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The Best Snorkeling in Costa Rica

With coasts on the Pacific and Caribbean, this Central American paradise offers a little more than most destinations.

August 4, 2020
Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
The Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is considered by many to be a snorkeling and diving dream come true. Shutterstock

A trip to Costa Rica can quickly become a packed itinerary journey, with world class cloud forests and volcanos, eco-lodges and surf breaks. A plethora of exotic wild animals lures visitors to spend their time jungle trekking, howler monkeys, sloths, the rare sight of a toucan in flight—it’s understandable why many travelers forget there is an equally enthralling landscape below the surface. 

With both Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea options, Costa Rica provides double the snorkeling fun.

The Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge—Caribbean

The Caribbean coastline is a haven for surfers, quaint little reggae-filled towns drawing in backpackers and families on holiday. It is also home to a broad range of protected bays and reef systems, with far better visibility than the Pacific coast beach towns boast. Gandoca Manzanillo is considered by many to be the best spot for snorkeling and diving along this stretch. The coral reef, inlets and islands attract dolphin and manatees, with sea turtles nesting from March to July. 

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With 10,000 acres of protected marine biosphere, over five kilometers of coral reef lies within its bounds. Brain and elk horn coral, sea rods and sea fans, even the turtle grass provides habitat for colorful parrot fish, queen angels, groupers, grunts and blue tangs. Nooks and crannies reveal spiny lobster, crabs and eels to the sharp-eyed.

Punta Cahuita—Caribbean

Those not resisting the search for howler and capuchin monkeys, sloths or coati, can find the best of both worlds at this seaside stretch of Cahuita National Park. Enjoy a stroll on the trail en route to the point, where the best snorkeling awaits. Schools of tropical tangs, grunts and butterflyfish are eclipsed by the reef and nurse sharks, southern stingrays, spotted eagle rays and large barracuda. 

This section of the largest reef system in the Caribbean is often featured on boat tours but can also be reached from shore with the help and guidance of a local guide (nominal fee, they often gather outside the park entrance—ask for one happy to help both hike and snorkel).

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Catalina Islands—Pacific

Catalina
From devil rays to octopuses, the marine life on display at this location is amazing. Shutterstock

In Guanacaste, just outside of Flamingo Bay, lies the jutting volcanic rock formation of Catalina Islands. This postcard worthy isle drops down to reef, rock ledges and swim throughs where a variety of marine life can be found. Commonly spotted white tip reef sharks, eagle rays, devil rays, green moray eels, octopus, angelfish, barber-fish, damsels and even seahorses are joined by far rarer, but exhilarating sightings of giant manta rays or whale sharks. 

Part of the charm of this spot is the joy of the unknown and always keeping an eye towards the blue.

Caño Island, off Oso Peninsula—Pacific

This amazing marine biological reserve offers a perfect tropical paradise, with white sand beach and clear turquoise water touting great visibility for snorkelers and divers. Famous for Costa Rica’s largest concentration of coral-building organisms along the Pacific, myriad reef fish are joined by bigger target creatures like sea turtles, dolphins, stingrays, manta rays, white tipped reef sharks, moray eels, barracudas, jacks and tuna. 

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Corals are plentiful and varied and while not common, seasonal sightings of whale sharks and humpback whales are possible due to its location 53k from shore.

Golfo Dulce, Osa Peninsula—Pacific

Gulfo Dulce
This is the perfect destination for adventurous animal lovers who want to explore on land and in the water. Shutterstock

This remote marine and terrestrial reserve is known as a haven for wildlife lovers. Ecolodges abound, and adventure sports outfits make the most of the area. Because of its “road less traveled” status, the natural world is in great shape. This area is also home to a significant population of spinner dolphins, aptly named for their acrobatic leanings both above and below the surface. 

At times, the marine mammals gather in super-pods for an overwhelming display of splashy exuberance. Many a diver or snorkeler has wrapped up their exploration of the reefs only to be surprised by the friendly and very vocal creatures.

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