While often overlooked, Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast has a lot to offer visitors. It has some of the country’s most scenic beaches, with turquoise water and a wild jungle backing. Culturally, the region has many Afro-Caribbean residents who infuse a fun, laid-back vibe. In this post, we’ll give a snapshot of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and links to additional information to help you plan a visit.
Caribbean Coast: Quick Facts
- Closest Airport: Juan Santamaria International (SJO)
- Best Weather: September and October
- Activity Highlights: Beach, Wildlife, and Culture
- Major Destinations: Tortuguero, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Caribbean Coast: Location and Landscape
The Caribbean coast runs on the far eastern side of Costa Rica. It starts at the Nicaraguan border, where much of the land is swampy and unnavigable. The first “major” town from north to south is Tortuguero.
Tortuguero is a tiny, but well known, village that draws thousands of visitors each year because of its abundant wildlife. Sea turtles come to the area’s beaches to nest during the rainy season from July to October. Tortuguero is a peninsula that is surrounded by a river on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. For this reason, the area can be reached only by boat taxi or small plane.
Continuing south is the port city of Limon. Although some guidebooks talk about visiting Limon, don’t be confused. Limon is also a province, so when they recommend a visit, they actually mean the province of Limon and not the city itself.
Although some travelers pass briefly through Limon by car via Highway 32 from San Jose or for a bus connection, most don’t spend much time in the city. It doesn’t offer much to visitors and has some safety concerns.
Heading south from Limon along the small coastal road, Route 36, you will soon reach the town of Cahuita. Looking at a map, you will see a fairly large point here that juts out into the ocean. This landmass is Cahuita National Park, a major attraction in the area that is well worth a visit. A small, charming town abuts the national park.
Continuing about 10 minutes south, you will arrive in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Puerto Viejo is the largest tourist destination in the southern Caribbean. It has a small, but sizeable, downtown abutting the beach, with restaurants, hotels, and shops.
A paved road runs out of the downtown along the beach with a thick layer of rainforest in between. Along this route are the communities of Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Playa Punta Uva, and Manzanillo. Many people ride bikes on this road to get to and from Puerto Viejo.
The Costa Rica-Panama border at Sixaola forms the southern border of the Caribbean coast.
When to Visit: Climate and Weather on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
The climate on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is a lot different than on the Pacific coast. While the Pacific coast has a distinct dry and rainy season, this isn’t the case on the Caribbean side. Rather, here, rain can happen almost any time of year.
This doesn’t mean that it’s always raining on the Caribbean coast, by any means, though. Most rain is heavy (downpour-type bursts to keep the rainforest lush) that lasts a short period of time.
Historically, the rainiest month on the Caribbean coast by precipitation is July, followed by December, November, and May (in that order).
The driest months are September and October. This coincides with the peak of rainy season on the Pacific slope, making it a great option if you’re visiting Costa Rica at that time. During these months, the Caribbean coast usually receives little rain.
Temperatures are typically hot throughout the region (into the upper 80s/29 Celsius) and don’t change much during the year. This is one of the most humid areas of Costa Rica.
Caribbean Coast: Things to Do
Many people come to the Caribbean coast to just relax on the beach. But the region also has some fun activities. Surfing, chocolate tours, wildlife facilities, guided nature hikes, horseback riding, SUP, and snorkeling are all available.
Beaches & Surfing
The southern Caribbean coast has some of the most picture-perfect beaches in all of Costa Rica. You’ll find plenty of options with light sand and clear turquoise water, backed by lush, wild jungle.
Some popular beaches/towns are:
(1) Cahuita has some beaches that are good for surfing, like Playa Grande. Playa Negra, close to town, is a volcanic black sand beach. Playa Blanca is a pretty white sand beach next to the national park. These two beaches can have smaller waves for wading or swimming, depending on conditions.
(2) Puerto Viejo de Talamanca – This area has some our favorite beaches. You can find excellent surfing at Salsa Brava and Playa Cocles. For relaxing, Playa Punta Uva Arrecife is stunning and has a reef right offshore. You can snorkel here when conditions are right. Playa Chiquita is another picturesque beach that usually isn’t too busy.
(3) Tortuguero – The beach here isn’t the most scenic and the water is often quite choppy. However, Playa Tortuguero is well known for its sea turtle nesting.
Nature Tours, National Parks, and Wildlife Facilities
Nature and wildlife viewing is a big highlight up and down the Caribbean coast. You will probably see monkeys and sloths right from your hotel room, but there’s plenty of thick jungle to explore.
Tortuguero National Park
In Tortuguero, you can take boat or kayak tours through the mangrove canals of Tortuguero National Park. Along the jungle-filled channels, you can see spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys, sloths, river turtles, crocodiles, and many kinds of birds. The national park also has land trails worth visiting. At night, visitors can hope to see a nesting sea turtle, and by day, a hatchling making its way to the sea for the first time.
Cahuita National Park
In the southern Caribbean, Cahuita National Park offers a nice hike. Along the flat, sandy trail, you can explore the pristine coastline while seeing lots of wildlife. Sloths, snakes, and monkeys are especially easy to observe here. The park recently added an elevated wooden boardwalk trail that cuts right through dense mangrove forest.
Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge
The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is another option in the Puerto Viejo area. It has land trails and a beach with a reef. However, due to crime in this reserve, we recommend only visiting here with a guide.
Wildlfe Rehabilitation Facilities
The Caribbean coast also has a few notable wildlife facilities. Jaguar Rescue Center is one of the most well known in Costa Rica for its work to rehabilitate and release jungle animals. Another popular one is the Sloth Sanctuary. We no longer recommend this facility, however, due to concerns about its treatment of the animals.
A great way to take in the views on the southern Caribbean coast is on a SUP or kayak tour. These usually take you along rivers within the rainforest, allowing you to see interesting wildlife.
Snorkeling and diving are also options. Cahuita National Park has a large offshore reef that can be spectacular when conditions are right. There are also some places near Puerto Viejo (e.g., Playa Punta Uva) where you can casually snorkel with your own equipment. Keep in mind, though, that ocean conditions in the unpredictable Caribbean Sea can make for unfavorable snorkeling and diving. So it can be hard to plan these activities in advance.
A special part of the Caribbean coast is its rich culture. The region has Afro-Caribbean roots and also hosts some indigenous groups. These cultures brought their unique customs and traditions, which permeate life on the Caribbean side. The vibe here is super laid back, fun, and inviting.
For cuisine, you can find plenty of typical Costa Rican food, but some local restaurants also offer authentic Caribbean cooking with things like coconut rice and spicy rondon.
For a deeper look into the culture, you could take a cooking class alongside a local, visit an indigenous community to learn about their way of life, or check out a chocolate tour.
Planning Your Visit to Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is the closest international airport to all points on the Caribbean coast.
Tortuguero: From SJO, you either take a small plane directly to Tortuguero, or a shuttle van to La Pavona or Moin, then a boat taxi through the mangroves the rest of the way. See our Getting to Tortuguero post for more information.
Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: SJO is about 5 hours from these towns, depending on traffic on Highway 32.
Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) – We don’t recommend flying into Liberia Airport to access the Caribbean coast because it is many hours away.
Many major rental car companies in Costa Rica have offices along the Caribbean coast and offer car pick up from the SJO Airport area as well. If you plan to rent a car during your stay, we highly recommend using Adobe Rent a Car, which has one of the best reputations in the country. Check out our Rental Car Discount page to save 10-20% and get free extras.
Tortuguero: For those wanting a rental car after their time in Tortuguero, Adobe Rent a Car has a local office near the docks in La Pavona and can deliver the car to you for a small fee. Just select Guapiles/P.N. Tortuguero for pickup when you go to reserve using the widget. They also have an office in Limon and can drop you off or pick you up from the Moin dock for free. For both locations, make sure to add a note to your reservation to ask for pick up/drop off at the docks.
If you’d rather not drive, taking a private shuttle van from the airport to the Caribbean coast is easy. Shuttle prices from SJO Airport range from around $200-$320/van transfer one way. To check prices and book with a reliable company, see our Shuttle Transfers page.
Do You Need a Car?
Tortuguero: Since Tortuguero has no roads and you can’t drive to it, you definitely don’t need a rental car. Many people take a shuttle van to the boat docks and then pick up a rental car after their time in Tortuguero. See our Getting to Tortuguero post for more information.
Southern Caribbean: Cahuita is a small town. If you stay near the main area, you definitely don’t need a car to get around.
In Puerto Viejo, you don’t need a car if you stay in the downtown, but one is nice to have if you’re in the beach communities outside town like Cocles, Playa Chiquita, etc. Many people rent bikes in Puerto Viejo to easily get around.
Here’s a list of the Caribbean coast’s most popular destinations and their proximity to SJO Airport. We’ve written detailed articles on many of these towns so use the links below to find more information.
Tortuguero – via La Pavona boat docks – approx. 3 hour drive from SJO to La Pavona, then a 1-hour boat taxi ride.
Cahuita – Approx. 4.5 hours from SJO
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca – Approx. 4.5-5 hours from SJO
Because the area is so remote, many of the hotels in Tortuguero offer all-inclusive packages. They typically include round-trip transportation from San Jose, all meals, and a few tours.
Aside from Tortuguero, the Caribbean coast has mostly smaller hotels and no all-inclusive resorts. Most all-inclusives in Costa Rica are located in Guanacaste Province.
Not everyone who visits Costa Rica ventures over to the Caribbean coast, but for those who do, most leave wanting more. Whether it’s the stunning beaches or laid back vibe, many people fall in love, returning again and again.
Planning a visit to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and have a question? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more resources to help you plan? Check out these posts:
Regional Snapshots – Check out our other regional snapshots of the central Pacific coast, Guanacaste, and more to learn the basics about Costa Rica’s different areas.
La Fortuna: What to Expect – La Fortuna/Arenal pairs well with destinations on the Caribbean coast. Read about this town’s famous volcano, activities, hotels, and restaurants with this post.
Best Time to Visit Costa Rica – Learn the best and worst times to visit, including some tips on coming during the hedge months when the weather is still good and prices can be lower.
Rental Car Discount – Check out our rental car discount for a reliable car at a discounted price. Our readers get free extras and 10-20% off the car’s base price.