Which Coast to Visit
A common question when vacationing in Costa Rica is which coast to visit. Flanked by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the country offers more than 800 miles of gorgeous coastline, and each beach town has its own perks and appeal. Your accommodation needs, time of visit, and activity preferences will help narrow down which region to visit; or if you have ample time, plan to explore both the Caribbean and Pacific sides. While you can book just about any adventure tour on both coasts, the climate, beaches, amenities and general ambiance vary greatly between the two.
Overview: Home to Costa Rica's most touristed beach towns, Costa Rica's Pacific coast is the more popular choice for most travelers. Beach communities like Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Tamarindo, Flamingo and Conchal have modern infrastructure, upscale hotels and resorts, and easy access to high-speed Internet. The northern Guanacaste region is the most developed area on this coast, and in addition to plenty of other travelers, you'll encounter a large expat population, ethnic restaurants, and a slew of stunning beaches that vary from pink to white to cocoa-colored sands. The cultural ambience is purely "Tico," or Costa Rican, and many locals speak English quite well. If you're interested in spectacular sunset views, the Pacific coast is for you.
- Most Popular Towns: Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Montezuma, Samara, Tamarindo, Flamingo, Conchal and Papagayo.
- Best Swimming Beaches: For the tamest waves, head to Manuel Antonio, Playa Carillo, Playa Langosta, Samara or Conchal.
- Caters To: The bulk of Pacific coast beach towns cater to families with children, honeymooners, nature lovers, and travelers looking for upscale or all-inclusive resorts. Business travelers typically find the amenities and services better on the Pacific coast. The remote Osa Peninsula offers more rustic accommodations and is frequented by backpackers, and wildlife enthusiasts eager to get off the tourist trail.
- Weather: Generally speaking, the Pacific coast -- especially Guanacaste province-- is drier than the Caribbean. The rainy season runs from May through October, with the rainiest months being September and October. Daytime temperatures hover around 89°- 96°F, with an average of ten hours of sunshine during the dry season.
Overview: Known for its laid-back vibe and distinctive Afro-Caribbean culture, the Caribbean coast sees fewer tourists than the Pacific, but hosts some of the country's most idyllic black sand beaches. Luxury accommodations do exist, but this side of the country is focused more on ecotourism, nature and beachfront living. The infrastructure is minimal in many areas; pot-holed dirt roads are the norm, but villages like Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Tortuguero still draw thousands of tourists each year. Wildlife watching and turtle tours are Tortuguero's main highlights, while big waves and deserted beaches lure visitors to the southern Caribbean coast. This side of the country has an entirely different feel than the Pacific, from the prevalent Jamaican cuisine and music, to the provincial, small-town feel in each village.
- Most Popular Towns: Tortuguero, mainly visited for canal tours and wildlife watching, as its dark sand beaches have strong riptides and aren't good for swimming. Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Cocles, Punta Uva and Manzanillo offer secluded spots for beach picnics, and the waves at Salsa Brava can't be beat for seasoned surfers.
- Best Swimming Beaches: This coast has stronger currents and notorious riptides, so always look for areas that are marked safe for swimming. Cahuita's Playa Negra, portions of Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, and Manzanillo have gentle waves.
- Caters To: Backpackers, budget travelers, culture aficionados, and visitors looking for a unique, laid-back vacation destination. While four-star hotels do exist, they're few and far between, and most visitors prefer to spend their extra funds on splash-out Caribbean meals or adventure tours.
- Weather: Though the Caribbean is more humid than the Pacific coast, temperatures are bit milder, ranging from 77 to 89°F year-round. This coast has an entirely different weather pattern, as its driest months occur February-March and September-October. If your vacation dates fall between September and October, which is the rest of the country's rainy season, a trip to the Caribbean might be your best option.