As the sun set on our time in Panama, Ramona and I boated back to the mainland from Isla Colón, saying goodbye to the islands of Bocas del Toro. From the port town of Alimante, the two of us boarded a shuttle alongside a number of other tourists, heading toward the Panamanian/Costa Rican border. Our destination: Puerto Viejo, to meet up with Ramona’s friends Shannon and Krystal, the four of us hoping to enjoy the better part of a week on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The group had to wait for a while before embarking for the border; the initial shuttle broke down, and the backup vehicle was too large to fit on the small road leading toward the boat launch where we waited. This resulted in a couple dozen sweaty tourists lugging their suitcases and backpacks to the other side of town to load into the new shuttle.
Crossing the Border
An hour or so later after leaving, the shuttle arrived in Guabito, the small border town from which we would cross into Costa Rica. The entire bus load of passengers was herded off of the bus, being directed to leave their equipajes (luggage) on the side of the road. This stack of luggage was kept under the watchful eye of the bus driver, but it still might take a bit of faith to leave your belongings out int the open like that. From here, everyone walked up a small hill across the street to the open-air Panamanian immigration office. The smoothest part of the border crossing process, our passports were stamped without much hassle or wait. At this point we were ready to retrieve our luggage and walk across the narrow bridge into Costa Rica.
Not this one though.
This rickety old thing had to be replaced with an equally narrow but nicely paved bridge that I painstakingly maneuvered my cumbersome duffel bag across. There was something amusing to me about the informality of simply walking across a tiny bridge to transfer between countries.
We had officially reached Costa Rica! On the other side of the bridge, all of the border-crossers lined up outside the small Costa Rican immigration station. The standard unhurried Central American pace was present here, with disinterested immigration workers taking their time to process travelers while we waited just outside in the stifling heat, before entering the office when it was our turn. In theory, this is where visitors require proof of onward travel from Costa Rica, though whether or not you’ll be asked to provide this is based on the tides, or how lazy the immigration officer is feeling. After completing the process, the next step is to navigate down a steep hill with your luggage, where our van, and all of the other Tico shuttles and transportation options lie in wait. Thus concluded our first border crossing in Central America.
Puerto Viejo (officially, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca) is a small Caribbean town on Costa Rica’s eastern seaboard, in the Limón province. While small, Puerto Viejo is one of the more well-known pueblos in this part of the country, mainly for its numerous surfing beaches and its hip, laid-back vibe that draws ex-pats and adventurous Ticos. Ramona and I had visited the coast briefly during our honeymoon (luna de miel), though in a more northern and remote village called Tortuguero.
While awaiting the arrival of our friends to town, we grabbed a tremendous iced coffee and breakfast at Cafe Rico. This British-owned garden cafe would feel right at home in the US or Europe, and this brunch dish of fried eggs, thick-cut bacon, grilled vegetables, plantains, cheese fries and avocado served on a banana leaf was incredible. It is kind of a do-everything joint, as they also run a book exchange, and offer laundry service and bike rentals.
As our compatriots’ ride pulled into Puerto Viejo, we met up and eventually headed to our apartment, a 2 bedroom suite above an Italian restaurant on the primary road through town. This location meant convenience, and also noise, though not from the restaurant below. All of the action of the town could be heard clearly, including a particular night when some local surfer bros sat outside early in the morning with the trunk of their car open, to “try out” their new sound system, literally causing the windows to tremble on the top floor. Eh, what are you gonna do? The sort of “do what you want” vibe is typical of beach towns we’ve visited, and it was no different here. Hip, loud, and expat and surfer heavy: that is Puerto Viejo in short.
On the topic of the restaurant below us, Cafe Viejo, operated by three Italian brothers, quickly became our go-to venue for dinner on several occasions. Certainly Puerto Viejo has a decent variety of Caribbean seafood and Costa Rican staples, but if you’re craving homemade pasta, rich sauces, and a decent wine selection, you’ll dig it. The hosts even had our dinner served upstairs on a particular night when we returned late from the beach and did not feel like cleaning up to go out for dinner.
The Local Beaches
A rental car makes getting around to the various beaches simple, and 4×4 is not needed for most driving in the area, where we traveled at least; this is fairly rare throughout Costa Rica. There are also quite a few groups of cyclists on the highways, so if you have the energy (and courage – the drivers here don’t much give bikers much room, and the roads are narrow) bike rentals are plentiful. Just do not expect some of the convenient and safe bike lanes from Europe or the US.
Walking a few minutes from most everywhere in town lands one at Playa Negra, which as the name indicates, is a black sand beach. The small road along this beach houses numerous small restaurants, bars, and hostels.
The beach is rather narrow and there are some rocky spots in the water, so I would only label it “okay” for swimming or spending a lot of time. If entering Playa Negra from town it is very convenient, but not the most serene due to its proximity to the bustling main road, though the beach does stretch north a fair distance outside of Puerto Viejo.
Manzanilla is a small town about a 10 minute drive from Puerto Viejo, with a basic. The whole town seemed rather dead when we drove in, with just a few families relaxing on the beach, and very little traffic. Though I’ve been told by a Tico friend that Maxi’s has some of the best Caribbean chicken with rice and beans around.
Spanish for “Big Beach”, this beach is rather more epic than the typical beach in the area, as its name suggests. Visiting Playa Grande requires about a 5 minute drive on a sandy side road off of the main drag (Route 36). One can rent, but with the weather conditions (rainy, high wind, immense waves) those we saw partake in this activity seemed like they may have regretted their decision.
Un Imperial en la playa…¿que es mejor?
Jaguar Rescue Center
Frequently, the extraordinary wildlife in Costa Rica comes right to you, whether you are ambling down a jungle track, on a boat out at sea, or simply relaxing on a balcony. But when visiting for a short time as Krystal and Shannon were, it makes sense to go to the wildlife, while helping them out at the same time. Thus, our group drove to the Jaguar Rescue Center, 10 minutes by car from the center of Puerto Viejo.
Upon pulling in, it became clear that this was a busy place, with a volunteer of the center attempting to direct parking without much success. Entry to the center and a 90 minute tour cost $20 apiece, with each group capped to 15 people (private tours are available as well).
There was also a share of annoying tourists who want to inject into everything the guide is discussing, but it was all made worthwhile when we entered the “sloth sanctuary.”
This is as close as a human can physically get to a sloth (unless you work here), who are normally higher up in their preferred cecropia trees. I could watch these creatures slowly climb and eat leaves for hours.
Though there were no actual jaguars at the rescue center while we visited, fortunately, we were able to see a cute ocelot, in addition to rehabilitated monkeys, toucans, and more.
Cahuita National Park – Trip Report
Ramona and friends set out to explore the small village of Cahuita, 30 minutes north of Puerto Viejo. Before doing so, they dropped me off at the Puerto Vargas Station, one of the entrances to Cahuita National Park (the other primary method of entry is from the town of Cahuita itself, along the beach). It costs only $5 to enter from this station (no cost when entering from Cahuita), making it very reasonably priced compared to other parks throughout the country.
Initially I headed northeast toward the ocean, along a wide dirt road, described on some maps as La Curva. Here I got my first taste of wildlife the park had to offer, with some large spiders, butterflies, capuchin monkeys, and a little agouti.
A large portion of this trail runs adjacent to the beach. While not advisable for swimming, the photos hopefully capture how much more majestic this beach was in comparison to others in the area, with the raw, untouched sand, leafy foliage, and grand waves. Other than a ranger, I encountered no other humans in this 1.3 mile (2.09 kilometer) section of the park.
The premiere trail in the park however, was Sendero Los Cativos, a linear boardwalk through the jungle. Primarily folks begin this route from the station, though it can be walked in reverse if coming from the beach. I casually traversed the 1.35 mile (2.17 kilometer) route, encountering up to 50 capuchin and howler monkeys, and dozens of gorgeous blue morphos butterflies. In this section of the park I only crossed paths with perhaps a dozen or so other adventurers, some accompanied by local guides, so it was not overly crowded. Due to the flat boardwalk and short distance, this is one of the most accessible trails and parks I’ve seen in the country, comparing very favorably to the super popular and relatively small Manuel Antonio National Park. The combination of great accessibility, the closeness to nature, the abundance of wildlife, and the right price, I think this trail is something no visitor to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica should miss. Though of course, that is not all there is to the park.
The Sendero Los Cativos boardwalk concludes, a no-frills bathroom is available before continuing on toward Cahuita Point (Punta Cahuita). After using the facilities, I watched a coati maul a coconut next to the path. Like raccoons back in the states, these creatures do not seem to notice or care about humans much. The trail proceeded alongside Playa Vargas, where some families had hiked in with food and gear to spend the day.
A couple of miles in, Punta Cahuita is reached, demarcated by Costa Rican flags. More hikers started to appear, though the single-track trail did not feel uncomfortably crowded. Not a few minutes later, only steps off the beaten path, my hawk eyes spotted a sloth resting upon a tree growth. Just ten feet or so above me, to this point this was the closest I had actually been to a sloth in the wild. I pointed ol’ lazy out to some other hikers before carrying on.
Wrapping further around the point, the beautiful Playa Blanca (White Beach) was eventually reached. The outskirts of Cahuita and the park exit could be spotted, and the journey was almost finished. I walked on the hot beach for a while for a change of pace, but the oncoming tide and overhanging branches eventually forced me to the shaded trail to finish up the last mile or so. Picnic tables line the trail overlooking the beach closer to the exit, and more capuchin monkeys were hanging out, hoping to swipe an unguarded snack. The trail was mostly flat, and the only challenge was made by the intense heat.
Approximately 3.6 miles (5.8 kilometers) from the end of the boardwalk, I exited the opposite park entrance and immediately found myself in Cahuita. I saw the gang right away, well positioned at a small restaurant on the water. Truly there is no greater prize at the end of a long, sweaty hike than with some delicious patacones (fried plantains) con guacamole, pico de gallo, y frijoles, natural fruit juice, and a craft beer. A typical Ticos’ knowledge of beer outside the national pilsners is pretty low in my experience, and this was amusingly confirmed when the server said they had sour beer, which had been virtually non-existent in Costa Rica. I was intrigued, but Aaas, it was simply a red ale (still, not very common in Costa Rica)…though I suppose it looked sour enough.
Cahuita National Park definitely has a place in my heart as one of my favorite hiking experiences in the country.
Goodbye, and the Return to the Central Valley
The Caribbean side of Costa Rica was enjoyable to explore, particularly for Ramona and I to compare and contrast with other beach towns we have visited, and to note the differences in culture with the opposite coast of the country. The area here in the Limón province feels a little less built up and more “natural” than some other popular beach towns, like Tamarindo. For my money, if I were visiting for a week or so and looking for some fun in the sun, I’d give the slight edge the more majestic, picturesque beaches of western Costa Rica, though with the more adventurous culture and numerous beaches within a 30 minute drive of the town, Puerto Viejo is a strong contender.
Exploration of the Caribbean coast complete, the four of us boarded a van to head to the capital San Jose. Shannon and Krystal would fly back to the states the following day, while Ramona and I would settle down a bit and make an apartment in San Jose our home and office for the next few weeks, while awaiting our next set of visitors to Costa Rica, and a fresh adventure.