It’s truly amazing how a country this small can offer so much natural and cultural diversity. From salsa tunes to reggaeton, beaches to mountains, cities to active volcanoes, and rainforests to arid grasslands – the abundance is breathtaking.
Among the country’s most acclaimed melting pots for culture, nature, and nightlife is the bustling beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Nestled against the Caribbean Sea on the southeast corner of the country, right next door to Panama, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca attracts worldwide attention for its many positive attributes.
There are two prominent characteristics that set Puerto Viejo and neighboring towns apart from the rest of Costa Rica. First off, unlike the predominantly Latino population you find everywhere else, Puerto Viejo is a groovy blend of Afro-Caribbean, Indigenous Costa Rican, Latino, and international expat. Visitors are as likely to hear the local Patois-English dialect as they are Spanish – as well as French, Italian, Hebrew, and myriad other tongues in the background.
Secondly, during the heaviest part of Costa Rica’s rainy season weather, September and October, the Caribbean Coast is toasting away under sunny and dry skies. National and international tourists literally flock to the soft white sands, transparent turquoise waters, emerald rainforests, and world-famous surf.
What’s more, the town of Puerto Viejo is lively and colorful with a wide assortment of hotels to choose from; a restaurant scene offering Creole Caribbean, traditional Costa Rican, and international cuisine; and plenty of surf shops, tour providers, and boutiques for shopping. Puerto Viejo’s reggae-infused nightlife is also extremely popular and has young and old alike jamming to Caribbean and Latin rhythms late into the night.
Getting there – Where is Puerto Viejo Costa Rica?
When planning your drive don’t be confused by the other Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí or you’ll end up in the wrong place. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is in Limón Province on the Atlantic Coast (Caribbean)and is about a 5-hour drive or 6-hour bus ride from San José. Most visitors prefer to go by rental car because there is so much to see and do in the area. A 4WD is generally the best option but isn’t 100 percent necessary. Although you might not plan on “off-roading,” the added lift and traction can help navigate unforeseen rough terrain and ensure your comfort and safety no matter what the conditions are.
For those of you who fly or bus into the Port town of Limón, you can rent a car at the Costa Rican-owned Adobe Rent a Car office located there. Adobe is known for its “no hidden costs” policy, competitive rates, and good cars. Tel: +(506) 2758-4042.
Most drivers add a GPS Navigational System or an Internet Hotspot when taking on Costa Rica’s roadways. A lot of the country’s smaller thoroughfares are unmarked (no road signs), and drivers must rely on directions from passersby. Using Waze or Google Maps is highly recommended. Internet “blackout” areas do exist so it’s best to save your route ahead of time.
Things to do in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Once a sleepy fishing village, Puerto Viejo has evolved into a sun and surfer paradise famous for its world class waves. Experts from around the globe test their technique against Salsa Brava on Puerto Viejo Beach – famed as one of the world’s most challenging and dangerous breaks. Playa Cocles is a runner up choice for advanced surfers.
Other beaches popular for beginner and intermediate surfers are Playa Negra, Cahuita, and Manzanillo. February and March see the biggest swells hitting the Atlantic Coast and coincide with the country’s high season for tourism.
Don’t dismay if surfing isn’t your thing, Puerto Viejo and surrounding beaches and national parks have something for everyone. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular at Cahuita National Park and Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, both about 10 miles (16 km) to the north or south respectively. Among the marine life you’re likely to see are blue parrot fish, sea cucumbers, Venus sea fans, lobsters, and more. Guided tours are recommended and sometimes obligatory. Playa Arrecife is another local favorite and is accessible without a guide.
Learning about the world of the Talamanca Indigenous peoples is a rare opportunity. The Talamanca Association of Ecotourism and Conservation (ATEC) offers a variety of tours that take visitors into the BriBrí indigenous reserve and homeland to experience the culture and pristine environment first-hand. Choose from tours including hiking, canoeing, walking, and cultural encounters that demonstrate some of the local customs, medicinal plants, and the chocolate making process.
The popular Jaguar Rescue Center in Playa Chiquita is an animal rehabilitation center and refuge where injured wildlife are treated and eventually released back into the wild. In some cases, animals whose conditions are too severe to be returned to nature have become permanent residents. Volunteers and staff from the center teach visitors about species of the area and explain the stories of how the animal residents came to be there. A tour of the facilities is a favorite family activity and a great way to see Costa Rica’s endemic wildlife up close while supporting the center’s ongoing work and research.
Another good cause and interesting day trip is a visit to the Ara Project site in nearby Manzanillo. The small organization is dedicated to the repopulation of Great Green Macaws whose numbers reached near-extinction due to habitat loss and poaching for the exotic pet market. Visitors can get close to the magnificent birds and learn more about the fragile balance between wildlife conservation and progress.
Whitewater rafting down the Pacuare River is a thrilling option for anyone looking for excitement. Not only are the Class III and IV rapids breathtaking, the scenery is spectacular. The river winds through the Caribbean lowlands passing swaths of dense rainforest, sleepy little townships, and banana and pineapple plantations. It is also a great way to spot birds and reptiles living around the river.
Kayaking and horseback riding are other fun options for experiencing the natural environment. Slipping quietly though river estuaries and mangroves often allows visitors a chance to get closer to wildlife than by foot. Likewise, Horseback riding takes riders over larger stretches of territory to remote waterfalls and secluded beaches.
Nearby Beaches and Parks
Cahuita National Park, north of Puerto Viejo, covers approximately 11 km2 of coastal forests and white-sand beaches and over 223 km2 of marine waters and reefs. The entrance to the park is just past the southern edge of the town of Cahuita and is surprisingly free, with visitors asked to give a donation to enter. Any donation made is money well spent, as the exquisitely shaded 4.4 km walking path that leads through the park is a perfect way to see the area’s prolific wildlife, such as white-faced capuchin monkeys, pizotes, herons, iguanas, white-tail deer, and others.
The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge was formed in 1985 and encompasses the town of Manzanillo and various outlying hotels and small resorts within its borders. The terrestrial portion of the park covers approximately 50 km2 and the marine environment another 44 km2. Its 10 km of golden-sand beaches includes Playas Cocles, Chiquita, and Uva – considered some of the country’s most beautiful. Between March and July, leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles nest in the protected sands of the park, adding to its international significance in conservation.
Both parks are wonderful places to bring a picnic lunch and spend the day. Enjoy the shallow reefs for snorkeling, peaceful walking trails through protected coastal forests, and fascinating tropical flora and fauna.