Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

Torteguero JunglesMany 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, and the touristy Nicoya coast all beat the Caribbean, 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 rainier, but it was no less beautiful and had many beautiful places to explore.

Tortuguero, the Costa Rican version of the Amazon rainforest, dominates the northern coast. This massive area is a series of rivers and canals that crisscross 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.

Despite all that, there are many reasons to come here. The biggest draw is the large numbers of turtles (hence “Tortuguero,” which means “region of turtles” in Spanish) that come to nest along the shoreline. The best time to see them nesting is in April and May, but even during the off-season, Tortuguero offers a few places to go hiking, lots of canal cruises, and an abundance 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’s not a budget destination. But if it’s remote and off the typical backpacker trail you’re looking for in Central America, Tortuguero’s the place to go.
beaches in the northern caribbean of costa rica
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 region’s main hub. 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, 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 local “sodas” where you can buy cheap Tico (Costa Rican) food to amazing Western places with delicious baked bread or good sushi. You’ll be rocking to reggae as you wander along streets, as there are more Caribbeanites than Spaniards in Puerto Viejo.
red dart frog
Near Puerto Viejo are two other towns worth seeing: Cahuita and Manzanillo. (There’s also Limon, the area’s main port city. Skip it. It’s ugly, dodgy, and not worth even a few hours.) Cahuita, a tiny town situated right next to a stunning national park with the same name, is about an hour north of Puerto Viejo. Like Tortuguero, this 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 only 12 kilometers from Puerto Viejo, which makes for an easy day trip. In fact, you can walk here from Puerto Viejo in about two hours—just follow the beach. The town is even smaller than Cahuita, and no one ever really visits. 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.

beaches in the northern caribbean of costa rica
After visiting Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, I can say that it’s just as beautiful, interesting, and majestic as the Pacific coastline. And 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.

Check out my guide to traveling in Costa Rica for more inspiration and practical tips.

  1. Hi Matt, I love the pic of the tiny red frog! (Maybe there’s a more specific name?)
    I find that shoving a bit of the local fauna is important when describing a place, and that’s indeed what I always try to do. Cheers!

    • Linda

      Hi Matt, thankyou for your write ups on Costa Rica’s Caribean vs. Pacific Coast. I am a newbie travellor and was intuitively drawn to the C side. Would it be safe for a Canadian woman to travel alone in Costa Rica. I have no wish to go to the cities. I would love to explore the small towns. I enjoy camping the provincial campsites here in Canada and never feel unsafe, and I was wondering about camping along the C side. I will continue to watch your write ups. thanks Linda from Alberta Canada. (formerly B.C).

      • Rick

        I would be extremely careful if I were you. I’ve spent considerable time on the C. coast in Costa Rica and I’ve heard of a lot of sexual related attacks by locals. Seems to be a bit of a sport to (you know what) a white woman. The police take little interest in crimes against tourists. My daughter was attacked and it took a huge effort to get them to “investigate” and only pressure from the locals got them to lay charges. And that was only because the guy had done it a number of times to a number of different women.

        • happytraveller

          I’m very sorry to hear about your daughter. A frustrating part of travel outside countries like Canada and the US is that law enforcement can be severely lacking.

          However, after spending significant time as a digital nomad on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, the threat again woman is not only from local men but travellers AS WELL. It’s not about race but about opportunity. Every expanding beach town faces the time, when the beautiful beach become more popular and a little less safe. I took precautions at night on the beach and walked in a group. Thankfully I didn’t see anything while there.

  2. Matt, all your posts on Costa Rica have been brilliant, so much so that I now want to visit! Previously, I’d only thought of going to Nicaragua and El Salvador in Central America. Get me to the beach and out of this icy Korean winter pronto!

  3. I loved the Carribean coast, particularly the food and beaches, and the vibe was really different to the opposite side. Plus I’m pretty sure it was there that my love affair with hammocks began…

  4. Great shot of the frog, cute little thing. Seems like the Caribbean coast is pretty amazing, especially since it’s much less discovered, so the bum-bag brigade is absent!

  5. Kalin

    Thinking of traveling to Tortuguero in May. I will have 5 days and 4 nights. Any suggestions on places to visit in that amount of time? I am very interested in both the rainforest and the beach.

    • NomadicMatt

      You can’t really go to the beach. I like the Turtle Beach Lodge. They organize a lot of activities. It’s mostly birdwatching and animal spotting in the area.

  6. Great posts on Costa Rica Matt! I have been curious about the Caribbean side of the country, but didn’t really find that much great info on it. Looking forward to getting down there one day! Glad your having a great trip!

  7. Awesome write up Matt. We are venturing to CR for the first time this November (the pacific side of course) but i have been dying to check out the Caribbean side since I tend to like the calmer, bluer waters and softer sand of other Caribbean locations. Would you say it tends to be similar to the beaches/water of the Caribbean islands or Mayan Riviera?

    Also, what time of year were you there? You say it rains a lot but I am wondering if its the time of year you were there?

    • NomadicMatt

      I haven’t been to the Mayan Riveria so I don’t know. I was there in January. It did rain a lot. I say about 60% of the time but less as I went down the coast.

  8. kate

    Thanks Mat for the post! The information on Manzilla excellent. I came across Puerto viejo by accident when looking for a place to exit Canada and enter on a new visa. What better time to get some sun before hitting the snow. It sounds as though November would be a good time to go too(although maybe not for diving??)
    What I am unsure of though is accommodation. I will be travelling alone and in my late 20s (but by no means feel like it) I see hostels which are the usual commercially style ones and a few resorts which I am sure are nice, but out of my price range. Where did you stay? I did find one place down on Cocles beach that I wonder is a bit far out to meet people? but is modestly priced.
    Any suggestions are appreciated!

  9. Anneliese

    We have young kiddos, ages 6 and 7, are there any hotels you’d recommend in Puerto Viejo? Both are good travelers, nothing fancy, but something nice and on the beach, throw in a pool, does such a place exist?

  10. Rina

    Visisted both sides of this beautiful country. Pacific side is more interesting as you meet interesting people, and there are a few more activities. The Caribbean side is much more relaxing. Visit the nature rescue center near Puerto Viejo. The dart frogs were very useful to the natives as they used the poison of the dart frog to poison their darts for hunting. You will see lots of trinkets paying homage to the frogs! Also the beaches are less rough with waves and rocks, but has sharp coral on the caribbean side. Great for swimming and snorkeling!!!

  11. DrifterDawn

    I stayed here and absolutely loved it. The Caribbean chilled vibe was perfect and yes I found a fairly cheap restaurant with the best food I had eaten in months (flip flops or something?). I hated Bocas Del Toro for many accumulative reasons so to then find a lovely quiet area after that disappointment was great. I walked through Cahuita National Park and was more or less alone. I don’t usually return to places but I would definitely spend a wk here if I ever need to place to unwind.

  12. philip

    I am thinking of visiting in July 2013, which airport is better for me, I will be heading for the Caribbean side.

  13. Peter

    Hi Matt!

    My wife and I will be heading to Costa Rica in mid to late July and we are a little overwhelmed by the all the choices! We only have 7 days and basically want to situate ourselves in an area that is relatively close to a variety of attractions, such as rainforests, volcano, a nice beach, coffee plantation, decent food, etc. What would you recommend as a fairly central area for all this, if one exists? Also, we have been hearing that going with an all-inclusive package is not the way to go. Why is this? Couldn’t one book an inexpensive all-inclusive in a central area and then go a few organized tours here and there? We don’t have a ton of money but want the best possible taste of the country in the brief time that we have. We don’t travel all that much and probably aren’t comfortable renting a car. Any advice would be really helpful. Thanks so much!

  14. Kevin

    Hi Matt

    I’m planning on doing volunteer work during my gap year next year (+/- 2months). I’ve done a fair amount of research but I’m still stuck on where to base my stay, on the Caribbean or Pacific side? Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated :)

    Thanks !

  15. Martha

    Traveling to CR in Feb with son who lived in Diminical for 3 months last year. Want to check out the other side. We are casual travelers not looking for big resorts, etc. suggestions for locations? Will be heading westward after a week or so. Thnx.

  16. Hey Matt. Just bought your book for my nephew for Christmas. He has had some hard knocks growing up and feels because he did not get an education that he will never make it in life.

    I never finished high school and I sensed that he was an ideal candidate to become a “Road Scholar” like me.

    I live here in Puerto Viejo and have for 9 years. Still love to travel, but my passion is running my hotel down here on the beach.

    Thanks for visiting our area and tuning into what we have to offer. Its a great place as long as you are the adventurous type.

    As for my nephew, I think he is catching the fever. I will let you know if he drinks the kool aid.

    Cheers, Colin.

  17. Hi there! I am traveling to puerto viejo in May and saw that you can actually do a rafting trip from SJO to PV!!! Do you have any suggestions or insights to which rafting company is reputable?

    Thank you!

    • Remon

      Hey I am planning on traveling to Costa Rica in late August. From what I’ve read it seems the Caribbean coast and Puerto Viejo would be the destination for me. I’d prefer a more lively atmosphere with beaches nearby and young people. Especially parties going on for more opportunity to meet people. In my late 20s & will be traveling alone. I need to see the world. I’m also interested in ziplining and doing a few tours but not necessarily every day. If the Pacific side would be better suited for me, any recommendations?

  18. Catsanker

    Hi–my family (wife and 10 year old daughter) are going to Costa Rica for a short family vacation. I was once in Costa Rica for a day (a port of call, over ten years ago). We fly in to San Jose, then would like to go up to Tortuguero NP, perhaps spend the day and night there (and do a turtle tour), from there head down to Cahuita and the Sloth Sanctuary (I did this on my last trip, and my daughter is excited to see Buttercup!). We could also do some jungle hikes/nature walks while there and spend the night there, then we would like to go to Manuel Antonio for the rest of our time in Costa Rica–birdwatching, nature/hanging bridge-cloud forest walking, maybe swimming with dolphins, and simply relaxing. My main questions are: if one takes a shuttle or bus from San Jose up to Tortuguero (I believe the town is Moin, just north of Limon?), is there shuttle/bus/or cab service from Moin to Cahuita? Then, after/if we end up in Cahuita, is there service to take us back to San Jose and/or Manuel Antonio? I see most “planned” vacations don’t include both Pacific and Caribbean coasts–am I foolish to try to cover so much ground in a matter of days? Also when I was single I would travel devil-may-care, but with my wife and daughter I would rather err on the side of caution–is the idea of heading into the more rural areas via public transport a reasonably safe and secure idea? Thanks!

    • Heather M.

      Did you and your family make it there already? I would be very interested in hearing about your experience. Our family is planning on going in March and I would love to hear your thoughts / feedback.

  19. Jissel Hall

    Thanks for this info! Overall, I really enjoy your site and the insight you provide when visiting new places. However, I would encourage you to be more sensitive in your criticisms, as calling Limon “ugly and dodgy” is offensive – my family happens to be from there – still live there in fact – and I have nothing but happy memories from this place every time I’ve visited. Yes, it’s not the best place to visit if you’re a tourist, and it may not have the same charm as Cajuita, but saying it’s not even worth a few hours provides a sting to those who call this place home.

  20. Hey Matt,

    Love your tips for CR’s Caribbean coast. I’m making my first trip this September and am following much of your advice. Within my two weeks I plan to land in San Jose, drive straight to Arenal where I’ll stay for two days, then plan to take a 2 day rafting trip down the Pacuare River that will bring me to Puerto Viejo. I plan to stay and surf there for about 4 days while hopping down to Manzanillo for a day as well. Then up to Cahuita for a few days to relax and snorkel, then Tortuguero for a few days before heading back to San Jose to fly out. Do you think I’m allowing enough time in each place? Is there anything else you’d highly recommend I sneak in?

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