Since you’ll be spending the bulk of your time in Nicaragua on the Pacific Coast, I’d like to suggest you start out in the Caribbean with stunning tropical palm fringed beaches and turquoise water.
I will craft you an itinerary starting in the South Caribbean beaches where you can visit indigenous communities, hike in the jungle with monkeys and sloths, swim under waterfalls, snorkel just off the beach, surf with locals, and enjoy the unique culture, delicious Caribbean Latin fusion food, and spend your nights staring at the stars or watching fire dancers and listening to live music. I am friends with many locals in the area and know the ins and outs of all of the best hidden spots you can explore without even having to take a tour. Then, to head back up north I’ll set you up on a white water rafting trip which will drop you at Tortuguero to see the turtle hatchings and pick up the boat along the Rio San Juan to head back north into Nicaragua.
Arriving in Costa Rica
Land in the San Jose airport in Costa Rica at 5:40am. It will take you about an hour to clear security and immigration. Make sure to have an onward ticket from Costa Rica to Nicaragua before you land, otherwise you will have problems entering the country.
Take a taxi from the airport ($20, 30 minutes) to the San Carlos bus station to catch a bus onward to Puerto Viejo ($10, 4.5 hours). Buses leave San Jose bound for Puerto Viejo at 6am, 10am, 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm. You can pick up some fruit and snacks at one of the minimarts at the bus station, but unfortunately there are few food options nearby. Alternatively you can first head into the center of San Jose have a lovely breakfast at Jardin del Parque before continuing to the bus station. Be sure to use the bathroom before you depart as the bus will not stop again until Limon 3 hours later for a 10 minute bathroom and food break.
When you arrive in Puerto Viejo I recommend you stay at Om Yoga in Playa Cocles. It’s a great budget accommodation ($25/night, shared bathroom) right across from the main surfing beach and just a ten minute bicycle ride or twenty minute walk to town. They offer onsite yoga classes, arrange surf lessons and tours, and offer free purified drinking water and bicycles. Downstairs is a cafe featuring locally made chocolate in their smoothies, coffees, and pastries and even has a complimentary chocolate tasting room. A taxi from the bus stop in Puerto Viejo to Playa Cocles should cost $5 or less.
Settle in and grab some lunch nearby at Sol del Caribe just down the street across from the beach.You’ll likely be tired from your travels, so I recommend hanging out at the beach across from Om Yoga and watching the surfers. If you have some energy, consider walking to the right facing the ocean to more remote beaches further south along the beach.
Play With Monkeys and Snorkel the Reef
Begin your morning with breakfast at Caribbean’s Coffee just downstairs from Om Yoga. Try the homemade granola with fruit and yogurt, with cacao nibs from Caribbean’s own cacao farm.
Next head to Playa Chiquita on a bicycle to learn about the local animals in Costa Rica at the Jaguar Rescue Center, which rehabilitates injured animals in the South Caribbean. You can play with baby howler monkeys who live onsite. Tours begin at 9:30am and 11:30am, lasting 1.5 hours, no reservations necessary and cost $15.
Afterwards cycle out to Punta Uva, stop for some lunch at the best Caribbean restaurant in Costa Rica, Selvin’s, then venture onward to Arrecife beach, one of the most gorgeous places in Costa Rica, and rent a snorkel for $5. You can snorkel right off of the beach. If you’re up for some adventure, climb up the cliff on the left when you’re facing the beach for gorgeous views.
Head into town for live music at sunset with happy hour drink specials at Lazy Mon, or if you want something a little more sophisticated go to Koki Beach with its Miami Beach inspired decor and an ocean view. You can enjoy 2 for 1 drink specials at most places in town until 7pm.
Surf and Chow on Chocolate
Depending on your surf skills and budget, rent a board ($10) or take a surf lesson ($50). Playa Negra just north of town has a great beginner’s break while Playa Cocles has intermediate to expert waves depending on the swell that day. If you stay at Om Yoga the owner Alex, a local surfer, will show you all of the best surf spots. He also teaches surf lessons if you’re a beginner.
In the afternoon take the 2pm Chocolate Tour by Caribeans Chocolate ($26) just downstairs from Om Yoga. The tour takes you on a walk through the jungle past cacao plantations where the owner will teach you all about the way that cacao is grown and processed in Costa Rica. You will hike up to the chocolate factory, learn about how the chocolate is made, and then sample an assortment of artisan chocolate made onsite.
For dinner head to La Pecora Nera tucked away in the jungle on the south end of Playa Cocles. Just mention my name and the Italian born chef, Ilario, will treat you like family, complimentary shots of limoncello and all. Don’t leave without ordering one of the carpaccios, a plate of gnocchi, and whatever fresh fish Ilario has that day. Or, simply have Ilario cook up a degustation menu for you.
Escape to Bri Bri
Take a tour through Gecko Trail Adventures, Terraventuras, or Om Yoga to the famous waterfall in Bri Bri, where you hike through the jungle to a stunning waterfall with natural pools you can swim in and rocks you can jump off of. Bring a waterproof bag as the walk up to the waterfall can be wet and slippery. Then visit an indigenous Bri Bri community. Om Yoga arranges tours where you can actually sleep on the farm with one of these small communities and learn about plant medicine but they also have tours where you go just for the day. Most tour companies can combine a visit to the waterfall with a visit to an indigenous community.
It’s Friday so why not enjoy a night out in Puerto Viejo? If you don’t mind having dinner outside of town check out Jungle Love in Playa Chiquita for fusion food or El Refugio in Punta Uva which has some of the best seafood and steaks in Costa Rica. Otherwise go to Stashu’s Con Fusion in town for Latin/Indian/Asian fusion and the best cocktails in Puerto Viejo (I love the Tamarind Margarita) before hitting up Todo es Posible just down the street for live drumming and a totally international hippie scene.
Spot Animals in Cahuita
One of the main attractions in the South Caribbean is the Cahuita National Park, a half hour bus ride from Puerto Viejo. You can ride your bicycle into town and have breakfast at the popular spot Bread and Chocolate (try the homemade bagels and truffles) then lock your bike and hop the bus to Cahuita. Just walk from the bus depot over to the National Park entrance and walk along gorgeous beaches and into the jungle to spot sloths, monkeys, and lots of tropical birds. It’s a good idea to bring a snorkel as there is plenty of reef to explore as well.
In the late afternoon come back to Puerto Viejo and buy some fish from Mopri, the fish vendor in town, or from one of the fishermen if you spot them on the shore. You can then head over to Playa Cocles or Salsa Brava beach at sunset, build a small fire on the beach, and grill your fresh catch. If you stay at Om Yoga you’ll have a kitchen to prep everything in and you can just walk across the street and make your dinner on the beach. If cooking your dinner sounds a bit too much, go to “Fresh Fish” just on the outskirts of town and enjoy the freshest catch in Puerto Viejo. The owner is a fisherman and offers only what he caught in the sea that day. Whole grilled fish are big enough to share and come with grilled veggies and french fries. Wash it down with a big pitcher of red sangria.
Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
After breakfast, bike out to the small Caribbean beach town of Manzanillo. You can do your own self-guided wilderness hike here by walking along the beach into the jungle. Just turn right and head out of town. Enter the jungle and take the small paths up to viewpoints and down to small beach coves. From the last beach cove you can climb into the coral cave where water rushes in like a washing machine below and bats fly around above. If you’re up for a real adventure continue hiking to Punta Mona (4 miles away) where you can visit the permaculture lodge and have lunch. Alternatively you can rent a kayak in Manzanillo and explore Manzanillo’s Wildlife Refuge along the coast instead stopping at the different beaches.
After hiking and swimming, stop in at Maxi’s for some Caribbean food and reggae music in Manzanillo, or stop at Pita Bonita in Punta Uva on the way home for excellent Israeli food and handmade pita bread.
In the evening be sure to head to Lazy Mon in town for Open Jam, starting at 10pm, where locals and travelers and perform their talents. Expect a fire show, a live band, and lots more music and dance acts. If you’ve got a performance up your sleeve sign up on the board. Just across the beach Salsa Brava hosts a reggae dance party, which is a great reprieve during a bad act at Lazy Mon. The two bars are just a five-minute walk away from one another, so you can easily shuffle between them.
Stay: Om Yoga
Costa Rica’s Mini Amazon
For your final day in Costa Rica either splurge on a white water rafting trip up the Pacuare River ($100 per person) on a guided tour and get dropped in Tortuguero, or take a tour up to Tortuguero that includes kayaking through mangroves and visiting the turtle nesting sites. From Tortuguero the next day you can arrange a boat to take you to San Carlos, or head back to San Jose and take the bus up to the border and pick up the Rio San Juan there.
Rent a Bicycle Puerto Viejo is best explored on bicycle, so make sure to rent one as soon as you arrive. They have free ones at Om Yoga or rent your own for $6 per day anywhere in town.
Seek Remote Beaches To really explore the beaches, consider walking the coastline for as long as you wish, stopping and swimming whenever you please. My favorite remote beaches include Punta Cocles in front of Villas del Caribe, Las Caracolas in Playa Chiquita, the beach in Playa Chiquita with a tiny path across from Playa Chiquita Riding Stables, and Arrecife in Punta Uva.
Stay Safe Theft can be a serious problem in Costa Rica, so always keep your belongings close to you on long bus rides and never leave them in parked cars or on the beach. Consider leaving valuables in a safe when you’re out for the day, taking only what’s necessary with you. The road outside of town and the beaches are not safe to explore in the dark. At night take taxis or consider renting a car or scooter.
Be a Party Animal There’s a party every night of the week in Puerto Viejo, and early in the night most bars offer free drinks. From 9-10pm every night Mango’s in town has free mango daquiris or free beer. Lazy Mon has live music and happy hour drink specials from 4-6pm every day at sunset. Tasty Waves has a big party on Tuesdays, Salsa Brava has reggae nights Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, Lazy Mon has an open jam night on Sunday, and most nights of the week there’s dancing at Mango’s. If you’re feeling adventurous Johnny’s Place has reggae and dancing every night until 3am, it’s usually the after party on Fridays and Saturdays, but things can get a bit rough in there.