Costa Rica Caribbean Coast: Ultimate Guide on What to Do, Where to Stay, and How to Find Pura Vida
The 212 kilometers (132 miles) that make up the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast are different in almost every way from the interior of the country and the Pacific Coast. Completely contained within the Province of Limón the area extends from the Tortuguero National Park in the north to Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge near the Panamanian border in the south.
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Culturally the province is different from the rest of the country too. Blending Afro-Caribbean roots predominated by Jamaican with Latino and the local Bribri indigenous people, the area offers a unique taste of Costa Rica like nowhere else in the country. Spanish, English, and Jamaican Patois are spoken throughout the area. The climate on this coast is unique as well. Unlike the rest of the country, the Caribbean dry season is not so clearly defined with the area receiving annual rainfall of 3.5 meters (11.6 feet!) which makes for an abundance of vegetation, insects, and humidity. Temperatures can range from 32ºC plus during the day to 24ºC or more at night.
Exploring the entire coast would make an excellent itinerary and take a good week or ideally two. If this is your first time to Costa Rica, this would be a good intro to the lush ecosystem and wildlife Costa Rica is known for.
How to Get to the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast
The two best ways to get to the Caribbean Coast are either by bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo or rent a car and drive yourself. We always prefer to drive. The road system is good and well-marked but it’s the scenery and being able to stop where and when you want that make driving our first choice. If you stay near the airport in Alajuela or decide to stay at a hotel in San Jose, Solid Car Rental (pronounced SO-leed) will deliver a rental car to you at your hotel.
Route 32 going east out of San Jose is easy to find. We’ve driven this road many times without incident or safety issues. True, you have to pay attention and take your time. This is the main highway between San Jose and the coast and there's a lot of traffic at times - vehicles loaded with workers heading for the pineapple fields and banana groves in Limón, along with big trucks and tractor-trailers. The road is steep in places with twists and turns and fog can get pretty thick as you gain in elevation and pass through several microclimates.
But once you emerge from traffic, just look at that scenery. Pull over, get out, and breathe it all in!
Baurilio Carillo National Park
The payoff to the drive over the mountains is the absolute beauty of the lush rainforest of Baurilio Carillo National Park. There are huge ferns along the roadsides - some are 3 feet around - and when combined with the fog, make for an enchanting view. When there are heavy rains there can be landslides on the Caribbean side of the mountains. The highway will then be closed until the slide can be cleaned up, so make sure you have water and snacks along just in case.
Once on the flat road it’s pretty easy going. There are a few small towns with an occasional traffic light and lots of places to eat and get fuel. All along the road are small fruit and vegetable stands selling these red things that look like red peppers or apples. We found out later that they’re “water apples”. Turns out they’re a lot like the apples that we’re familiar with but don’t have very much flavor.
Tortuguero National Park
Tortuga is Spanish for turtle and Tortuguero is Costa Rica's "region of turtles" as you may have guessed by the name. It's the most important nesting site of the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemisphere. After years of being hunted almost to extinction in the area, Tortuguero National Park was established and now protects 22 miles of nesting beach from the mouth of the Tortuguero River. Today, thousands of Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley turtles come here to nest. The town here is small and quite charming with just one dirt street, so be prepared for a remote experience. That's the fun of it.
Things to Do in Tortuguero National Park: Visit in July, August, or September if you want to see turtles. There's hiking or you can take a river raft tour, kayak tour, nature or other sightseeing tours.
How to Get to Tortuguero National Park: Public transportation. The village of Tortuguero is only accessible by boat, and the boat ride into town is a great way to see the wildlife!
The working hub of this coast is Puerto Limón, Costa Rica’s major seaport. Usually referred to as just Limón, it’s generally not known as a tourist destination. Most tourists continue heading south to the small shore towns and beautiful beaches.
Driving through Limón you'll see tons of stacked freight containers and truck depots. This stretch is pretty industrial and not very scenic, however there is an interesting cemetery in the center of town. Pull over and check it out. Signage in Limón is very good and you should have no trouble getting to Route 36 going south to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
The scenic drive along the coast is 44.7 kilometers (27.8 miles) long with the ocean on one side and the rainforest on the other. Our first stop was Cahuita, a small charming village with a very laid-back Caribbean vibe. The swimming and surfing here are excellent.
Things to do in Cahuita: Go surfing at Playa Negra; Snorkel on the protected coral reefs at Cahuita National Parkor for some of the best snorkeling in Costa Rica; or just swim and hang-out at the beautiful uncrowded Playa Cahuita.
Wildlife in Cahuita
Where to eat in Cahuita: If you like Caribbean cuisine, just follow your nose and you’ll find good food. Our favorite is Chao’s Paradise, a relaxed open air restaurant on Playa Negra. If you need a pizza fix there’s Ristorante Pizzeria Cahuita. Stop by for a cold beer and one of their many different pizzas.
Where to stay in Cahuita: There are a surprising number and variety of lodging options in Cahuita from pricey hotels (though the term is relative) to super cool and comfy eco-lodges and budget bungalows. Magellan Boutique Hotel has brightly decorated guest rooms and pretty gardens. Hotel Suizo Loco Lodge & Resort is less rustic with modern bathrooms and a great pool. But if you're looking for that rustic vibe this area is famous for, the Playa Negra Guesthouse gets high ratings from many others and we agree. It's a great value and super comfortable with a great location for exploring.
Puerto Viejo (de Talamanca)
It doesn’t take long to drive the 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) from Cahuita to Puerto Viejo. Drive south on Route 36 and in Hone Creek stay left to join Rt. 256 which will take you right into town. The drive is easy and scenic and starts to give you that laid back Caribbean vibe.
When you get there, the Caribbean influence can be seen almost everywhere. People sporting dreadlocks, vendors selling Bob Marley t-shirts, reggae music coming from the small eateries, and the bases of palm trees painted with the bright colors of the West Indies.
There doesn’t appear to be any plan as to how the dirt streets are laid out in Puerto Viejo. There is “toward the ocean”, “away from the ocean”, or “along the ocean”. And the ocean - it’s beautiful, and you can start to see why people come here. Small open-air bars, cool little eateries and street vendors are everywhere. At one time this area was considered a backwater. Now there are boutique hotels and restaurants along with surf shops and even a couple of dive shops. The vibe reminded us of the West End of Negril, Jamaica the way it was several years ago. To us, Puerto Viejo is one of the best beach towns in Costa Rica.
Things to do in Puerto Viejo: Go surfing from the beach along the town to Playa Cocles on one of the longest surf breaks in the country. Go diving - check out Reef Runner Divers or Punta Uva Dive Center, about 5 miles south of Puerto Viejo. They offer free shuttle service from your hotel in the Puerto Viejo area. Wahoo Fishing Tours for fishing, dolphin watching, and snorkeling, and horseback riding at the Caribe Horse Riding Club. Plus there are nature hikes, birdwatching, kayaking, and of course, a fun ziplining tour - just ask at your hotel for information.Rent a bike, or walk - this is a very walkable town. Go shopping and explore, or just hang out and chill...it’s easy here!
Where to eat in Puerto Viejo: There are great places to eat for nearly every taste and budget. Some of our favorites: Elena Brown Restaurant, known for her rice and beans and for true local cuisine; There are plenty of seafood restaurants. For in-town we like KOKi Beach Restaurant & Bar and Stashu’s con Fusion. If your sweet tooth needs a treat head to Bread & Chocolate, a small all natural bakery and cafe. There are pizza shops, cafes, Italian, Latino, and naturally, Caribbean and Jamaican jerk joints in town and throughout the area. You won’t have to go far to find something that suits your taste.
Where to stay in Puerto Viejo: Our favorite is the adults-only Hotel Banana Azul - just north of town, it's right on the beach with beautiful grounds, great food, a full-service bar, excellent staff, and a quiet relaxing vibe. They’ve also recently added Villas Banana Verde nearby. Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort faces Playa Cocles, has a swim-up bar and two pools, beautiful grounds, a great restaurant, excellent staff and just far enough to easily get in and out of town. Samasati Retreat and Rainforest Sanctuary is popular for their yoga retreats and secluded location but close to town.
Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, and Punta Uva
An easy bike ride just 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) south of Puerto Viejo is the small village of Cocles. The beautiful white sand beach is one of the nicest beaches in Costa Rica and a popular destination with surfers. The local community even provides a lifeguard, a rarity on Costa Rica beaches. The north end of the beach is commercial but there are no crowds here.
Things to do in Playa Cocles: Rent a surfboard or learn to surf. If you’re feeling a little “beached out”, there are plenty of places to hike through the local forest or just along the main road. Listen for the call of Howler monkeys and head out. Swim, catch some rays, or grab some shade and just chill.
Where to eat in Playa Cocles: Grab something to eat from any of the several restaurants or something light from the local vendors selling coconut and snacks. We've enjoyed La Pecora Nera for good Italian. Or hop on your bike and head back to town. It’s not far!
Where to stay in Playa Cocles: There are a few hostels and small hotels here but most folks will stay closer to Puerto Viejo town. If you want to stay close to Playa Cocles, there are a few bungalows and hostels to choose from: La Caracola, Cabinas Yemanya, Lanna Ban Hotel, Hotel Bugabutik, Casa Moabi, Casa Merlin Lodge, and Caribe Town.
Inland from Playa Cocles and just off Route 256 is the Jaguar Rescue Center. A visit here is a highlight of Puerto Viejo so don't miss it. We've visited several times and had the most amazing experience with them several years ago helping to rescue sibling spider monkeys. We highly recommend visiting for an experience you will never forget. The admission fee helps to support the very important work that they do.
The sleepy little beach community of Playa Chiquita is just past Playa Cocles. This is also an easy day trip from Puerto Viejo either by bike, car, or bus. The beach here is much more isolated than others with pristine white sand surrounded by thick bright green jungle. If you’re looking for solitude in a remarkable natural setting, this is it.
Things to do in Playa Chiquita: Swim, snorkel, surf or hike the beach. A popular hike is the approximately 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) along the beach to Punta Uva. This is natural Costa Rica at its best, uncrowded and unspoiled.
Where to eat in Playa Chiquita: Arreciffe Hotel and Restaurante specializes in local Afro-Caribbean dishes. Selvin's Restaurant and Cabinas is open to non-guests too and serves local fare.
Truly a gem on the Caribbean Coast, Punta Uva is 8.8 kilometers (5.5 miles) south of Puerto Viejo and an easy day trip by car, bus, or bike.
Things to do in Punta Uva: This is one of the best swimming beaches in Costa Rica and because of the nearby reef the calm water is great for kids .There are activities galore here for whatever your desire and time allows. Bird watching tours, jungle hikes or hiking along the beach. Go paddle boarding with Green Water SUP Tours. Punta Uva Dive Center offers scuba, snorkeling, ocean and river kayak and paddle boarding tours. Climb the cliff on the point for a view of the coast in both directions and of the beautiful “blue grotto” cave.
Where to eat in Punta Uva: Restaurante Bamboocha, casual with outdoor seating and excellent Caribbean cuisine; EDEN Beach Punta Uva, on the beach and great for kids; El Ranchito for pizza and lighter fare.
Where to stay in Punta Uva: Korrigan Lodge and Pachamama Jungle River Lodge are super comfortable, but the Tree House Lodge wins big points for fun. Their five tree houses are so unique - one even has a tiny mini golf course, a wood fired hot tub and grill area for barbeques.
Close to the Panamanian border and the Bocas del Toro archipelago, this last stop on the Caribbean coast is 13.2 kilometers (8.2 miles) south of Puerto Viejo on Route 256. The small village is located within the Gandoca-Manzanilla Wildlife and Marine Refuge. The beach here is arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in the Costa Rica. Protected by the Refuge you can feel like you’re the only ones there. Warm crystal clear water, white sand, lush green palm trees for shade along with an abundance of wildlife including dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles that nest here from February through May.
Things to do in Manzanillo: Swim, dive or snorkel the protected reef, bird and wildlife watching, search for shells, and hike one of the many short trails adjacent to the beach. Be sure to bring water, snacks, sunscreen and towels. Take a long weekend side trip to Bocas del Toro - book transportation across the border through a tour company in Puerto Viejo.
Where to eat in Manzanillo: Be sure to pack water, snacks, or sandwiches for the beach. Cool and Calm Cafe and Maxi's for whole grilled red snapper with rice and beans. Both are across from the beach; Cocoloba Cafe is casual and you can watch the ocean right across from the outdoor seating while having breakfast, and they make amazing smoothies.
Where to Stay in Manzanillo: If you love ecolodges and glamping, you've got some great choices: Almonds and Corals is a family-owned boutique glamping hotel perfectly situated in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. And Congo Bongo Ecolodges is gets high marks for their rustic-chic setting.
Costa Rica offers many options to travelers. After traveling throughout the country over several trips, we seem to return to Puerto Viejo and the Caribbean Coast often. True, it has changed over the years, some for the better and some otherwise. But if you love quiet beaches and warm waters bordered by lush jungle with tropical wildlife all blended with a mellow Caribbean vibe - visit here, stay awhile. Pura Vida is alive and well on the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast.