A lot of the people I’ve met have told me that the Pacific side of Costa Rica is the better coast to visit. The remote Osa peninsula, the monkey filled area of Manuel Antonio, the touristy Nicoya coast all beat the Caribbean they said, which has more rain, less wildlife, fewer “modern” conveniences, and uglier beaches. No matter where you go, the Caribbean side just won’t be as nice.
Having now been to both coasts, I’m not sure what these people are talking about. Traveling down the Caribbean side, I did find it to be more rainy but no less beautiful and with many great places to see.
Tortuguero, the Costa Rican version of the Amazon Rainforest, dominates the northern coast. This massive area is a series of rivers and canals that criss-cross the jungle. It rains all the time, and although the beaches are beautiful, a full day of sunny beach weather is rare. To top it off, the currents are strong and toothy barracudas and sharks roam the waters.
Yet, despite all that, there are many reasons to come here. The biggest draw to this area are the large numbers of turtles (hence the name Tortuguero) that come to nest along the shoreline. The best time to see them nesting is in April and May but even if you come in off-season, Tortuguero still offers a few places to go hiking, lots of canal cruises, and lots of wildlife to see (this area is known for its birds).
Tortuguero is not easy to get to nor is it cheap. It takes five hours to get there from San Jose and supplies are brought in by boat. It is not a great budget destination. However, if it’s a remote and off the typical backpacker trail destination you’re looking for in Central America, Tortuguero is the place to go.
You’ll find great surf sites, lots of people, deep sea diving and parties galore down the coast towards Panama. This part of the coast is a lot easier to get to and much cheaper than Tortuguero. Most travelers head for Puerto Viejo, the main base of the region. This is backpacker central and it’s easy to get sucked into the surfer, party life here.
Puerto Viejo is a rocking seaside town with a strong Caribbean feel. Puerto Viejo is the hub of this region and I really like it despite the fact that it’s touristy. The town is small, it’s easy to get around, there are beaches everywhere, and there are a ton of good restaurants ranging from good local “sodas” where you can buy cheap Tico food to amazing western places with great baked bread or good sushi. You’ll be rocking to Reggae as you wander along streets as there are more Caribbeanites in Puerto Viejo than Spaniards.
However, Puerto Viejo is surrounded by two other towns worth seeing: Cahuita and Manazillo. (There’s also Limon, the area’s main port city. Skip it. It’s ugly, dodgy, and not worth even a few hours there.) Cahuita, a tiny town situated right next to a stunning national park with the same name, is about an hour north of Puerto Viejo. This, like Tortuguero, is a place to relax. There’s one bar that gets lively on some nights but for the most part, after a day of hiking, swimming, or surfing, most people just sit and read.
Manzanillo is right below Puerto Viejo and it makes for an easy day trip. The town is even smaller than Cahuita and no one ever really visits. In fact, you can walk here from Puerto Viejo. It takes about two hours- just follow the beach. The reef system here is close to the shore and this is the area’s main diving spot. Most of the people who come here are older couples, families, or retirees. Come here to dive and relax after all the partying and noise of Puerto Viejo.
After visiting Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, I can say that it is just as beautiful, interesting, and majestic as the Pacific coastline. Moreover, since it rains more on the Caribbean coast, you’ll find far fewer people on this side. The huge resorts, overpriced meals and tours, and thousands of expats that flood all parts of the Pacific, especially the Nicoya Peninsula, are hardly anywhere to be found. So let them do what they want while you enjoy (fairly) empty beaches, cheap seafood, and lots of wildlife.