Palms swaying in the warm, Caribbean breeze. Clear, turquoise waters lapping on golden sand. Toucans, iguanas, howler monkeys and sloths peeking from the treetops. This postcard from the tropics comes to vivid life on the beaches of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast.
Some of the most beautiful beaches of Costa Rica’s nearly 1,300 kilometers of coastline can be found strung along the shore between the towns of Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. Depending on the beach, visitors can swim, sunbathe, surf or snorkel the reefs, and take refuge from the noonday heat in the shade of palm and almond trees.
The Caribbean vibe, culture and cuisine make the region unique in the country. You’ll find no megaresorts here, with most hotels consisting of only a few rooms or bungalows. Also unique is the weather; the Caribbean doesn’t follow the rainy-or-dry-season pattern of the rest of the country, and visitors should be prepared for rain anytime. The best weather of the year is usually in September and October – the height of the rainy season in most other parts of Costa Rica – when clear blue skies and calm seas make the region a haven from the torrential rains falling elsewhere in the country.
The town of Puerto Viejo, where most services are centered, abuts Playa Negra, a black-sand beach with gentle surf where local kids can nearly always be spotted splashing about. But the best beaches lie southeast of town, along the 13-kilometer stretch between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. The picturesque, flat coastal road makes car access easy, but don’t miss the experience of beach hopping by bicycle. You can rent a bicycle in town for about $5 a day, and getting around on pedal power allows you to see more details, smell the flowers and exchange waves and smiles with the locals.
Cocles Beach Break
Distance from Puerto Viejo: 2 km
Access: Off the coastal road, or via a footpath from town
Good for: Surfing, swimming when currents allow
Proximity to town and surf action make this one of the most popular beaches in the region. The wide expanse of sand ensures it’s never crowded. Swimmers should use caution: Beach Break is known for powerful rip currents that claim lives every year. Fortunately, this is one of the few beaches in the country with a lifeguard program, paid for by local businesses. A colored-flag system warns of dangerous currents and indicates where it is safe or unsafe to swim. The beach is right off the road, the first one you see heading southeast from town. A pleasant, tree-shaded trail leads from town to the beach (about a 15-minute walk). Robberies, though uncommon, have been reported along the trail, so stay alert and try not to walk alone.
Distance from Puerto Viejo: 2 to 4 km
Access: Off the coastal road, or along the beach from Beach Break
Good for: Surfing, swimming when currents allow, long walks or jogging
Cocles beach extends southeast another 2 km from Beach Break, luring visitors to walk or run the sandy expanse and making it easy to find a secluded stretch to yourself. Note: Lifeguards do not patrol past Beach Break, and the currents can be dangerous. Shade can be difficult to find on this stretch.
Distance from Puerto Viejo: 6 km
Access: Footpath access across the road from Playa Chiquita Riding Stables
Good for: Swimming, snorkeling
As its name implies, this beach is small, but charming. Small coves beg swimmers to take a dip in the clear waters. The reef close offshore serves as an effective wave breaker, and offers the opportunity to go exploring with mask and tube. The beach’s diminutive size can sometimes make it feel crowded when others are present, but if you luck out and find yourself alone … paradise.
Distance from Puerto Viejo: 8 km
Access: Turn left off the coastal road at the “Punta Uva” sign for the beach before the point; turn off at the “Arrecife” sign for the beach after the point
Good for: Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking trail to viewpoint
The two Punta Uva beaches, divided by the promontory of Punta Uva, vie for the distinction of best beaches in the country.
The western Punta Uva is a scene out of “Blue Lagoon,” with calm, turquoise waters backed by the wall of tropical greenery that swathes the promontory. A thatched-roof restaurant offers food and drink, and kayaks can be rented to paddle around the point and take in the arch at the tip of the promontory. A short trail traverses the point between the two beaches, allowing hikers to walk over the arch to a viewpoint offering a spectacular 180-degree sea vista. In calm seas, intrepid swimmers can enter the arch from the east and swim through – but watch out for sea urchin spines, and never understimate the current.
The eastern Punta Uva is known for its clear waters and calm surf. The white-sand bottom makes the waters a beautiful shade of blue, fringed by abundant reef for snorkeling. Just a few steps from the beach, Arrecife hotel and restaurant (www.arrecifepunta uva.net) offers ice-cold beer and good food, as well as snorkel and kayak rentals. Lodging in beachfront cabinas and camping are also available here. Hammocks strung between the palms in front of the restaurant offer the ultimate shady napping spots.
Distance from Puerto Viejo: 13 km
Access: Off the coastal road, which ends at Manzanillo
Good for: Swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, trail access to Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, Maxi’s restaurant
The coastal road ends at Manzanillo, at the beachfront Maxi’s restaurant, famed for its Caribbean cuisine. Colorfully painted lanchas, or motorboats, dot the shoreline in front of the restaurant, but there is plenty of open beach for swimming in the calm surf. The reef off Manzanillo stretches for kilometers and is great for snorkeling and diving. Aquamor (2759-9012, 8835-6041), a few steps from Maxi’s, rents snorkel gear and kayaks and offers off-the-beach and boat dive trips. Wade across the estuary east of Maxi’s to access the trail through the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge for another promontory viewpoint and a string of secluded reef-fringed beaches.
From San José, take Route 32 to the Caribbean port city of Limón. Turn right (south) at the Texaco station and follow signs to Puerto Viejo. The drive is approximately four hours. Buses to Puerto Viejo leave San José from the Caribbean bus terminal at Calle Central, Avenida 11 (Transportes Mepe, 2257-8129, ₡4,545/$9, 4.5 hours), at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. The noon bus continues to Manzanillo.
Reasonably priced accommodations abound in town and along the coastal road to Manzanillo. Just a few recommendations: in Puerto Viejo, Hotel Banana Azul (Playa Negra, www.bananaazul.com), Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge (www.cashewhilllodge.co.cr), Escape Caribeño (www.escapecaribeno.com); in Cocles, La Costa de Papito (www.lacostadepapito.com), Cariblue Hotel (www.cariblue.com), Finca Chica (www.fincachica.com), Le Caméléon Hotel (www.lecame leonhotel.com); in Playa Chiquita, Playa Chiquita Lodge (www.playachiquitalodge.com), Shawandha Lodge (www.shawandhalodge.com); in Punta Uva, Tree House Lodge (www.costaricatreehouse.com), Casa Viva (www.puntauva.net), Korrigan Lodge (www.korriganlodge.com); in Manzanillo, Almonds and Corals Lodge (www.almondsandcorals.com), El Colibrí Lodge (www.elcolibrilodge.com), Congo Bongo (www.congo-bongo.com).
Visitors will find great international cuisine at a variety of restaurants in the area, but be sure to try the local Caribbean fare, such as coconut-infused rice and beans, lobster, whole red snapper or chicken in Caribbean sauce, and rondón, a seafood soup made with coconut milk. Recommendations: in Puerto Viejo, Soda Tamara, Soda Miss Sam, Soda Lidia’s Place; in Cocles, Soda Johanna’s; in Punta Uva, Selvyn’s; and in Manzanillo, the famous Maxi’s.