I don’t suppose there are many, or indeed any, other countries with a more befitting name than Costa Rica; with its collection of amazing beaches and broad span of diverse communities, cultures, climates and landscapes, it really is what you’d call ‘the rich coast’.
But there are, of course, two very distinct coasts to explore. There is the Pacific coast, known for its lively tourist and retiree hubs like Jaco and Taramindo (although many areas remain untrodden), and the Caribbean coast, where things are much more laid-back, quirkier and rooted very deeply in Caribbean culture.
It was along the South Caribbean coast in the party, surf ‘n’ sleep town of Puerto del Viejo, where I stayed for a week earlier this year to get a feel for this famously relaxed culture and check out some beautiful Costa Rica beaches.
While ‘Puerto Viejo’ is mostly used to refer to the whole area of coastline or at least include the nearby communities of Playa Negra, Cocles, Chiquita and Punta Uva, the lively town centre itself is a small zone at the north end of Playa Cocles. There aren’t many streets here, but there are enough hotels, hostels, cafes and restaurants packed in to satisfy a couple of cruise liners (which thankfully do not patrol the South Caribbean coastline).
So it gets pretty noisy and congested, particularly during Semana Santa (Easter week) when I visited, meaning its own beach becomes about as tempting as a warm beer in a sweaty sauna. But fortunately you don’t have to go far to escape the crowds; some of the best beaches in Costa Rica are just a 220-minute bike ride away from Puerto Viejo, and offer plenty in the way of variety. So without further do, here is my brief guide to the best Puerto Viejo beaches:
Puerto Viejo Beaches: Playa Cocles
Heading south of Puerto Viejo, the first beach you’ll come to is Playa Cocles. This is probably one of top beaches in Costa Rica and easily the most developed long the South Caribbean coastline. This is thanks mainly to the local community who came together a while back and paid for lifeguard services – a rare find in Costa Rica.
Playa Cocles is unique owing to the river beside it. The ocean and the river do not actually meet, but come so close that a long and narrow strip of sandy beach has formed between them. The river is popular with swimmers and deep enough for daredevils to jump from trees, some as high as 20m!
Surfers also get their fix at Cocles, where the swells at the northern end seldom disappoint by the look of things. I was supposed to have surfing lessons here but the teacher I’d arranged to meet didn’t show up! However, I cheered myself up by joining in a game of beach football with some locals. As the only gringo I was the subject of much interest and much enthusiasm when I scored the winning goal: a deft back heel no one saw coming. If only England had been able to produce the same magic against Costa Rica in the World Cup…
Puerto Viejo Beaches: Playa Chiquita
Next along the coast heading south is Playa Chiquita, the perfect spot for a quiet read without any background noise. The beach is actually made up of several small bays so on a lucky day you might get one all to yourself. The water tends to be much calmer here too, so you can float on your back or rubber ring without worrying about a giant wave toppling you over at any second.
To find Chiquita you’ve to either walk or cycle down one of several trails from the coastal road, where there aren’t signposted so keep your eyes peeled! There isn’t much in the way of facilities, but there are a few restaurants and a supermarket or two along the road.
Puerto Viejo Beaches: Punta Uva
Further and quieter still, is Punta Uva – ‘Grape Point’ – where the white sand and transparent, reef-protected water doesn’t attract nearly as many beachgoers as you’d think. Much of the area falls within the boundaries of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine refuge. There is always a good chance of seeing land animals or even leatherback turtles coming up the beach to lay their eggs if the season is right. I wasn’t so lucky during the hour or so I stayed there, but I did see a toucan!
Punta Uva is about 9km from Puerto Viejo so a bit of a stretch to walk. You’re much better taking a bike if you’re going this far out; taxis are expensive and a pain to have to rely on. Once again, facilities are pretty basic but there are some restaurants and a couple of supermarkets in the area if you get peckish. Well worth the visit if you’re keen to see one of the best white sand beaches in Costa Rica.
Puerto Viejo Beaches: Playa Grande
Located within the mellow and serene village of Manzanillo, Playa Grande, as the name suggests, is the largest beach of the Puerto Viejo cluster. This was my last stop of my beach-hopping bike ride, and since it was already getting late I couldn’t stay long. But just like the others I’d visited that day, it was strikingly beautiful yet surprisingly empty, despite it being Semana Santa.
And even if I’d wanted to go further I couldn’t have; Manzanillo is the end of the line. To go any further you’ve to continue on foot into the Gandoca-Manzanillo refuge, but I was told that this is not recommended without a guide, both for sightseeing and security reasons.
Back on the beach I noticed a group of snorkelers in the water who were no doubt exploring the beach’s coral reef, which forms part of the refuge. They had virtually the whole place to themselves; all the crowds were back in Cocles and Puerto Viejo.
Puerto Viejo Beaches: Cahuita
Not all the best Costa Rica beaches on the South Caribbean coast are south of Puerto Viejo. Cahuita, another rich and vibrant community 16km north, used to be the most developed town south of Limon before being surpassed by Puerto Viejo. The culture here smacks of Jamaica, from its cuisine and creolized African-English language, to its authentic ‘calypso’ music and reggae-rasta coloured shops and hotels.
The town is the entry point to Cahuita National Park (costa-rica-guide.com) – another beautiful natural attraction offering 8km of jungle-cloaked trails. Beside the town you can find not one but two idyllic beaches, Playa Negra and Playa Blanca. As their names suggest, one is black and the other white, so they are easy to tell apart! Playa Negra lies to the west of town and Playa Blanca to the east (closest to the park). Both beaches are great for snorkelling and scuba diving, owing to the rich and teeming coral reef that separates them.
There are bus links to Cahuita both from Limon and Puerto Viejo (about $2 if I remember correctly) and if you have the time then it’s definitely worth staying a couple of nights before hitting the wilder and slightly more expensive Puerto Viejo.
Hotels in Puerto Viejo
If one thing’s for sure, there is no shortage of hostels and hotels in Puerto Viejo. I’d heard that Rocking J’s was the place to go, but was put off when I called ahead to book only to discover that a dorm bed cost $20/night and a hammock $14/night! These may have been Semana Santa prices but were far too high for my budget.
So I decided to take a chance and arrive (during Semana Santa, I remind you) without anything pre-booked. Stupid perhaps, but as a solo traveller I was sure I’d find something.
Luck, it seemed, was on my side. Not 10 minutes had passed before I found the very welcoming, relaxed and budget-friendly Hotel Puerto Viejo (there’s a signpost at the bus stop). Beds were aplenty and $15/night – my maximum allowance for Costa Rica – and these were double beds in private rooms with a fan. Sweet! I dropped my bags down by the bar and was welcomed by Alejandra, who served me a much needed ice-cold beer before happily answering all my questions about things to do in Puerto Viejo.
There was a real positive vibe about the place which had just the right amount of calm and energy. I could tell immediately I was going to be very comfortable and meet some great people there. The bar stayed open all day; the kitchen was enormous and well equipped; the chill zone was also huge with plenty of sofas to kick back on; the bathrooms were all clean and the Wifi connection was strong. For $15 a night I’d found a bargain!
Bu what I loved most about Hotel Puerto Viejo (tripadvisor.com) was the rule that guests were only allowed to smoke in the bar area if they were smoking weed – if you wanted a cigarette you had to go outside! True “Tico” style.
I had a great stay at Hotel Puerto Viejo and would strongly recommend it for other budget travelers looking for a big bed, a friendly vibe and great facilities for a low price. The staff know the area very well, and will tell you even more secrets about the best Puerto Viejo beaches. Check out their Facebook page here (facebook.com).
Getting to Puerto Viejo
I came down the coastal highway from Limon, after a torrid morning traveling by bus from Tortuguero on the north Caribbean coast. I had to take 4 buses in total, and while it was much cheaper (around $15) than the alternative $35 boat ride to Moín (next to Limon), it was utterly exhausting and involved a lot of waiting around in crowded bus stations.
Arriving from San Jose is much more straightforward, since there is a direct bus service from the capital all the way to Puerto Viejo (this is the same bus I took from Limon). A one-way ticket for the 5-hour journey from the Atlantico Norte terminal in San Jose costs about $10. Head here for more information on bus times and services to Puerto Viejo (puertoviejosatellite.com).
Suggested further reading:
- Why is the South Caribbean coast the best in Costa Rica? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Guide to Costa Rica’s Beaches (anywherecostarica.com)
- 5 Reasons to Visit Costa Rica’s Caribbean Side (travelandleisure.com)
Many thanks to Hotel Puerto Viejo for part-hosting me on this trip. I wasn’t paid for writing this article. All opinions are my own, like always!