Thinking about planning a trip to Puerto Viejo? Do it! We finally branched out from the Pacific Coast for our first time in August, and it definitely won’t be our last trip. Puerto Viejo is an under-the-radar beach town on the Caribbean side of the country that shouldn’t be missed. The Afro-Caribbean culture gives this region a distinct personality and nothing like the rest of Costa Rica. We’re so excited to share this guide with you. 🤙
Getting to Puerto Viejo
When touching down in Costa Rica, Puerto Viejo is most easily accessible by flying into the San Jose Airport. The drive is around 4.5 hours once you’ve arrived and picked up a rental car. If you’re comparing arrival airports, the only reason to fly into Liberia would be to explore La Fortuna or Monteverde for a few days on the way down to the Caribbean Coast. Not a bad option!
Already in Costa and heading to Puerto Viejo? Use the navigation app Waze if you’re driving from another part of the country. There’s currently a ton of construction on Highway 32, and you’ll want the most up-to-date road conditions. Be sure to bring a backup battery in case your rental doesn’t have a USB port. We always have this wireless charger with us because the navigation apps drain your battery quickly.
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
The Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica is much less developed than the Pacific side. Accommodation is primarily vacation rentals, small independent hotels, and budget hostels. Below is a list of some lodging options in the area.
There are so many great vacation rentals to choose from. This is the Airbnb we stayed at. Our host, Yoshua, was amazing and the rental was central to everything in Playa Negra.
When you’re looking into flights, make sure that you select the airport code SJO (San Jose), and not LIR (Liberia). Liberia is the smaller secondary airport in Costa Rica, and it’s up in the northern part of the country. You’ll add an extra 4-5 hours of drive time if you select the wrong airport. No thanks, unless you’re going to be exploring in the north on the way down to the Caribbean Coast.
We love to take red-eye flights whenever possible. You’ll touch down in SJO, pick up a rental car or shuttle, and you’ll be in Puerto Viejo by check-in time. If your flight arrives later in the evening like ours non-stop does from LAX, spend the night at a nearby airport hotel and get a fresh start in the morning. It’s not enjoyable driving the 4.5 hours at night if you’re exhausted from a long travel day. We chose this simple Airbnb and it was the perfect place to crash for a night.
Rental Car and Shuttles
We always recommend renting a car for your trip. It gives you the freedom to explore on your own time. You can easily take day trips to the surrounding areas, and make the most of your time in Costa Rica. Check out our guide to renting a car here.
If you really don’t want to make the drive from San Jose, ILT Travel is a great shuttle option. We’ve used them a few times when traveling with larger groups, and their English-speaking drivers were friendly and professional. Puerto Viejo is a great town to explore by bike so a rental car may not be needed depending on your preferences.
There are also local buses that run daily from San Jose to Puerto Viejo and the surrounding areas. It’s around $10 and a great option if you’re on a budget and want a more local travel experience.
Picking up at Economy in SJO
Day 0: Overnight in SJO if arriving late
This only applies to travelers arriving on later flights who overnight in San Jose before making the drive to Puerto Viejo.
Day 1: Travel from SJO to Puerto Viejo
This is your travel day from San Jose to Puerto Viejo. It’s your day to get there, decompress, and enjoy your first evening on the Caribbean Coast.
Day 2: Explore Puerto Viejo and Playa Cocles
For our first full day in Puerto Viejo, we deviated from our normal self-guided exploration and booked an Airbnb experience to get a quick overview of the area. It was called the Hidden Gems and Waterfall Tour, hosted by Maya. We learned a bit about the area, explored a “hidden” spot, and visited a nearby waterfall. It was a nice overview, but not really what we were hoping for. It was a bit too tame for us, and only recommended for those who prefer the structure of slower guided tours.
We suggest you go explore on your own. See our activity list for Puerto Viejo at the end of this post for the best places to explore on your own. Don’t forget this insulated koozie to keep your beverages cold all day!
Snorkel off the beach!
Day 3: Explore Cahuita National Park and Playa Negra
20 minutes north of Puerto Viejo town, Cahuita National Park invites you to unwind and explore at your own pace. There are two main gateways to access this laid-back paradise. The Kelly Creek Station is the main entry point. You’ll simply jot down your details in a logbook and the entrance fee is a voluntary donation if you wish. Please donate! Your contributions are what keep the park free and well maintained. The second entrance, Puerto Vargas Station, is down the road and there’s a US$10 admission fee. Once inside the main park entrance, you’ll see the bathrooms before continuing on your adventure.
A White Face Monkey in Cahuita Park
And a sloth! 🤙
Day 4: Punta Uva / Manzanillo
Punta Uva and Manzanillo are the two southernmost beach towns accessible by car or bike. While bikes are a great way to explore the area, you’ll be on the main road so be prepared for some vehicles zooming by. Punta Uva has a few different beach areas, and Play Grande was one of our favorites. It’s a few minutes off the main road with a beautiful empty stretch of idyllic coastline. We visited when the ocean was dead flat but it’s often roaring with larger waves.
Manzanillo is best known for its laid back atmosphere, the Yicel Shipwreck, and the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge that continues all the way to the Panamanian border. Spend some time exploring the refuge to see monkeys, sloths, birds, and underwater animal life.
The Yicel Shipwreck
Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
Day 5: Free Day to Explore
Today is a free day. Rent some bikes, grab your sand-free beach towel, take a surf lesson, go get lost, smile.
Rent a bike and hit the beach!
Don’t Miss Restaurants:
- Cahuita’s Taste Caribbean Soul Food – Cahuita
- Aroma, Coffee Bar & Breakfast – Cahuita
- Restaurant 4th Generation – Manzanillo
- Bread and Chocolate – Puerto Viejo
- De Gustibus Bakery – Puerto Viejo
- Stashu’s Con Fusion – Puerto Viejo
- Puerto Pirata Tiki Bar – Puerto Viejo
Empenadas and local cider at Cahuita’s Taste
Puerto Viejo Activities:
- Biking: Rent a bike and explore the coastal road, which stretches between Playa Negra, Puerto Viejo, Playa Cocles, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo.
- Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge: Hike through the tropical rainforest and enjoy the pristine beaches of this beautiful refuge. Entrance is free and donations are suggested. This sprawling park is home to tons of animal life. We could spot Howler monkeys, White-faced monkeys, sloths, and tons of beautiful birds.
- Yoga and Wellness: Join a yoga class or book a wellness retreat. The town is known for its laid-back vibe and holistic offerings.
- Nightlife: Puerto Viejo has a lively nightlife with many bars featuring live music, particularly reggae. Salsa Brava is a local favorite and is known for its late-night parties throughout the week. We caught it on a mellow night with some great acoustic reggae.
- Try Caribbean Cuisine: The area is known for its unique Afro-Caribbean cuisine. Don’t miss out on trying dishes like Rice and Beans or Caribbean Chicken.
- Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center: Tucked in the heart of Costa Rica’s Caribbean rainforest, the Jaguar Rescue Center stands as a sanctuary for animals in need. This haven rehabilitates injured, orphaned, or confiscated wildlife, allowing them to recover and eventually return to their natural habitats. From sloths to monkeys, ocelots to toucans, witnessing these animals’ journey to recovery is inspiring.
- Visit the Bri Bri Waterfalls: 10 minutes from downtown Puerto Viejo is Catarata Ma-Cu or the Bri Bri Sparkling Waterfalls. The entry fee is ₡ 1000, and they will watch your vehicle. They will also provide a walking stick to get down the trail, which can be very slippery if it’s been raining. Don’t miss out on a fresh pipa fria for ₡500 when you get back up the hill later!
- The “secret spot” we visited on the Airbnb experience tour was the Talamanca Viewpoint at the Playa Cocles Cliffs. You can park on the side of the road and take a short trail to the top of the cliffs. It’s a nice view and keep a look out for sloths in the canopy above.
- The Yicel Shipwreck: A beached boat that you can explore.
Puerto Viejo Tips:
- If your goal is to see as much wildlife as possible in Cahuita National Park, spend the extra $20-30 for a local guide who can spot much more.
- August, September, and October typically have more mellow waves. The rest of the year can have bigger surf and the potential for rip currents.
- Don’t miss our Ultimate Packing List for Costa Rica.
So that’s our 5-day trip to Puerto Viejo. Remember, this itinerary is just a starting point. Feel free to customize it to suit your preferences and add additional activities or destinations along the way.
Note: Always check travel advisories, local regulations, and current conditions before planning your trip.