Costa Rica may be known mostly for its lush interior and sunny Pacific shores, but there’s another world in this Central American paradise that few travelers have discovered: the Caribbean coast. A fusion of languages, cultures and cuisines, it’s a sun-soaked alternative to Costa Rica’s better-known tourism offerings.
To explore the region, I situated myself in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. More commonly called Puerto Viejo, the town is the colorful, laid-back hub for tourism along the Caribbean coast.
Arriving in Puerto Viejo is part of the fun. While en route by land from Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose, clients can easily stop for other activities, such as a breathtaking whitewater rafting adventure with Exploradores Outdoors. The local operator offers rafting trips that include transport to and from San Jose, Arenal volcano or the Caribbean coast, making it easy to coordinate visits to Puerto Viejo with other excursions.
Before arriving on the coast, I bounced past sprawling fruit plantations and, near Limon, giant stacks of cargo containers that attest to the city’s role as Costa Rica’s biggest port. Soon after passing Limon, I saw the palm-lined, unpopulated Caribbean coast peeking out. I had arrived.
I stayed at Hotel Banana Azul, a 14-room property set on beautiful beachfront grounds.
“People come here for a cultural experience,” said Colin Brownlee, the hotel’s owner, who is a Vancouver, British Columbia, native.
Indeed, Brownlee has polled his guests: Most have said they chose Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast because they wanted to immerse in the culture — not just the beaches and natural beauty (although those are good selling points, too).
Indeed, Puerto Viejo is something of a melting pot, with a rich mix of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, Spanish, Costa Rican and expat influences. It’s as easy to see colors, flags and food from Jamaica and other English-speaking locales as it is to find Costa Rican signs here.
At Banana Azul, for example, I enjoyed a Jamaican-themed event, during which the hotel restaurant served Caribbean-fusion cuisine and featured live Caribbean music.
Brownlee says it was this mishmash of cultures and relaxed vibes that first attracted him to the destination.
“I found it on the internet, and you could tell it had this bohemian, hippie culture,” he said. “That appealed to me. Type A people do not do well here.”
It’s not uncommon to see Rastafarian-inspired decorations and hairstyles in Puerto Viejo. It’s also a place that draws expats to visit and live, and English is widely spoken. The original name of the town, in fact, was Old Harbor, but the Costa Rican government changed it.
Small-scale, locally owned hotels, bars and restaurants are the norm here, with a variety of attractive accommodations. Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel is the destination’s most upscale property, which has a stylish, contemporary vibe and a hip beach club. Both Banana Azul and Le Cameleon have announced plans to add more rooms. There’s also the 23-room Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort, which has a lovely restaurant, and the 12-room La Costa de Papito, which offers a serene spa facility.
Rolando Soto, president of the 35-hotel Southern Caribbean Tourism Chamber, says that the largest hotel in the area is just 40 rooms, and that some 72% of the land is dedicated to national parks and wildlife.
He also notes that nature lovers and surfers are among the most common types of visitors, and that the region differs from the rest of Costa Rica because of the “virgin nature, which you won’t find easily on the Pacific coast.”
One of Soto’s main goals is to support the acquisition of land between the towns of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo; this will be the next step for the construction of a small airport with scheduled flights that will link the destination more efficiently with San Jose. He hopes that within four years, the area will be able to welcome 30-passenger planes.
“This is a very important project,” Soto said.
What to Do on the Caribbean Coast
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast can provide as many or as few activities as a client desires. Days can be spent lazing along the beach, sipping pipa (coconut water served inside the coconut) or touring. I enjoyed a stroll through the nature preserve at Manzanillo Beach, where it’s possible (though not guaranteed) to spot toucans, kingfishers, snowy egrets, iguanas, howler monkeys and anteaters.
Animal viewing is a safer bet at Jaguar Rescue Center, which was founded about 12 years ago by a biologist and a herpetologist. Named after a baby jaguar that was one of its first residents, it provides shelter to dozens of injured, abandoned, mistreated and orphaned animals, including deer, howler monkeys, hawks, toucans, owls, ocelots and caimans. The facility is staffed mostly by volunteers, and guided tours last about 1.5 hours and provide insight into each of the resident animals and how they live.
Additional activities on the Caribbean coast — which can be arranged through tour companies or independently — include kayaking, bicycling, snorkeling, horseback riding and cooking classes. Clients can also visit former cocoa plantations to learn the region’s decades-old traditions of chocolate production. What’s more, it’s easy to combine Puerto Viejo with a visit to equally laid-back Bocas del Toro, Panama, which is about 3.5 hours away by Caribe Shuttle bus.
Hotel Banana Azul
Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort
Costa Rica Tourism Institute
Jaguar Rescue Center
La Costa de Papito
Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel