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 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 wonderful 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 (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.
You’ll find great surf sites, deep sea diving, lots of people, and parties galore down the coast toward 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 Caribbeans than Spaniards in Puerto Viejo.
Near Puerto Viejo are two other towns worth seeing: Cahuita and Manzanillo. (There’s also Limón, 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 there 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’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.