Are you planning a trip to Costa Rica to catch waves and meet other surf lovers? If so, you’ve most likely heard of these two beaches in Costa Rica: Playa Jaco and Playa Tamarindo, as they are two of the biggest surfing beach towns in the country.
If you’re trying to decide which one to visit and don’t have the time to visit both, then you’ll definitely want to read this article. We previously wrote about the differences between Tamarindo and Coco, so this post will be about differences between Tamarindo and Jaco.
Tamarindo and Jaco are two very touristic beaches so they are ideal for those who want to ride out some waves, go somewhere that is easily accessible and have all the conveniences. So if you want to visit a surfing town that’s not as touristic, then places like Santa Teresa, Playa Guiones, Matapalo in the Osa peninsula and Playa Dominical are more ideal, but for those deciding between Tamarindo and Jaco, read on!
Differences Between Tamarindo and Jaco
Tamarindo is in the Guanacaste province, the North Pacific of Costa Rica. Jaco is in Puntarenas, the Central Pacific.
Tamarindo is about 50 minutes from LIR airport and Jaco is 1 hour from SJO airport.
What the beaches look like
Playa Tamarindo beach stretches roughly 3.5 kilometers (2.17 miles) with tan sand and some rocky areas. The beach actually connects to the Tamarindo estuary and Playa Grande, which all together makes up the Marino Las Baulas national park.
There are a handful of beach front restaurants and bars and during high tide, the water comes right up to the trees. There isn’t a ton of shade at this beach, so many people rent an umbrella and chairs or bask in the sun.
Tamarindo is famous for their sunsets, since you can get a clear view of the sun going down on the beach. It is quite spectacular!
You can see an aerial video of Playa Tamarindo, the estuary and the town in this video with a sunset included at the end!
Both beaches are excellent for surfing, but Tamarindo’s waves during low tide are swimmable (strong swimmers only). Kids and beginner swimmers shouldn’t go in during low tide without supervision, it’s not calm enough.
Playa Jaco is slightly longer than Tamarindo, at around 2.5 miles. It has mostly dark sand and around the middle to the south end of the beach, it is fairly rocky.
Jaco has characteristics of the Central and South Pacific beaches, with dark brown sand and dark blue waters. Sunsets are nice at Jaco as well, but you don’t get the full view like you do at Tamarindo.
You can watch a short aerial video of the beach and town.
Population and types of people
When it comes to tourists, Tamarindo has a ton, some would argue it’s the most touristic beach town in Guanacaste. It’s not impossible to find a nice spot on the beach, but it is definitely crowded especially during the holidays. If you come during Easter week, it gets crazy packed!
The type of people who visit Tamarindo are largely young backpackers in their 20’s and 30’s, many who are there to surf and families. There is a fairly good hostel/backpacker atmosphere in Tamarindo with several dance clubs, sports bars and bars. However, you will also see many families as parents like Tamarindo because of the conveniences and fun activities for little ones.
You may have heard that some people call Tamarindo “Tama-gringo” due to the large amount of Americans and it is accurate – there is a large expat community in Tamarindo that consists of mostly young to middle age foreigners. However, not all of them are from the United States. There is a noticeable amount of South Americans, particularly Argentinians.
The type of tourists who visit Jaco are also young surfers but Jaco draws another type of crowd due to its infamous reputation for drugs and prostitutes. It is common to see wild bachelor parties going on or groups of older gentlemen at the bars for a guy’s getaway. Jaco attracts mostly the younger crowds who are looking to have a good time.
Jaco has done a good job cleaning up the town, so more and more families visit Jaco to enjoy the beach and surrounding attractions because it really is a beautiful area.
When it comes to locals, there is a fairly healthy mix of locals and foreigners. Since Jaco is so close to San Jose and the Central Valley cities, many city Ticos go to Jaco for a weekend beach escape. There isn’t a large expat community in Jaco, many foreigners are transients with mostly Americans and Canadians.
Both beach towns have a party atmosphere but Jaco definitely has a bigger party atmosphere. Tamarindo is more family friendly than Jaco and Jaco has more locals.
The town is fairly developed with large hotels, condo towers and many buildings. The center of town is actually kind of small with narrow streets, only about 1.5 kilometers or so. The back of Tamarindo has unpaved roads and there are many condo complexes and luxury homes in the back roads.
Tamarindo has everything: banks, ATMs, pharmacies, restaurants, bars, clubs, surf shops, hostels and luxury hotels. When it comes to food, Tamarindo has an excellent variety of food from Argentinian grill, Italian and sushi. It’s actually harder to find a local soda (Costa Rican restaurant) than an international restaurant!
Jaco town is big, bigger than Tamarindo. There is a main road that runs parallel to the entire length of the beach, so to walk from one end of town to the other would take around 25 minutes. When it comes to development, Jaco is arguably the most developed beach town in all of Costa Rica. You’ll find high rise luxury condos, luxury hotels, hostels, banks, pharmacies, surf shops, bars, dance clubs, restaurants and even a strip club (the one in Tamarindo is outside of town).
The road is completely paved in Jaco as well as the small back roads.
For food, Jaco has some of the best restaurants in Costa Rica and it’s very reasonable prices surprisingly. You can find sodas that have $5 casados, sandwich shops, steak houses, Italian, sushi and more. We were surprised by just how many excellent and diverse restaurants Jaco has.
We have videos of us driving through both Tamarindo and Jaco so you can see what both towns look like.
Tamarindo is excellent for beginner surfers due to the long breaks and constant waves. You’ll see classes going on almost all day, but surfing is much better during high tide. Since it’s a fairly long beach, there are spots suitable for all levels: beginner, intermediate and pro.
Waves in Tamarindo are fairly fast, so it’s a bit harder to stand up on but breaks are long.
In addition to Tamarindo, there are numerous surfing beaches nearby such as Playa Avellanas, Playa Langosta, Grande and Negra. Those beaches are more suitable for intermediate level, Tamarindo is the most popular for beginners.
Waves in Jaco are consistent all year long and are suitable for all levels. Since this beach is also very long, there are spots for beginners, intermediates and pros. Since Jaco’s breaks are shorter but with very strong waves, it is excellent for beginners.
Due to the consistent waves, you will see lessons going on all day, from sunrise to sunset.
For the more experienced surfers, head to Playa Hermosa 10 minutes away. This beach has even better breaks and bigger waves and it is where many national and international surfing championships take place every year.
For beginner surfers, both beaches are superb spots and there are many surf schools and surf camps.
A few extra notes
Weather: the climate in Jaco and Tamarindo is different. Jaco, being in the Central Pacific is much more humid and not quite as hot. It generally stays around 80-90 degrees in dry season with at least 40% humidity. Tamarindo, being in the North Pacific is much drier. It stays in the 90-100’s during dry season with much less humidity. Both beach towns follow the normal rainy-dry season months.
Wildlife: Both beaches are important for turtles but Jaco has much more wildlife than Tamarindo. Since it’s more humid and close to both wet and dry tropical forest as well as the Rio Tarcoles, the abundance of wildlife is much more. You can see Scarlet Macaws flying around and hear toucans in the hills. Tamarindo doesn’t have as many birds (none of the colorful ones like macaws or toucans) but it has a lot of howler monkeys. In general, the wildlife in the North Pacific is not as great as the Central and South Pacific. To see a lot of wildlife, you must visit the Tamarindo estuary.
Prices: Prices are fairly similar in Jaco and Tamarindo. You can find hostels, budget, mid range and luxury hotels in both towns. I’d say Jaco is a bit cheaper since Guanacaste is much more touristic and Tamarindo has more expats whereas Jaco has a lot of local tourists. You can’t really find any decent places that has less than $10 a plate for dinner in Tamarindo but in Jaco you can.
Accessibility: Both towns are easy to get to from their respective airports. Jaco is 1 hour away from SJO by driving on a nice highway. Tamarindo is about 1 hour as well from LIR airport, on a nice road. Tamarindo also has a local airport, Jaco doesn’t. However, Jaco has many buses that come from San Jose and Tamarindo doesn’t have as many buses going from LIR airport – most people have to book a shuttle.
Activities: Jaco beach itself caters mostly to surfing and stand up paddle surfing. It’s not a fishing town, so you have to go off shore fishing from Playa Herradura and you can’t snorkel so the main thing to do in Jaco is surf and you must go a bit far out of town for other activities. In Tamarindo, there are tons of different things to do. You can go sailing on a catamaran, off shore fishing and snorkeling once you get out of the bay.
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I hope this post helps you decide which beach town to go to, and hopefully if you can, you can visit both!
For more information on beaches in Guanacaste, check out these posts.