I’ll never forget the culture shock I felt when I got off the ferry and landed in the Pacific Coastal town of Montezuma. It wasn’t the narrow dirt roads, the Spanish speaking taxi driver, nor the wild undeveloped territory that surrounded me. All of that was normal.
I had been living for the last month in a beach cabin on Costa Rica’s South Caribbean coast, and it baffled me that another beach town within the same country could feel so different. From the color of the sand to the type of vegetation, I recognized nothing. The food, the accent, and the music, all felt different. It was like I had entered another country. That was the greatest shock of all.
Since then I’ve traveled from coast to coast in Costa Rica over twelve times. It still amazes me how different the Caribbean feels compared to the Pacific. Though they may be different, I love both dearly. Here’s why:
The Pacific: Consistent Surf
Perfect waves grace popular Pacific coastal towns like Tamarindo, Dominical, and Nosara. These clean, consistent sets, have made Costa Rica a worldwide surf destination for anyone from beginners to pros. The Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo has plenty of surf spots and the notorious Hawaiian style reef break Salsa Brava, but they’re expert level and hard to predict.
The Caribbean: Live Coral Reef
The South Caribbean beaches of Cahuita, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo are surrounded by the last living coral reef in Costa Rica. Surfers may suffer when the sea flattens out, but it’s paradise for divers and snorkelers who can spot colorful fish, reef sharks, and even dolphins.
The Pacific: Predictable Weather
If you want a guaranteed sunny vacation, head to the Pacific. From late November through March, in many areas it never rains at all. Of course during the rainy season it can pour for days, but you know what you’re signing up for. In the Caribbean, you may get lucky and have gorgeous sunshine in the rainy season, and no sun at all in the dry season. The good news is, when the rain is pouring on the Pacific, the odds are good that it’s sunny on the Caribbean.
The Caribbean: Lush Jungle Year Round
Since there’s never a truly “dry” season, that means the vegetation on the Caribbean stays lush and green year round. By contrast, the Pacific can dry up and become incredibly dusty. Rain creates a lush jungle which means active wildlife and better shade on beaches.
The Pacific: Gorgeous Sunsets
Easily my favorite thing about Pacific coast beaches in Costa Rica, is the spectacular sunsets. Every evening during the dry season, you can watch the fiery sun lower behind the ocean, and paint the sky in purple, red, orange, and gold hues. It’s a wonderful time to connect with the community on the beach, or sit alone and feel humbled by the beauty.
The Caribbean: Stunning Sunrises
You may quickly find yourself converting into a morning person when the sun rises on the beach before 6am. It’s hard for me to imagine a more peaceful, joyful way to start the morning than by swimming in the ocean under its glow. Few people come to the beach this early, making it easy to feel like you’re the only person on earth.
The Pacific: First World Comforts
Despite being in the tropics of Central America, the Pacific coast beach towns have many comforts from the Western world. Shops carry popular North American brands, hotels have air conditioning and swimming pools, and most people speak English. If you’re nervous about traveling in Costa Rica, the Pacific coast is a great place to get your feet wet before treading into deeper waters.
The Caribbean: Unique Culture
Costa Rica’s 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. You can expect to hear Spanish, Indigenous languages, Jamaican Creole, French, German, and Italian spoken in the streets, eat spicy lobster coconut curry, excellent pizza, and homemade gelato, and listen to Spanish guitar or Calypso.
The Pacific: The Easy Life
Life on the Pacific is alluringly easy. Most towns are relatively safe, the weather is predictable, and most cultural differences aren’t a huge issue. If you’re looking to relax, catch some nice waves, and have a cold cerveza with the sunset, head to this side.
The Caribbean: The Wild Life
If predictability makes you cringe, and adventure is what you’re after, you’ll love the untamed Caribbean. Follow a blue morpho butterfly into the tangled jungle, hide out a rainstorm under a palm tree on the beach, get your hair wrapped by an Argentinean hippie, shake your booty to some Reggaeton, and learn to hula hoop or throw fire. Welcome to the wild side.
About the author: Camille Willemain
In February 2012 I sold all of my belongings and took a one way flight to Costa Rica. I haven’t stopped traveling since. Join me, Camille Willemain, in my adventures as a young single woman discovering peace, balance and fun around the world.
Check out Camille’s new eBook, The Ultimate (Unconventional) Guide to Costa Rica, for travel recommendations, beautiful photos, and stories of her journey.