Costa Rica’s South Caribbean:
An Undiscovered Treasure
What the Pirates of the Caribbean knew:
Costa Rica’s South Caribbean – An Undiscovered Treasure
In the 1600s pirates combed Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast in search of Indian gold and trading ship’s merchandise. However their greatest find is still undiscovered by many today. Its enchanting, uncrowded beaches, distinctive climate and charming, carefree culture make Costa Rica’s south Caribbean a true treasure yet to be known.
For nature lovers, Costa Rica’s Caribbean holds a treasure trove of possibilities. Not only can you swim, snorkel and dive in the crystal clear blue waters and walk for miles on virtually deserted beaches; you can also hike deep into the jungle, climbing to breathtaking mountain vistas. Among the areas prized attractions, The Jaguar Wild Animal Rescue Center is a real gem. Here you can see and learn about the diverse and fascinating Costa Rica wildlife. You can even go into the monkey house and play with baby monkeys. The jungle vegetation provides a wealth of useful plants. On a medicinal plant tour with local guide Junior Palmer, you’ll smell the ylang ylang flower, used to make Chanel Number 5. Ginger, cilantro, vanilla and much more grow wild in the rain forest. And as you stroll through the palms basking in the fresh ocean breeze and breathing in the heady scent of Jasmine and White Ginger flowers, the Blue Morpho Butterfly will appear out of nowhere and dazzle your eyes with it’s intense iridescent azure. You’ll see the cocoa trees and learn how natural chocolate is made at the Cacao House. Night owls can stay up late for a night time guided jungle walk, and stay up even later to watch the Sea Turtles come ashore and lay their eggs. The jewel of the jungle is its waterfalls, where you can swim, climb and play all day long. And for even more excitement there is horseback riding on the beach, wild river rafting and zip lining in the high forest canopy.
The climate in Costa Rica’s south Caribbean is an often overlooked natural advantage. Six months of the year, from May through October, when it is raining daily everywhere else in the country, the Caribbean is bright and sunny. On the Caribbean side the rainy season is from November through January, but it does not necessarily rain daily and frequently the sun breaks through. The golden months of autumn, August and September are the Caribbean’s finest. The water is glassy blue and flat, like a swimming pool – fantastic for diving and snorkeling. But surfers do not dismay, the big waves abound in winter and spring. Regardless of the season, Costa Rica’s south Caribbean climate is most always pleasant, with balmy ocean breezes, soothing sunshine and refreshing rain.
Precious little towns sparkle like jewels on the coastline road of Costa Rica’s south Caribbean. Each has its own special character and unique beaches.
Puerto Viejo is the largest, although still a tiny town of only 13 blocks. Here you can find many good restaurants. Elena Brown’s serves authentic Caribbean cuisine – down home style delicious! Stashu’s Con Fusion (formerly Loco Natural) is island influenced world fusion – very tasty. And there are many, many more. Casa Verde is my hotel of choice in Puerto Viejo. The nice thing about staying right there in town is that you do not need a car. You can access absolutely everything on foot, or bike or bus or taxi. The town hosts lots of cute little shops and a lively night life. Tourists from all over the world enjoy live music – Reggae, Salsa, Calypso and Rock and Roll – almost every night of the week. Puerto Viejo (Old Harbor) is set right on the beach: beautiful Playa Negra (Black Beach). The exotic black sand glistens in the sun, small bands of wild horses roam the beach and locals fish off the old barge run aground.
Next down the road, you’ll find the quiet, residential town of Cocles. But in addition to a church and a school, Cocles is home to the famous Beach Break surfer’s beach and many more fine hotels. La Isla Inn, with it’s beautifully finished wood construction and swimming pool right across from the beach is my favorite place to stay in Cocles. Cocles is the place for those who want a quieter vacation yet don’t want to be too far from all the fun.
Playa Chiquita is a growing little town with a fun and friendly expat population. They have a gourmet grocery store and a health food store, too. I love the Middle Eastern food at Pita Bonita.
Punta Uva is another residential area with only one little store and two restaurants but it is known for the best swimming beach in the area.
And finally, at the end of the road is Manzanillo, famous for its fine Caribbean fare at Maxi’s Restaurant. I have a special fondness for this little town as it is a living picture of the past, much less disturbed by tourism than busy Puerto Viejo. In Manzanillo you see the old culture of Costa Rica’s Caribbean descended from Jamaica. Old men sit in the park playing dominos. Wide eyed children under the careful watch of their abuelos (grandparents) peer from the colorful wooden houses trimmed in gingerbread. Ponga fishing boats line the beach leading into the Gandoca nature reserve. Although the road ends here in Manzanillo you can continue on with a three hour hike through the jungle to Punta Mona.
Punta Mona (Monkey Point) is an experience unto itself. Set on an isolated shoreline of breath taking beauty, Punta Mona is an 85 acre off the grid, family owned environmental education center, botanical collection, permaculture farm and eco-lodge, dedicated to sustainable ways of living. Time spent there is an educational adventure.
Cahuita is fifteen miles north of Puerto Viejo. It is known for its national Park where the White Faced Monkeys are bold enough to steal your sandwich from your hand. It has a similar, old world, Afro Caribbean feeling as Manzanillo. The Caribbean is casual and rustic – that’s why I like it. One of my favorite places to go in Cahuita is a museum run by an old guy named Sankey. He has his own collection of old stuff and artifacts set up as a museum at his house. I loved seeing the beautiful dresses from past Carnival queens. The old book of railroad documents shows photos of the Jamaicans when they came over in 1872 to work on the railroad for the United Fruit Company. I got chills when I saw Sankey’s great great grandmother’s passport, stamped for her entry to Costa Rica.
These towns give you a taste of the rich and diverse culture on the south Caribbean coast. This culture is unique to Costa Rica as the majority of it’s people are Afro Caribbean, descended from Jamaica. Because of this, English is spoken most everywhere. The atmosphere is relaxed, laid back and inviting. The people are charming – warm and friendly. You can visit the Indigenous and learn about their culture. You can take Salsa dancing lessons from a native, take a Caribbean cooking class and try our delicious local food. And additionally, there are expats from Europe and South America as well as North America.
Even though the Caribbean coast is less developed than the Pacific side of Costa Rica, we have accommodations that vary from primitive and cheap to five star. With so much to do, such great weather and an abundance of cultural experiences to be had, Costa Rica’s south Caribbean coast is truly a treasure. Come discover!