Costa Rica, a gateway to the Caribbean and Pacific underwater worlds

There are hundreds of snorkeling spots in Costa Rica’s coastal waters, including areas in rocky creeks and islets, small coral reefs, mangroves and more remote, pristine islands. Read on for places to find the best snorkeling in Costa Rica.

Galapagos blue sea star in Playa Danta
A Galápagos blue sea star in Playa Danta, Guanacaste.

The best snorkeling spots in Guanacaste & the North Pacific Coast

The seaside resorts of the North Pacific coast of Costa Rica, nestled on a rugged rocky coast, offer some of the most accessible snorkeling in the country. 

The Playas del Coco area is a must-visit area for Costa Rica snorkeling enthusiasts. If you want to explore rocky reefs with colorful sea life, you’ll have plenty of choices. You will find decent shore snorkeling in Playas del Coco and Playa Hermosa, but some other nearby locations are also worth the detour. Head, for example, to Playa Ocotal, Playa Buena, Bahia Pez Vela Beach Resort, or Playa Bonita, all filled with abundant sea life.

A pair of blotched roundrays in Playa Ocotal
Playa Ocotal sandy beds sometimes offer great sightings, like this pair of blotched roundrays.

The small creeks nestled in Punta Cacique, a peninsula separating Playas del Coco and Playa Hermosa, also offer great snorkeling, especially in Calzon de Pobre and Playa Penca. A few minutes by boat from the coast, the Islas Pelonas, surrounded by coral reefs, are frequently visited by hawksbill turtles and Pacific seahorses. You can reach the islands with snorkeling tours from the beach areas.

School of razor surgeonfish in Playa Penca
If you visit Playas del Coco, don’t miss Playa Penca snorkeling spot, loaded with fish. In this picture, a school of razor surgeonfish.

A little further north, you can also snorkel on the Papagayo Peninsula, especially around Nacascolo and Punta Huevos. If you like snorkeling off the beaten path and you have your own vehicle, then Playa Bassey, north of Santa Rosa National Park, should be your top pick.

About 15 miles south of Playas del Coco, Playa Flamingo is one of Costa Rica’s favorite vacation destinations for both visitors and locals. Two locations, Playa Conchal, opposite the Westin Reserva Conchal, and Playa Danta, at the foot of Las Catalinas resort, are considered to be among the best places for snorkeling in the area.

A Cortez angelfish in Playa Bassey
The Cortez angelfish is very common throughout the Pacific Coast. Here, in Playa Bassey.

Twelve miles further south is Tamarindo, a prime tourist spot in the country. It marks the border of the Nicoya Peninsula, the largest in Costa Rica, renowned for its remote and pristine beaches.

The coast has numerous small coves lying amid rock points which can be snorkeled when the sea is calm and underwater visibility is good. Try Playa Samara, Playa Carillo, Playa Nosara, Playa Lagarto or Playa San Juanillo.

Playa Manuel Antonio, Manuel Antonio National Park
Aerial view of Manuel Antonio National Park, with Playa Manuel Antonio on the left side of the picture.

The best snorkeling spots in Puntarenas & the Pacific Coast

The central and southern Pacific coasts of Costa Rica feature long sand beaches, separated by a few rocky areas. This is where the best snorkeling is found, although the underwater visibility is more variable than what you will find in the north.

In Jacó region, Playa Blanca, Playa Mantas and Playa Caletillas are among the best options. Near Herradura you can also explore the rocky coves nestled in Punta Conejo, less than a mile west of the marina.

School of yellowfin surgeonfish in Playa Manuel Antonio
A school of yellowfin surgeonfish in Playa Manuel Antonio.

Coconut trees, turquoise water and white sand… Isla Tortuga in the Gulf of Nicoya, is a dream tropical island. Unfortunately, the visibility is very bad there most times of the year. However, if you want to try anyway, most boat tours to the island depart from Puntarenas jetty.

Much further south of the country, do not miss Manuel Antonio National Park, near Quepos. This is considered one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Central America. The Park shelters several beaches fringed by a rainforest where sloths, coatis and raccoons live. Playa Manuel Antonio, where you can explore shallow rocky beds with colorful fish, is the most accessible.

Hawksbill sea turtle in Isla del Cano, Costa Rica
Isla del Caño is probably the best location in the country to swim with hawksbill sea turtles.

If you want to discover one of the most spectacular Costa Rican snorkeling spots, head to Uvita, Sierpe or Drake Bay.  You will get there by boat and have the time to spend a snorkeling day at Isla del Caño. This small biological reserve, located off Corcovado National Park, is loaded with hawksbill sea turtles, whitetip reef sharks and colorful reef fish.

King angelfish in Isla del Cano
A pair of king angelfish in Isla del Caño.

Snorkeling in Isla del Coco

Isla del Coco, located about 340 miles from the mainland, is undoubtedly a must for snorkeling in Costa Rica. Protected by a National Park and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, this small island renowned for its shark population is a marine biodiversity sanctuary. It can only be visited and snorkeled during naturalist cruises.

Longspine porcupinefish in Playas del Coco
A longspine porcupinefish shelters under Playas del Coco floating platform.

The best snorkeling spots on the Caribbean Coast

The coastline on the Caribbean Sea is over 124 miles long, but a considerable amount of this is comprised of sandy beaches and estuaries fringed by jungle, and the underwater visibility is nearly zero.

Only the southern part of the coastline, on the small stretch of coast of about 12 miles running between Cahuita and Manzanillo can be snorkeled, but only when there is not too much sediment floating in the water.

Aerial view of Puerto Viejo rock pools
Aerial view of Puerto Viejo and its rock pools.

Cahuita Coral Reef, located in Cahuita National Park and only accessible by boat with a guide, is the main snorkeling location in the area. Puerto Viejo rock pools, Punta Uva reef, and Playa Manzanillo also include areas that are interesting to snorkel in, and feature Caribbean corals and fish. A few miles further south is the border to Panama and Bocas del Toro archipelago.

What will I see while snorkeling in Costa Rica?

The Pacific and Caribbean shorelines of Costa Rica feature very different marine environments.

On the Pacific coast, you’ll snorkel over mineral underwater landscapes and rare hard coral reefs, although they are not very colorful. The marine life here is typical of the ecosystems of the East Pacific and shares many species with the Sea of Cortez and the Galápagos Islands.

Rocky seabed in Playa Danta, Costa Rica
A typical rocky seabed from the Pacific Coast. Here, in Playa Danta.

Common sightings in the Pacific shallows include butterflyfish, two species of angelfish (the Cortez angelfish and the king angelfish), several kinds of pufferfish and porcupinefish, damselfish and moray eels. The Galápagos blue sea star and the chocolate starfish are also seen frequently in the shore waters.

The east coast of Costa Rica features Caribbean reef ecosystems, where about 120 species of fish and 40 species of invertebrates can be seen at snorkeling depths. Among the most abundant are the blue tang, the bluehead wrasse and the banded butterflyfish. Stingrays and nurse sharks are also frequently encountered at the reef, especially in Cahuita.

Reef fish in Playa Buena
Despite quite poor seabeds, the Pacific Coast is home to colorful reef fish. Here, in Playa Buena.

If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and want to take a fish ID guide with you, we recommend the excellent Reef Fish Identification – Florida Caribbean Bahamas (also available in ebook) for the Caribbean Coast, and Reef Fish Identification – Baja to Panama (available in ebook, too) for the Pacific Coast. These two books are the invaluable reference guides to ID the fish you will encounter snorkeling in the country.

When to go snorkeling in Costa Rica?

The climate in Costa Rica is tropical, and marked by two distinct seasons: the dry season, from the end of December to mid-April, and the rainy season (known as the “green” season) from May to mid-December, with lower rainfall from July to September. However, the climate is quite different for the Caribbean coast, where rain showers occur year-round.

The coast of Guanacaste
Guanacaste’s coastline.

On the Pacific coast, the maximum temperatures are around 90°F/32°C all through the year, compared with about 86°F/30°C (but with much greater humidity) on the Caribbean coast. The water temperature never falls below 73°F/23°C. Don’t forget to take a rash guard with you, especially on the Pacific coast where it gets up to around 86°F/30°C during the warmest months.

The sea conditions and underwater visibility are highly unpredictable in Costa Rica. Tropical rains that drive loads of sediments into the oceans, frequently drop visibility to nearly zero. Even during the dry seasons, the water can be pretty cloudy, with a lot of sediment floating around. To get the best chances of good underwater visibility, choose the dry season (from the end of December to mid-April) on the Pacific coast and September and October on the Caribbean coast.

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