“Jacó es muy caliente!” [Jacó is very hot”] the guy said in the San Jose airport after we told him where we were going. Some like it hot. Perhaps you are one. While I found some drawbacks, there are many nice things about Jacó and we enjoyed our visit.
Costa Rica, the rich coast, was misnamed. Even pre-Columbian people didn’t build much there. They fought the Spanish until nearly wiped out, so there were no people to enslave, no large Spanish settlements and therefore few classic colonial buildings. But the country is rich in scenery and nice people.
A few families got rich when coffee plantations were developed in the 1700s, and a railroad engineer traded his expertise for land to plant bananas, the origins of the United Fruit Company. Despite these limited assets, the country has made progress. Some believe it leads the way in eco-tourism. And it is the oldest democracy in Central America with no standing army.
The streets are relatively safe –– one needs to use some common sense. Most homeowners have a high fence or wall around their casa, and there are grates on doors and windows varying from simple bars to elaborate grill-work. Petty theft is rampant – one needs to use common sense.
There are many very nice Costa Rican resorts. Recently in particular, resorts have been designed to protect the natural beauty and environment of the area. Villa Calletes, just north of Jacó, is reported to be very luxurious and pretty.
But we were not going to a resort. We were visiting Alie’s sister in a small Pacific-coast town. Jacó has North American visitors and retirees, but it is also home to about ten thousand people.
Jacó is a beach town. There is no zoning or planning. People come from San Jose to their beach homes on weekends and vacations. The beach runs in a long curve for about two and a half miles. A block back, the one main street is full of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, surf shops and real estate offices. Upscale development was just getting underway when the great recession hit the U.S., its biggest market. Some shops and condos are new; many have seen better days. Sidewalks are often broken and irregular.
Jacó is not a rich man’s town. Jacó is an ordinary man’s town. And the ordinary man is a pretty nice guy. They are friendly and helpful to those of us with limited Spanish. They have a good sense of humor: I was standing in the shade of a sign to take a picture as an older couple came up and the man began chattering to his wife; I looked up, and he pointed to my white beard and the sign above me – “Colonel Sanders” he said.
One does not visit for Costa Rican food. Ticos, as they call themselves, have grown up with beans and rice, often at all three meals. But Jacó has some very good restaurants
with a wide variety of cuisine. We would particularly recommend the Side Street Bistro and Graffiti Restro Cafe. Both are owned by a couple from the U.S. Graffiti has a good menu and great food beautifully presented. Side Street is primarily a sandwich shop, but they make their own delicious bread, and each item is a slightly special variation of what you might expect. E.g., a Philly cheese steak is way more than just a cheese steak. Everything we had there was excellent.
If you insist, there was that KFC. There is also a Quiznos and a Subway, but I didn’t see a McDonald’s.
Speaking of bread, on our first day we stopped to buy a loaf in “Panaderia Artesanal,” a tiny bakery, coffee and sandwich shop. It was equal to the best I have had anywhere in the world. But one has to arrive early – I would say before 7:30 a.m. – because the bread is not mass produced. Each loaf is individually made: some are perfect; others are just good; and the perfect ones are picked up early.
Jacó’s beach is well-known to surfers. I had read it was rocky, but while there were a few small rocky spots, the volcanic sand is just as fine as most beaches in the U.S. (but not up
to Florida’s west coast). The beach is wide and shaded by palm trees. It was slightly crowded on Sunday, the only day many Ticos have off work to take their families to the beach.
Want to try some eco-tourism or sport tourism? Want to hike, fish, surf, ride a zip-line in the jungle, see a volcano or go white-water rafting? They are all an easy drive from Jacó. There are many tour companies along the street to take you there.
You can get to most of Jacó just walking, but if you want a ride, the red taxis are metered, safe and cheap. There are also unlicensed “pirate taxis” but why bother when the legal ones are so plentiful. We also found taking a taxi as inexpensive as renting a car and more convenient for a drive to see one of those spots outside town.
Yes, Jacó is not flashy. There is a tent campground next to a big condo on the beach. There are shacks next to very nice homes. I saw no Disney-like groomed environments. But it is affordable, pleasant and a genuine Costa Rican experience.