How & When to Visit Puerto Viejo
If you’re looking to escape the throngs of travelers that typically make a beeline for Costa Rica's Pacific beaches, consider spending your holiday on the Caribbean coast. With a variety of accommodation options, flavorful Caribbean-inspired cuisine, close proximity to Panama, and some of the best surf breaks and beaches in the country, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (not to be confused with Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui) is a fun and vibrant base for exploring the east coast of this Central American country.
To get here, you have a few options. If you're arriving in Costa Rica by way of San José, you can take a domestic flight to Limón and then drive about an hour south to Puerto Viejo. Alternatively, you can rent a car in San José and self-drive the four-hour journey. Or, if you prefer to leave the driving up to the locals, book a shuttle or private car and driver.
When planning your trip, keep in mind that the weather in the Caribbean region is vastly different from the Pacific. The Caribbean receives a significant amount of rain, particularly from December through February. All that moisture certainly makes for gorgeous green jungles, but it could also make a soggy mess of your stay. September and October — when it’s typically dry and sunny on the Caribbean coast — are your best bet. Ocean currents here tend to be strong and the waves powerful, so be sure to check local conditions before diving in. Unless you are a strong swimmer or experienced surfer, it's best to stay close to shore.
Just one mile north of Puerto Viejo town, the black sand beach of Playa Negra is close enough to be within walking or cycling distance to shops and restaurants, but just far enough to seclude you from the crowds and noise. Honeymooners will love Banana Azul, an adults-only beachfront boutique hotel, while backpackers and budget travelers will feel at home at Kaya’s Place — a hostel and microbrewery across from Playa Negra.
Puerto Viejo Town
Puerto Viejo Town is lively, colorful, and a bit rough around the edges. Shop for souvenirs, grab a bite to eat at one of the beachfront restaurants or a cocktail at a local watering hole, or surf world-famous Salsa Brava — if you’ve got the experience and guts to have a go.
Bread & Chocolate serves up one of the tastiest breakfasts in town, always prepared with locally-sourced ingredients. For a beachfront dinner, Chile Rojo offers Asian fusion, seafood, and even some vegan options. Don’t leave town without trying Afro-Caribbean inspired cuisine: coconut rice and beans are a must, and Restaurante Johanna serves some of the best.
Travelers with a need to be at the center of the action will enjoy the buzz of Puerto Viejo, but if you’re looking for a quiet beach to kick back or peaceful place to rest your head, it’s best to book your hotel outside of town.
Puerto Viejo does have its share of crime, so do take proper precautions: Don’t walk at night on the beach or on the roads connecting the beaches — take a taxi instead. Don’t carry large sums of cash and do keep valuables locked up in your hotel safe.
Just two miles south of Puerto Viejo town is Playa Cocles, a stretch of beach popular with locals, visitors, and surfers alike. If you’re looking to mingle, this is the place to be. There’s a solid collection of restaurants and hotels in the area, or you can bike back into town on a beach cruiser. Physis Caribbean Bed and Breakfast is a charming, clean, and affordable option just steps to Playa Cocles. Or try Le Chameleon Boutique Hotel, a jungle-chic hotel in a garden setting next to the beach, complete with a jacuzzi, and just a few minutes walking to the Jaguar Rescue Center. If you’re in Playa Cocles on a Friday, head to Que Rico Papito Restaurant for some Caribbean BBQ.
Another mile and a half south of Playa Cocles you’ll find Playa Chiquita. Although it’s only 3.5 miles from Puerto Viejo, it is a world away. Keep an eye out for the unmarked jungle path that leads to the sea. The water here tends to be calm and the beach nearly empty, so pack a snack and a good book, and embrace the silence and solitude.
Honeymooners will fall in love with Punta Uva, located about six miles from Puerto Viejo's town center. The white sands, clear blue, reef-protected waters, and ocean breeze will have you feeling like you’ve got your own private slice of paradise. If you’re visiting from April to May or September to October, bring your snorkel gear. When the tide is low and the waters are calm, there is plenty to see under the surface. Facilities here are limited and taxis can be expensive, so it may be best to pack a picnic and plan to stay for the day. Or book a night at eco-friendly Tree House Lodge, on the edge of the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and steps from Punta Uva beach.
True to its name, Playa Grande is the largest strip of beach in the Puerto Viejo region. And, as it’s about seven miles from Puerto Viejo in the sleepy village of Manzanillo, it tends to be fairly empty. If you make it this far down the coast, consider booking a guided hike through the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge to spot sloths, monkeys, iguanas, and other inhabitants.
While you’re in the neighborhood...
Cahuita National Park is just 15 minutes north of Puerto Viejo and is a perfect place to explore land and sea. Take a guided hike through the forest for a chance to see toucans, monkey, and turtles. And then grab your snorkel gear and a guide (required in this protected area) to spot some of the 500 fish living on the coral reef. If you prefer to spend the night deeper in the jungle, book a night or two at Selva Banito Lodge located on a private reserve near Cahuita.
For more ideas, check out this 7-day itinerary of Puerto Viejo & Tortuguero or this 7-day itinerary on San José and Costa Rica's Caribbean highlights. And for a multi-country adventure, remember that the Panama border is less than an hour south of Puerto Viejo. Underwater enthusiasts will find spectacular snorkeling and diving possibilities in Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago.