.


One of the few shots we got from Donna Martha’s spot.

We doused ourselves in bug spray and took a seat in the back of the restaurant. The man approached us and invited us to see the Tarzan swing and the surrounding land. He shared the all the land visible was owned by Donna Martha and her family. Everything they serve in their restaurant has been grown or raised on their land. It was absolutely beautiful, and it overlooked Jaco and the ocean perfectly. The empanadas and casados were delicious, and we spent our entire meal watching a toucan eat bananas less than ten feet in front of us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After we got down from the mountain we headed back to the beach. I’ll graze over this part, but our time at the beach ended with our brand new GoPro tumbling into the depths of the ocean. I have to admit, I didn’t handle the whole thing very well. I’m working on my attachment to physical things.


The sunset from the southern part of Jaco Beach.

We ended up back at the bnb where Emanuele shared that something good would happen to balance out the misfortune. It always happens that way. Retrospectively, it was the perfect example of literary foreshadowing. Not even 30 minutes later my phone was ringing with a call from Stephen’s mom. She said someone was walking around downtown Jaco with a phone they had found in the middle of the road. We ended up making contact with the woman and meeting her shortly thereafter to retrieve a perfectly intact phone.
I wish I could explain the rollercoaster that tends to be our life related to happenstance, luck, coincidence, but it could write it’s own book. We were lucky, and it was a huge learning experience for me. Things are things are things.
We finished the night off making a smattering of dips and snacks for our Christmas feast. It consisted of fresh fruit, homemade pico de gallo, guacamole, and other treats. We had a visitor in the midst and then spent the night sharing a bottle of delicious sour beer with Emanuele. It was a beautiful day full of firsts for us.

Emanuele, Nina, and Penelope

We couldn’t talk about Jaco without talking about these three. Emanuele, our host, is a gem of a man from Rome who has been hand renovating his property for the last twenty years. He’s a resourceful and talented person, and also so kind. His companion, Nina, is a miniature dachshund puppy who rides on his longboard, bike, and has been known to make appearances on the surfboard.
Little did we know, the duo is occasionally a trio. Penelope made her first appearance on Christmas Eve when we went to sleep without locking the fridge as we had been instructed. Penelope used her little paws to open the door and help herself to everything inside. She pawed through the fresh coconut, fruit, and Steve’s Christmas sausage. I woke up Christmas morning to a moping Steve. I assumed he was upset because we had gone to sleep after a disagreement the night before, but it turns out he was heartbroken that Penelope, the raccoon, had eaten his Christmas sausage. Guys, it was adorable.
Fast forward to Christmas night, we had gotten Steve another sausage and settled in after the chaos of the day. We’re sitting there eating dinner when we see a little critter scurry up the stairs about 8 feet from us and run for the refrigerator. Sneaky, sneaky. Long and short, we met Penelope when she threw a little raccoon fit and started banging around in Emanuele’s garage and trying to eat styrofoam. After coming outside Emanuele quickly disappeared and came back with a kibble jar filled with, wait for it, raccoon food. I can’t even make this up. Before Nina there was Penelope the partially domesticated raccoon. Since Nina, she spends most nights gathering food at other locals homes because they like to scuffle. It was like a real-life animal whisperer.

Manuel Antonio

We spent Christmas Eve going to and from Manuel Antonio, about an hour and a half south of Jaco. I’m going to save that for another post because it’s quite the destination. But I will tell you here, monkeys can be scary.

BLOOPERS AND LESSONS FROM JACO:

  • Fins can fall off of surfboards and break within two minutes of having them.
  • GoPro’s and oceans are not friends.
  • Raccoons will eat your Christmas sausage.
  • Anyone can pay for Google advertisements, that doesn’t mean the restaurant has ceviche.
  • Mas x Menos looks like Walmart because it is Walmart.
  • Everything is open on Christmas in a tourist town.
  • The story behind Fruity Monkey Poop coffee isn’t that interesting.
  • Sometimes you have to go to an obscure beach and walk around a really ramshackle hostel to find delicious seafood.
  • Imperial is the best choice, anytime and anywhere.
In summary, know that Jaco is set up for tourists but is not a bad and dangerous place. It’s catered to all kinds of budgets, from tourist strip malls with small plate options to sodas with one dollar beers. There are casinos and prostitution, but also families, entrepreneurs, and people with stories. You can learn a lot here, and you can enjoy it or hate it, but that’s really up to you.
We were fortunate to cross paths with so many good people in Jaco. I can’t picture receiving a phone call back home that someone down the road had found your phone, let alone that person waiting outside of a retail establishment on Christmas night to return said phone. Always keep in mind that people are good. Also, keep in mind that your awareness is the easiest way to keep yourself safe.
Thanks for reading!
Brittany

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