Costa Rica’s underwater wonders range from coastal coral reefs to offshore islands. Those varied dive spots contain diverse and beautiful marine life that includes giant manta rays, timid sea turtles, colorful angel fish, intricate coral formations, psychedelic sea slugs, spiny puffer fish, delicate sea fans, curious dolphins and, on rare occasions, whales.
Though the country’s waters contain enough marine life to please the most experienced of divers, you need be little more than a curious swimmer to catch a glimpse of some of its underwater sights, since there are plenty of spots that are perfect for snorkeling. Costa Rica is also an excellent place to learn how to scuba dive, since most dive centers offer inexpensive certification courses in English that can be completed in less than a week.
Best Diving Destionations in Costa Rica
There are several excellent snorkeling areas along the southern Caribbean coast. The country’s largest coastal reef is protected within Cahuita National Park, south of the town of the same name, where you can rent snorkeling equipment and hire people to take you out in boats. The point at Puerto Viejo, south of Cahuita, also has a coral reef wrapped around it that makes for convenient diving. Punta Cocles and Punta Uva, two points to the south of town, have healthier coral formations with plenty of fish around them. Manzanillo, a small fishing village a few miles further south, also has some decent diving off shore. There are also a few good dive spots near the city of Limon, such as the water surrounding Uvita Island. The best visibility in the Caribbean is from March to early May and from mid August to mid November, but water quality can change from day to day.
The Pacific has the country’s best diving, with less coral, but plenty of big fish. The most popular Pacific diving area is the northwest, where dive centers in Playa del Coco, Ocotal and Hermosa offer trips to several spots in the Culebra Bay and the Bat Islands (Islas Murcielagos), to the northwest, where divers often see sharks and manta rays. The dive center in Flamingo usually takes people to Santa Catalina Island, about five miles off shore, which is another good spot to see sharks and other big fish. The best visibility and water temperatures in the northwest are found from June to September, though the conditions can change from day to day.
However, the best diving off the Pacific coast is found at several underwater reefs near Caño Island, which can be explored on dive trips offered by some of the lodges in nearby Drake Bay. Contrary to the northwest, the best visibility in the waters around Caño occurs during the dry season, though the water tends to be pretty clear year round.
Cocos Island, a national park located some 330 miles southwest of the Costa Rican mainland, has the country’s best diving by far. While the Island is covered with virgin forest, the ocean that surrounds it contains abundant marine life, and the visibility is good year round. Divers at Cocos Island regularly see such impressive animals as manta rays, dolphins and hammerhead sharks, which sometimes gathering in schools of 30 or 40 animals. It takes about 36 hours to reach Cocos Island, and some companies have liveaboards that run regular dive cruises there, which last ten days and include at least three dives per day.
Other Activities For Non-Divers
There is good snorkeling in Curu National Wildlife Refuge, and near the beach resorts of Tambor and Montezuma. There is also usually good snorkeling off the second beach in Manuel Antonio National Park, and around the points and islands between Dominical and Marino Ballena National Park.
When to Visit Costa Rica
Our suggestions for the dive season on the Pacific coast (the only decent diving in Costa Rica) may seem odd. The best time to go is the rainy season (May through November), even though runoff can affect the water visibility. The water clarity may be better during the dry season, but the wind blows up enough to make it almost impossible to get out to the best dive sites, which are small islands or rock outcroppings an hour’s boat ride from the mainland. Visibility is a crap-shoot any time of the year, but even more so during the rainy season. However, even during the wet months there is a slight chance that offshore sites can reach almost 100 foot vis, although less than forty is more common. The best scheduling would probably be May, when the wind has died down and the rain hasn’t started yet. Water temperatures run between 75° and 85° year-round.
Cocos Island, three hundred miles off Costa Rica’s shore, has a rainy season from June through December. Some records show that the sharks are seen more often during this rainy season. Diving is year-round, but some of the boats are pulled out of service from mid-September to October for repairs, indicating that this is probably not the best time to dive Cocos.
Getting to Costa Rica
Plenty of international flight into San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. From there you can rent a car (four-wheel drive preferred as this will give you more options to get off the main roads) and get to any location within Costa Rica in your own time. Also many buses and national flight available.