The Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast is, in some ways, everything the Pacific Coast isn’t. While you’ll also find pristine beaches and lush coastal rain forests here, what you won’t find is the throngs of tourists, rapid development and Disneyland-like atmosphere of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. In their place are ridiculously remote fishing villages, lazy beach towns and the heart of Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean culture.
Geography & Climate
Costa Rica’s Carribean Coast is interwoven by a large network of rivers winding their way through a thick and lush jungle. Spanning the coast are long stretches of deserted beach that serve as nesting grounds for several types of sea turtle. In fact, more green turtles are born here than anywhere else on Earth.
Unlike the Pacific Coast, the Caribbean Coast has no real “dry season”. It rains year-round, which keeps the forests lush and the crowds down. The least wet months are February through March, though there’s still plenty of rain. Throughout the year, temperatures remain steady with daily lows and highs of around 22°C and 27°C (72°F and 81°F), respectively. Surfers should note the biggest swells hit the Carribean Coast between January and March.
The Caribbean coast, with markers indicating Cariari (purple), Tortuguero (pink), Moín (turquoise), Limón (yellow), Cahuita (blue), Puerto Viejo (green) and Manzanillo (red).
Sights & Attractions
The largest and most important city on the Caribbean Coast is Puerto Limón (yellow on map). Situated midway down the coast, Limón is the heart of Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean culture. While the city doesn’t cater to tourists the way much of the rest of the country does, it can be an interesting place to explore if you like bohemian, non-touristy cities. Regardless, most visitors to Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast will at the very least pass through Puerto Limón en route to other destinations along the coast.
Southern Caribbean Coast
If you want to further explore Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean culture (or just find some incredible beaches), head south from Puerto Limón. Around a 30 minute drive down the coastal road from Puerto Limón is the town of Cahuita (blue on map). The small village has plenty of accommodations and easy access to the nearby Parque Nacional Cahuita. The small national park features pristine white-sand beaches, coral reef and a coastal rainforest teeming with wildlife. The coral reef in the waters off the park is the best place to snorkel in all of Costa Rica.
A 25-minute drive south from Cahuita takes you to the town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (green on map). Keep in mind that while the town is often just called Puerto Viejo, though there is another city in Costa Rica with the same name. Puerto Viejo a hub for exploring the southernmost part of Costa Rica’s Carribean coast and is itself a popular destination. The place has a rastafarian feel to it, with reggae playing non-stop and stoned-out, dreadlocked locals everywhere. It’s also got what is probably the wildest nightlife on the entire Caribbean Coast; the towns many bars stay open till near sunrise and the beautiful beaches are the perfect place for nursing a hangover.
Fifteen minutes down the coastal road from Puerto Viejo is the tiny town of Manzanillo (red on map). The main attraction of the town is pristine white-sand beach. The pace here is a lot slower than in Puerto Viejo; at nighttime things grind to a halt as most of the town packs it in to wake up early and explore the beautiful nearby surroundings. The town is situated at the edge of Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo, a large national park protecting the coastline from Manzanillo to Panama. The beaches here are unbelievably beautiful and by far Manzanillo’s greatest attraction. There’s no shortage of places to stay in Manzanillo and it provides a great alternative to Puerto Viejo if you’re looking for something less raucous.
Northern Caribbean Coast
The northern parts of the Caribbean Coast feature some of the country’s most impressive wildlife. However, the thick jungle and remoteness make the area accessible only by boat, along one of the many rivers traversing the region. If you do brave the journey and make it here, you’ll be rewarded with a front row seat to some of the world’s greatest natural attractions; the lush forests are home to a long list of amazing creatures, including sloths, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, green iguanas, jaguars and over 300 species of birds. Much of this jungle is contained in Parque Nacional Tortuguero. The national park is accessible from the nearby Tortuguero Village (pink on map). The small village has plenty of places to stay.
As mentioned, if you want to get to the Tortuguero Village, you’ll need to do so by boat. Tortuguero is accessible from either of the towns Cariari (purple on map) or Moín (turquoise on map), which is just outside of Limón. Both of these towns can be reached by road from the rest of the country. Cariari is around an hour’s drive from San José while Moín will take an hour and 45 minutes to reach from the capital.
Central Pacific Coast Travel Guide
Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Coast stretches from the port city of Puntarenas southward down to the small village of Uvita. Home to tropical rain forests, countless pristine white sandy beaches and located just an hour’s drive from San Jose‘s main airport, it’s no surprise this region is one of Costa Rica’s most visited.
Geography & Climate
The entire Pacific coast of Costa Rica is located so close to the equator, temperatures are stable year-round with highs and lows between 21°C and 33°C (70°F and 92°F) in any given month. Despite this, the landscape looks quite different depending on the time of year you visit. During the dry season (December to March) little rain falls and much of the vegetation appears dry and barren (though less so as you head south). The rainy season runs from April to November, during which time river’s fill up and the forests become lush and colorful.
Sights & Attractions
The gateway to the central Pacific coast is the port town of Puntarenas. Actually, it’s the gateway to the entire Pacific coast of Costa Rica, as it’s where the ferries depart for the Nicoya Peninsula. It takes around an hour to drive from San José to Puntarenas. If you’re on the Nicoya Peninsula, you can catch the ferry (which takes cars) from Paquera. The ferry ride takes around two hours and costs around 3 USD per passenger and 10 USD per vehicle.
Puntarenas is a fairly unremarkable (and slightly grimy) port town so most visitors just head pass through en route to other destinations. From Puntarenas head 25 kilometers south along the Costanera to arrive at Parque Nacional Carara. This national park is an important wildlife reserve and home to some of Costa Rica’s most impressive wildlife, such as the scarlet macaw. The park opens daily at 7 am and it’s many trails penetrating deep into the reserve’s rainforest make for some outstanding hikes. The many rivers winding through the forest are full of giant crocodiles, so make sure you don’t swim.
South of the Carara National Park (and around an hour’s drive from San José) is the popular town of Jacó. Jacó’s stunning natural beauty and outstanding surfing have made it one of the pacific coast’s most popular cities. While the beaches and scenery are undeniably beautiful, Jacó has recently undergone rapid development and some visitors find the high-rises and strip malls popping up throughout the town off-putting. Nonetheless, Jacó is home to many excellent restaurants, upscale hotels, and swanky nightclubs. If you’re looking for a cosmopolitan destination on Costa Rica’s coast, then this is your place (keep in mind it’s also priced as such – noticeably more expensive than the rest of the country). A few kilometers south of Jacó is Playa Hermosa, where surfers will find some of Costa Rica’s most consistent (and challenging) breaks. Keep in mind the waves here are big and there’s a strong rip tide, so it’s not the place to go if you just want to learn how to surf.
If you’re looking for a little more tranquility than Jacó can provide, around 25 kilometers south is Playa Esterillos, a long stretch of beautiful beach that doesn’t receive many visitors. There are three nearby villages with access to the beach: Esterillos Oeste, Esterillos Centro, and Esterillos Este. Each of these is just off the Costanera. Since these beaches don’t receive many visitors, there are not many hotels in the area but it’s a great place to camp right on the beach.
Forty-five kilometers south of Playa Esterillos is the Parque Nacional, Manuel Antonio. Although it’s Costa Rica’s smallest national park, no other can match the incredible diversity of wildlife-packed into Manuel Antonio. Within the 7 square kilometers (3 square miles) park, you’ll find no less than 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. Three of Costa Rica’s four species of monkeys – Howler Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, and White-headed Capuchins – can be found in the park. Three-toed and two-toed sloths are another popular animals found in Manuel Antonio. More exotic species include Spiny-tailed Iguanas, numerous types of snakes and bats, as well as dozens of brightly colored exotic birds, such as toucans, parakeets, and motmots. The park also contains four beautiful beaches which provide excellent snorkeling opportunities.
Manuel Antonio Village is located right at the park’s entrance and is a very popular place for visitors to stay. It’s rather tacky, filled with vendors selling cheesy souvenirs and hordes of tourists. If you’re willing to sacrifice convenience for calm, consider the nearby town of Quepos, located around 7 kilometers from the park’s entrance. Despite being located so close to the park, this small town has retained an authentically Costa Rican aura about itself. There are plenty of places to stay in Quepos and both the accommodations as well as restaurants are cheaper than in Manuel Antonio Village.
Continue south down the Costanera and after passing many more beaches and rainforests you’ll eventually come to the town of Uvita (around 50 kilometers south of Manuel Antonio). Uvita is popular because it acts as a hub for several nearby attractions. Among them is Ballena Marine National Park, whose long pristine beaches feature very sparse crowds (often empty, in fact) and are perfect for snorkeling. Humpback whales migrate here between December and April, during which there are outstanding whale watching opportunities. Many of the beaches around Uvita are also excellent for surfing, though the waves can be big and are mostly not suited to novices.
Nicoya Peninsula Travel Guide
The Nicoya Peninsula is a peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica composed of the Guanacaste and Puntarenas provinces. Famous for its jungle rimmed white sand beaches, it is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. From hard partying Tamarindo to laid-back Montezuma, the dozens of beachside towns dotting Nicoya’s coastline offer a wide range of backdrops to the stunning beaches. The peninsula’s rugged coastal road is ideal for exploring the more remote beaches, just be sure to bring an extra tire or two.
Geography & Climate
The Nicoya Peninsula, located along Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, is walled off from the mainland by the volcanically active Guanacaste and Tilaran mountain ranges. The northern part of the peninsula is one of the driest places in Costa Rica and is characterized primarily by dry tropical forest. As you head south along the Nicoya Peninsula, a number of moisture increases and the vegetation become noticeably more lush, gradually transitioning to tropical rainforest.
The temperature remains remarkably stable year-round throughout the Nicoya Peninsula, with average daily highs and lows around 33°C (92°F) and 21°C (70°F), respectively. The amount of rainfall varies a lot throughout the year. During the dry season, which lasts from December to March, it hardly rains at all. The rainy season is April through November. During this time it rains frequently, especially in the southern part of the peninsula. As rivers enlarge, many roads become impassable making it difficult to get around at this time of year.
The Nicoya Peninsula with markers indicating playas Tamarindo & Playa Grande (green), Negra (purple), Sámara (red), San Miguel (turquoise), Mal País (blue) and Montezuma (yellow). The boat icon denotes the terminal for ferries heading to the mainland.
Sights & Attractions
Without a doubt, the Nicoya Peninsula’s greatest attraction is its hundreds of incredible beaches. Whether you’re looking for deserted beaches in the middle nowhere, gaudy beachside tourist towns with wild party scenes, or huge (or small, for that matter) waves prime for surfing, you’ll find that (and a whole lot more) here.
Around 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Liberia, is the beachside town of Tamarindo. The town is nicknamed Tamagringo, and it certainly lives up to it; the place is packed to the gills with tourists and even features a Pizza Hut right on the beach. There are great waves and plenty of surf shops as well as wild parties at night. Needless to say, if you’re looking for a relaxing Costa Rican beach, this is not the place for you.
Literally, right beside Tamarindo is the ever so quiet beach town of Playa Grande. Because of a river separating the two towns, it actually takes over 40 minutes to drive between them, but you can get a boat (or swim) from one beach to the other across the small river (around 40 meters wide) separating them and freely commute between the two (it’s actually more of a feature than an inconvenience; the river acts as a nice buffer keeping all the wild drunks from Tamarindo from making it over to Playa Grande). Playa Grande is a stunningly peaceful beach. While popular among surfers, the beach is so long that the crowds are always very sparse (or even non-existent). The town is very quiet; there are a single small grocery store and a single restaurant, but it’s a great place to go if you’re looking for a little relaxation.
Playa Negra is around 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Tamarindo and is considered to have the best surfing conditions in the area. The road leading from Tamarindo to Playa Negra is a very beat up dirt road and you’ll probably need a truck with 4WD to make the journey. While it’s a bit of a pain, the difficult trip keeps the beaches relatively deserted. The black sand can be very hot on your feet, so make sure you bring along a pair of flip-flops.
Continuing north down the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula you’ll find many pristine, deserted beaches (some of these are deserted due to isolation while others due to dangerous rip tides, so are careful when swimming in an unfamiliar beach). One of the most beautiful of these is Playa Junquillal, a long, empty, palm-tree lined beach around 12 kilometers north of Playa Negra.
About halfway down the peninsula are Playa Sámara and the accompanying town of the same name. The small town has long been a favorite vacation spot for Costa Ricans. In recent years, more tourists have been making their way to Sámara, though it still retains a fairly authentic Costa Rican atmosphere. There are plenty of restaurants, lodgings and outdoor discos lining the long white sand beach.
At the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula you’ll find a series of interesting nearby towns and (of course!) more pristine beaches. The towns of Santa Teresa and Mal País (confusingly, the general area containing these towns is also called Mal País) are very popular among surfers. Mal País (the town) and Santa Teresa were once separate towns but recent development has essentially joined them into one. They are situated along a white sandy beach that’s famous for its waves and draws surfers from all over the world. It’s unmistakably a “surf town”, with dozens of surf shops and everyone seems to either be surfing or has a surfboard under their arm. The huge waves make it not the best place for swimming, so if you’re not looking to surf you may not find much to do here.
Around 10 kilometers from Santa Teresa is the town of Montezuma. The quaint little hippie town is right on the beach and a relaxing place to spend a few days, especially if you’re just getting away from all the gringos in Mal País. The center of the town has several bars and restaurants, a small grocery store and several hotels/hostels. As you go northeast down the coast, you’ll find more accommodations as well as many more secluded beaches. A 15-minute walk south of town brings to a series of scenic waterfalls set in the forest. The main attraction here is to climb the second set and jump the 40-foot drop into the water below.
In between Mal País and Montezuma is the town of Cóbano (if you take the inland road (the shorter route) between Mal País and Montezuma, you’ll pass right through the center of it). While Cóbano doesn’t have any particular attractions, it’s distinctly non-touristy and you’ll find the restaurants and bars are a lot cheaper here. It’s also a nice place to walk through since (for once) you’ll be just about the only tourist around.
If you want to travel between the bottom of the peninsula and the Central Pacific Coast, there’s a ferry boat between the towns of Paquera (on the Nicoya Peninsula) and Puntarenas (on the central Pacific coast). It takes about an hour to drive from Montezuma to Paquera (two hours by bus) and there are multiple departures throughout the day, with the first leaving Paquera around 8 am.