As the road emerges from the cloud forests and descends to sea level, thousands of banana trees consume the horizon. Wildflowers and tropical fruit spill onto the pavement and perfume the warm, moist air. Howler monkeys growl and Reggae music mingles with the layered symphony of the jungle. The coastline emerges, an endless curve of golden sand that bleeds into sparkling black powder, kissed by the turquoise sea.
This is Costa Rica with a Caribbean accent. Where Latin and Caribbean culture converge. Where Salsa and Calypso play in harmony, Spanish and Jamaican Creole interweave, and Rastafarians dish West Indian curry beside coconut scented rice and beans. This is Costa Rica with pounding surf and calm crystalline waters dotted with vibrant coral reef. Where sloths cause traffic jams and colorful butterflies land on your feet. This is the Costa Rica made of dreams.
Once upon a time only fanatical surfers and dedicated environmentalists made their way to the rugged undeveloped Caribbean coast. Today a clean paved road connects the capital city of San Jose to the Southern Caribbean towns, just a few hours away, offering easy access to paradise. Now is the time to explore the less touristy side of Costa Rica. Here are the top reasons why:
Costa Rica’s South Caribbean beaches are arguably the most beautiful in the country, if not the world. They feel undeniably Caribbean with warm turquoise water and pale golden sand that shimmers in the sunlight. Swaying palms and almond trees provide shade for sunbathers and coral reef forms natural pools where colorful fish congregate and swimmers bathe. These coral reef formations lend diversity to the beaches, making some ideal for snorkeling and swimming and others great for surf. Most of the beaches remain entirely undeveloped, backed by thick jungle, and one can easily walk for miles without seeing another human.
Unlike the rest of the country, the Caribbean does not have a distinct dry or rainy season, which means the jungle remains lush and full of life year round. With scarce development, the Caribbean Coast is lined with untouched national park teeming with wildlife. The Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge sprawls all the way to Panama, covering fifty square miles of land with undeveloped wild jungle. Trails snake up to lookout points then emerge onto wilderness beaches and into bat caves made of coral. Further north, the Cahuita National Park is one of the most beloved places in Costa Rica for wildlife. This protected zone provides a habitat for white faced and howler monkeys, agouti, sloths, poison dart frogs, and a variety of tropical birds.
For decades intrepid surfers from across the world have flocked to the South Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo to ride the famous Hawaiian style break Salsa Brava. Thrill seekers get their kicks riding this fast, powerful, shallow reef break nicknamed “the cheesegrater”. The beach towns surrounding Puerto Viejo each offer their own unique waves for surfers of all levels, from the fun, kid friendly, beginner waves in Cahuita, Playa Negra and Punta Uva to big challenging barrels in Limón, Beach Break, and Manzanillo.
When the surf flattens out the calm Caribbean water offer exceptional diving and snorkeling opportunities. Costa Rica’s only remaining live coral reef systems protect the South Caribbean beaches and house hundreds of species of tropical fish, dozens of types of coral, and even dolphins and reef sharks. In the beaches of Punta Uva, Manzanillo, and in the Cahuita National Park, snorkelers can explore right off the beach making underwater exploration as easy as renting a mask. Boat tours take snorkelers to more remote reef, particularly at Punta Mona with even more abundant underwater life. Divers can explore twenty different dive sites surrounding Manzanillo and Punta Uva, from shallow coral gardens to impressive vertical walls swarming with colorful fish.
The South Caribbean enjoys a vibrant culture completely unique from the rest of the country. Inhabitants from the Caribbean islands, local indigenous communities, European restaurateurs and hoteliers, North American expats, and South American traveler hippies, each lend a special flavor to this melting pot. A short drive into the countryside and travelers will discover the indigenous communities who produce beautiful arts and crafts they sell in the markets. In the South Caribbean beach towns Rastafarian culture abounds with Reggae music, Calypso dancing, and heaping bowls of Caribbean lobster stew. Thanks to the foreign transplants the South Caribbean has world-class international cuisine like Argentinean steak, homemade pita bread, wood fired pizza, handmade ravioli, and fresh flavorful sushi rolls. Musicians and performers come from all over the world to Puerto Viejo, creating lively nights with fire dancing and international music.
Some of the richest, purest chocolate comes from the jungle hills in Costa Rica’s Caribbean. Consequently, internationally renowned chocolate makers have established businesses working with the local cacao farmers to produce exceptionally delicious chocolate treats. In the South Caribbean you can tour the sustainable cacao farms, learn how to make your own chocolate, and sample a wide variety of chocolate made from locally sourced, fair trade cacao.
Costa Rica has a reputation for being one of the healthiest places in the world, and the Caribbean Coast is a great place for those seeking wellness. The South Caribbean has several yoga studios, a yoga retreat center, a gym, and plenty of outdoor activities for physical fitness. Organic and vegetarian restaurants are scattered along the coast and the farmer’s market in Puerto Viejo offer access to organic fruit, vegetables, homemade local cheese, probiotic foods, free range eggs, and plenty of healthy treats. In Playa Chiquita there is a health and wellness center offering cooking workshops, detoxification retreats, and full service holistic treatment for diseases including cancer. This established health community in conjunction with the abundant nature and clean air makes the South Caribbean an excellent place for healing.
Few things could be better than curling up in a hammock with a fresh young coconut and simply taking in your surroundings. With swaying palm trees, warm tranquil water, and the sounds of the jungle, the Caribbean is the ideal place to just chill out.