As Costa Rica is home to not one, but two coastlines (costa in Spanish does mean coast after all), there is no shortage of incredible beaches to choose from. However, while a significant amount of land (not to mention a whole lot of roads in terrible condition) separates the two coasts, they are as different as night and day. When it comes to “well known” status, Manuel Antonio and Puerto Viejo are probably the best two beaches to showcase.
DISCLAIMER: As is my custom on my blog, when dispensing any sort of advice, I only write about places I personally have visited. However, I will say based on interactions I had with locals while living in Costa Rica and word of mouth from friends who visited areas I didn’t get the chance to see myself, that many of the country’s other beaches, especially on the mid-northern section of the country, are very similar to Manuel Antonio and Puerto Viejo.
Best for nature and animal lovers, travelers with more limited time, individuals in search of a more relaxing and easy going trip, those on their first trip to Costa Rica.
Nature and animal lovers: In addition to a spectacular beach, Manuel Antonio is most famous for a national park of the same name. It’s the smallest Costa Rican national park but receives the highest number of visitors each year. The landscape of Manuel Antonio is quite impressive as it features numerous coves, many with white sand beaches, a tropical forest, mountains, not to mention marine and beautiful coral life. And the wildlife…there are believed to be 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. The day I visited, I spent a great day at the beach (in February no less), went on a pretty cool hike in flip flops (I’d recommend wearing different footwear), even saw a sloth way up in the trees (I heard a lot more animal and bird movement than seeing). I visited there almost a decade ago and have read reports that Manuel Antonio is becoming overrun with visitors. Keep in mind, though, that a certain number of visitors is allowed each day (no one can just go traipsing in) and your entrance fee helps to keep this park one of the most beautiful in the world. Yes, tourism comes with a price but when it helps maintain a national park, I’d say it’s worth it.
Travelers with more limited time: As Manuel Antonio is only 82 miles from the capital of San Jose, it’s relatively easy to get to (well, by Costa Rican standards that is). Although you could certainly fly from San Jose to Quepos, (the nearest town and airport to Manuel Antonio), it’s probably going to be more trouble and more expensive than its worth. Your easiest option is to either hire a private driver or for something more economical, arrange private transfers through a van service (other travelers, but a fraction of the cost of a private driver). You can arrive in San Jose in the morning and be hitting the beach by the late afternoon.
Individuals in search of a more relaxing trip/those on their first visit to Costa Rica: These two things I feel go hand in hand. For anyone who feels Costa Rica is too “exotic” to visit on their own, it’s not. But it is a foreign country whose economy is developing and whose tourist infrastructure is still fledging when compared with places in the Caribbean or Cancun, Mexico. (However, if you compare it to neighboring Nicaragua, well, Costa Rica’s will seem like a wise elderly person.) The nice thing about Manuel Antonio is that once you arrive at San Jose’s airport, you have a relatively easy second part of the trip before you arrive at your final destination. As Costa Rica goes, Manuel Antonio can be pretty “posh.” While there aren’t Dolce and Gabana stores or Starbucks gracing the roads (give it time I’m sure), there are still long established stores and restaurants, all aimed at the tourist who’s from a developed nation. The other positive to being in Manuel Antonio is that it’s a decent enough base to go and explore other areas of the country. It’s relatively short distance from San Jose which is located in the Central Valley, home to coffee plantations, white water rafting expeditions, and much more.
Best for those wanting an atypical beach vacation, individuals who are fine with roughing it, travelers who don’t necessarily need a Spanish speaking and culture environment.
Best for those wanting an atypical beach vacation: Just as with Manuel Antonio, I visited Puerto Viejo almost a decade ago and like anything else in life, I’m sure it’s changed since then (like I’m sure they’ve gotten a second and maybe even a third traffic light by now). I did visit Puerto Viejo twice (versus only once for Manuel Antonio) so I felt like I got to know it a bit more. Here’s the thing about the Caribbean coast-it’s less developed in every way and the locals (both natives and expats who make it their home) want to keep it that way. They do not want it to to turn into another over-developed Pacific site. (I don’t think development is necessarily bad, it offers an extremely different perspective, but it has its pluses and minuses just as underdevelopment does.) Smelly (sorry, I had to say it) backpackers can be found all throughout Costa Rica but it’s on the Caribbean side, in a place like small town Puerto Viejo, where the stereotypical image of an individual in need of a shower and clean clothing, and a heavy burlap style backpack hanging down to his knee comes through the most. Although I’m sure there are some (adventuresome) families who make the trek to the Caribbean side and stay at a cute boutique style hotel, when I was there it was mostly young people and couples.
Individuals who are fine with roughing it: Grazing horses, tethered horses, this was a common sight in Puerto Viejo. Cars were not overly abundant but horses and bikes were. When I went there I was told that the town had received its first ever traffic light. The second time I visited I stayed at a very creepy guest house located some roads back from the main drag and nestled amongst the locals’ one story, two/three room houses. (I say creepy because it seemed that almost everyone there was smoking pot and the proprietor resembled a Rastafarian Santa Claus although he wasn’t ever smiling). After dropping off our bags, my friends and I went in search of dinner. The negative thing about Puerto Viejo and the Caribbean coast is that it does not follow the weather patterns of the Pacific Coast so while that is all nice and dry during the dry season, the Caribbean side still gets rain…sometimes a lot. And where there are no paved roads, mud will come…lots and lots of it. So as we were walking to get dinner, my foot got stuck in the mud (I was wearing flip flips and can’t begin to tell you how grossed out I was by this-remember I’m a city girl through and through). Well, I pulled my foot out of said mud but my flip flop did not come with it. And as we were on a dark road (electricity? ha), well I couldn’t easily find it. So a friend hurried back to the guest house, retrieved a flashlight and eventually I located it. I then had to go back to the guesthouse to clean my foot and flip flip off. So to sum it up, if just reading about that grossed you out, yeah I may recommend staying away from Puerto Viejo, at least until the roads are paved.
Travelers who don’t necessarily need a Spanish speaking and culture environment: While one may think that Costa Rica is just a Spanish speaking country, well, it is, but not completely. At the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, plans were concocted to link the Caribbean coast with the Pacific coast by railway in order to export the banana crop. The masterminds of this plan decided to bring in workers from the West Indies; Jamaicans were the ones that numbered the most. When the railway was finished, many ended up staying, thus creating a little of West India in this predominantly Spanish speaking country. So not only will you find people of a darker skin color there, you’ll also hear more English and Creole spoken than Spanish, find more West Indian dishes, and the pot…yes, you will be offered the chance to buy a ton of marijuana by individuals who clearly aspire to be Bob Marley.
Horses are just as common as cars and bikes in terms of transportation.
As I said at the start, the Pacific and Caribbean coasts are utterly different from one another. You can visit both coasts and come to the conclusion you had to have been in two different countries. But I will say this, if you’re of an open mind AND have the time, I’d recommend visiting both coasts in one trip. It will truly offer a neat traveler’s perspective.