Head out of San Jose, crest the cloud forest-covered mountains to the west of Costa Rica’s capital, and in about two hours you’re on the Caribbean coast. Another two hours or so south and you’re in the heart of the region. A pretty short ride…but it’s like a different world.
The tourist development of the Pacific coast never made it out here. So no big resorts, no golf courses, no high-rise condos, no T-shirt shops. Just sleepy beach towns with family-run hotels and small shops, bars, and restaurants set up by locals and expats, many of whom have a decidedly bohemian bent. It’s a place where no shirt and no shoes is definitely no problem.
This stretch of coast escaped the notice of the Costa Rican government, business interests, and visitors for many years. And that’s a good thing as it gives those who go there now an unspoiled experience.
It may have a very rough-and-ready, do-it-yourself feel, but you can get everything you need for daily living—even imported items brought in by enterprising merchants. And the restaurants, serving everything from Israeli to Argentinian to Thai to American sports bar fare—even vegan and vegetarian options—are some of the best in the country. The diversity of cuisine is a reflection of the more than 50 different nationalities in the expat population. So you get great food—and a lot of interesting neighbors.
Many Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) still ply the waters offshore in open boats called pangas as their families have for generations. Great news if you like seafood. What you get in the restaurants is super-fresh. Chefs can usually be found down by the water when the boats come in—they write the menu based on what was caught that day. And you can buy it right off the boat too—everybody’s welcome. Try mahi mahi or red snapper for about $5 a pound.
The fact that many residents get around exclusively by bike—often with a basket for the day’s shopping or maybe a four-legged companion—should give you an idea of the pace of life on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Nothing is too far away…and nobody’s in a hurry to get anywhere anyway. A two-lane coastal road winds its way through jungle and by the beach.
Homes, many open-air to catch the breeze, can be glimpsed among the trees. The real estate here is extremely affordable. A walk-to-the-beach, two-bedroom, 861-square-foot home in the jungle is listed for $90,000. You can rent too—try $600 a month for another two-bedroom, gated community home in Cocles near the beach.
In short, it’s the opposite of hustle and bustle and the living is easy.
The culture here is different too. Many locals are descended from Jamaicans and other Caribbean islanders. English—and a creole version—is commonly spoken. Reggae and calypso music spills out from cars, homes, and lively beach bars. And spicy meat patties, rice and beans cooked in coconut milk, and other dishes are homegrown favorites—the legacy of this Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Furthest north is Cahuita, a village that abuts a large national park. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, about a half-hour’s drive south, is the region’s main town—a collection of brightly-painted homes in hues of blue, green, orange, and more. Then along the road south to the border with Panama are some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica: black-sand Playa Negra…golden-sand Playa Cocles…and the white-sand Manzanillo, a national park, where you can snorkel right off the beach and see dozens of tropical fish species, as well as sea turtles, rays, and more.
To be sure, the Caribbean coast is not for everybody. Some find it too laid-back. But for those in search of a tropical paradise with a truly slow pace of life and live and let live attitude…it’s perfect.