Costa Rica Destinations
Puerto Viejo, Cahuita and Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast
If a laid back is your vacation style, then grab a good book and head to the secluded beaches of Costa Rica's South Caribbean coast. The beaches of Cocles, Punta Uva and Manzanillo are all hammock havens, and Puerto Viejo has a unique vibe all its own. If off the beaten path sounds right up your alley, then Puerto Viejo is one destination you will not want to miss on your Costa Rica vacation.
Blessed by nature, Costa Rica's Caribbean coast has absolutely beautiful white sand beaches bordered by lush rainforest. The rainforest here is some of the healthiest you will find in all of Costa Rica thanks to the protection of the Amistad National Park. The park protects the Talamanca Mountain Range which pretty much stretches from Cerro Chirripo, Costa Rica's highest peak all the way down to the shores of the Caribbean Coast. This creates the backdrop of the photos you see in travel magazines of distant exotic places you dream about.
What makes the rainforest so special? Tropical rain of course, but don't let that deter you from visiting Puerto Viejo. You can expect heavy rains interspersed with warm sunshine from May through November with average high temperatures in mid to upper 80s, and the lows are a comfortable mid-70s. Between December and April, Costa Rica's dry season is a great time to visit if you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors exploring...which we highly recommend. June, July and November are the wettest months typically, but there is a lull in the rainy season between September and October which is a nice break...unless you are a surfer because the waves are non-existent at that time.
Evolution of Tourism:
Costa Rica's South Caribbean remained practically isolated from the rest of the country's main tourism influx until the construction of the Guapiles Highway in 1987. The highway connects the Port of Limón, the country's most important shipping port and also a cruise ship terminal, to the capital city of San Jose. Most likely the bananas you find in your local grocery store came through Puerto Limon at one time. Although in no rush to catch up with the tourism boom from Arenal or the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica, more travelers are gravitating to Puerto Viejo's practically unspoiled beaches, its more relaxed rural feeling and its eclectic, ethnic-flavor.
Combine your average Spanish speaking Tico, indigenous cultures from the Amazon Basin, Jamaican migrants speaking their own patois form of English, and sprinkle in a few ex-pats from various countries all over the world and you come up with Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.
Bribri & Cabecar Indigenous:
The Talamanca Mountains and tributaries are home to Puerto Viejo's oldest inhabitants, the indigenous BriBri and Cabecar. Living mainly inland and upriver from the coast, the Bribri and Cabecar have been able to retain much of their indigenous culture and language. Living off the land, they have intimate knowledge of the region, and many still take shelter in very humble dwellings constructed of materials found in the forest.
When the Afro-Caribbeans settled into the region, they both lived off the land in harmony. First trading, then later working together on cash crops such as Cacao. Cabecar & Bribri currently live in one of 3 indigenous reservations here, Talamanca de Bribri, Talamanca de Cabecar, and the Kekoldi Indian Reservation just outside of Puerto Viejo. Those living closer to town wear western clothing and speak either English or Spanish as well as their own indigenous languages.
When you arrive south of Limon, you're transported to a totally different setting than the one you left back in San Jose. Puerto Viejo's emblematic easy going vibe emanates from its vibrant Jamaican roots. Authentic Creole cooking, reggae music, Rastafarian roots; you will know right away that this is not your typical Costa Rica experience.
The region's Afro-Caribbean heritage is Puerto Viejo's soul and essence. Starting in the 1800's, Afro-Caribbeans began migrating from Jamaica and other Caribbean colonized islands in the Caribbeans seeking work in the banana plantations and railroads. Migrant workers brought with them their African cultural roots, British influence and their own language. The regional dialect Mekatelyu, a Limonese Creole English, is widely spoken throughout the entire province of Limon. That's right, they speak a sort of Patois version of English on this side of the country, so you may find communicating with the locals much easier here than in other parts of Costa Rica.
The best part about Puerto Viejo is the mix of people. We're not just talking about the settlers who shaped Limon, but the eclectic mix of wanderlust travelers who have found their way to Puerto Viejo and could not bear to leave their heart so they made it their home instead. Aside from quirky personality differences, this also breeds an amazing blend of culture, arts, & food distinctly unique to this region of Costa Rica.
Speaking of food, the eclectic mix of chefs using flavors from around the world combined with fresh local ingredients make for some of the best fusion restaurants in all of Costa Rica. You can find French pastries, Italian pastas, Indian curry and of course anything Jamaican such as authentic spicy jerk chicken and Puerto Viejo's famous coco rice & beans. Best rule of thumb when looking for someplace to eat, go where you see the locals lined up. If the place is full of locals, you know it is authentic, delicious and most of all affordable.
Luxury is not part of Puerto Viejo's lexicon, but that is actually what gives this corner of Costa Rica its unique charm. The strict environmental laws that protect the regions rainforest and waterways also prevent Puerto Viejo and the surrounding beaches from over development. So to prepare you mentally for what to expect, first exchange your 5 start luxury resort for your own beach bungalow in the rainforest. Next exchange your poolside lounge chairs and swim up bar for a hammock on your front porch and fresh coco. All in all, not such a bad tradeoff, right?
Puerto Viejo's youthful party hostel scene is legendary and there are plenty of inexpensive options for travelers just looking for a place to crash for the night. There are also family friendly hostels that are inexpensive that provide private rooms and shared kitchen space to save you a buck when trying to feed the whole family or picky young ones.
To be sure, there are plenty of Yoga resorts abound, but do not expect a luxury yoga retreat. The tradeoff is you may find it much easier to connect with yourself when surrounded strictly by nature as opposed to a posh resort. No matter where you stay in Puerto Viejo, you will come to discover the essence of Pura Vida in Costa Rica.
Things to do:
Surf: Costa Rica's Caribbean beach destinations of Playa Cocles, Playa Bonita and Manzanillo are world renown for the incredible surf between December and March. Costa Rica's famous "Salsa Brava" in Puerto Viejo brings surfers from around the world to attempt to conquer the wildest wave in Central America. Further south is Playa Cocles, home to several surf competitions throughout the season and great waves for all skill levels. As you head further south you will find great surf spots for intermediate surfers at Playa Bonita and incredible waves at Manzanillo, not for the novice surfer to attempt.
Rent a Bike: You will find that there is a bit of traffic congestion in Puerto Viejo, bike congestion that is. You can literally pedal your way from beach to beach, small town to small town along the entire Caribbean coast. There is only one big hill between Punta Uva and Manzanillo, otherwise it is flat paved surface perfect for beach cruisers. In fact, you can find many bikes rigged to carry surf boards as you will see most of the locals are skilled at balancing a board, backpack, and their girlfriends all on one bike.
Wildlife: To the south of Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva is a great spot to look for resident Congos (howler monkeys) you will no doubt here in the trees above the point. If you kayak up the waterway there, you will spot a family of resident sloths, turtles sunning themselves, and maybe even a small crocodile. If you want a more hands on experience, there is the Jaguar Rescue Center and the Sloth Sanctuary that are both very popular among tourists.
The Sloth Sanctuary is located to the north past the Cahuita National Park which is teaming with Congos & Capuchin monkeys, sloths, a wide variety of tropical birds. If you are lucky you may spot a Jesus Lizard running across the water to escape the crocodiles. There is a combo tour that can take you to both spots in one day and highly recommended.
Snorkeling: Do not expect the same crystal clear reef snorkeling here that you would find in say the Bahamas or Mexico, but there is great snorkeling in the protection of Cahuita National Park where you can encounter many varieties of tropical fish, sea turtles and even a nurse shark or two. There is also a combo tour that combines the snorkeling with hiking Cahuita National Park that will pick you up from your hotel anywhere along the south coast.
Adventure: Costa Rica’s Original Canopy Tour is located in the hills above Limon and home to and aerial tram and one of the most incredible nature parks, Veraguas Rainforest. If you are looking for more daring action, Terraventuras offers a complete jungle adventure including canyoning, rappelling, tarzan swing, hiking, swimming and even scaling trees.
Horseback Riding: Seriously, if you have ever dreamed of riding a beautiful horse on a secluded palm lined beach with the backdrop of the vivid blue Caribbean, horseback riding in Punta Uva is a must do activity.
Cultural Activities: Puerto Viejo is rich with Afro-Caribbean influence obviously, and the heart of any culture is in its food. You can take an Afro-Caribbean cooking class so when you go back home, you can evoke your favorite vacation memories every time you whip up your favorite classic creole dish. For the indigenous Bribri, the favorite food is Cacoa. There is an indigenous cultural tour that allows you to visit with 3 different Talamanca villages and sample some of their delectable chocolate treats.
Getting There & Getting Around:
Driving: If renting a car, it is actually a beautiful scenic drive through Braulio Carillo National Park highway to Puerto Viejo. Depending traffic you can get there in about 3 hours driving direct, but having a car gives you the freedom to stop and explore. Grab lunch at one of the local Sodas on the side of the road or stop to check out some of the hand-crafted wood furniture you will pass along the way. Once you get past Limon, it is all banana plantations and Caribbean style homes as you move south down the coast.
Public Bus: Buses going to Puerto Viejo depart from Terminal de Autobus Atlantico Norte located on Calle 12 between Avenidas 7 and 9 in Barrio Mexico in San Jose. The bus company is Mepe and it is important that you go to the correct terminal as there are 2 different Puerto Viejos. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca leaves from this terminal and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui does not. The bus is your most economical option at around $10 and runs 5 to 6 times daily, but spaces book up in advance during peak season so be aware. Unfortunately you can only purchase your tickets directly at the station or the Mepe office. Also, the trip by bus is about 5 hours to Puerto Viejo with a 20 minute stop in Limon for a bathroom and snack break.
Shared Shuttles: If you want to avoid the hassles of the public bus but do not have your own rental car, the shuttles to Puerto Viejo are your best bet. The vans are comfortable, fast and even include Wi-Fi in most cases. For under $50, they will pick you up at your hotel in San Jose, assist you with your luggage and take you all the way to your hotel in Puerto Viejo. The trip takes about 4 hours in the shuttle depending the amount of hotel pick-ups & drop-offs. They also stop for a bathroom break and a chance to fuel up with snacks along the way.
Smart Connections: Hands down the best deal in Costa Rica is the Pacuare Rafting Smart Connection. They will pick you up at your hotel in either San Jose or La Fortuna and take you to their base camp for a yummy breakfast. After charging your batteries, they whisk you away for 4 hours river rafting the incredible Pacuare River before heading to your next hotel destination. At under $100, you can't beat the price or the experience. They also do overnight trips to Tortuguero if you prefer wildlife over adventure sports.
Bocas Del Toro to Puerto Viejo Shuttle: Bocas Del Toro, Panama is literally a hop, skip and jump away from Puerto Viejo via shuttle. In fact it takes less time to travel by boat, van and cross the border between Bocas Del Toro and Puerto Viejo than it takes to drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo. After several years of backpackers carving the way, there are now shuttles between the two destinations dialed in to offer hassle free border crossing in comfortable safe transportation. If traveling between Panama and Costa Rica, you will not find a better deal.
If you are reading this because you are considering visiting Puerto Viejo on your Costa Rica vacation, we hope we have helped convince you that the journey to the Caribbean coast is well worth it. We hope to see you chillin’ in a hammock in Puerto Viejo soon.