Unlike other Central American countries, most of the diving off Costa Rica focuses on the Pacific Coast, and off Costa Rica it's a wild west of surprises and diversity. The primary dive area encompasses the Gulf of Papagayo off the sleepy village of Playa del Coco and Playa Hermosa in the Guanacaste region off the Northwest coast. In the middle of the scene is a place called Catalina Island, where almost anything can and will happen. Subject to frequent upwellings, the water temperature can change 5°C/10°F during a dive, and with change comes a new cast of marine characters. The island is famed for its huge aggregations of cownose rays, manta rays, mobula rays, and stingrays the size of beach umbrellas. Massive green morays frequently hunt during the day. And, you'll find a long list of cool macro guys like frogfish and harlequin shrimp. Off Bat Island, a little farther north, you'll find curious bull sharks among the crowds. In the far south, the Osa Peninsula and Cano Island bring in huge schools of snapper. Topside, Costa Rica is an eco-wonderland with everything from erupting volcanos to UNESCO World Heritage Rainforests. Surfing, ziplining, kayaking and hiking top the list of adventures.
A giant bay off the northwest coast, accessed from the Playa Del Coco region. Catalina and Bat Islands are the marquee dive regions, but there's lots of life at sites near shore.
Off the coast, Cocos Island sits 345 kilometers/215 miles away and is accessed by liveaboard only. The effort to get there is worthwhile to see schooling scalloped hammerheads, silky sharks, marble rays, hunting white-tip reef sharks, whale sharks, bait balls and more.
South of Playa Del Coco, Flamingo has a few more options for resorts and restaurants, but still has access to the Catalina Island dive sites.
When to go:
Both the weather and the water are warmer in the months of May through November, and visibility is best during that season. Diving is available year-round.
Marine Life Seasons:
Manta rays are most commonly seen at the Catalina Islands between December and April. Because humpback whales migrate to this area from both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, Costa Rica has one of the longest humpback-watching seasons in the world. Look for them from December through April.
When to Get the Best Deals:
April to November.
What to Pack:
3/2 to 5 mm wetsuit, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, sturdy shoes that can get wet for hiking mountains and rainforests, jackets for hiking in the higher elevations, a backpack to carry variety of clothing needs, DAN card.
Seasonal averages: 23°Ç/75°F in winter and 29°C/85°F in summer, but upwelling, which are common, could drop the temperature several degrees during a dive.
Seasonal averages vary widely and with altitude, but in general along the coasts: 27°C/82°F in winter and 33°C/92°F in summer.
Colon; Credit cards are widely available.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
What to Eat:
Delicious black beans and rice (gallo pinto for breakfast or casado for lunch) are the foundation for most Costa Rican meals. With your rice and beans, you can get pork and chicken roasted over coffee wood for a savory, smokey flavor, or locally caught fish and lobster, accompanied by fresh vegetables and fruit. Fried plantains are a common snack. For dessert, try arroz con leche (rice pudding) or flan (custard).
What to Drink:
Costa Rica is famous for its coffee that you can try in many cafés. For a cool treat, try refrescos, fruit juice mixed with water or milk with sugar added. Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria are the locally brewed beers. Guaro is a clear liquor made from sugar cane (a popular cocktail mixer) and Ron Centenario is the premier rum.
Corcovado, a UNESCO World Heritage Rainforest near Drake Bay; hike Arenal; Canopy tours, some of the best zip lines in the world, both in Guanacaste and Osa; Surf lessons in Hermosa; ATV tours through the rainforest; look for scarlet macaw's in the dry tropical forest of Carara National Park.
Customs and Culture:
Costa Rica is a laid-back and friendly culture.
Full Moon Party, Cocalito Beach, Osa; Palmares Fiestas, January; Santa Cruz Fiesta, January; Puntarenas Carnival, February; Caribbean Music Festival, March/April in Limon; Limon Carnival, October; Fiesta del los Diablitos, Dec/Jan.
Electricity and Internet:
110 volt, 60 Hz; Internet is available in cyber cafes and hotels.
Drink the water?
Bottled water is recommended.
Spanish, though English is common.
Amazing Marine Life
Most often found in holes, caves, and wrecks, moray eels sometimes venture out so divers can see their entire snakelike length.
Remarkable for their wide-bladed heads and quick maneuverability, these large sharks are breathtaking icons of the deep. Present in astonishing numbers at dive sites off Cocos Island.
Also known as devil rays (for their somewhat sinister "horned" profiles), these giants soar like flying carpets through the night waters, feeding on plankton.
Hawksbill and green sea turtles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on many reefs.
Take a close look under ledges and around reef structures for nurse sharks that tend to loaf around the reefs.
Spotted Eagle Ray:
Gentle giants that can reach up to 7.5 meters/25 feet in length, these rays soar like flying carpets through open water.
Perhaps the gaudiest of all shrimp, these colorful predators are usually found munching on the arm of a starfish in the coral.
Most often seen off the Bat Islands, especially when it's a little murky in the water.
These blunt-nosed rays often darken the waters off Catalina Island as they pass overhead in huge aggregations.
These mammoth fish frequent the waters off Cocos Island.
Top Dive Spots
Dirty Rock, Cocos Island:
This site is spectacularly thick with hammerhead shark. The rock from which the site takes its name is covered in barber fish (the cleaner fish of the scalloped hammerhead), and if you can take your eyes off the hammers, you might also see turtles, marble rays, eagle rays, white-tip reef sharks, sea urchins, jacks, wahoo, and hunting tuna.
Viking Rock, Cocos Island:
A submerged reef noted for sharks and rays. Look for Galapagos sharks, white-tip reef sharks, marble rays, lobsters, moray eels, and pufferfish.
Bajo Alcyone, Cocos Island:
Position yourself near one of the cleaning stations on this seamount and you will be rewarded by a seemingly endless parade of hammerhead sharks. You might also see Mexican hogfish, wahoo, tuna, jacks, and dolphins.
Bajo del Diablo, Caño Island:
Majestic rock pinnacles tower over a maze of peaks and valleys with stunning visibility. This site boasts a wide array of fish life, including pelagic snappers and amberjack approaching 32 kilograms/70 pounds, schools of barracuda, reef sharks, eels, and giant manta rays.
Barco Hundido, Caño Island:
A sunken ship here gave the site its name that stuck even after the ship was salvaged and removed. Look for reef sharks, schooling grunts, snappers, blue spotted jacks, almaco jacks, crown-of-thorns sea stars, pufferfish, sand eels, stingrays, flounder, and manta rays.
Playas del Coco, Guanacaste:
Look for manta rays, whales, dolphins, turtles, spotted eagle rays, diamond stingrays, nudibranchs, bull sharks, white-tip reef sharks, octopus, eels, and schools of vibrant tropical fish. A volcanic rock sloping down to 26 meters/85 feet also offers opportunities for macro photography.
Volcanic rock formations attract rays, sharks, angelfish, grunts, snapper, octopus, eels, cow-nosed rays, manta rays, bat rays, mobula rays, spotted rays, bull's-eye rays, and stingrays, as well as barracuda, white-tip reef sharks and tiger sharks, and sea turtles. It's even possible to spot whale sharks, spinner dolphins, humpback whales, pilot whales, orcas, and false killer whales.
When currents and weather allow, dive along a rock wall that plummets to 42 meters/140 feet, contoured with bridges and caverns encrusted with coral and sponges. Look for bull sharks, black-tip reef sharks, tiger sharks, mating turtles, flying fish, rays, and sometimes orcas, humpback whales, and dolphins. Strong winds in the early months of the year might prevent access to Bat Island.
Chains of volcanic rocks and pinnacles are populated with schools of jacks, pompanos, manta rays, reef sharks, giant manta rays, mobula rays, stingrays, octopus, sea turtles, groupers, snappers, angels, moorish idols, trumpetfish, eels, crustaceans, schooling barracuda, jacks, grunts, and even dolphins and humpback whales.
Playa Flamingo, Guanacaste:
Enjoy sightings of vibrant tropical fish, giant manta rays, dolphins, sea turtles, eels, angelfish, parrotfish, puffers, clown shrimp, spotted eagle rays, cow rays, barracuda, hogfish, white-tip reef sharks, whale sharks, and bull sharks.