Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

By Nomadic Matt | Published January 28th, 2011

Torteguero JunglesA 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.
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 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.
red dart frog
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.

beaches in the northern caribbean of costa rica
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.

comments 34 Comments

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!

NomadicMatt

It’s called a red dart frog!

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).

I wish I was there long enough to go to both coasts! Next time… that’s an awesome frog photo by the way.

Life Exceptional

Oh! Those photos are amazing! Really makes me want to hit the road again.

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!

Cahuita rocks ! But the Osa is more interesting.

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…

NomadicMatt

My love affair with hammocks was renewed in Puerto Viejo.

j-dog

sorry – meant to say, cool frog photo!

Thank you for this post Matt! It will come in handy for me this summer.

NomadicMatt

Glad to help!

Really digging your write-ups on Costa Rica – dying to get there sometime soon.

Sofia - As We Travel

Would love to go there some time soon, seems awesome.

btw, that frog looks kinda poisonous..! :S

NomadicMatt

It is!

that frog is quite a stunner :)

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!

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.

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!

The picture of the red dart frog is great !

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.

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!

Anneliese

Matt,
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?

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!!!

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.

philip

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

NomadicMatt

The main airport in San Jose.

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!

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 !

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.

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.

NomadicMatt

I hope he drinks the kool aid. Let’s create more travel addicts!

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