Last Updated: 3/17/21 | March 17th, 2021
Most travelers visiting Costa Rica think the Pacific side of the country is the better coast to visit. The remote Osa Peninsula, the monkey-filled area of Manuel Antonio, the surfing near Santa Theres, and the touristy Nicoya coast make it the superior choice.
After all, 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.
But, having now been to both coasts multiple times, I’m not sure what these people are talking about. Traveling down the Caribbean side, it is true it tends to be rainier, but it was no less beautiful or wonderful to explore. There’s lots of wildlife, plenty of places to party, and some beautiful beaches.
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 on Costa Rica’s Carribean coast:
- Best Place for Seeing Wildlife: Tortuguero
- Best Surfing/Partying: Puerto Viejo
- Best Hiking: Cahuita
- Best Diving: Manzanillo
- Best Beach: Punta Uva
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 so you won’t do much swimming anyways.
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. Hence, it’s not a budget destination.
But, if it’s something remote 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. Admission to the park is $15 USD per person.
Where to Stay in Tortuguero: Aracari Garden Hostel – With free Wi-Fi, a fully eqipped kichen, and spacious common area, this cool backpacker hostel is right next to the national park. The staff are friendly and the dorms are clean and spacious.
2. Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejois a rocking seaside town with a strong Caribbean feel. It’s the region’s main hub. It’s easy to get sucked into the surfer/party life here. 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 food to amazing Western places with delicious baked bread or good sushi.
Top Attraction in Puerto Viejo: Make sure you visit the Jaguar Rescue Center while you’re here. It’s a foundation that works hard to rescue and rehabilitate animals like jaguars and howler monkeys. You can take a guided tour of the facility for $22 USD per person (kids under 10 are free). Tours last 90 minutes.
Where to Stay in Puerto Viejo – Rocking J’s – Located on the beach outside of time, this hostel has a really chill vibe. They have surfboards and snorkeling gear for rent and organize all kinds of tours. It’s one of the best hostels in the country.
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 just 8,000 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. Admission to the park is free and guides can be hired for around $20 USD.
Where to Stay in Cahuita: Secret Garden – This family-friendly hostel is great for anyone looking for a more quiet and relaxing hostel. They have a terrace, garden, and hammocks for relaxing in. They also have a kitchen in case you want to make your own meals.
Manzanillo is 12km south of Puerto Viejo. 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, come stay here Manzanillo.
The reef system here is close to shore and this is the region’s main diving spot. Most of the people who come here are older couples, families, or retirees. It also has one of the best beaches in the country.
Top Attraction in Manzanillo: For the adventurous, that would be a canopy tour (ziplining). Tours cost around $60 USD and last around 4 hours. If you’re not looking for an adrenaline rush, head out on a chocolate tour. The region is known for its chocolate production. Tours usually last around 5 hours and cost $60 USD.
Where to Stay in Manzanillo: Se Ua Manzanillo – This rustic thatched-roofed B&B is located in the jungle. It’s a super calm, relaxing place to enjoy nature and take in the scenery. They have free Wi-Fi too though so you won’t be completely isolated!
5. Punta Uva
If you’re looking for a pristine beach to lounge away the days, head to Punta Uva. It’s a tiny town located between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo with a beautiful strip of beach. Local laws prevent development close to the beach, which has kept it from becoming overcrowded. It’s perfect for swimming and surfing.
Top Attraction in Punta Uva: The beach! It’s one of the most beautiful in the whole country.
Where to Stay in Punta Uva: Casa Visa en la Selva – This colorful lodge is located in the jungle. There’s no internet here, making it a nice choice for anyone looking to disconnect and catch up on some R&R.
The Caribbean coast is 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 of the country.
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
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. 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.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. 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.
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. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. 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)
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.
Want More Information on Costa Rica?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Costa Rica for even more planning tips!
Photo credit: 4 – Armando Maynez, 5 – Haakon S. Krohn, 6 – Jaimedelamata