If you ask us, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has the Pacific coast beat when it comes to the most beautiful beaches, most authentic beach town (Puerto Viejo) and greatest number of hotels and restaurants offering value for money on any travel budget. So why do so few visitors travel to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast? Beats us. Don’t get us wrong. We really enjoyed Pacific coast locations like Santa Elena, Tamarindo, Uvita, Ojochal, the Nicoya Peninsula, etc. But we left our hearts on the Caribbean side. Now you can too with our handy travel guide to the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, an 11 mile (17 kilometer) stretch of heaven.
Beach towns of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast
It’s a lovely, sometimes-coastal drive from Puerto Limon (see our Travel Tip about this dodgy port town below), past Cahuita (which we’ll tell you all about in our next travel blog post) and into the beach town of Puerto Viejo del Talamanca and Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast.
Most people simply call it Puerto Viejo. It’s got an infectiously slow pace, a festive but not fraternity party vibe and a surprising selection of services (from bakeries to chic boutiques) yet it won’t trip your tourist trap radar. There’s also a lovely barrel called Salsa Brava which breaks a few hundred yards from Puerto Viejo’s shoreline, keeping surfers (and surfer watchers) satisfied.
Yes, there are tourists in Puerto Viejo but the place never felt touristy.
Beaches of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast
There are three main beaches stretched out south from Puerto Viejo. All of them are beautiful with wide, walkable swaths of sand, lovely blue Caribbean water and mostly-swimmable surf. Yet each also manages to have its own personality.
The nearest beach to Puerto Viejo is Playa Cocles, a nearly salmon-colored stretch of sand backed by pure jungle that runs for 2.5 miles (four kilometers) until it reaches a rocky outcrop called Punta Cocles. Best for: beach walking.
On the other side of Punta Cocles, still traveling south, lies Playa Chiquita which runs for another 2.5 miles (four kilometers) until it hits another rocky outcrop, this one is called Punta Uva. Best for: tide pooling and swimming since there are a number of very protected natural “pools” along Playa Chiquita.
Furthest away from Puerto Viejo is Playa Manzanillo and the tiny town of Manzanillo where you can get a cheap meal, a scoop of ice cream, a camping spot and cold beer but not much more. But what else do you really need with the chillest stretch of beach we’ve seen in Central America in front of you? Best for: chilling with a cold beer.
Warning: you will be tempted to fling your towel out in the shade of one of the many almond trees on these beaches. Don’t do it. A red caterpillar lives in the almond trees around here and if you touch it (or vice versa) it inflicts an extremely painful wound. There’s a sign posted in Puerto Veijo that advises in the case of an encounter with these “red worms” you can either spend $20 and go to the doctor, though there is no treatment, or spend $20 on rum and deal with the pain that way. Or, just don’t sit under the almond trees…
Hotels of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean Coast
In addition to the usual suspects (rowdy hostels, mediocre mid-priced hotels and vacation homes for rent) there are some real lodging finds with unexpected character along the southern Caribbean coast. Just don’t expect a view of the ocean. Most accommodations are close to but not right on the beach to keep development at bay and nature at the forefront.
For the stylish and spendy: Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel, near Playa Cocles, is a full-service, starkly white and starkly hip hotel. If there wasn’t sand between your toes you’d think you were in a chic, urban hotel.
For families and anyone looking for a real Caribbean vibe: There’s no shortage of lodging options here that offer Caribbean colors and decor but there’s something different about Aguas Claras bungalows. Maybe it’s the ornate wood work and circular architecture on stilts. Maybe it’s the neighborhood feeling with five bungalows (each in a different festive color combo sleeping two to four guests) nestled in the lushly-landscaped grounds. Maybe it’s the full kitchens and inviting porches from which to watch howler monkeys and impossibly-colored birds travel through.
All we know is we didn’t want to leave our bungalow even though awesome Playa Cocles was only a few steps away.
For nature (and nurture) lovers: The French owners, who opened Shawandha Lodge 15 years ago, call the 14 thatch roof bungalows “neo-primitive.” Each has a large porch, good screens, comfortable beds and artistically tiled bathrooms. Though Playa Chiquita is just a short stroll away you may do your cooling off in the Shawandha pool which is kept clean with a salt water process that skips the chemicals. You will certainly do some wildlife watching on the lodge’s five acres (two hectares). We routinely saw toucans and sloths. And don’t miss their 200 foot (60 meter) tall ceiba tree.
A cheap eat on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast
Puerto Viejo has more than its share of mid-to-upper-range eateries. A harder find was somewhere to get reliably good food at a decent price. The cheapest, tastiest option we found was Mare Nuestro where you can get a big grilled fish with sides for around US$6 (2,900 colones).
Use what you didn’t spend on food to treat yourself to a gorgeous beach cover up, bit of jewelry, new beach bag, sun dress or cool hat at the splurge-worthy Luna May store on the main drag in Puerto Viejo.
Animal attractions on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast
If anything is going to tear you away from the beaches and your new commitment to doing nothing its poisonous frogs and rescued baby sloths. Thankfully, there are places to see both (and more).
Finca La Isla Botanical Garden is one of the best places to get an eyeful of various species of zanily patterned, brightly colored, totally gorgeous poison dart frogs (US$5 per person, Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10-4, wear walking shoes and bug spray). The tiny frogs love the plant nursery and grounds here and a bit of patience and persistence paid off for us with sightings of red-eyed tree frogs, green and black frogs and strawberry frogs though the snazzy-sounding transparent glass frogs on the property eluded us.
During a stroll through the Finca La Isla permaculture farm we also saw a baby boa coiled up inside a a huge bromeliad and our self-guided tour was capped off with a tasting of some of the fruits grown on the property and a sampling of the chocolate they make from cacao seeds grown there.
The Jaguar Rescue Center (US$15 per person, guided tours only, closed Sunday, reservations highly recommended) near Playa Chiquita is a haven for far more than just jaguars. During the course of a two hour tour we saw a bad-tempered margay named Diablito (little devil in Spanish), lots of pretty but poisonous eyelash vipers, a boa with a mouse lunch in its cage, colorful jungle birds, imposing birds of prey and many more rescued wild animals which are being rehabilitated and prepared for their return to the wild.
We also got into an enclosure with howler monkeys which clamored all over us like we were mobile trees. As part of their rehab the howlers are taken into the jungle by volunteers so they can interact with wild monkeys for four hours every day. The monkeys return to the enclosure by choice, most eventually remaining in the jungle when they feel they’re ready.
A two-toed sloth that was deemed ready for release was still hanging around the center, spending half its time in the wild and half back at “home.” It’s a process.
Speaking of sloths, a highlight of the Jaguar Rescue Center is its sloth nursery which was full of baby sloths which had been orphaned when their mothers were killed by predators or, increasingly, by electrical wires. Some had been abandoned after falling out of a tree. There really is very little in this world that’s cuter than a baby sloth.
You’ll have to pass through Puerto Limon on your way to the Caribbean coast. For God’s sake don’t spend a night there. Like so many port towns, Puerto Limon is a hole. However, there is one fascinating historical fact you should know: Puerto Limon was the location of the headquarters of Marcus Garvey‘s ill-fated Black Star Line.
Garvey, a Jamaican, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association of African Communities League and spearheaded a movement to repatriate African Americans back to Africa where, he believed, they would bring about an economic renaissance on the continent. His Black Star Line shipping company, started in 1919, was formed to transport African Americans back to Africa but corruption, poor management and FBI infiltration forced the company out of business in 1922. The brightly painted, two-story wooden building that was the Black Star headquarters still stands in downtown Puerto Limon and is the oldest building in town.
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