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Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast is such a unique part of the country. The hub of it is Puerto Viejo, a small town near the border of Panama. Despite its size, there are so many fun things to do in Puerto Viejo.
I loved the atmosphere in Puerto Viejo. You have the laid back Costa Rican Pura Vida lifestyle combined with the Caribbean chill, which makes for an incredible setting. At times walking around it felt reminiscent of Jamaica. It’s also the perfect place for nature lovers, with ample opportunities to see wildlife and relax on some of the best beaches in Costa Rica.
Top 10 Things to do in Puerto Viejo
Here are the top 10 things to do while visiting Puerto Viejo Costa Rica.
Enjoy the beaches
This is the Caribbean after all! This side of Costa Rica is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, making it a perfect destination for beach bums.
The beach closest to town is Playa Negra, which is unique from most other beaches in Costa Rica because it has black sand!
The other beaches nearby are a bit further out from the main town so the best way to get to them if you don’t have a car is by renting a bike. The roads are relatively flat, so it’s an easy and enjoyable place to go biking. From Puerto Viejo, we rented bikes and took them to Playa Cocles (4KM) and Playa Punta Uva (8KM). I’ve also heard great things about Playa Chiquita.
Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is lined with surf school and rentals, which I didn’t find as prevelant in Puerto Viejo. However, it’s definitely possible to surf here when there’s a swell. January to March is the best time to go surfing here.
One of my friends was surfing every day while we were here in February, but he’s a pro surfer. The waves looked much rougher to me then the Pacific Coast so I didn’t try surfing here, but if you want you can book a lesson. Playa Cocles is the most popular place for surf here, where you can find surf board rentals easily.
At Playa Punta Uva, you can rent kayaks or stand up paddle boards and explore the river next to the beach. The water is so calm and the area is full of amazing wildlife.
While kayaking, we saw sloths, a toucan, howler monkeys and many little turtles in the water! Kayaking through the river was so peaceful, I highly recommend visiting this area while in Puerto Viejo.
Snorkelling & Diving
Where there is Caribbean water, there is snorkelling. The best place for this is Cahuita National Park, which is home to over 120 types of fish and some of the biggest coral reefs in Costa Rica.
Snorkelling here is quite seasonal and depends on the visibility of the water. September and October are the best months to go snorkelling for visibility, so I didn’t bother while I was there in February. Instead I went diving in Uvita on the Pacific Coast in Cano Island, which was an amazing experience.
Jaguar Rescue Center
One of my favorite things to do in Puerto Viejo is to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center. The centre takes in wildlife that are injured or causing problems (going into farms, causing threats to humans, etc.) and will try and rehabilitate them back into the wild.
The Jaguar Rescue Center is a nonprofit organization that provides an amazing setting to get up close with Costa Rica wildlife while helping them. When I visited we saw sloths including adorable baby ones, baby monkeys, an ocelot, snakes, a pelican, an anteater, owls, parrots, and toucans. I loved it!
Tours of the centre run twice a day at 9:30 and 11:30 am and it costs $20. The money goes directly back to supporting the animals.
Take a Bike Ride
Bikes are one of the main forms of transportation in Puerto Viejo. It’s how we got around between attractions! There are bike rental places all over town. It’s great way to explore Puerto Viejo, as the roads are flat and easy to bike on. You’ll see lots of friendly locals on bikes too.
This is the best way to between the beaches around Puerto Viejo. You can also bike to Manzanillo which is home to the gorgeous Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. If you don’t want to bike on your own, you can also join a guided bike tour!
Rio Pacuare White Water Rafting
Costa Rica is home to some of the best white water rafting in the world, and one of the top spots to go rafting is Rio Pacuare which is accessible as a day trip from Puerto Viejo. You can also do this as a transfer where the company picks you up in Puerto Viejo and then drops you off in La Fortuna or San Jose. What a fun way to get between two places!
I went rafting on this river in 2015 on my first visit/road trip in Costa Rica, but we left from the town of Turrialba (which is much more difficult to get too). It was my first time river rafting and the experience made me fall in love with the sport. The river is home to class 3 and 4 rapids, so it makes for a very exciting trip! Plus the setting is a beautiful canyon with lush jungle around you.
Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is a national Park in the North Caribbean famous for wildlife. I didn’t get a chance to go here and it’s one of my biggest regrets in Costa Rica! The park is famous for wildlife, and in particular turtles. You can either do one night or two-night overnight tours where you stay in the park and take river cruises to look for wildlife.
Experience the Nightlife
Puerto Viejo has a lively nightlife scene, especially on the weekends. My favorite bar is Lazy Mon, which has live music every day at sunset. Both Friday and Saturday the party goes late into the evening with live fire dancers and DJ’s playing upbeat reggae music afterward. Ladies drink free from 10-12 on Friday night!
Another lively bar up the street from Lazy Mon is Salsa Brava. On Sundays they have ladies night with free drinks from 10-12. The location is awesome as it is right on the beach, you catch watch surfers catch waves during the days or star gaze at night.
Enjoy the Food
For a small town, Puerto Viejo has some excellent restaurant options. Chili Rojo is a Thai and Asian fusion restaurant which is a nice option if you want a break from rice and beans. A meal will cost you between $10-15 USD but on Monday evenings they have all you eat sushi for $14. They also have delicious cocktails and always have a 2-for-1 happy hour special on.
Sel et Sucre is a hostel, but underneath they have a small restaurant which sells amazing crepes in the morning and delicious Italian food at night, with fresh pasta made in front of you!
I didn’t find the food in Costa Rica particularly exciting but on the Caribbean coast is much more flavourful. Some dishes to try are Salsa Caribena and Rondon – both delicious Caribbean style stews.
If you just want a cheap and quick eat the food stands on the street sell yummy skewers of meat and empanadas for $2 each. There is always someone outside the bars at night selling these and I did not get sick from eating them 🙂
Getting to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
The closest airport to Puerto Viejo is in Limon, about an hour away. If you are flying internationally you’ll either fly into San Jose or Liberia. For the Caribbean coast, San Jose is better. From there, you can either catch a regional flight to Limon, hire a rental car, take a tourist shuttle, or take the public bus from San Jose.
Renting a car is the easiest way to get around Costa Rica and I strongly recommend it if you’re visiting the country! A Costa Rica road trip is so much fun, I’ve done two. That said when I visited Puerto Viejo in 2018 I was backpacking Costa Rica via busses, so I will explain to you how I got there via public bus.
San Jose to Puerto Viejo
I came from Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, so I had to first catch a bus from there to San Jose. There are many bus stations in San Jose so you might have to transfer stations depending on where you the first bus drops you off. The easiest way to do this by taxi as San Jose can be very confusing.
The bus terminal you need to go to for Puerto Viejo is Terminal MEPE located on Calle 12, San José, Costa Rica. Ask for a ticket to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. The bus costs $10.16 and runs every two hours starting at 6 am and ending at 6 pm (in 2018).
You can buy tickets for the bus 24 hours in advance which is a good idea as the busses are often full and you may get stuck with standing room, which no one wants for a long journey. The say the bus ride takes 4 1/2 hours but it took us almost 7. The bus stops once at Limon where you can buy food and use the washroom. Alternatively, you could take a private transfer to Puerto Viejo from San Jose.
Where to Stay in Puerto Viejo
Budget: Selina! This is a chain of hostels throughout Costa Rica that I fell in love with this year. They are all beautifully designed and built for digital nomads so you can expect fast wi-fi and co-working spaces.
Budget: Sel & Sucre. This hostel has a good social atmosphere, the rooms are clean, showers are hot, and the location is great. It’s right next to the ATM, bus station, and supermarket. Plus, the restaurant underneath sells delicious food!
Mid-range: Pagalue Hostel. This hostel has such a nice jungle vibe about it and offers private rooms for just $40/a night which is not much more than the average dorm bed if split between two!
Luxury: Umami Hotel. This adult only hotel has such a dreamy ambiance to it. And that outdoor pool is perfect for escaping the heat!
How Long to Spend in Puerto Viejo
As Puerto Viejo takes a while to reach from San Jose, I recommend spending at least 3 nights here. Of course you can always spend more if you want to just relax on the beach and enjoy the amazing Caribbean atmosphere! I spent a weekend here before heading off to Panama and it was perfect.
Leaving Puerto Viejo
If you are flying from San Jose, I advise leaving Puerto Viejo at least one day before your flight. It took me about six hours to get back via public transit.
If you are backpacking through Central America, most people head to Panama after Puerto Viejo since the Costa Rica-Panama border is just 90 minutes away from town. You can cross on your own or book a tourist shuttle. Once in Panama, a perfect first stop is the amazing island of Bocas Del Toro.
Getting to experience the Caribbean side of Costa Rica was so much fun. I’ve always loved the country and seeing a whole new side of it just made me love it even more. Have you been to this side of Costa Rica? Let me know in the comments below!
Ps. Traveling through Costa Rica? Don’t miss my ultimate guide to exploring the country!