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Puerto Viejo isn't for everyone. There's no McDonald's or any other international chain. Yoga teachers outnumber office workers. Local kids learn to surf right after they walk. You'll hear twenty different languages before breakfast. If you're looking for luxury resorts with poolside drinks and golf courses you'll find that's not the vibe here. Instead think of a fresh coconut on the beach under an almendro tree while reggae plays at a neighboring bar.
There are a lot of myths and mistruths spoken about Puerto Viejo, things that tourists are often told about the Caribbean in San José or the Pacific Coast hotels. I'll discuss those below. Or, if you're looking for specific information on these topics just click to go to that page: Weather, Money Matters, Health & Safety, Tours & Activities, Volunteering, Sustainable Tourism or, of course, Getting Here.
Old attitudes die hard, the Caribbean has changed faster than anywhere else in Costa Rica
Not so long ago, Costa Ricans from San Jose and the central valley cities rarely visited the Caribbean and Puerto Viejo was just a small village reached by dirt roads connected by small bridges over rivers which occasionally washed out the bridges and made them impassable. Rumors abounded of crime and a lack of decent tourist facilities. Well much has changed over the last twenty years while some things have stayed the same.
On my first visit here in the mid-90s, English with a Caribbean twang was the main language heard on the streets spoken by the residents who had been here longest: the black workers brought over from Jamaica about a century ago. The south Caribbean coast felt a world apart from the rest of Costa Rica and tourism facilities were minimal in Puerto Viejo with a little more in Cahuita which was the largest town on the coast.
While the indigenous (the Bribri and others) and black populations have stayed more or less stable, the area has grown immensely with Puerto Viejo along with the beach towns to the southeast of Cocles, Chiquita and Punta Uva. Manzanillo, at the end of the road, feels the least changed. First, counter-culture tourists discovered the place along with backpackers and those seeking an alternative vibe. While many of the businesses on the Pacific beaches are often American owned, here you'll find tons of Italians, Dutch, Swiss, Canadians and Spanish who all fell in love with the area and opened hotels and restaurants.
The alternative vibe is now why people come here
Costa Ricans discovered the coast after that and now come regularly for the wide variety of beaches and also for the counter-culture vibe. In years past the black population here may have been the source of many Costa Ricans' skeptical views of this coast but now they are recognized as part of its diverse culture and one of the ways this area is unique. As of 2018, Costa Rica had a black woman, Etsy Campbell, from the Caribbean as one of the vice-presidents of the coubntry which tells you how far attitudes have shifted!
A number of boutique luxury accommodations have also opened so now the choices are more varied. You still won't find big corporate resorts but luxury, air conditioning and pools are no longer rare. The hammock hotels and basic bungalows still exist along with a wide variety in the middle so there's something for everyone. Development is a big topic on the local message boards and every new proposal is argued about vociferously by those against change and those who believe new businesses equal more jobs and money for the local population, many of whom, especially the indigenous population who are actually by far the largest part of the population in the canton, remain quite poor.
The greenest part of a green country
In a country known for it's green initiatives and protection of nature and the environment, Puerto Viejo is probably the "greenest" of them all and is a leader in recycling, preserving habitat for wildlife, vegetarian and vegan food options, and eco and sustainable development.
But hey, maybe you don't like pot smoking hippies? Because there's a fair bit of that too! (That said, marijuana smoking is not always tolerated by the police so please don't flaunt it).
Doesn't it rain all the time?
But what about all that rain you say? That's something we used to hear a lot as a reason for not visiting. But the truth is more nuanced. Like many parts of Costa Rica this is a rainforest! But the annual rainfall here is similar to or even lower than many popular areas on the Pacific coast. But while the Pacific and the Central Valley have fairly well defined rainy and dry seasons, the Caribbean Coast is more variable. This map shows a comparison of the different areas of Costa Rica at different times of year.
So the Caribbean tourism has exploded at certain times of year when it will rain everyday on the Pacific but the weather could be completely different here. There's more info on our weather page.
What about getting here? Are the roads bad?
The road from Limón to Manzanillo is now completely paved and in good shape but you'll still find some big potholes and rough roads on the back routes. There are also still lots of one lane bridges where you'll need to wait for the traffic already on the bridge but they tend to be more solid than in years past!
It's also mostly flat once you get here so a bicycle is the best way to get around so if you're driving please watch for bikes, pedestrians and animals sharing the road! The driving instructions page has detailed information on driving and road conditions or leave the car and take the bus or a shuttle here.
Is it dangerous? What about crime?
Crime was often also a reason many were told in the past to avoid the Caribbean. But while the capital Limón can be quite rough, Puerto Viejo's crime is comparable to other beach towns in Costa Rica and tends to be of the petty variety. If you take reasonable precautions like not taking valuables to the beach or leaving them in a car, you are likely to have a problem-free vacation. Please read our health and safety page for tips on staying safe, both from crime and when in the water.
Is it Paradise?
So is it paradise then? Some people who have come for days are still here years later so I guess they'd say it's the closest they've found! But it all depends on your outlook. If this is the place for you, you'll probably know it within a few hours of arriving!