The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica may not be as well-known as the Pacific side, but it's an outdoor adventure that should not be overlooked if you seek an exotic location packed full of nature, wildlife, and white sandy beaches.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast (the right-hand or eastern side when looking at a map) might be higher in humidity and have more rainfall, but what it loses in weather it makes up for with its diverse abundance of flora and fauna.
The Caribbean coast is also much less developed than its Pacific cousin, meaning it sees fewer tourists – a plus point in our book and likely so for adventurous travellers! You'll find rainforests to explore, superb surfing, snorkeling on coral reefs, reggae party towns, and some unmistakable Caribbean charm. Read on to discover just a small taste of what Costa Rica’s Caribbean vacations can offer you.
Nature and animal lovers will adore the remote area of Tortuguero for its abundance of wildlife, which boasts 57 types of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, 300 types of birds and 60 species of mammals. The Tortuguero National Park stretches from coast to hinterland covering 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres) made up of rain forest, mangrove forest, marshland and coast land.
There are a number of hikes to be enjoyed but perhaps the best way to explore the diverse ecosystem is by boat on the maze of waterways either by canoe or kayak on your own or with a naturalist in a motorboat. Other fun outdoor activities include zip-lining and crossing the suspension bridges!
Best time to visit: February to April and November, the driest months.
Good to know: Tortuguero is not accessible by road. Get there by catching a boat from Moin located near to Limon, or a small-plane from San Jose.
Fun fact: Tortuguero is known as the 'region of turtles' and has four types of sea turtle, boasting the largest number of green sea turtle in the Caribbean during nesting season, which lasts from February to November.
This Caribbean seaside hamlet is the place to go if you're a budget traveler seeking the surf/party/alternative lifestyle. It's the region's main hub for tourism, so it can get very crowded at peak times, especially with backpackers. The long white sand beach is well-catered with vendors selling everything from snacks to masseuses — not a bad way to relax! At night you can listen to reggae bands and shop at the boutiques.
The Puerto Viejo de Talamanca culture is a mixture of Afro-Caribbean, Bribri Indian and Tico mixed with a dose of Western hippy-ness thrown in. Take a tour and discover the local indigenous culture in this area.
The beach of Playa Cocles is a popular haunt with surfers in the months of December through to April and June/July due to the salsa brava, an explosively powerful wave that breaks over the shallow coral reef, also making this a beautiful place to snorkel.
Best time to visit: February to April and August to October to avoid the rainy season. Or visit during the salsa brava time if you’re a surfer.
Good to know: Don't walk the jungle path between the town and Playa Cocles if you're alone or at night as this is where common theft is often known to happen.
If you are looking for an adventure holiday with some chill-out time at Puerto Viejo, check out the Costa Rica active adventure tour. Or, try this 15-day cycling tour, a great way to mix adventure and beach life including a stop at Puerto Viejo.
Located 12km (about 20 minutes) from Puerto Viejo, this tranquil fishing village is a top scuba diving and snorkeling destination due to the coral reef system just off the shore. Surfers also visit for its fast beach break.
Set within the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine Refuge, here you'll discover some superb hiking trails with professional guides to help you spot white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and many more creatures. The nearby Punta Mona is an outstanding beach but does require effort to reach — choose between a 6 km trek through the jungle or a 45 minute walk from Manzanillo beach.
Manzanillo is a special place that still retains a good community vibe and has a unique feel due to its Afro-Caribbean culture. Soak up the picturesque white sand beach lined with coconut trees as you watch the fishing boats and listen to the tropical birds calling overhead.
Best time to visit: February to May or November to December to avoid the wettest months.
Good to know: Avoid visiting on Sunday, the place becomes overrun with day-trippers!
Cahuita is famous for its vibrant coral reefs located in the Cahuita National Park. With over 500 species of tropical fish along with two shipwrecks, the crystal-clear water is an underwater dream for those who love to explore the watery world.
Visit Puerto Vargas beach and you will experience an outdoor adventure like no other as you hike about 6–8 km into the jungle to reach paradise. Listen and look out for howler monkeys, sloths and the yellow eyelash viper snake on your journey through the jungle before coming out on the other side to a white sandy beach dotted with palm trees. If you seek Caribbean beaches in Costa Rica, make this the one you visit to experience pure paradise!
If you feel like the white sand is getting boring, head to Playa Negra to walk along the black sand!
Tip: Animal lovers will enjoy a visit to the monkey and sloth wildlife rescue center called Tree of Life.
Best time to visit: March/April or September/October to avoid the wettest months.
Good to know: Diving and snorkeling on the reef is only permitted with a certified guide.
This family tour visits Cahuita’s National Park along with other points of interest in Costa Rica.
One of the poorest areas in Costa Rica, the port-city of Puerto Limon (shortened to Limon) has a rough-and-tumble vibe. This might not be the prettiest or most popular tourist place to visit on Costa Rica's Caribbean side, but you'll certainly get a taste of local life as you take in the distinct multicultural vibe and experience some typical Tico hospitality.
Explore the open-air markets and visit Parque Vargas to see the wild sloths lounging in the trees! If you seek Costa Rican beaches in the Caribbean side here, head to the small beach of Playa Bonita located 4 km out of the city center.
When city-life gets too much, visit Veragua rainforest, just 30 minutes outside of the city. Here you can explore the forest canopy by accessing the trail of platforms rising 46 metres above ground level. There's also a zip-line and an aerial gondola ride through the trees, plus lots of hiking trails on ground level.
Best time to visit: February to March and September for the best temperatures without the rain.
Good to know: Taxi drivers and shops/restaurants in Limon's tourist areas accept payment in dollars.
As you can see, Costa Rica’s Caribbean side has something for everyone, whether you seek exotic white sandy beaches or exotic wildlife in the rainforest. This place of paradise is an undiscovered adventure just waiting to happen – come and see, you won't be disappointed!