Despite the recently paved, four-mile road that connects Manzanillo to Puerto Viejo, the town’s beautiful beaches have remained tranquil, pristine and relatively untouched by tourism. Sea almond trees bow over the sand, providing shade for reading or relaxation, and the beach’s fine sand is perfect for building sandcastles and sunbathing. Snorkelers and divers can swim to coral reefs close to the shore. For an afternoon snack, grab a seafood dish at one of the local restaurants, where chefs cook up the day’s fresh catches. A series of picturesque white and black sand beaches line the coast from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo; all easily accessed via bicycle. Many beaches are recipients of the ecological blue flag award, including Puerto Viejo’s Playa Negra, Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Punta Uva, Ned Creek and Gandoca.
This black sand beach is located just a few steps north of Puerto Viejo’s downtown; access it by following the beach just past the old barge near town. A reef lies offshore, and Playa Negra is known as the safest swimming beach in Puerto Viejo.
Playa Negra is also very popular as a walking beach, with soft sand and plenty of space for strolling. Salsa Brava is Puerto Viejo’s famous surf break located off the beach behind Stanford's on Playa Negra. It is renowned in the surfing community and considered by many to be the best break in Costa Rica.
Just two miles south of Puerto Viejo, Playa Cocles is a beautiful yellow-sand beach known for steady, large surfing waves. Currents are often strong, so swimmers are advised to look out for green flags, which are used by lifeguards to mark areas safe for swimming. Playa Cocles is lined with mid-range and upscale hotels and restaurants.
Playa Chiquita is a peaceful beach about halfway between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo, great for sunbathing and swimming. The beach is protected by coral reefs, and has natural pools ideal for swimming that form at high tide.
Many say that this is the most beautiful beach in the area, ideal for walking, sunbathing and swimming. The turnoff for Punta Uva is two miles before Manzanillo and is well marked with a black and white sign.
National Parks & Private Refuges:
Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge protects almost 70% of the southern Caribbean coast and includes some of the area’s most beautiful beaches. The refuge officially begins at the Cocles River (one mile south of Puerto Viejo) and extends 19 miles south to the Sixaola River at the Panamanian border. The refuge protects beautiful beaches, coral reefs, lowland tropical forests and several of the country’s most endangered habitats including the only jolillo palm swamp in Costa Rica.
La Ceiba Reserve
The goal of this 104-acre private reserve is to conserve land and protect local flora and fauna. It is a superb location for observing the annual migrations of several birds-of-prey. The name comes from an enormous Ceiba tree within the reserve’s boundaries. An ideal hiking destination for nature lovers, the tree is 55 feet around at its widest point, and it is a 165 foot walk just to circumnavigate the base of the tree. La Ceiba Reserve is located between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo, inside the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
Bribri Indigenous Reserve and Volio Waterfall
This waterfall and hike are often part of the Bribri Reservation tour offered by several of Puerto Viejo’s tour companies. The hike is fairly easy, though recommended only for sunny days, and includes several stream crossings (be prepared for wet feet). The trip leads to a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. The falls plummet from 50 feet above, cascading over rocks along the way. The hike takes less than 30 minutes each way with several steep ascents and descents. The Bribri Indigenous Reserve is roughly 11 miles northwest of Manzanillo, approximately a 45-minute drive.
Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve & Iguana Farm
The Kekoldi were once a part of the Bribri, but split from the larger group many years ago. Their village, located just 30 minutes from downtown Manzanillo, is home to the area’s famous iguana farm. Here, tourists learn about Kekoldi history, folklore and lands before visiting the research and reproduction facilities for the protected green iguana.
Museums, Gardens & Chocolate Plantations:
A combination of chocolate museum, botanical gardens, wildlife sanctuary, indigenous museum, canoe canals and organic medicinal herb farm, this unique park offers a little something for everyone, including guided tours, a beautiful pool and on-site restaurant boasting tasty Caribbean dishes. 2-6 hour tours are available by reservation. (Between Puerto Viejo and Cahuita. $20-$47; 2756-8186)
ChocoRart Cacao Plantation
To experience chocolate in its purest form, visit the ChocoRart organic cacao farm and chocolate factory in Playa Chiquita, just south of Puerto Viejo. Owned and operated by a Swiss couple who harvest, ferment and cook cacao in the same traditional manner that the Mayan Indians used for thousands of years. Sugar is added to the chocolate as are natural ingredients such as ginger, coconut, vanilla and nuts. Tours are offered by reservation only and chocolate tasting is included. (Playa Chiquita. Reservation required; $15 adult; 2750-0075)
Finca La Isla Botanical Garden
Open since 1987, this permaculture farm raises organic black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, bananas, and many other fruits, spices, bromeliads and edible plants for export. Guided tours are highly recommended, and take visitors through a tasty, interesting tour of their grounds. Highlights include tapping a rubber tree, discovering where mace comes from and sampling the farm’s sweet, organic bananas. (Puerto Viejo. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; $5 adult, $2.50 children under 12, self-guide booklet $1; $10 per person guided tour with $30 minimum; $8 short guided tour with $24 minimum. 2750-0046.)