Updated: 04/28/2019 | April 28th, 2019
Many 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 make it the superior choice when compared with the Caribbean, they claim.
The Caribbean coast 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.
Or so they say.
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 wonderful places to explore.
Contrary to what you may have heard, there are plenty of worthwhile destinations to explore on this side of the country. Here are some of the best places to visit during your next trip!
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The Best Places to Travel on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
Tortuguero, the Costa Rican version of the Amazon rainforest, dominates the northern coast of the country. This massive area is a series of rivers and canals that crisscross the jungle.
Not surprisingly, it rains here often. 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.
However, there are still plenty of great reasons to visit!
The biggest draw here 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 (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 José and supplies are brought in by boat. It’s not a budget destination.
But if it’s something remote and off the typical backpacker trail you’re looking for in Central America, Tortuguero’s the place to go!
Top Attraction in Tortuguero – If you’re only going to do one thing during your visit, head to Tortuguero National Park. There are a couple of trails you can hike on through the park, but boat tours of the area are pretty much the only way to get around since this is a river system.
This region is amongst the wettest in the country, so be prepared for a wet and muddy trip. Admission to the park is 8,300 CRC per person.
Where to Stay in Tortuguero – Aracari Garden Hostel – With free Wi-Fi, a fully eqipped kichen, and a great common area, this is a cool backpacker hostel right next to the national park. The staff are great and the dorms are clean and spacious.
2. Puerto Viejo
Most travelers on this side of the country eventually 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. 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 Caribbeans than Spaniards here.
Top Attraction in Puerto Viejo – Make sure you visit the Jaguar Resce Center while you’re here. It’s a foundation that works hard to rescue and rehabilitate animals like jaguars and howler monkeys. The animals are not kept in captivity longer than necessary, so that means you may not always get to see a jaguar. However, it’s an amazing opportunity to experience an intimate interaction with wildlife — and it’s a worthy cause to support no matter if you see a jaguar or not!
Where to Stay in Puerto Viejo – Rocking J’s – Located on the beach, this hostel has a really chill vibe. There are hammocks for relaxing in and free painting supplies (there is artwork all over the hostel). The host a nightly bonfire as well, which is a great way to kick back and meet other travelers.
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. Home to less than 10,000 people, 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.
While you’re here, be sure to visit Cahuita National Park, relax at Black Beach, and stuff your face with dessert crepes (a local specialty!)
Top Attraction in Cahuita – Cahuita National Park really is the main draw here, as it offers some great hiking and a chance to soak up the local natural beauty.
Where to Stay in Cahuita – Secret Garden – This family-friendly and laidback hostel is great for anyone looking for a more quiet and relaxing hostel. They have a chill terrace, garden, fruit trees, and hammocks for relaxing in. They have a shared kitchen as well as plenty of common areas for meeting other travelers.
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. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds and have a more authentic experience, consider a visit to Manzanillo.
The reef system here is close to the shore and this is the region’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!
Top Attraction in Manzanillo – The best thing to do here is take a tour. For the adventurous, that would be a canopy tour (ziplining). If you’re not looking for an adrenaline rush, head out on a chocolate tour. The region is known for its delicious chocolate, so head out to learn about its history while picking up a few samples along the way!
Where to Stay in Manzanillo – Caricako Hostel This is a funky hostel located right on the beach. They have a fully equipped kitchen and there are lots of good restaurants nearby as well. The owners do a great job of making you feel welcome, which is why a lot of people here stay longer than they plan!
After visiting the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica, 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 the (fairly) empty beaches, cheap seafood, and incredible wildlife of the Caribbean coast!
Book Your Trip to Costa Rica: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on Costa Rica?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Costa Rica for even more planning tips!