Rain, reggae beats, endless sandy beaches and sloths: Pura Vida paired with a multicultural expat community and lots of wildlife. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is different from the rest of the country and for that reason alone it is definitely worth visiting. In this area you can collect some very special (nature) experiences that make the region unique. We spent 10 days there and had a lot of time to explore the area in detail – we would like to present 20 unforgettable Caribbean experiences awaiting you there.
Our personal tips for perfect days on the Atlantic coast
1. Enjoy the multitude and diversity of beaches
Starting from Playa Negra, which is north of Puerto Viejo and offers the finest black volcanic sand, via Playa Cocles, Punta Uva, Playa Chiquita to Manzanillo – along the way you will also find a large number of hidden corners where you can have the beach all to yourself. There ist the perfect spot for everyone – from surf junkies to snorkelers to beach chillers and sandcastle builders. Our personal favorites include Playa Manzanillo, Playa Cocles and Playa Arrecife.
2. Cahuita national park
The village, which is about 20 minutes north of Puerto Viejo, is best known for its small national park. It is said that this is the most popular park to see animals without a guide. Maybe. We can tell, the park is still beautiful and beaches are just as beautiful are part of the nature reserve. Admission is very moderate at $5.
3. Good food
People from more than 120 different nations live in Puerto Viejo and the local restaurant scene as well as food culture is almost as diverse. Delicious Costa Rican-Caribbean coconut dishes are offered here side to side to French or optionally Italian bakeries, Japanese sushi or Mexican tacos. Puerto Viejo is an oasis for food lovers, as well as for those who have been traveling for some time and are looking for a change from the daily Gallo Pinto.
4. Reserva Natural de Manzanillo
The southernmost tip of Costa Rica, right on the border to Panama, is home to a nature reserve that is one of the most diverse in Costa Rica. The hiking trail leads along the coast, past Punta Manzanillo, the viewpoint, over beautiful bathing bays and then at some point in the forest turns into a rather muddy path. Theoretically you can continue to Punta Mona or Playa Gandoca, but ideally not without hiking boots and mosquito repellent. A guide is highly recommended, especially for tours up to Punta Mona or further.
Hike through a beautifully wild cocoa plantation and learn everything about growing, harvesting and producing chocolate from the friendly ex-Swiss people who took over the cocoa finca 30 years ago. Learn how to produce and taste wonderful freshly prepared cocoa as it was drunk by the Mayas. $25 in a group (daily 3 p.m.) or $80 the private tour (recommended especially for families).
6. Take endless beachwalks
unwind on one of the many swings by the sea, discover shipwrecks, observe animals or simply do a little workout on one of the beach machines. It never gets boring here.
7. Rescue Center
Why look at “caged” animals when you can look at them in the wild? The Rescue Center does important work and is totally worth supporting it. Countless animals are treated here, regenerated and, if possible, released back into nature or given a place to live until the end of their lives if this is no longer possible. The tour costs $22 because the project is financed 100% from its own income. However, the tour is anything but boring. In addition to lots of information about the animals themselves, you get a personal story about each one. Emotional and nice to see so much commitment of people working here (often on a voluntary basis).
8. The Ara-Project
The unmistakable screeching in the high treetops already dominates here at the entrance. The Macaw Project is a non-profit zoological project dedicated to the conservation of parrot species native to Costa Rica and also accompanies controlled releases of macaws into the wild. Highly recommended.
9. Enjoy the Pura Vida
let yourself fall into the timeless, slurp coconuts and watch the general hustle and bustle while listening to soft (or loud) reggae beats in your ears. Some impressions of what might come your way…
Depending on the weather, the beaches in Puerto Viejo, Cahuita and Manzanillo are also great for snorkeling. Unfortunately we weren’t lucky as waves and currents were too strong due to the daily rain and the water was too choppy.
In any case, surfing experiences at Playa Cocles are a must. Afterwards off to Tasty Waves and end the day with delicious beef tacos and a magarita. The surfer shop is also extremely child-friendly and even has a small play area.
The beaches, national parks and restaurants between Cahuita and Manzanillo are also great for exploring by bike. Bikes are available to rent on site – either the classic beach cruiser or mountain bikes, with most routes tending to follow the main road. Proper mountain bike tours with a guide can be found inland.
13. Climbing the top of Punta Uva
This short and entertaining hike leads through the forest to the rocky peak of Punta Uvas, past the grave of the founder and after a short climb down to the water to the natural cave window.
14. Saturdays are for farmermarkets
In Puerto Viejo the “Farmer’s and Artisians Market” takes place every Saturday. Here you will find a selection of local agricultural products as well as handicrafts.
15. BriBri waterfalls
There are plenty of waterfalls in Costa Rica, but they are always beautiful to see and worth a detour. Located in rather quiet spots inland, you can visit either the Bri-Bri Voilo Waterfall or the Cataratas Bribri Talamanca in the area. At both, you can swim and refresh yourself in one of the pools under the waterfalls. The Bri-Bri Falls are actually a whole cascade of several waterfalls of different heights with pools between Hone-Creek and Bri-Bri. At the guarded parking lot you pay a small entrance fee of about 1000 colones. After heavy rain the water is quite cold and muddy.
16. Getting to know indigenous cultures
Very close to Puerto Viejo and the Bri Bri waterfalls there is also a reserve that is supposed to maintain and preserve the traditions of the Bri-Bri indigenous people. Tours allow insights into the everyday life of the Bri-Bri Indians and at the same time should help financially to preserve the culture.
17. Enjoying the sundowners
enjoy on the beach. Enjoy every last minute on the beach before it suddenly gets dark at 6 p.m. Pricelessly beautiful.
18. Watch sloths
The greatest chance of seeing a sloth in the wild is on the Caribbean coast. We had one of the cuties right in front of our little bungalow in the tree. You can also see them up close at the Rescue Center or the Sloth Sanctuary and learn more about each animal on guided tours. The facility has been caring for injured and orphaned sloths since 1992 and probably also contributes to research. Nevertheless, there has been a controversial discussion about the management of the facility and the keeping of the animals in recent years, which is why we were not here. You can find out more here, for example: https://ticotimes.net/2016/08/01/sloth-sanctuary-costa-rica
19. Yicel shipwreck in Manzanillo
While strolling along the beach in Manzanillo, you will inevitably come across the wreck of the “Yicel”, a small cargo ship from Panama that was stranded at the end of 2017 to prevent it from sinking. Originally it was planned to make the ship fit again and tow it to the next port. Nothing has come of it to this day – and officially no fuel has ever ended up in the sea. Today the wreck is almost half buried in the sand and sprayed all over with graffiti. A memorial that is absolutely worth seeing.
20. Strolling through Puerto Viejo town
stroll past the many stands of local handicraft artists and small shops and buy souvenirs. From classic bracelets and jewelery to rum, handmade local chocolate or funny t-shirts you can find everything in Puerto Viejo.
Useful information for planning
The journey is a bit lengthy, so you should bring enough time. The “highway” Route 32 is the fastest and therefore also the main connection between San José and Puerto Limon. A lot of traffic, several trucks on the mountainous and winding route and traffic jams make the journey less attractive at first, which is why you shouldn’t bring any stress with you in order to be able to enjoy the beautiful part of the Caribbean coast around Puerto Viejo. There is also the possibility to take the bus (the same route), because the car is not absolutely necessary on site. The area is very bike-friendly and you can hire them everywhere (there are even child seats in some places!).
Where to stay
From Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo there are countless beautiful apartments, houses, Airbnbs, hotels and hostels in all price categories. It doesn’t matter whether it’s right in the center, preferably right on the beach or nestled in the jungle to really experience the wildlife up close. Why we are writing about it now: The Caribbean is also the rainiest region of Costa Rica, which does not mean that it rains all the time, but it does get really wet, here mainly at night or in the morning. From noon there was often the finest bathing weather. It is helpful in such situations to have booked nice accommodation. On the one hand, we recommend that you make sure that it is air-conditioned, as it can get very humid due to the rain and therefore all your clothes are often clammy, which quickly leads to mold growth. Air conditioning systems can not only cool or heat the interior, but also dry it. It’s always great with children and there is always enough space at the accommodation, so you can stay there for a longer period of time without the ceiling falling on your head. Finally, a washing machine in the accommodation is an advantage so that you can get the sand and mustiness out of your clothes. An antibacterial detergent also makes sense, since the washing machines usually only wash with cold water.