Updated on September 21st, 2023
If you want to really explore the best of Costa Rica, both the Pacific & Caribbean Coasts have very different vibes. I took a month in this tropical paradise & here is my pick of 6 laid back towns not to miss on the Costa Rica Coast. My highlights include Samara, Santa Teresa & Quepos (Manuel Antonio) on the Pacific Coastline, & Cahuita, Puerto Vieja & Tortoguero on the Caribbean side. Pura Vida!”
Samara, Santa Teresa & Quepos on the Pacific Coast
Cahuita, Puerto Vieja & Tortuguero on Caribbean Coast
Pura Vida! The direct translation is “Pure Life” or “Simple Life”. In Costa Rica, it’s a way of life. It means “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “How are you?” “I’m really well thank you” & pretty much everything in between! In Costa Rica, you can start to feel Pura Vida in your bones. This beautiful country is also a place where you can experience almost any adrenaline rush you wish for & where you can’t escape nature if you tried. From viewing the wildlife in the amazing national parks to the trees around your hotel to it marching uninvited directly into your hotel room when you least expect it!
Which coast is for you?
In 2017 I was lucky enough to spend a month in Costa Rica. I had read that the 2 coasts are very different & decided to explore both to make up my own mind & compare. In between, I spent 10 days on a G Adventures tour as there were many things in Costa Rica that I felt would be way less fun to do alone. To read all about this see my post on the Costa Rica Quest Tour. Here I give you an overview of my experience on either side of the country so if you don’t have the luxury of time, you can choose the option that best suits you.
As a general rule of thumb, ease of access has made the Pacific Coast the go-to tourist destination for many visitors.”
Here you can find a lot of the developed & high-end resorts if that’s what you are looking for. Tamarindo, Playa Flamingo, Playas del Coco & Playa Hermosa apparently all fit this bill. But that wasn’t what I wanted. If you are keen to get away from the more developed areas then this post is aimed at giving you plenty of options.
What do you need to know?
The Pacific Coast
Having done a bit of research, I opted for Samara as a slower-paced, quieter & more authentic experience on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. This was my first stop.
Samara – For bars & restaurants on the beach
Samara is a pretty beachside town on the northern Pacific Coast. There are plenty of amenities, bars and restaurants, along the beach & in the town. The town is small but has everything you need & a friendly atmosphere.
It is surrounded by forest which means you can often get the unexpected pleasure of hearing the howler monkeys outside, returning to an iguana in the driveway, or as also happened to me, a bedroom full of ants!”
Encounters with Nature
The main draw of Samara is the beautiful beach. However, on returning home from there one day, I found my whole bedroom was being ransacked by very big ants. They were walking in lines very structurally back & forth along the floor, up the walls & through to the bathroom! I immediately called my host & was surprised by the response he gave back. “Give it an hour & they will all have gone. It will be fine, its just the time of day”.
I was confused & shocked by his apparent lack of interest but followed instructions & left my room. To be fair, he did point out that we were staying in the forest & therefore need to expect that sometimes the forest may come & stay with us ;). He also said that if he was wrong, he would take action to get rid of the ants.
Sure enough by the time I returned an hour later the ants had completely disappeared! It was kind of a fascinating event to witness.
Although during my time here I spent the days just relaxing on the beach & working on my tan, there are numerous activities you can take part in such as surfing, SUP hire, excursions etc.
Where I stayed, ate & drank in Samara
I stayed in an Airbnb room during most of my time here (where the ant incident happened). My original booking was cancelled at short notice but I was happy with my second choice. However, I had miscalculated a little & ended up having to relocate for my final night which actually served me very well.
Samara Palm Lodge – The hotel is at one end of town but is an absolute oasis. It is a great value option with a pool & a distinct lack of overfriendly ants!
To find more great places to stay in Samara, check out the map below:
Lo Que Hay – A restaurant centrally located right on the beach. This is a fantastic place to chill out & watch the world go by while enjoying a beer & some delicious tacos. They also have an excellent tourist office where I booked my onward journey & organised my final night stay at Samara Palm Lodge.
Bouticafé Bohemia – Perfect for healthy juices, with a yoga studio.
Samara Sushi – Located above a shop & behind the beach but the sushi is delicious & the service excellent.
La Dolce Vita – On the beach & when I went they had a live band & impressive fire show. Get there early for a seat.
Roots Bakery – Back in town, away from the beach with very good pastries & a perfect spot for breakfast.
Cocotales – A well-priced jewellery shop selling locally made, gorgeous but simple designs. I shopped big!
Santa Teresa – For sunsets & surfing
I had been recommended Santa Teresa by a girl I met in my yoga retreat in the Dominican Republic. She had spent her time staying in a hammock on the beach and said it was absolutely beautiful.
Prepare for a rough ride
The journey to Santa Teresa isn’t for the fainthearted. I had been warned by a couple that I met in Samara that the roads were poor. They had tried a self-drive but given up partway. My advice is to get a bus! It was a bumpy and very long ride, but 5 hours later I felt Santa Teresa was worth the effort.
Santa Teresa is a much more rustic spot than Samara & a mecca for surfers & yogis (there are plenty of places offering classes). The town is located along the road which runs parallel to the beach. Many people choose to hire ATVs or quad bikes for their transport. I opted not to & to walk everywhere. However, be warned that the road is rough & when it’s dry it can get very very dusty. Many people chose to walk & ride with scarfs across their faces to limit the amount of dust inhaled.
Santa Teresa is a beautiful, unspoilt beach.
My favourite thing to do was to join the crowds sitting on the beach at dusk. Watching the sunset over the sea as the surfers caught their final waves of the day was magical.”
My main activity was to take a Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) lesson. I got the number for Edith at SUP Costa Rica from a guy I had met in Samara. She is a 3 times SUP Costa Rican champion who now gives lessons. She is based in Mal Pais, the next town along the coast. I was the only one taking a lesson that day so I had one-to-one coaching. Edith was a great teacher and fun company.
I started my lesson very doubtful that I would ever stay on the board as I have a tendency to be challenged when it comes to balance. I ended the lesson having only fallen in once, despite at times battling the wind & the current. To be on a SUP, in the beautiful sea in Costa Rica with the hills behind & pelicans landing around me was actually a fantastic experience and one I will treasure for a long time.
Where I slept, ate and drank in Santa Teresa
Hotel Esensia – Located at one end of the town but across the street from the beach & with plenty of amenities close by. A treat was coming home one day to see a young howler monkey sitting in one of the trees by the entrance. The hotel has a nice pool & tasty breakfasts.
To find your perfect place to stay in Santa Teresa, check out the map below:
Pizza Tomate – A great place for pizza with good service.
Satori – This restaurant serves excellent sushi in a nice ambience.
Kika – Fantastic food, at one end of the town (near my hotel)…delicious!
Quepos – For Manuel Antonio National Park
As part of my tour in Costa Rica, we visited Quepos. This was primarily for the Manuel Antonio National Park but it’s also home to a lovely beach & another perfect spot to watch the sunset.
Manuel Antonio National Park
I opted to take a guide around the national park who was superb. His name was Sosua & he came highly recommended.
There are a number of advantages to having a guide. He could spot a microscopic animal from 100m for starters! In addition, he carried a telescope which enabled us to see so much more, & then use our phones to photograph through the lens. This was a huge bonus!”
Within minutes I realised that my trusty camera was not going to pick up the wildlife nearly so well. Even when I was looking at the animals, I still failed to see them through my lens due to their incredible camouflage.
Throughout the morning we saw 3 sloths (including one who was giving us the obligatory smiley face & one with a baby), hawks, tree frogs, capuchin monkeys, a crab, dragonfly, spiders, iguanas & a boa constrictor. All came along with full commentary & fascinating facts.
Sosua left us when we got to the beach which was being patrolled by the monkeys & we spent the rest of the morning relaxing there. At one point an iguana almost fell out of a tree on top of us! In the afternoon a number of the group went for a surfing lesson while I opted for a beer & role as paparazzi to their efforts.
If you are interested to read about other amazing animal interactions, then look no further than my Top 11 Wildlife Experiences in the World.
For my final activity in Quepos, I went for the Ocean King Catamaran Cruise. We were drinking cocktails at 9am (8 drinks were included in the price). Throughout the trip, we saw manta rays jumping & dolphins enjoying our wake. We dipped in pools on the boat, went snorkelling, got stuck on water slides (although I think that was just me!) & generally relaxed.
Where I stayed, ate & drank in Quepos
Hotel Mimos – This hotel is centrally located with a pool.
Check out the map below to find your perfect place to stay:
El Avion – A must see & do visit in Quepos is this bar & restaurant built around & within a converted cargo plane. Yes…really!
The Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean is less easily accessible & as such has far fewer visitors than its Pacific counterpart. There is a real Afro-Caribbean feel, with an even more laid back ambience.
I stayed in three spots on the Caribbean coast. Again, as a recommendation from one of my travelling friends who I met in Samara I started my Caribbean adventure in Cahuita.
Cahuita – For trail walking in the National Park
Cahuita it is a very small village right next to a National Park but it has the feel of a small Caribbean island. The plus point is that you are in amongst the wildlife once again. I stayed in an Airbnb bungalow which was very close to the park. My wake-up calls here varied. One morning it was the capuchin monkeys being very cheeky running over anything that was in their way (the trees, my roof). Another, it was the howler monkeys who would make this indescribable sound to wake you up and let you know they were around.
Early morning run
Cahuita’s National Park is a treat & has a beautiful trail that you can follow through the park. One morning I took the trail and went for a run. The park opens at 6am & getting there early with my small donation meant that I pretty much had the place to myself. Along the way, I saw squirrels, birds, enormous spiders & fascinating fungus.
I ran through a river on the beach, along boardwalks and thin tracks where I tripped over tree roots. It was a beautiful and very unique experience.”
The park has trails which stretch for 8km & it is well worth bringing your boots for an enjoyable hike.
You can go snorkelling in Cahuita but only if you join a tour. These leave from the National Park entrance at 9am each morning & cost US$25. I chose just to enjoy the setting.
Where I slept, ate and drank in Cahuita
Little Caribbean Secret – I found this place on Airbnb & had a bungalow all to myself. I wouldn’t recommend it if you are concerned about being alone. Especially at night, it felt quite isolated. But I was definitely at one with nature in the indoor/outdoor room & mainly the very comfortable hammock watching the monkeys & woodpeckers.
For your perfect place to stay in Cahuita, check out the options here:
Pizzeria CahuITA – This is a fantastic Italian restaurant creating pizza & home-made pasta dishes which were delicious.
La Fe Bumbata – A restaurant cooking up fantastic fish & with friendly service.
Miss Ediths – An excellent Jamaican owned restaurant with amazing food.
Cocos Bar – A central & fun spot to watch the world go by with live music.
Puerto Viejo – For an authentic Caribbean vibe
From Cahuita, it was a quick 1-hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo which felt like I had just landed straight onto another Caribbean island. Puerto Viejo has the archetypal laid back, authentic Caribbean flavour with reggae music blaring out from any bar you pass.
Hire a Bike
I spent a very relaxing few days here soaking up the laid back atmosphere. The beach in town is not the prettiest so one day I hired a bike from my accommodation (US$7) & went cycling along the coast to find one that appealed more to me.
As a result, I found my namesake Cocles Beach for a few photos before finally landing on Playa Punta Uva. It was 16 kilometres there & back.
The good news is that it was pretty much flat for the entire journey. Unfortunately, the bad news was that so was one of my tyres, which made it much harder work than it should have been!”
Coco Loco Lodge – I stayed in a lovely wooden, thatched-roofed bungalow. Very friendly & with excellent breakfast!
For alternative places to stay, check out the map below:
Chile Rojo – A good spot at the end of town. I turned up on Monday which is buffet night (CRC7000) & I hate a buffet. Fortunately, they allowed me to choose from the menu & I can vouch for both the sushi & curry which was delicious!
Mopri – This is apparently the best place for fish & I have no reason to argue! They have fishermen who supply them directly which means you need to arrive early as it can get very busy. I ended up sharing my table with a lovely couple from Canada.
Luna May – An excellent shop selling locally designed clothes & jewellery. I went in for a new top & came out with top, dress, shorts & a bracelet! They produce very unique prints which feature local people & whenever I wear these clothes, I get compliments!
Tortuguero – For river safaris & turtles (or not!)
After a full day of bus & boat travel up the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, I arrived at Tortuguero. The river is a mecca for 4 species of sea turtles who arrive here to nest, hence my visit. On arrival, I found out I was actually too early & the chances of sighting these amazing creatures were minimal. The season on the Pacific Coast is March-May (I had misread & arrived early March), in Tortuguero, it’s June–October.
When I arrived at my hotel, I booked a canoe tour for the next day to see as much of the area as possible. By going in a canoe, you can get closer to the animals.
Canoe River Safari
The next day I met Miguel who had been guiding for 30 years & grown up on the river, developing a wicked sense of humour along the way! Before leaving I had borrowed a waterproof jacket from the hotel & was very grateful. As we moved slowly onto the river, the heavens opened & we ended up sheltering under the vegetation as it looked like a month’s worth of rain was falling. Just as I was starting to think it would never stop, Miguel announced that it was clearing up. It did & we headed to resume our tour.
Throughout the morning we saw a blue heron, baby crocodiles, iguana, kingfishers, swallows, a two-toed sloth, more capuchin & howler monkeys, a “Jesus Christ” lizard (so named as it walks on water), a tiger heron & most special of all, a rare sighting of a spider monkey!
The tour seemed to be endless. Then Miguel claimed that he was enjoying himself so much we had accidentally been out for 1 ½ hours longer than we were supposed to be! What more could I ask for?”
The icing on the cake of my Tortuguero adventure came on the boat journey when I was leaving. We came to a stop when the driver spotted a baby turtle sitting on a log. My tour of the Costa Rica Coasts was complete!
“Pura Vida” … Indeed!
Where I slept, ate & drank in Tortuguero
Rana Roja Lodge – I arrived in the village to find out that I needed to get a water taxi to the hotel (US$3 or CRC1500) which I was disappointed with. I like to stay in a place with plenty of options to get out. However, once at the hotel, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. I was staying a bungalow IN the forest, with howler monkeys playing in the trees & capuchins trying to steal from the dining room. On a walk of the grounds, I discovered more wildlife & met the caiman which lives under the bridge. It was a unique & amazing experience. In addition, they have a lovely pool area which belongs to the next door hotel but guests are free to use.
For other accommodation options in Tortuguero, use the search bar below:
Budda Café – An Italian restaurant, right on the water in the village. I had the lobster special & it was perfect!
In conclusion, there is so much more to see along the coasts of Costa Rica. How I chose to use my 2 weeks is just a snippet of what the country has to offer. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would suggest other spots to stop for that truly authentic “Pura Vida” experience. One I was tempted by is Corcovado National Park on the Pacific Coast which I will try next time I go back.
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