Costa Rica: Which is the coast with the most?
February 3, 2010 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Which coast should we go to in Costa Rica? East side to the West side - which is the coast with the most? What are some unusal experiences off the beaten path?

I'm planning a six day vacation to Costa Rica in early March, flying in to San Jose, and I'm conflicted about whether to head east to the Carribean side or west to the Pacific.

I'm looking to see the jungles, spend time on the beach and snorkle. I'd also like to see some sloths. Orchids might be nice. Canoeing or kayaking would be awesome. Hot springs are also awesome, the more the better. Arenal has come highly recomended on MeFi, but I'm open to any and all other hot springs.

In my (5 year old) Lonely Planet, I read that the only living reefs are on the Caribbean coast between Limon and Manzanillo, so I was thinking of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, but MeFi and the NYTimes seem to advocate the beaches of the west coast. Do you know why? Is the Caribbean very rainy? Is the Pacific more awesome? Is there something I'm missing?

We don't require much pampering but love unusual experiences. My favorite vacations have included camping with buddies on the beaches of Vieques, sitting in a concrete hot spring surrounded by salt flats in the middle of the Mojave desert, visiting Watt's Tower and sleeping on a friend's boar moored off Key West. We like snorkeling but aren't very picky about it. As a general rule, cheap is good, but we'll probably invest in renting a 4wd vehicle to get around. Crowds are scary, but tree houses, bars built out of planes and other architectural marvels are totally awesome. Any suggestions on where we should go?
posted by abirae to Travel & Transportation around Costa Rica (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Tortuguero National Park is pretty great, it's in an area where you have to take boats to get around the canals and has plenty of green sea turtle nesting sites. We went to both sides - the West was good for surfing, but IMHO the more interesting sights and food were on the Caribbean side. I am unaware of snorkeling opportunities, but there was tons of wildlife to see. The NYTimes may advocate the West coast since it has many more American expats and retirees - on the West coast we didn't see many signs in English, but on the East coast surf towns (Playa Tamarindo) they were all in English. If you want a resort experience with minimal disruption of your normal life go to one of the Americanized surf towns, but it sounds like that's not what you want.

Arenal is cool to watch at dusk if lava rocks are shooting out of it, but the area is fairly developed and full of tacky hot springs hotels that have the feel of a Vegas casino. There are lots of other volcanoes to see.

If I could go back and go to only one place it would be Tortuguero.
posted by benzenedream at 4:42 PM on February 3, 2010

I haven't been down there since 2004, so take this with a grain of salt.

Limon, six years ago, was dirty and terrifying. But, you had to go through it to get to Cahuita, which was cute and fun. It was around the Cahuita area that I had monkeys climb up my body to steal fruit from me, and spent days lounging around in the ocean, which was lovely. That was my entire experience with the Caribbean side. I spent most of my three months on the other side.

The jungles of Corcavado are awesome, but you either have to take a plane in or hike all day. It's an amazing hike, though, so I considered it worth it. Since you only have six days, though, most of that would be eaten up by travel.

I spent about a month lazing around in Dominical, in a hammock, on the beach. The water was perfect. I hiked up to some pretty amazing waterfalls.

I never did hot springs or snorkling, though. Hopefully someone else has better references for that.
posted by duckierose at 4:48 PM on February 3, 2010

When we have questions about Costa Rica, I recommend Malpais (details in this AskMe). I gave some info and links about transportation in this one. Apologies if you've already mined the previous AskMe questions.
posted by Houstonian at 5:14 PM on February 3, 2010

Response by poster: benzenedream, Thank you! Tortuguero State park sounds amazing. It sounds like it's hard to get to, but by your description it sounds totally worth it.

duckierose, Cahuita sounds great! It's one of the towns I was looking at, but I didn't think it would be possible to actually see monkeys. Sweet!

Houstonian, you got me, I totally missed that post. If we end up heading west from San Jose, Mal Pais sounds perfect. And I like the idea of Ollie's Folly in Manuel Antonio.
posted by abirae at 5:57 PM on February 3, 2010

Loved the West Coast in May of 2009. Curu Wildlife Refuge was especially cheap, welcoming, and full of brightly colored crabs, crocodiles, monkeys, beautiful scenery, etc. The hot springs at Tabacon are even more incredible than people say.

You'll probably be happy no matter what region you pick. Enjoy!
posted by equipoise at 6:03 PM on February 3, 2010

Baru Wildlife Refuge on 34 north of Uvita is great for wildlife. Parque Nacional Cahuita is great as well. I find the Caribbean side more charming than the West coast, which is more touristy. The only thing is that some of the local population has gotten a little pushy with trying to sell drugs to tourists. Just ignore them, they go away. The little towns south of Cahuita are extremely touristy. If you like that sort of thing, it's a goldmine. I avoid them.

Limon is the armpit of Costa Rica. Jaco is a hellhole.

The Osa Peninsula is fantastic. You can drive to Corcovado, but keep in mind that if the road is in decent condition it will take 6-8 hours. Been there, done it. Interesting drive, but very long. There is an entrance to Corcovado that is not on the coast, and therefore would not take as long to reach.

The reefs around Costa Rica, with the exception of Isla del Coco, suck and aren't worth it. For orchids, the gardens at CATIE in Turrialba are very nice. You would have to check and see if they are open to the public (I'm not sure-I work with CATIE so it's never been an issue).

One of the more interesting rainforests that I have visited was Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo, just north of San Jose. You could go there and then drive down to the Caribbean.

Have fun!
posted by bolognius maximus at 6:42 PM on February 3, 2010

If there is one place in Costa Rica I will never, ever return to, it is Tortuguero.

It is so different than the rest of CR that you feel you've been taken somewhere else against your will. The town is horrible, run-down, and poor in depressing ways that you just don't see elsewhere in the country. The sea is grey, churned up and completely unappealing. You can't actually get into the sea, because of riptides and sharks, but you don't even want to. The beach is made of black, coarse sand, which sounds lovely, were it not for the tons of trash and debris that the town and the sea regularly dump on it.

We made the terrible mistake of parking our beloved 4x4, which had served us admirably well for the previous three weeks of traipsing all over the country, and joining a tour, which was the recommended way of getting to Tortuguero. The tour meant a very long bus ride, with a tour guide extolling the wonders of the pineapple plantations in broken English to the senior citizens from Wichita Falls who comprised the rest of the group, and a very, very long boat ride.

Once we got there, the tour treatment felt more and more like we had been sent to summer detention camp for unruly idiots. The food was terrible, the cabins were terrible, the grounds were terrible, the staff was terrible, and any comment regarding those shortcomings was met with extra-patient sighs, skyward glances and sneers among the staff and, eventually, even other guests, who seemed content with the conditions.

Perhaps it felt so exotic to them that they didn't mind all the things that we found so atrocious. Perhaps we were by then accustomed to the freedom provided by our own transport and decisions, but the place felt like a prison. I can't remember if we stayed in Mawamba Lodge or Pachira Lodge. They're very close to each other, and the pictures on their websites seem a million times better than reality. It wasn't the lack of luxury, either. We had cheerfully spent many a night under much worse conditions. It was the attitude.

I would happily emigrate to Costa Rica in a blink of an eye, but I will never go back to Tortuguero.

Regarding the question: Go to the upper west coast, it is awesome. While there, look for Naranjo Beach, but watch out for the crocodiles.
posted by Cobalt at 8:34 PM on February 3, 2010

I count the hike out to Corcovado as one of my all time, possibly never to be topped, epic adventures of my life.
posted by dan g. at 8:42 PM on February 3, 2010

Speaking generically, the east coast has a Caribbean reggae vibe and backpackers. The west coast has more developed areas and condos. It's not a huge country so you can try each side.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:59 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can go to Toruguero without staying at one of those icky tourist-trap lodges. I stayed in town, and I loved it. Did a great canoe tour (small - 4 people plus guide) through the canals and it was awesome, saw lots of monkeys and a sloth. Also loved Cahuita too. I agree that Caribbean coast has a more mellow backpackery vibe.
posted by bobafet at 9:05 AM on February 4, 2010

We went two years ago and were advised against the East coast. We were told to beware of the locals as drug trade is rampant on that side as is crime.

We hit up the West Coast, flew into Liberia and drove to Playa Conchal north of Tamarindo. Spent a week at the resort, did zip line, 4x4Tour (Which I dont reccomend, atleast this place). Then went to the base of Arenal (Volcano) and stayed in the jungle. Two more zip line trips, ATV tour, jungle walk, and seeing the town of Arenal. Def would go back and do it again. In the dry season however the Pacific side is pretty dry. Reminded me a little of Southern California :P
posted by NotSoSimple at 10:45 AM on February 4, 2010

I spent a week in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca a year ago. It was wonderful - lush forests, lovely beaches, tons of sloths and monkeys, the people were nice and there was a sort of laid-back, worldly vibe. Did some tourist-y things like ziplining and waterfall hikes, but sadly we didn't get to snorkel due to the weather (too much rain). I heard tell of some nat'l parks in the area that are world-class (Punta Uva, I believe), but we didn't get to everything on our list. Still, the Puerto Viejo area is wonderful and I highly recommend it.
posted by statolith at 12:17 PM on February 4, 2010

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