Tiny, off the beaten path Uvita is the Costa Rican beach town you’ve been searching for. Swaying palm trees, long stretches of sand, gorgeous sunsets, plenty of wildlife, and opportunities for adventure — Uvita has it all. Plus it has none of the hustle and bustle of more popular destinations like Manuel Antonio and the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s the perfect base for the southern Pacific coast, and there are enough things to do in Uvita to keep you busy for a few days.
Driving through the dusty downtown on either side of Highway 34, it probably wouldn’t occur to you to stop. The magic of Uvita is along the hidden coastline and up the hill in the jungle.
Uvita has stayed remarkably off the beaten path, even as tourism in Costa Rica has exploded. Read on for the best activities in the area!
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The best things to do in Uvita, Costa Rica
1. Go whale watching
Uvita is best known as the premier whale watching destination in Costa Rica. Every year from January-March and July-September, humpback whales migrate through the waters of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. It’s one of the longest migration seasons in the world.
You can’t miss a whale watching tour if you visit during the migration season. Not only could you see humpbacks — often moms and babies together — but you can also spot dolphins, Bryde’s whales, and even orcas.
Whale watching tours leave from town in the morning and take half a day or longer, depending on how quickly you find whales. If you don’t have a car, you’ll be shuttled to the boat dock. Then you’ll hop on a small speedboat with your guide, who heads out to areas the whales are frequently seen. If you find a pod you’ll follow them for awhile before heading back. You’ll be on the boat for at least 3 hours, without access to bathrooms.
Like any wildlife experience, there is no guarantee you’ll see whales. On my trip we didn’t find any humpbacks, but we did find a friendly Bryde’s whale. We also got incredibly lucky when a huge pod of orcas — probably 20 individuals — hung out with us for over an hour. It was my top wildlife experience when backpacking Costa Rica.
Swimming with the whales is very strictly prohibited (and, if you’re around orcas, quite dangerous!).
Cost: Around $65 per person with park fees included
How to book: Any guesthouse in Uvita can arrange this trip
2. Head to the beach
Uvita is, first and foremost, a beach town. So one of the best free things to do in Uvita is catch some rays on one of the long stretches of sand.
You have a few options for beaches. The best of the bunch is the “Whale’s Tail Beach” in Marino Ballena National Park. The coastline here is pristine, untrammeled by development. The downside is you have to pay a $6 admission fee.
Playa Hermosa is the most beautiful beach in the area. It can get busy on weekends, but it’s wonderfully quiet during the week. It has lifeguards on duty and swimming is safe.
Further afield, Playa Domenicalito is one of the best swimming beaches in the area. Go at low tide, when you can see the rock hazards in the water.
If you want to see a few of the local beaches, it’s helpful to have a rental car. The beaches listed above range from an hour walk from central Uvita to 18 km away. Public transport gets iffy in the afternoons, so it’s hard to have a full beach day if you’re bus-dependent.
Cost: Free, unless you go into the National Park, which has a $6 entrance fee
How to book: Booking isn’t necessary
3. Visit the waterfalls
Uvita Waterfall is a fabulous place to spend the day. It’s along a crystal-clear river with a number of great swimming holes. Come early, bring a picnic, and stay through the afternoon.
The cascade is located just up the hill from the town center — you can easily walk. You’ll have to pay 2,000 colones to enter at the Upper Entrance. From here, a short path leads to the cascade.
There’s a great swimming hole in front of the waterfall itself. If you’re brave enough, you can climb the ladder on the side and slide down into the swimming hole! (I didn’t try it, but I did watch several other people go up there and be too scared to slide down. It’s actually a big drop!)
If you follow the river downstream, you’ll find lots of cliff-jumping spots and more swimming holes. A path through the jungle leads to the lower entrance, with signs along the way to point out plant life.
There isn’t much parking at the waterfall, and it’s up a very rough and steep gravel road. I’d recommend walking or taking a taxi/motorbike taxi. Don’t even think about driving without a 4×4/high clearance vehicle.
Cost: 2,000 colones per person
How to book: Booking isn’t necessary
4. Go surfing (or take a surfing lesson)
The beaches on the southern Pacific coast are every bit as surfable as those on the Nicoya Peninsula. But they have a fraction of the crowds.
Playa Uvita is a great place to learn to surf — the waves are beginner-friendly. If you’re more experienced, head to Playa Hermosa or Domenical.
You’ll pay about $20 a day to rent a good board in Uvita. Discounts are available for longer rentals. Lessons cost $65 for a group lesson (usually 5 students per instructor).
If you’ve got your own board, it should be no problem to throw it on top of a bus in Costa Rica. Everyone is super used to surfers.
Cost: $5/hour or $20 a day to rent a board
How to book: Costa Verde Surf Shop is a good first stop
5. Go snorkeling or diving
Caño Island is one of the best diving and snorkeling destinations in Costa Rica. It’s more accessible from the Osa Peninsula, but you can do a day trip from Uvita too.
While the diving around Caño Island isn’t as spectacular as, say, Indonesia or the Red Sea, it’s a great place for warm and shallow dives. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see turtles and enormous schools of tropical fish. The reef is recovering after years of serious damage, so don’t expect spectacular coral.
If you’re both a diver and a snorkeler, a snorkeling trip offers just as much and will save you some cash. The dives are so shallow that you can see everything from the surface anyway.
Your surface interval/break will be on a desert island beach with the softest sand and bluest water you can imagine.
As a bonus: On my Caño Island snorkeling trip, we saw a family of humpback whales from the boat!
If you’re looking for a cheaper snorkeling tour, you can do one in Marino Ballena for $75 including entrance fees. The reefs and wildlife aren’t as spectacular, though.
Cost: $140 for a snorkeling trip, closer to $200 for diving trips
How to book: Bahia Adventures would be a good first inquiry
6. Hike around the jungle-clad hills
Uvita is surrounded by dense jungle on the hills rising from the coast. One of the best things to do in Uvita is go for a hike or walk on the back roads through the hills.
Starting from the waterfall, possible destinations include a bamboo forest and a number of smaller waterfalls. More memorably, you’ll see tons of wildlife. On an easy 30-minute walk, I saw a few capuchin, toucans, lots of other colorful birds I couldn’t identify, an iguana, and a few frogs.
It’s pretty hard to get lost on the back roads — just go downhill and you’ll end up at the coast. But if you have a specific destination in mind, ask at your guesthouse. It’s perfectly safe to walk alone without a guide in this area.
How to book: No booking necessary
7. Take a day trip to the Nauyaka Waterfall
The most obvious day trip from Uvita is the Nauyaca Waterfall. This impressive cascade is close to Domenical, making it an easy half-day excursion.
You’ll need your own car to do this as a day trip. A high-clearance vehicle is best, although 4×4 is only strictly necessary in wet season.
Most people hike to the waterfall from the ticket office. It’s 12 km round-trip, mostly along a road. It’s an easy walk, albeit hot in midday. If you have a 4×4, you can drive to the starting point of the trail 2 km away from the waterfall (so it’s 4 km round-trip from there).
If you’re not feeling the walk, you can take a 4×4 taxi to the base of the waterfall. This is available as both a group trip and a private trip. With the group trip, you’ll get to stay at the waterfall for two hours.
Finally, you can take a horseback ride to the falls. This is the most expensive option, takes a full day, and must be booked in advance.
Cost: $10 for the hike/$32 for the 4×4 tour/$80 for the horse tour
How to book: You don’t need to book in advance unless you want to do the horse tour (see link above)
8. Do a night walk
Most of Costa Rica’s wildlife is only active at night. If you’ve never explored the jungle after dark, a night walk is an essential activity on your visit to Uvita!
A handful of companies offer guided walks (this is not something you should attempt without a guide!). You’ll head up into the hills, along the river, and set out with flashlights in hand.
You’ll be looking to spot frogs, snakes, spiders, and other creepy crawlies. Poison dart frog and viper sightings are not uncommon. As long as you follow your guide’s instructions, it’s safe — but you’ll be stunned by how easy it is to almost stumble over a massive venomous snake!
The tours last about two hours, leaving at 7 pm. It’s not a difficult hike; you’ll be moving very slowly through the forest. You’ll definitely want insect repellent.
How to book: Your guesthouse can set you up with a guide
9. Choose an agrotourism activity
Costa Rica is a prolific producer of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, coconuts, and other exotic products. Around Uvita, you’ll find lots of local farmers willing to explain their work for a small fee.
On a typical tour, you’ll go for a walk around the farm, sampling fruit from the trees that facilitate coffee or chocolate production. This often includes mangoes, papaya, bananas and more. Then, you’ll try your hand at harvesting the products. Coffee tours include a tutorial of roasting and grinding, while chocolate tours walk you through the bean-to-bar process.
At the end, you get to sample your product. It’s a delicious way to spend a few hours and will truly increase your appreciation for small-scale farmers.
Cost: Varies, but most tours are around $25 per person
How to book: Your guesthouse can help organize these tours. Farms usually require advance notice.
10. Stay at a jungle lodge (on a budget)
Now, for one of my favorite things to do in Uvita. This town has one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in — a unique jungle treehouse — for a backpacker price!
Hostel Cascada Verde is located up the hill, just a few minutes’ walk from the upper entrance of the waterfall. It’s the perfect little jungle oasis. A few of the highlights: a huge, open-air common area with jungle views. A pond with caimans hanging out in it (!!). Fabulous breakfast for $6 per person. Unlimited fresh-roasted coffee every day. A lounge area in the tree canopy. The best kitchen I’ve ever seen in a hostel. Awesome, super-friendly and helpful staff. An enormous book of activities, with the ability to connect you to lots of locals who can give you a more authentic guiding experience. And that’s just the start.
On my first morning in Uvita, I literally was woken up to the sound of howler monkeys swinging right outside my window at this place. It’s magic.
Rooms start around $35 for a private room (with cheaper dorms available). The property is spotless, and even though all bathrooms are shared, they have hot water and good water pressure.
The only downside is there is very little soundproofing with the open-air facilities. You’ll definitely hear your neighbors — although a lights-out-at-10-pm rule means they won’t keep you up late.
How to get to Uvita
Uvita is pretty accessible if you’re heading to the southern Pacific coast. It’s right off of Highway 34.
The best way to reach Uvita is in a rental car. You’ll want a high-clearance vehicle — the roads leading up the hill are rough — but 4×4 is only necessary in wet season, or if you plan to explore the surrounding mountains.
It’s a four-hour drive from San Jose, two hours from Manuel Antonio National Park, and two hours from the boat launch for the Osa Peninsula. If you’re already on the southern coast (like in Domenical or Ojochal), it’s an easy and quick drive.
If you don’t have a car, shuttles are your best option to reach Uvita. You can book them from San Jose or Manuel Antonio. For trips further afield, you’ll likely have to change vehicles — Uvita doesn’t have enough tourist traffic to offer tons of shuttle options.
Public buses are slow, but they will get you to San Jose and stops along the way. Buses leave very early in the morning (like 6 am). It’s best to book your ticket a day in advance.
Where to eat in Uvita
For a chill beach village, Uvita has an enormous array of places to grab a good meal.
My favorite place to eat in Uvita was Indomidos. It’s in a pretty garden setting on the hill toward the waterfall. All seating is open-air. Most of their menu is veggie-friendly — think veggie burgers, falafel, salad/grain bowls, and tacos. Their batidos are really good too.
Los Laurales is the top high-end restaurant in Uvita. It serves local and international dishes, with plenty of super-fresh seafood on offer. Seating is indoors or in the garden. It gets busy on weekend evenings.
Mosaic is the spot for sushi and cocktails — they even have sushi burritos. All the fish is fresh-caught (probably just a couple hours ago), and the garden seating has a great vibe.
For breakfast or lunch, head to Sibu Coffee. It serves the usual breakfast dishes like bagels and huevos rancheros, while lunch includes pizza, burgers and entrees. The coffee is all locally roasted and the baristas are excellent. Prices are reasonable as well.
A few final tips for these things to do in Uvita
- Dry season on the southern Pacific coast is December-April. This is the best time to visit Uvita, especially since the crowds aren’t bad even at the busiest times. If you visit in rainy (or “green”) season, make sure you have a 4×4 for the rough roads.
- There are two ATMs and two supermarkets in town. Brace yourself for long ATM lines on weekends. You can also get gas along Highway 34.
- Even though Uvita is a bit off the beaten path, cell reception and WiFi are no problem. You can easily stay connected.
- If you just want to rent a car for a day trip, you can do that at the Hertz along the main road.
- Don’t feed the monkeys (or any other wildlife).
- Uvita is safe to walk around after dark until about 10 pm, including as a solo female. In fact, walking after dark is safer than driving after dark on the rough and unlit roads.
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