Costa Rica's Puerto Viejo Is a Great Off-the-Beaten-Path Pick
Less crowds and more fun on the Caribbean coast.
To many a trip to Costa Rica is an ideal getaway; especially if you live in a part of the world where the winters seem to drag on forever. White sand beaches, clear turquoise water, fresh fish and fruit, and vibrant colors abound; Costa Rica is the perfect escape.
The Caribbean coast is far less crowded than the Pacific, but also much less developed. In the tiny beachside town of Puerto Viejo you won't find any sprawling resorts or golf courses; what you will find is an authentic Costa Rican experience without the crowds or luxuries that many are trying to leave behind when they go on vacation.
When heading to the Caribbean coast you'll be flying into San Jose, which is in the middle of the country. That means you will need to hitch a ride to Puerto Viejo. The two options you have are to either take the bus or reserve a spot on one of the shuttle companies that operate in between the two locations. It really comes down to personal preference. The bus is cheaper and operates frequently throughout the day, but is often very crowded and since you can't buy tickets in advance you aren't necessarily guaranteed a seat. You will also need to take a taxi from the airport to the bus station. Taking the shuttle (either Interbus or Caribe) is more expensive and it only makes the trip twice a day. The upside of the shuttle is the fact that you can reserve a space online, the vans often have Wifi, they will pick you up and drop you off anywhere, and maybe most importantly they have air conditioning! Once you finally arrive in Puerto Viejo all you need to do is rent a bicycle. The town is so small that renting a car will cause more of a headache then just pedaling everywhere.
Where to stay
The most abundant accommodations in Puerto Viejo are hostels. From rooms above beachside bars to private rooms in little rainforest hideaways like Greenwoods, hostels are by far the cheapest way to go. Not only will you get to meet other like-minded travelers, but with the money you save over staying in a hotel you can stretch your vacation a few extra days. With the advent of Airbnb finding a private room to rent in Puerto Viejo has never been easier. With just a few clicks you can read reviews, see photos, and secure a room in a home without the hustle and bustle of hostels or hotels.
What to do
Puerto Viejo is home to the world famous break known as Salsa Brava. This break attracts world class surfers from all over, but because of its positioning in between reefs, it is best left to the most experienced athletes. Even if you aren't ready to tackle the Salsa Brava most of the other beaches in the area offer slow rolling waves, perfect for those of us who have never been on a surfboard.
See the wildlife
Although there aren't jaguars at the Jaguar Rescue Center anymore you can still get up close and personal with the varied wildlife of the Caribbean. You'll see monkeys and sloths galore, owls, deer, crocodiles, snakes (don't worry, they're in cages) and even an anteater that roams the grounds. Knowledgable tour guides will take you around the beautiful rainforest setting which serves as a permanent home for some animals and a rehabilitation center for others. Entry is $20, but all of the money goes back into the center.
Take a hike
With the abundance of water activities, it's easy to forget that the rainforest is a huge part of Costa Rica's tourism economy. Hire a guide or just spend a morning (afternoons can get too muggy with the midday sun) meandering the walking paths and soaking in the natural beauty of Puerto Viejo.
The town of Puerto Viejo is one of the most laid back you'll ever visit, but the small bars and restaurants come alive at night. DJ's, live music, reggae artists, dancing and drinks are par for the course just about every night of the week. Make sure to try a fresh passionfruit margarita.
Let's be real, if you are taking the trip to Costa Rica you most likely have a picture in your head of laying on pristine beaches, letting the hours tick away as you do nothing more than swim and enjoy the sunshine. Well, you're in luck. Puerto Viejo is home to some of the best beaches on the Caribbean coast.
Cahuita - The Northern-most beach on this list, and also the only one that is designated as a national park. The main attraction here is actually the rain forest that edges its way all the way up to the sandy shores. You can find a guide or go it alone and work your way through the winding dirt paths that zigzag throughout the park, keeping your eyes and ears peeled for the wildlife that fills the area. The park is home to sloths, capuchin and howler monkeys, crocodiles, raccoons, iguanas, toucans, and even the highly venomous eyelash viper.
Playa Cocles - The closest beach to the center of town, this picturesque spot is the reason why people love Puerto Viejo. Right on the front steps of most of the hostels and motels, you can't beat how easy it is to get to. Caution, it's easy to let a whole week slip by lounging on this perfect beach; be sure to get out and explore some of the other areas!
Playa Negra - On the north side of town the sand dramatically transitions to a deep charcoal color. The stark color change is due to the sand being made from volcanic deposits. With the sun beating down on this black sand beach temperatures can almost become unbearable; even during the winter months. This may not be the best place to spend a whole day, but grab some sandals so you don't burn your feet and make a quick stop to see this unique feature of Puerto Viejo.
Playa Chiquita - The scenery doesn't change as you follow the road south from Playa Cocles, but the "crowds" quickly dissipate a short distance from Puerto Viejo proper. If you want whole swaths of beach just to yourself all it takes is a 15-minute bicycle ride from the center of town.