Thinking About Costa Rica? 7 Reasons Why You Might Want to Head to the Caribbean Coast of the Country
Costa Rica attracts large numbers of North Americans seeking everything from a beach bum’s idyll to serious backpacking and high-end tourism. Its appeal comes from a strong ecological aura, extraordinary parks and nature reserves with abundant wildlife, and climates that range from cloud forest to high desert to deep jungle. Stunning beaches line both the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts, where warm waters and killer waves make the country a major international surfing destination. About 70,000 Americans have settled here for the long haul, seeking political stability and the relative affordability of health care.
These people encounter the downside of Costa Rican life: bad roads, low-level corruption and a bureaucracy that would make even Kafka shudder. But for tourists, little of this matters. The country is just so beautiful, pretty much wherever you go. And there’s almost always someone available to help as you explore. Ticos are proud of their country, and even school kids receive an education in the region's natural history.
If you have a little money to spend, Costa Rica offers the potential for a great vacation, whether you’re an adventurer or a sloth (you might even glimpse one of your tree-dwelling cousins from your hammock). If you want to save some money or prefer a more laid-back atmosphere, the Caribbean coast might be just what you’re looking for.
In general, North Americans travel to the Pacific side, to the towns near Jaco, or the Nicoya Peninsula. For the most part, the west is closer to the airport at San Jose, and offers an array of world-class parks and beaches. All that tourist money, though, has brought in some big investment and high-priced real estate. Mel Gibson put his multimillion-dollar estate in Malpais on the market recently. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen and her husband, quarterback Tom Brady, still own a home near Santa Teresa. We met her there a few years ago at a bakery cafÃ©, while waiting for $4 cappuccinos and equally expensive, though delicious scones. Of course, you can pay less, but it’s not hard to find a beautiful room in a posh yoga retreat for $300 a night in the high season. Many of the towns in this region feel less Costa Rican than American, European and Israeli.
Things are different as you head east to the Caribbean and south from the port city of Limon. Even though getting to the east coast has become much easier in recent years, with improvements to the highway system making the trip across the mountains far more comfortable and predictable, relatively few North Americans travel there. Apart from some surfers, the tourists are still largely backpackers, the Caribbean culture is alive and well and the beaches are still superb. It’s still not cheap, but there’s little of the high-end luxury that’s become more common in the west.
A number of unique elements, beyond its relative affordability, make the Caribbean side interesting. If you are keeping score, here are seven ways the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica rivals the Pacific side of the country.
The local food is tastier: Coconut and spices make Caribbean food more flavorful than the cuisine in other regions of Costa Rica.
The local culture is livelier and more chill: Most of Costa Rica has a pretty buttoned-up style, but its Caribbean side is heavily influenced by indigenous culture, rasta and other Caribbean influences.
Which means there’s better music, especially live. The west is more dominated by the usual Top 40, pop, EDM, etc., but reggae, reggaeton or salsa bands perform on an open stage in the center of Puerto Viejo, the most popular town on the Caribbean, nearly every night. You can listen to them from the swings hanging at the back of the bar, or join the dancers as the night advances.
The weather is more consistent: The west has a dry season, when things get crowded and prices are high, and a wet season, when it rains and rains. The Caribbean has pretty much a year-round tropical climate. Which means that it’s never dry for long, but the sun also shines most days. Hurricanes aren’t a problem, since the northern curve of South America shelters Costa Rica’s east coast from the worst of the region’s storms.
The beautiful coast road is relatively smooth and level (unlike Nicoya!), making for miles of pleasurable bike riding.
There’s more diversity of fellow tourists: You meet lots of European and Central or South American visitors and ex-pats.
Finally, corporations and big investors have made fewer inroads here, making for more community-based and family-run tourism. The impact of tourism on Costa Rica’s economy is complex (locals struggle to afford tourist-priced food with Costa Rican wages throughout much of the country), but here, at least, they also take home more of the earnings.
If you decide to go, we have a few recommendations in and around Puerto Viejo, a funky beach town south of Limon that’s at the heart of Costa Rica’s Caribbean tourist life. We visited recently on a fitness trip sponsored by the Oakland training gym Truve, which is run by trainer Allison Roessler, who has roots in Puerto Viejo.
Lodging: The friendly, American-run Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge offers spacious, beautifully designed and environmentally sensitive cottages in a gorgeous tropical setting, most costing less than $100 a night and sleeping 4-6 or more. Fruit literally falls from the trees—you’re welcome to partake—and it’s an easy 5-minute walk to the town’s beaches and restaurants. The throaty roars of howler monkeys remind you nightly that you’re in the jungle, somehow without disturbing your rest.
Dining: Don’t want to give up a great latte or scone? Can’t blame you. Head to Bread and Chocolate when you’re craving breakfast, a sandwich or a pastry. Everything’s fresh, and they do their baking onsite. Fantastic.
For dinner, Lazlo serves up the fish he caught earlier that day in his casual, signless restaurant (next door to Mamma Mia Pizzeria). Everything’s fresh and tasty, and Lazlo’s tales when he visits your table will make it a meal to remember. But if you’d prefer a big, lively scene with cocktails and good food, choose a table on the terraces at Koki Beach, and look out over the sea. Or go local and have a hearty, inexpensive casado at one of the town’s sodas—a Costa Rican casual eatery.
Things To Do: For that beach idyll—and who doesn’t want that?—bike a couple of miles south to Punta Uva. Soft white sand, gentle waves and uncrowded conditions make this the kind of beach you thought only existed in movies.
The immensely popular Jaguar Rescue Center offers daily tours, where volunteers nurse injured and stranded wildlife and work to restore them to the wilderness. Monkeys, wildcats, toucans, anteaters, sloths, tortoises and an array of truly alarming venomous snakes all find shelter here.