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How to plan a road trip along Costa Rica's Caribbean coast

Hit Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast for an offbeat pura vida vibe amid wild jungle, immaculate coastline and a colourful cast of wildlife.

By Cassia Geller
Published 28 Feb 2021, 06:06 GMT, Updated 3 Mar 2021, 16:20 GMT
Less explored than the Pacific coast, Costa Rica's Caribbean shoreline is carved with secluded coves and ...

Less explored than the Pacific coast, Costa Rica's Caribbean shoreline is carved with secluded coves and beaches hidden at the edge of the jungle. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Central America’s eco-travel trailblazer, Costa Rica is an adventure playground of wild and wonderful activities and creatures big, small and creepy-crawly. Travellers often head straight to its more accessible Pacific coast, but eastbound adventurers on the country’s Caribbean side will find a realm of unblemished beaches, tropical rainforest and an offbeat pura vida vibe.

The Talamanca region — where the country’s Caribbean coast meets Panama — is especially blessed with things to see, do and swoon at. Scattered with colourful fishing villages and surf spots, it’s distinctive for its atmospheric Caribbean culture and its climate (a more reliable mix of sun and rain compared to the west coast’s intense rainy season, from May to November). It’s also dominated by a protected nature reserve, meaning the landscape is thrumming with wildlife and opportunities to get close to nature. 

Hit the trail between laidback Cahuita, lively Puerto Viejo and end-of-the-road Manzanillo for hiking, biking, diving, nature-watching and beach-hopping. Expect sloths, surfers, monkeys and more along this postcard-perfect shoreline.

1. Cahuita National Park

Kick off in Cahuita, a laid-back village four hours east of the capital, San Jose. Here you’ll find Cahuita National Park: a pristinely preserved (and free to enter) natural playground spanning 2,700 land acres and 55,000 marine acres. Take the five-mile walking trail and keep an eye out for day-glo frogs, monkeys, racoons, sloths and snakes; or snorkel out from Punta Cahuita to see a cornucopia of coral, fish and crustaceans in the technicolour reef.

2. Puerto Viejo on two wheels

Next, head 10 miles south to the high-spirited town of Puerto Viejo, known for palm-fronded reggae bars, world-famous surf breaks and more than seven miles of jungle-edged, sandy beaches. Rent a banana bike from town, taking the coastal road south. Each beach en route has its own charm, so stop off at Cocles, Chiquita and Punta Uva — looking up for sloths, howler monkeys and capuchins swinging from the branches above as you pedal.

3. Arrecife’s underwater world

Just south of Punta Uva is Arrecife Beach, a palm-dotted stretch of sand so perfectly paradisiacal it’s almost a cliché. Explore its underwater world on a scuba-diving or snorkelling trip with Punta Uva Diver Center, which also offers kayaking and standup paddleboarding. If you can, come for a night dive — especially enchanting in the summer months when the dark seas shimmer with luminescence. Refuel with the catch of the day at La Sirena restaurant next door. 

4. The Ara Project

Birdwatchers delight at the sight of the striking green macaws that flit across the skies over Puerto Viejo — not least because they’re rarely spotted elsewhere. Their welcome presence is thanks to The Ara Project, which brought the great green macaw back from the edge of extinction. Tour the field station — just south of Arrecife — to make feathered friends, from the mighty macaw to three species of toucan. 

5. Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge

A 10-minute cycle south is sleepy Manzanillo: the ‘entrance’ to Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. Technically, you’ll have been in the reserve since Cocles Beach, but this is the starting point for walking trails into its unique ecosystems: mangrove and palm swamps, primary forest, coral reefs and turtle nesting sites. Expect a host of wildlife, including manatees, crocodiles and caimans, plus cliff-jumping, underwater caves and a breath-taking treehouse nature observatory. 

6. Punta Mona

Manzanillo might be the end of the road, but there’s more to explore if you’re game for an adventure. Punta Mona is an off-the-grid farm, eco-lodge and educational centre offering courses in botany and regenerative design. Reach it by a two-hour rainforest hike from Manzanillo (a guide is advised) or rent a boat with a local fisherman, taking to the seas to spot dolphins frolicking in the surf before docking on Punta Mona’s pristine sands — the last stop before Panama. 

Did you know?

As well as the Noah’s Ark-worthy rollcall of animals, insects and birds that call the area around Talamanca home, it also counts more than 70 human nationalities as residents, including the indigenous Bribri ethnic group.

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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