Last Updated: January 13, 2020
Though humble in size, Costa Rica has distinct differences in its culture from one destination to the next. On the country’s east coast, for example, Afro-Caribbean traditions mix with Latin American heritage to create a unique island feel. The small beach town of Cahuita is the perfect place to experience this laid back vibe. With waves lapping the all-but-empty beaches, locals riding bicycles through town, and the aroma of jerk chicken wafting between the brightly painted buildings, visitors will shed the stress in no time. Add to that a national park that is full of wildlife and it is surprising that Cahuita has stayed so small. In this post, we’ll give you all the details you need to plan your visit, including some of our favorite activities, restaurants, and hotels.
Location and Orientation
Cahuita is located about 3-4 hours from the capital of San Jose on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It is a 40 minute drive south of the port city of Limon and 20 minutes north of the popular beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Cahuita is best known for its national park and authentic cultural feel. The tiny grid-shaped downtown consists of only a few blocks but packs in a lot of local flair. Several good restaurants, a few bars, small shops, and neighborhood homes make it a fun place to explore. On the dusty dirt road going north of town, you’ll find secluded beaches and quaint lodging options tucked into the jungle setting.
When to Visit
The weather on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is best described as tropical. Sunny and hot mornings are perfect for activities but often bring afternoon thunderstorms or evening downpours. This helps keep the jungle lush and green. Though it is worth visiting any time of year, the driest months and calmest seas tend to be in September and October. These months are typically the rainiest in other parts of Costa Rica. For more about Costa Rica’s weather patterns, see our post Weather in Costa Rica.
Activities in Cahuita
Cahuita is appealing for those looking to see wildlife, enjoy beaches, and, most of all, explore the local culture. Below are some activities that will allow you to do just this.
Cahuita National Park
A trip to Cahuita wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this lush swath of protected rainforest. We have visited several times and have always seen sloths, monkeys, lizards, the occasional snake, and many kinds of birds. Run by a community organization, the park has two entrances. One is in town (this is the most commonly used) and the other is 5 km (3 miles) south off the highway.
From the entrance near town, a trail runs along the coast and then crosses a river. After the river, the trail continues to a point, turns, and eventually reaches the southern entrance (about 8.3 km/5.2 miles in total, each way). Entering from the southern entrance, a new raised walkway meanders through a forested wetland and then along the beach, around the point, passing the river, and eventually back to the town of Cahuita.
To see the most wildlife, we recommend hiring a guide. You can see a lot on your own if you go slowly, but a guide will be able to spot more with their trained eye. On our last visit, a guide pointed out an eyelash pit viper snake that we never would have seen on our own as it was hidden deep in the bushes.
Part of the protected area of Cahuita National Park extends into the ocean, protecting the local marine life as well. A large coral reef sits off the point and is a great place to explore with a snorkel and mask when conditions are right. 35 different coral species and over 120 different fish have been identified here. Snorkeling can be done only with a guide. Tours are around $60 per person.
Tree of Life Wildlife Sanctuary
Tree of Life is an amazing rehabilitation center that cares for local wildlife that has been injured or illegally held as pets. They release the animals that are able to be rehabilitated and give the not-so-fortunate ones a good home in spacious enclosures. Some of the wildlife you might see includes monkeys, sloths, white-tailed deer, freshwater turtles, parrots, and coati (raccoon-like animals with long snouts). The guided tour takes you through scenic gardens and includes interesting facts about local spices, fruits, cacao, and other plants. Tours can be arranged by contacting Tree of Life through their website. Located on the dirt road going north of town near Playa Grande. Reservations required.
Indigenous Culture Tour/Hike
Several indigenous groups still exist in Costa Rica. These cultures, which settled the land long before the Spanish, continue to hold many of their cultural beliefs and practices. Some even still speak their own language. A visit to a Bribri group near Cahuita will allow you to meet some families and learn about their way of life. These tours include things like chocolate making, medicinal plants, crafts, and visiting a waterfall.
A laid-back beach town wouldn’t be complete without some shady palm trees and swishing waves. Cahuita has a few excellent beaches to explore. Playa Blanca near the national park entrance is a small cove with light tan sand that is probably the best for swimming or wading, though there are still waves and rip currents. Playa Negra, a dark gray sand beach, sits a little north of town and tends to have fewer people. Playa Grande, another gray sand beach, is farther north on the dirt road and is the most secluded. It is best for surfing or a long walk.
Restaurants in Cahuita
Cahuita has a mix of cuisine. You will find many restaurants run by locals who serve up traditional Costa Rican food with Caribbean flair. Expats who now call Cahuita home also have brought international offerings. Italian is one of the most common.
Sobre Las Olas
Sobre Las Olas (On the Waves) is true to its name with a fantastic location on the water. They have a big menu with a lot of local fish and seafood. There is no lunch menu, it’s the same one all day long, so be sure to come with an appetite. Prices are on the high side for the area, but the view makes it worth it. Try to snag a table outside on the sand if you can.
When you have had your fill of traditional food, there is Pizzeria Cahuita. This restaurant is run by Italians who know how to make a delicious pie. The thin-crust pizza is cooked in a wood-fired oven. The homemade pasta is great too. You can dine in their casual restaurant near the beach or take out is available.
For a nice dinner out, check out El Girasol. This intimate restaurant has simple, but delicious, Italian food made with quality ingredients. All of our pasta dishes were wonderful, and we loved the homemade complimentary bread. Having attentive service was also a plus.
If you’re looking for a place to just kick back, check out Reggae Bar. This super casual spot across from Playa Negra is a locals’ hangout that has been around for years. The view is great, the beers are cold, and the food isn’t bad either. Often has live music at night.
Hotels in Cahuita
For such a small town, Cahuita has a sizeable selection of lodging. Although the options are diverse, all are small and locally owned. You won’t find any five-star resorts, but there are plenty of charming hotels with all the amenities.
A couple of tips: Much like the rest of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, lodging in Cahuita often does not have air conditioning. If you are sensitive to the heat, be sure that your room has good air flow and fans, or A/C. Although it does cool down at night considerably, days can be hot and humid.
Buena Suerte B&B
Buena Suerte B&B is an excellent option if you’re on a budget. This simple bed and breakfast offers a handful of private rooms, some with air conditioning and others without. Those traveling without a car will appreciate the location, which is just outside town near the national park. Rates include a delicious, hearty breakfast. $35-55. Check Rates and Availability Here.
If you’re looking for apartment-style lodging, check out Marfi Inn. This small inn is centrally located in downtown Cahuita, but tucked away on a quiet side street. In addition to being close to several restaurants, right on the property is El Girasol Restaurant, one of the most popular options in Cahuita. $60-150 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel La Casa de las Flores
Next to Marfi Inn is Hotel La Casa de las Flores (the House of Flowers). We recently stayed in one of their brightly colored rooms and really enjoyed it. Rooms come standard with two queen beds and A/C and all face a quaint courtyard with flowering trees. The owners live on site and take pride in making sure that their guests have a pleasant experience. $90-110 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
Magellan Boutique Hotel
An excellent value for the area is Magellan Boutique Hotel. Although affordable, this small hotel has an upscale feel. The six contemporary rooms have been recently renovated and come with one king bed, A/C, and TV. Magellan is popular with couples. The hotel is located on a quiet side road about a 10 minute drive to town and short walk to the beach. Visitors love the pool area and lush landscaping, which attracts birds. $100-110 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
For a little more comfort, there’s Kenaki Lodge. This beachfront bed and breakfast has a couple of options for accommodations. The wooden bungalows are open and airy, with high ceilings, big windows, and modern amenities. For a similar experience on a budget, opt for a regular room. All units have a nice outdoor space facing the gardens. Kenaki Lodge is located at the far end of town and best accessed with a rental car. $65-220. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Villas New Caribe Point
Villas New Caribe Point is our pick for families and groups. The cute two-bedroom villas are designed like a typical Costa Rican home and offer plenty of space to spread out. Each has a kitchen and separate living room, and bedrooms have A/C. Villas New Caribe Point is located on a side street near Playa Negra, about 5 minutes from town. $100-130. Check Rates and Availability Here.
For such a small town, Cahuita leaves an impression. When we first visited several years ago, we were lured in by the laid back pace and vibrant culture. The abundant wildlife that we saw in the national park and simple natural beauty everywhere around us made a lasting impact. Years later, Cahuita still feel like an exotic destination to us. Though the town is simple in what it offers, if you are looking for an authentic experience in Costa Rica, we highly recommend it.
Last Updated: January 13, 2020
Have a question about your visit to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast? Ask us below!
Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Read these posts:
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Caribbean Cool in Costa Rica – If you’re looking for a little more going on, you might like Puerto Viejo. This town is just south of Cahuita and offers beautiful beaches for swimming, tons of restaurants and hotels, and more things to do.
The Whistle that Drew Us In: Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast – This narrative, which we wrote shortly after our first visit to Cahuita, gives a feel for the culture and vibe of this area.
Tortuguero Off the Resort – Tortuguero is a fantastic destination for wildlife and commonly paired with Cahuita. Read our guide to this tiny village to learn how to visit as an independent traveler.January 13, 2020