We had our first three-day weekend of the school year, so you know where we were headed! This beach trip would be different from the last two for a couple of reasons. 1. We were going in our own car rather than a bus. 2. We went to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica rather than the Pacific. Such a little country, but so much coastline, and we can’t get enough of it.
The drive east out of San Jose is amazing. We thought the scenery going west to Jaco was cool, but to get to the main port of Limon in the east, you must pass through Braulio Carrilo National Park. About one-quarter of the country is protected as national parks, and this one is huge – the size of Rhode Island. This park spans a huge range in elevation, and at the top are some awesome views of the Central Valley. Driving through the park is every bit as interesting as driving in town here. Apparently it is a semi-unwritten rule that on a three lane road you get two lanes up the mountain and one lane down. I say “semi-unwritten” because every once in a while there are traces of lines in the road. This rule is great, and it completely makes sense, but it can be tricky. For the most part, you go downhill from San Jose to the coast and vice-versa. This isn’t always true, though. Sometimes going uphill toward San Jose the road levels and then goes down. Whether it is marked or not, you better be ready for that middle lane to switch which way it’s going. Despite learning to drive here as we go, we made it to the beach without any problems.
Our destination this time was Puerto Viejo and its neighboring beaches. Everyone has been telling us how different the Caribbean coast is from the rest of Costa Rica, and they were right. While there are a range of nationalities and races represented throughout the country (lots of Chinese, Koreans, and Dutch around us), the Caribbean is distinctly different. On this coast, there are many more people of African descent, and the culture is that of the islands (think Jamaica). Because of this, it carries a much different vibe.
I wouldn’t say any better or worse overall; just different. One notable difference we were told about was the prevalence of drugs in the area. Not that we haven’t seen them here in the Central Valley or on the other coast because we frequently have, but it was a bit different this past weekend. In Puerto Viejo you would think it was legal because no one even tries to hide it. We were offered “ganja” once, which is actually fewer times than we were offered it in Jaco. Another notable difference was the lack of recognizable stores anywhere. No McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Denny’s (surprisingly many of those here), or even a major hotel. There is one chain grocery store a little bit outside of town, but other than that one, everything appeared to be locally owned. Besides the beach itself, this lack of development was my favorite aspect of Viejo.
But about the beaches. Wow. We’d read in Lonely Planet that the #1 beach in Costa Rica (according to them) was located just about 10 minutes north of where we were staying in Puerto Viejo. This beach, Manzanillo, did not disappoint.
A wide, light brown sand beach, crystal clear waters, palm trees hanging out over the beach, and a jungle backdrop. It really doesn’t get much better. The thing is, there are two other beaches that are just as impressive just as close. Punta Uva lies in between Viejo and Manzanillo and is every bit as perfect. This beach is a little more narrow and rocks cut down on some of the swimming holes, but there are tons of shade trees and privacy. We simply turned off the main road (think one/two lanes of unmarked “pavement”) and drove through a little mud until we were on the beach. And there we were – at our own private tropical paradise. The third beach we visited while we were there was inside Cahuita National Park, which is about 15 minutes north of Viejo.
After entering the park, we drove to the parking area and took a couple mile hike along a trail that winds along the edge of the jungle and the beach at the same time. To the right we saw and heard waves crashing on the sand, and to the left was jungle and the sounds of howler monkeys off in the distance. We set up camp for a bit on a stretch of sand and did a little snorkeling. After a few hours we decided to head out. It wasn’t until we were on our way out that we even saw another person.
The beaches of the Southern Caribbean were absolutely perfect. If you wanted waves to surf, you could find them. If you wanted still water for swimming, it was there. If you wanted a reef to snorkel, it was 30 feet off shore. You really can’t ask for any more. I almost forgot to mention, two times, once in Cahuita and once in Manzanillo, we saw monkeys ten feet from the sand.
Punta Uva and Manzanillo don’t really have “towns”. Manzanillo has a few buildings, but Viejo is the hub of the area.
We ventured out in town a few times between trips to the beach. We didn’t find the people nearly as chatty or approachable here, but we usually keep to ourselves anyway, so it was no big deal. We had some good food at a local soda, an awesome tamarindo (a tropical fruit) smoothie, and some good local coffee. Below are some more pictures from the trip. Just click on them to see the full size picture.