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As the closest major beach destination to the capital of San Jose, Costa Rica's Jacó is a popular getaway for locals and tourists alike. The bustling town is known for its laidback attitude, with a seemingly endless list of outdoor activities and a thriving nightlife scene. The long gray strip of Jacó Beach is punctuated by rolling hills and towering palms, while the city's main drag is lined with surfside hotels, eclectic eateries, open-air shops, and energetic bars. To the north, Herradura Beach is a calm spot for swimming and scuba diving, while the southern-situated Hermosa Beach is famous for its surfing. Less than an hour outside of town, Carara National Park is a breathtaking rainforest filled with lush vegetation, cascading waterfalls, and exotic wildlife.
Jacó Beach - Running just along the front of town, the city's main beach isn't the area's most beautiful, but its convenient location to restaurants and shops certainly makes up for it. During the day, the gray sand fills up with sunbathers and people-watchers, though an often strong undercurrent makes the water unsuitable for swimming. On the main avenue of Pastor Diaz, find lodging options that range from affordable hotels to luxury resorts, and tons of eateries serving everything from tacos and pizza to sushi and steak. Once the sun goes down, the city comes alive at its nightclubs and bars, with many open until the wee hours of the morning.
Herradura Beach - Roughly 5 miles (8 km) to the north of Jacó, Herradura Beach sits on a sheltered cove with a nearby marina. While the beach is a little bit rocky, calm waters make the perfect conditions for swimming, as well chartering a boat for scuba diving or fishing. A selection of local restaurants near the beach provide options for a simple meal, or you can linger over a more upscale lunch at one of the swanky resorts.
Hermosa Beach - On the south side of Jacó, Hermosa Beach is renowned for its surfing, playing host to the annual International Quiksilver Championship every August. With strong currents and waves that can reach up to 13 feet (4 m), the water is only suited for those with a good amount of experience. But even if you're not a surfer, Hermosa is worth a visit for its warm gray sand, quiet atmosphere, and handful of cozy eateries toward the north end of the beach.
Carara National Park - Less than an hour north of Jacó, Carara National Park is a vast expanse of old-growth and secondary rainforest with a small network of trails. Wander along these paths to explore a natural sanctuary teeming with white-headed capuchin monkeys and one of the largest populations of scarlet macaws in the world. A nearby hiking trail can lead you through the forest to the 600-foot (183-m) Bijagual Waterfall, while in the north end of the park, the Tárcoles River is the place to get up-close to crocodiles. Peer down at the creatures basking along the banks below the Crocodile Bridge, or join a boat tour for a journey down the river itself.
Soak in all the beauty of the Costa Rican rainforest on a guided tour via aerial tram. Begin your day with a visit to a butterfly garden and reptile exhibit before boarding a gondola for your rise over the jungle. With open sides, you're given 360-degree views of the landscape around you, including tropical trees, pink and purple orchids, and bright red ginger. As you coast above the canopy, your guide shares insight into each distinct section of the rainforest. Keep your eyes peeled for sights of strikingly colorful trogons and endearingly cute sloths before touching back down on ground.
If adventure is what you're after, you've come to the right place. Get strapped into a harness for an action-packed zipline ride over Costa Rica's magical rainforest. Feel the rush as adrenaline as you fly over the treetops on a course of 9 cables, gazing out upon views of the blue Pacific in the distance. Once back on ground, make your way to the bottom of raging 164-foot (50-m) waterfall. Aided by only a harness, rope, and sheer determination, climb your way to the top of the rocky cliff straight through the pummeling water.
For more heart-pounding fun, board a raft for a wild ride down the Savegre River. On this whitewater rafting excursion, put your skills to the test as you tackle Class II, III, and even IV rapids. Hold onto your seat as you plunge through the water, dropping and plummeting with the tumultuous swells. Once you've reached the other side, enjoy a serene float on a calm part of the river. Bask in the sunshine as you admire views of the abundant wildlife that flock to the area, and then reward your hard work with a tasty Tico lunch.
Of course, not every activity in Jacó has to be a white-knuckled adventure. Head to the area of Los Suenos near Herradura Beach for a leisurely horseback ride deep into the jungle. Spend the early afternoon trotting through peaceful forest, taking in views of the toucans, monkeys, and macaws that call the region home. Cap off your ride at the base of the waterfall, where, if you want, you can go for a refreshing dip in the cool pool.