Costa Rica Caribbean Side/Coast: Where to Vacation, What to Do & More

When people talk about Costa Rica, the most significant talk is about the beaches, the surfing, the sloths, and the Volcanos, but let’s head back to those beaches.

The next question you may have to ask us at Costa Rica Escapes is, “Which side do we go? The Pacific Coast or the Caribbean Side?”

Today, we want to chat with you about the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast

We may entice you with some picture-perfect beaches of blue waters and swaying palm trees. Along with clear, turquoise water and beaches for swimmers, surfers, and snorkelers. Along with not as crowded as the Pacific side.

Did we capture your attention? Read more below on learning about the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

Where is the Caribbean side of Costa Rica?

Looking at a map of Costa Rica, the Caribbean side starts from Nicaragua, the north end down to Panana, which is part of the Limon Province. It has approximately 100 miles that are considered a part of Costa Rica.

Map of Costa Rica

The country will divide the Limon Province into north and south. North Limon starts at the Nicaragua border and heads to the Tortuguero Canals. The southern province of Limon is the Talamanca coast, which includes the beautiful beaches of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita.

What are the beaches like on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica?

As explained in the introduction, the Caribbean beaches are quite different from the Pacific side.

Many people are drawn to the beaches from the crystal clear waters, showing off the beautiful turquoise colors from the airplane, with temperatures around 80 degrees F. Let’s talk about some of our favorite beaches off the Caribbean Coast.

Playa Punta Uva is one of the best beaches on the Caribbean coast. From the breathtaking views of the turquoise blue colors to the palm trees, you can sit under them for a hot summer day. In addition, this is the only beach where you can watch the sunset on the Caribbean side since it faces west.

Playa Cocles is a well-known beach in Puerto Viejo. The white sand is popular among surfers and sunbathers, but the waves and the currents can be overpowering, so you may need to take precautions if you are not the strongest swimmer. This beach is lively but doesn’t feel overcrowded like other beaches can feel.

Playa Chiquita is a smaller beach, southeast of Puerto Viejo. Sometimes this beach can be empty. And it can be challenging to find. Brush up on your Spanish to ask a local where it is.

Where to Vacation on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side?

The beaches discussed above are around Puerto Viejo, so we suggest checking that area out as a place to vacation. Next, let’s talk about a couple of other towns on the Caribbean Side.

Tortuguero is a tiny village northwest of the San Jose Airport (SJO), about a 3 hour’s drive. Tortuguero is part of the Tortuguero National Park, where the beaches are an important nesting site for the beautiful green sea turtles. There may not be much nightlife or restaurants, but it would be an excellent way to step away from the hustle and bustle and check out the turtles. Take a river canal float!

Tortuguero river canal
River canal float in Tortuguero

Manzanillo is southwest of the San Jose Airport (SJO) and about a 5.5-hour drive since this is closer to Panama. It is south of Playa Punta Uva. Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine Refuge surround the town, so there are a ton of hiking trails to see some of the fantastic animals of Costa Rica.

Manzanillo beach
Wild Caribbean Beach of Manzanillo

Limon is about 3.5 hours from the San Jose Airport (SJO), and while it looks like it is right across the country, you have some driving to do. Limon is known for being one of the poorest areas of Costa Rica, but you will get a real taste of the Tico hospitality. If you are craving a beach, go check out Playa Bonita. Be sure to also check out the sea port at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

puerto-limon-costa-rica
The beautiful sea port at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

What to Do on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica?

There are a lot of incredible things to do on the Caribbean side. Don’t forget to add these to the itinerary:

The Sloth Sanctuary: Are you looking for a cute three-toed or two-toed sloth for the family but not willing to take the risk of hiking and not seeing one? Here you can learn about the rescue sloths of Costa Rica. Make sure you book your tour as they fill fast.

Costa Rica Baby Three-Toed Sloth

Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge: This refuge is closer to Panama and has protected some of Costa Rica’s flora and fauna. This refuge has about 6 miles of beach, a coral reef, and two swamps. This refuge is also a nesting area for several species of turtles, and you may see manatees.

Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica

Great Food & Culture: The traditional Costa Rican food has a different vibe from the Pacific side to the Caribbean. The staples are the same, rice and beans, plantains, some meat (chicken, beef, seafood, etc.), but the species are more on the Caribbean side with curry, chili pepper, and some ginger, to name a few. Another add-on that the Caribbean chiefs will use is Coconut Milk. Yum!

Traditional Costa Rica Food: Casado!

What to Wear on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast?

Keep it casual. This area is sweltering and humid, so bring a lot of lightweight clothes. Of course, swimsuits, flip flops, and shorts are a must, but you must also add sunscreen, SPF Hat, and Sunglasses. It depends on what time of year you will be here BUT keep you may want to bring a rain jacket or an umbrella.

How Safe is the Caribbean side of Costa Rica?

Like in any other country, being safe is being smart. For example, you don’t want to flash your jewelry or cash around. You don’t want to leave your valuables in the car when you head to the beach or leave your valuables on the beach when you are in the ocean.

With that said, Costa Rica as a whole is safe; we ask that you use everyday precautions just like you would do in your hometown.

Which side of Costa Rica is better? Caribbean or Pacific?

It is like the “Chicken or the Egg” question. So let’s break it down for you.

The Caribbean Side:

  • More Authentic: The locals may agree with this one. Come here to experience the love of the country and experience the Tico life.
  • Very Affordable: It may not be as developed and a tad poorer, but that shouldn’t stop you from coming to this side of the country.
  • Tropical Vibes and Food: Think of Tico food with a Caribbean flair.
  • Unique Wildlife: The Sloth Sanctuary and the Jaguar Rescue Center, along with four types of turtles to see.

The Pacific Side:

  • Closer to Airport: If you are heading to Tamarindo, it is only an hour from the Liberia airport, while Nosara and Samara are about 2 hours away.
  • More Surf: The waves are more reliable on the Pacific Side.
  • Less Rain: It also depends on when you come to Costa Rica, but the Pacific side does receive less rain for the most part.
  • More Developed: More people, more places, and more things to do. Hmmm, it depends on if this is a good thing or not.

As you can see, there are some positives for both. We will let you decide.

How to plan a trip to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica?

Suppose you chat with some of the locals of Costa Rica; hands down, the Caribbean coast wins. Why? There are so many amazing beaches, such as Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, and Manzanillo, which we discussed. These towns are less crowded, not as expensive, and the food is incredible.

So, how can you plan a trip to the Caribbean side? Check out something like this for you and your friends or families.

  • Fly into San Jose Airport (SJO). Grab an SUV rental car, as some of the roads can be bumpy getting down to some of our favorite spots.
  • Head to Limon for a couple of days to experience the food and the local markets.
  • Drive south to Playa Cahuita for a day and then head to Puerto Viejo.
  • In Puerto Viejo, spend at least 1.5 days experiencing the beaches, and get some rest since you should go south next.
  • End the trip at either Punta Uva or Manzanillo to enjoy more relaxation or go for hikes and experience more beaches.
  • You can either take two days back to the San Jose Airport or knock it out in one day, as it is only 5.5 hours, and stay an extra day in San Jose and explore there.

If that is too daunting, all you need to do is fill out the form below and let Costa Rica Escapes help you plan, and we will leave it up to you to ask yourself, “Which side comes first?” The Caribbean or The Pacific?

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