A “What to See in Costa Rica” list would, ideally, include both the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts.
But, unless your vacation in Costa Rica is seven days or more, it is difficult to spend quality time on both coasts without long days of traveling in between.
Instead, it is best to choose one Coast and to see as much of it as possible.
There is only one significant tourist destination north of the port town of Limon, Tortuguero.
The northern half of the Caribbean Coast is primarily swampland. There are very few roads to the coast. That means the Caribbean Coast has considerably fewer vacation destinations than the Pacific Coast.
However, the Caribbean side is a more authentic Costa Rica
destination than the tourist oriented west coast. While resort towns dominate the Pacific side, the Caribbean side only has a handful of resorts.
Therefore, the lodging accommodations on the Caribbean side are primarily hotels and bed and breakfasts.
While the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is several decades ahead of the Caribbean with respect to destination travel locals, the Caribbean side is ideal for travelers who want the quiet and un-industrialized beauty found on the Osa and Nicoya Peninsulas without the exorbitant pricing.
And the food is better on the Caribbean side!
Below are the 6 destinations that belong on your “What to See on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica” list.
Until 20 years ago, Manzanillo was little more than a fishing village, the last stop at the end of a long dirt road from Limon to a national park that separates Costa Rica and Panama.
Today, the road to Manzanillo is one of the better maintained in Costa Rica. And, Manzanillo is one of the most popular destinations in the country for Costa Rican during the Easter (Semana Santa) and Christmas holidays.
Ticos enjoy the peace and quiet they find in Manzanillo.
Though Manzanillo doesn’t have the hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations you will finding in
Puerto Viejo, the beaches are comparable to those anywhere on the Caribbean Coast. The main beach in front of town travels for miles in both directions. And, the surf in Manzanillo in generally calm. The water is as clean an aqua green as any you’ll find in the Caribbean.
The Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge just south of town is as impressive as the Cahuita National Park. That means it is one of the two best maintained national parks on the Caribbean Coast.
No more than a 20 minute drive from Puerto Viejo, you don’t have to find lodging in Manzanillo to enjoy it for an afternoon. It is perfect for a short excursion away from Cocles or Puerto Viejo.
And, even if you don’t choose to stay the night in Manzanillo, make sure to have the snapper for lunch or dinner at Maxi’s. It’s the freshest you’ll find in the country.
There is a small town in Punta Uva. There are a couple of restaurants and a little bar that serves good
food. On the weekends, Punta Uva gets pretty busy because it is a favorite of the locals who don’t want the tourist crowds found in Puerto Viejo.
The beach has reef, so you are best off wearing shoes if you go swimming. But, there are plenty of places where the bottom is just sand. A touch too big for little kids, it’s a great place to wade out with your youngan to play in 3 or 4-foot waves!
All around, Punta Uva is a great beach with lots to do and see!
The only beach on this list that isn’t associated with a town, Playa Chiquita is between the small towns of
Punta Uva and Cocles. Still, Playa Chiquita is exceptional. The surf is bigger than that found in Manzanillo, but not as aggressive as what you will find at Playa Cocles.
While Playa Chiquita is more like the beaches around Puerto Viejo — with intermittent reef — it is a great place to play in some bigger waves without a great deal of danger normally.
While there are no restaurants or bars, there are plenty of people selling things along the beach if you
don’t bring food with you.
It’s a great place to go spend a few hours sun bathing and enjoying the Caribbean.
Adjacent to Puerto Viejo, Cocles doesn’t have the same nightlife. However, with respect to beaches, Cocles has the best beach hands down. It may, in fact, have the nicest beach on the Caribbean.
It’s closest competition are Manzanillo and Cahuita.
Playa Cocles has much bigger surf than Manzanillo. So, it is important you understand how to swim well and don’t go too far out. But, unlike Manzanillo, there is no reef. The beach is entirely sand except for at very low tide.
Moreover, there is a river that pours into the ocean at Cocles. That means if you don’t want to play in the big surf or you are will little ones, you can spend your time playing in the river!
Puerto Viejo is home of Salsa Brava, one of the most renowned surfing spots in Costa Rica. It is a lively town and the largest one you will find south of Limon.
The best hotels and bed and breakfasts in the southern Caribbean are found in Puerto Viejo and there are three or four good beaches. Though the beaches don’t compare to those you will find around Manzanillo, Punta Uva, and Cahuita, they’re nothing to scoff at either. And, it is such a fun little town and so close to many of the great beaches that Puerto Viejo is the ideal place to use as your hub on the Caribbean.
If you want lots of options for food and souvenir shops, the place to be is Puerto Viejo. And at night, there is no place in the Caribbean with a better mix of tourists and locals!
A good 45 minutes north of Puerto Viejo, Cahuita is closer to Limon than it is to its southern neighbors.
Many people argue that Cahuita has the most beautiful beaches on the Caribbean Coast. Within walking distance of town, there are both black and white sand beaches.
The town isn’t as big as Puerto Viejo, but larger than any other south of Limon. And, it is a different feel than the other towns neighboring it. The best resort and the highest-quality hotels and bed and breakfasts on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica are found in Cahuita.
But, unlike the high-end resorts, hotels, and bed an breakfasts found on the Pacific side of the country, the prices are moderately priced in Cahuita.
The only problem with Cahuita is that it is not close to any other small towns, so taking afternoon excursions to other beach destinations requires planning. However, the Cahuita National Park is beautiful and offers plenty of
hiking for those who want to keep themselves occupied with something other than beach time.
Whether the beaches in Cahuita are as beautiful as those around Manzanillo is debatable. The night life in Cahuita does not match that of Puerto Viejo. And, the surfing around Cahuita isn’t as impressive as many of the beaches down south.
The quality of the accommodations in Cahuita, however, are the best on the Carri.
People are attracted, upon first hearing about Tortuguero, to the turtles.
Tortuguero is one of the places in Costa Rica where sea turtles lay their eggs. Three kinds of sea turtles go to Tortuguero: Leatherbacks, Hawk-Billed, and Green Sea Turtles. Visit Tortuguero at the right time of year and you can watch sea turtles nest on the shores of the Caribbean.
However, the turtles are only one aspect of Tortuguero that makes it a must-see destination on the what to see on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica list.
There are no roads into or out of Tortuguero. To visit
Tortuguero, you must either go by ferry or in an airplane. The ferry ride is a little more than an hour and the entire trip is gorgeous.
In addition to the ferry ride in, that the area surrounding Tortuguero and Tortuguero National Park is all swamp means there is a plethora of wildlife.