Cristopher Columbus set foot on the country’s Caribbean shore and immediately named it Costa Rica (rich coast). Many years later, the ecological treasure he discovered remains protected for visitors to enjoy.
The northern territory of the Caribbean region stretches for 90 miles (150 km) where warm ocean currents meet lush vegetation. The vast jungle is mostly unexplored, so much in fact, that Tortuguero National Park and Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge can only be reached by river or air.
The town of Limón is a charming retreat where indigenous, afro-Caribbean, Asian and European heritage combines creating a cultural Mecca. Locals honor their ethnicity feasting, dancing and chanting on the streets during the Carnival held every October.
The food is as diverse as the population so the Caribbean classics coconut flavored rice and beans, patí or plantintá are recommended. The reggae beat welcomes visitors to this paradise where development and environmental protection go hand in hand.
The Caribbean coast offers a wide variety of hotels, cabins, lodges and cozy inns.
Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge
Swamps, mangroves and saltwater estuaries in Barra del Colorado provide a home to thousands of Jabiru storks, oropendolas, crocodiles, caimans, monkeys, iguanas, frogs, butterflies, toucans, sloths, river otters and terrapins among many other wild species. Endangered green macaws and tapirs also breed peacefully in this 225,365-acre (91,200 ha) ecological haven.
For visitors, getting there is half the fun. Although it’s located only 140 miles (225 km) from San José, the refuge can only be reached on a plane or boat. Flights into the village’s airstrip offer panoramic views of the exuberant vegetation. The endless sea of green is crisscrossed by a labyrinth of rivers and lagoons that eventually run into the blue ocean.
Rustic pangas steered by local residents lead visitors through the dense forest via swampy waterways and into the heart of the jungle.
Barra del Colorado is also a prime sportfishing center where tarpon, snook and antediluvian garfish swim by the millions in the undisturbed waters. Fishing tours can be arranged in the town and include equipment, transportation and expert guides.
The refuge is located in the wettest part of the country where rain is heavy and constant. A raincoat, plenty of mosquito repellent and comfortable shoes for hiking are a must.
The landscape at Tortuguero is dominated by a peculiar blend of coastal rainforest and wetlands. The 47,000-acre (19,000-hectare) national park is packed with wildlife and unspoiled beauty.
Experts have identified 11 different habitats, 2000 plant species, 400 varieties of trees, 60 types of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, 60 kinds of mammals and 30 species of freshwater fish. With all this biodiversity, it’s no wonder Tortuguero is one of the most popular ecological destinations.
A large network of channels and lakes guide visitors through the heart of the jungle as monkeys, iguanas, aracarias, oropendolas, parrots and toucans fly overhead. Bird watching is an impressive experience with more than 300 avian species flying freely through the trees.
The park’s beaches are visited by giant hawksbill, leatherback and green sea turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs from February to October. They come by the thousands guided only by their instinct and desire to continue the age-old tradition of nesting at this site.
Baby turtles use the stars in the sky as points of reference and any other light source may confuse them and they may never reach the ocean. Also, the turtles can’t be disturbed during the hatching process since it may hurt the fragile creatures.
The destructive hand of civilization has steered clear of the national park that can only be reached on a boat or plane. The winding waterways lead visitors on a two-hour journey through the quiet canals surrounded by the dense forest. It’s easy to spot spot caimans, turtles, crocodiles, frogs, bats, howler monkeys and manatees.
It rains most of the time at Tortuguero, up to 200 inches (500 cm) of rainfall per year, but this unique characteristic is what makes its ecosystem so rich and diverse.
The Tortuguero village is located on a narrow peninsula enclosed by the Caribbean Sea. Tours can be arranged at several eco-lodges that combine comfort with the natural surroundings. Adventure packages include transportation, lodging and meals.
Cahuita National Park
Golden beaches, clear-blue water and Afro-Caribbean culture create a surreal paradise in Costa Rica’s southern coastal region. Turtle sanctuaries, rainforest and tropical getaways can all be found in the 30-mile (50 km) shoreline stretching from downtown Limón to the Panamanian border.
Here, exuberant mountains meet the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea at Cahuita National Park. The reserve includes 2,711 acres (1,097 hectares) of forest and 55,000 acres (22,400 hectares) of surrounding sea, protecting wildlife above and below the water.
The country’s most valuable coral reef lies beneath the surf at Cahuita as more than 600 acres (242 hectares) of this fascinating formation branches off bring the underwater world to life. More than 35 different species have been identified including elkhorn, sea fans and brain coral. Crustaceans and schools of colorful salt-water fish swim by the thousands feeding on 128 varieties of algae.
Scuba diving and snorkeling allow a closer look at the marine spectacle but rules are enforced to protect the fragile ecosystem. If visitors don’t want to get wet, glass-bottom boat tours provide a dry insight into this magical ocean habitat. Half-hour journeys are perfect for shy adventurers.
Leatherback, hawskbill and green turtles nest on the beach just south of Punta Vargas. The site is protected in order to guarantee the survival of the endangered hatchlings but visitors are welcome to watch the giant sea turtles as they fulfill their motherly duties.
At Cahuita, visitors can also relax on the sand and let the wildlife come them … White-faced monkeys, coatis, iguanas and raccoons often wander off into the beach for a sun bath. Green ibises, toucans, herons, garrulous parrots, scarlet macaws and many rainbow-colored birds fly high above the trees along with hundreds of avian species that flutter uninhibited in the ecological reserve.
The adventure gets wilder as visitors hike deeper into the forest through different trails that reveal snakes, caimans, anteaters, agoutis and armadillos. White-faced and howler monkeys also play in the trees claiming their territory. The most popular pathway is a 4-mile (6.4 km) stretch that runs parallel to the ocean connecting the Kelly Creek and Vargas ranger stations. The trail will also take visitors through the swamp forest and wetlands inhabited by lazy reptiles.
Arrangements for guided tours, lodging and water adventures can be made at the town of Cahuita, a laid-back beach community settled by proud African descendants.
The funky town of Puerto Viejo offers a taste of Jamaica without leaving Costa Rica. Bright multi-colored sand meets rolling waves of aqua blue attracting surfers, nature lovers and vacationers in search of the stress-free, eclectic atmosphere.
Located between Cahuita National Park and Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, the natural scene at Puerto Viejo includes the best of both.
Tropical vegetation dominates the landscape where flowers bloom year-round and fruit is always in season. Impenetrable rainforest carpets the mountains as wildlife roams freely and thousands of birds make themselves at home. The area’s mountains protect the endangered Baird’s Tapir and American crocodile as well as capuchin and howler monkeys, iguanas, raccoons, sloths and caimans.
Improvised trails lead visitors along the coast and into the wild ecosystem, but tour guides may do a better job since they know the area like the palm of their hands. Expeditions can be arranged through local operators that also offer kayaking, sport fishing and horseback riding tours.
The dense vegetation also shelters the region’s indigenous population, the last survivors of the Bribrí, Cabécar and KeKöLdi tribes. Life at the Indian reserves goes on mostly undisturbed, just as they did 100 years ago. Yet, the new generations now embrace cultural and ecotourism as a profitable source of income. Visits to the reserves must be arranged with their local bureau, the Talamanca Association of Ecotourism and Conservation (ATEC).
The beaches of Puerto Viejo face the eastern horizon providing a unique opportunity to watch the picture-perfect sunrise. As the timid sun appears, the sky turns into different shades of orange and gets reflected on the water.
Black and white sands converge at Puerto Viejo’s shoreline.
Popular beaches are Negra, Cocles or Chiquitita where the enticing Caribbean Sea draws visitors in for a swim. Not far from the coast, coral reefs create a marine habitat perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Warm ocean currents from Cuba and Jamaica meet the mainland at Puerto Viejo creating giant tubular waves perfect for surfing aficionados. The town is known in Costa Rica as the Caribbean coast’s surfing capital.
Just south of town, visitors find the “Salsa Brava” location where surfing gurus challenge the ocean. “Salsa Brava” is famous for its massive waves and has been featured in many sport magazines that describe it as one of the most exciting surfing sites in the Americas.
Puerto Viejo renders a unique cultural ambiance where Rastas meet Europeans and North Americans that came to visit and never left. In order to integrate the different ethnicities, the region has developed its own dialect called patuá, a mixture of English, Spanish, French and indigenous languages.
The culinary fare reflects this eclectic mixture including traditional Caribbean cuisine, Creole, Thai, Mexican, Spanish, Italian and amazing seafood fresh out of the water. The assorted flavors can be sampled in small sodas or restaurants that feature authentic recipes and native chefs.
Artists of different sorts display their talents in several art galleries and stores where handcrafted lamps, paintings, jewelry and souvenirs can be purchased at modest prices. If visitors are in the mood, they can take yoga glasses, therapeutic massages or braid their hairs Caribbean style.
When the sun sets at Puerto Viejo, all differences are set aside and the town turns into party central. Tourists flock from the surrounding areas and cram into popular bars and discos that shake to the reggae beat.
Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge
Endangered species migrate south to Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge where environmental protection comes first. The 23,348-acre (9,450-hectare) reserve is located on the southernmost section of Costa Rica’s Caribbean shore, just 12 miles (20 km) from Puerto Viejo.
Lush vegetation is found near the shore and grows denser and wilder as visitors explore the inland jungle. The refuge protects several rare habitats such as lowland rainforest, wetland, mangrove, and the country’s only orey and jolillo palm swamps. The Gandoca river and lagoon meet the ocean forming estuaries where tarpon and many other underwater species breed peacefully.
More than 360 bird species find safe haven in the reserve, as well as the endangered harpy eagle, manatees, American crocodile and Baird’s tapir. The unique Tucuxí, a pink fresh-water dolphin endemic to the region, swims at ease in the lagoon and surrounding rivers.
The palm-lined beach is impressive as the crystal-clear water meets brown and white sand stretching for miles on end. Since few visitors make it this far, the shoreline remains partly a hidden secret making it a great place to relax and absorb the undisturbed beauty. The Caribbean Sea is particularly refreshing in Manzanillo beach and the enclosing forest provides plenty of shade if visitors would rather rest on the sand and enjoy the view.
Gandoca and Manzanillo are visited by thousands of leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles that come to lay their eggs as they have for centuries. The nesting site is protected as well as almost 11,000 acres (4,435 hectares) of surrounding ocean that guarantee the survival of the endangered sea turtles. Visitors are welcome to watch the nightly rituals of nesting and hatching of the eggs, a process that may take a few hours but is certainly a once in a lifetime experience.
The refuge also safeguards the ocean floor where coral reef stretches for miles creating a colorful underwater spectacle. The formation is by far one of the most intense environments in the region. Coral is the main attraction but the habitat is also formed by limestone structures and sea grass beds that feed the majority of fish.
Scuba diving, kayaking, boat tours, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and canopy allow visitors to explore Gandoca-Manzanillo inside and out. Arrangements can be made in town through tour operators.
The village of Gandoca offers modest lodging such as hotels, cabins and hostels.
Costa Rica Travel: Travel Information & Tips
No matter how beautiful a destination may be, it needs easy access and be reachable within the limitations of an average vacation period. Costa Rica is only two and a half hours away from Miami!