Even though it is a relatively small country, Costa Rica’s climate is quite diverse, except the warm tropical temperatures, which only cool as we move to a higher altitude in the mountainous regions. There is no summer and winter, only a constantly warm rainy season and a dry season. The country borders both the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, and as the land is separated by a high mountain range in the middle, this creates two different microclimates on the two sides.
The Caribbean side actually has no clearly defined dry season; the rainfall is continuously distributed through the year – it does have drier and rainier periods, but much less extreme than on the Pacific coast, which can become really arid in the dry season of the year, and this is visible on the vegetation also.
The Caribbean side is generally more lush and green, so if you long for glowing green mountains, coast, and countryside than you should visit the eastern side of the country too.
The change is surprisingly sudden, as soon as you leave San Jose on the highway towards the Caribbean (on highway 32) you will see a plethora of tiny streams running down the mountain side, plants can grow without disruption, and they are massive in size, the forests are dense and moist, while when you’re leaving the capital in the direction of the Pacific you will see brownish yellowish dry landscape with patches of green.
It’s not surprising that the vast banana, pineapple and coffee plantations can also be found on the Caribbean side.
The Caribbean coast is generally much shorter in length compared to the Pacific, takes longer to reach from the airports, and has got only a few surfing spots. Therefore, the tourist infrastructure is less built out, and so it is a much less popular destination among the crowds.
Tourists who do visit the Caribbean side, often end up only going to Tortuguero, leaving out Limon (comprehensible), Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. The latter two and the surrounding areas are otherwise a truly unique, atmospheric and entertaining, worth paying a visit. As myself haven’t actually been to Tortuguero, I will only cover Cahuita and Puerto Viejo in this article.
Generally the whole Caribbean coast south from Limon has a rich and abundant wildlife, howler monkeys, sloths, giant iguanas etc. are all present here in the coastal areas, which is backed by the thick jungles of the still unexplored Caribbean side of the Talamanca Mountain Range which is probably the most wild and untouched part of the whole country providing a perfect place for the wildlife to thrive.
A significant amount of Jamaicans and immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean, and a number of indigenous people – mostly members of the Bribri tribe – live here, making it a culturally more diverse and vibrant scene.
This part of the country has even got its own cuisine, strongly influenced by the Caribbean, giving a bit of spice to the otherwise quite simple food in Costa Rica.
Cahuita is a small, really calm and laid-back town lost in time, with a number of Europeans living here who started a new life in this part of the country, and who can provide tourist accommodation and other services.
The Cahuita National Park starting at the southern edge of the town gives home to a rich wildlife, and there are several nice spots to relax on its long and diverse coastline and spectacular beaches, and have a dip in the light blue Caribbean Sea, while watching the monkeys play or sloths sleep in the trees above.
But the wildlife is not locked into the national parks, if you are staying over in Cahuita, you can probably spot and hear as many animals in the garden of your accommodation as you would in the national park.
A few miles south from Cahuita is Puerto Viejo, notorious for its buzzing nightlife, which as soon as the sun sets, turns into a vibrant, colorful place full of bars and restaurants and young people having a night out.
Not even 5 years ago crime was a serious problem here, especially fueled by drug trafficking and petty theft, but recently the government realized the value of transforming this place into a safe tourist destination, and the local police forces indeed have done a great job – on the other hand it is still quite common to be offered some ‘ganja‘ on the streets, but from my point of view in these days when there are even several states in the US which have legalized cannabis, this can’t be seen as fearful crime, rather a part of the Caribbean vibe. Otherwise, it is still not advised to leave valuables unattended anywhere, but this is generally true all across the country.
Puerto Viejo has several great restaurants and places providing accommodation, and it’s a great place to spend the night, but the beaches are not the most beautiful ones around, so if you want to spend a lazy day on a world-class beach than hop on a bike – there are several places to rent a bike in Puerto Viejo – and head south towards Punta Uva and check out Playa Grande. I personally think Playa Grande is the true picture perfect beach, with supreme quality sand, clean azure blue sea with corals, and some great restaurants near the shore, and not overcrowded either.
Between Punta Uva and Puerto Viejo, there are several great places to eat, and you can find some small local organic cocoa farms organizing a cocoa farm and “cocoa factory” tours, and selling some great chocolate products.