What is the best side of Costa Rica to stay on? What side of Costa Rica has better beaches? What are the differences between the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica? How can I visit both? These are some questions that people ask us when they are planning their vacation. Although we recommend visiting both coasts of Costa Rica if possible, it is not easy due to long travel times.
There are many differences between the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica, particularly in the culture, nature and demographic. They are both wonderful places to visit and even if all you’re looking for is a beach vacation, you can have drastically different experiences on each coast. If you don’t have time to visit both, here are the differences between the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica to help you decide.
Places to go in the Pacific vs Caribbean
In this map below, you will see the major tourist destinations for the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. I also included the Liberia and San Jose Airports so you can see where they are in relation to the airport.
As you can see, the Pacific coast has many more tourist destinations and places of interest than the Caribbean. However, what the Caribbean lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quanlity.
The Caribbean coast is divided into two main areas: Caribbean North aka Tortuguero and Caribbean South aka Puerto Viejo.
Tortuguero, nicknamed “Little Amazon” is a tiny rural town that is boat or plane access only and is famous for Tortuguero National Park, canals and turtle nestings. It’s fairly remote and takes a day to get there but many people visit to experience an untouched pristine jungle.
Most people spend 1-3 nights in Tortuguero since it is a tiny town with not much else to do.
Puerto Viejo is the main tourist town in the South Caribbean and is surrounded by a handful of downright gorgeous beaches and nature. Although the area receives many tourists every year, it is not very developed and maintains a raw charm that people love.
Cahuita is another small town popular with expats, famous for its national park and coral reef. It’s about 13 kilometers north of Puerto Viejo.
When it comes to the vibe and atmosphere, the Caribbean is way more chill and less crowded. It’s largely made up of descendants of Caribbean islanders, local indigenous communities and a fair mix of foreigners.
The Pacific side is divided up into several sections: North Guanacaste, South Guanacaste, Nicoya Peninsula, Central Pacific, South Pacific and the Osa Peninsula.
Northern Guanacaste is mostly the Gulf of Papagayo and Salinas Bay. This area has a many stunning beaches and is well known for good fishing and scuba diving.
The Nicoya Peninsula consists of the Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, Montezuma, Paquera and Tambor beach areas. These are fairly remote places and have great surfing. The beach towns are touristic but smaller.
The South Pacific coast is the Costa Ballena: Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal. These are more rural, undeveloped beach areas.
The Osa Peninsula is the biologically diverse place in Costa Rica with Corcovado National Park protecting hundreds of flora and fauna. It’s fairly remote and more for hiking and wildlife than beaches so I won’t touch on this area too much.
When it comes to vibes and crowds, Northern Guanacaste and the Tamarindo areas are much more touristic and developed with more American/Canadians expats and immigrants. You will find a lot of all-inclusives in this area. Samara, Santa Teresa are less touristic. The Central Pacific, Jaco and Manuel Antonio are extremely touristy and developed but the South Pacific is completely opposite.
Beaches in the Pacific vs Caribbean
Both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts have jaw droppingly beautiful beaches and it’s impossible to say which side of Costa Rica has better beaches. You can find white sand beaches, black volcanic sand beaches, hidden beaches and popular beaches on both coasts.
Unlike the Pacific, you won’t find any all-inclusive resorts, high rise condo towers or large international hotel chains in the Caribbean. What you’ll find instead are just a few villas and bungalows hiding in a lush jungle that envelopes a picturesque beach with tall palm trees, bright turquoise waters and soft tan sand.
This is the charm of the Caribbean: pristine, non-commercial and untouched beaches. Instead of concrete buildings, you’ll see huts with thatched roofs or bamboo bungalows as the community prefers to blend in with nature as much as possible. You won’t be surrounded by a hundred tourists, you’ll be surrounded by more monkeys and sloths than people!
The Pacific coast has a range of beaches and not all of them are developed and touristy. In fact, much of the Guanacaste coast is undeveloped since it is so vast.
You can find a handful of boat access and 4×4 required beaches but you will always find developed beaches that have a resort or large hotel on it all throughout the whole Pacific coast until you get down to the Costa Ballena and the Nicoya Peninsula.
The Gulf of Papagayo has the most amount of all-inclusive resorts, many of them with their own “private” beach (all beaches in Costa are public). Tamarindo/Conchal are equally as touristic and tend to be quite crowded, but start heading south from there and the area is not quite as developed. You’ll still see plenty of tourists in Samara, Santa Teresa and Montezuma but the beaches are not that commercial.
Jaco and Manuel Antonio are arguably the most touristic and developed beach ares on the Pacific coast. As Jaco is a city beach, you will see plenty of high rise condos. Manuel Antonio has a ton of luxury hotels in a very small area and has the last white sand beach on the Pacific coast.
Down in the Costa Ballena, it changes completely as this area is still quite rural. The beaches become more spread out, all with dark sand and tall cliffs. The South Pacific is a little like the Caribbean in the sense that there aren’t many people and it’s more jungley.
Weather in Pacific vs Caribbean
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica doesn’t follow the tropical dry-rainy season weather pattern. Instead, the Caribbean is much more humid and can rain all year long. The summer months are September and October and the rainiest months are June and November.
Temperatures stay in the high 80’s (31 Celsius) and cools off at night and since it can be very overcast and cloudy, it doesn’t feel super hot.
The Pacific coast does follow the typical rainy and dry tropical season which is from end of April to beginning of December and beginning of May to end of November respectively. The rainiest months are usually October and November and the hottest months are March and April.
The Guanacaste coast has a longer dry season meaning you will get more sunny days on that side, particularly in the Northern area but that means the forest becomes very dry and very yellow, almost like a desert. Temperatures can soar into the 100s F (38 C) during March and April.
The South Pacific coast is a lot more humid which keeps the jungle green all year long like the Caribbean coast. It tends to rain harder and more down in the South so even if you’re visiting in February, it can rain. It doesn’t feel quite as hot in the South Pacific with temperatures in the low 90’s for most of the year.
Things to do in Pacific vs Caribbean
In Tortuguero, most people only stay 1-3 nights because it is a very small area. The main attractions are the national park and the turtles/wildlife. After those two things, there isn’t too much else. There’s one canopy zipline tour and you can hike or kayak in the national park.
In the Puerto Viejo area, there are more things to do and the best thing is that they’re all within a 30 kilometer radius!
From Puerto Viejo, you have Cahuita National Park, Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, La Ceiba Private Nature Reserve, Jaguar Rescue Center, and a handful of beautiful beaches. Not to mention you’re very close to Bocas del Toro so you can even hop over the border to Panama for a couple of nights!
Birdwatching is amazing in the Caribbean since you can see birds such as Keel-billed toucans, Great Green Macaws and unique hummingbirds. Since the Caribbean stays lush all year round, wildlife watching is also incredible. It’s common to see sloths snoozing in the trees or crossing roads, monkeys at the beach and snakes hiding in the bushes.
Surfing and snorkeling are two other popular activities in the South Caribbean but it is not as consistent as the Pacific and have fewer spots. When it comes to snorkeling, Cahuita National Park has the longest coral reef so when the conditions are right, it is amazing. Beach bumming and soaking up the sun are the best things to do in the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica since it has a much more chill and laid back vibe.
The best adventure on the Caribbean side is white water rafting at Rio Pacuare which is one of the top 5 in the world!
Puerto Viejo is also a popular party town so you can dance till your feet give out to reggae music, slurp up tasty shots and cocktails and enjoy bonfires at the beach.
The Pacific side has many more national parks and surfing, fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling spots than the Caribbean.
The best scuba diving can be done in the Gulf of Papagayo and down by Cano Island, there is excellent fishing in Drake Bay, Flamingo and Playas del Coco and there are a myriad of great surf spots all up and down the coasts such as Tamarindo, Jaco, Guiones, Avellanas, Dominical and Matapalo.
There is also more adventure in the Northern Pacific coast. You can find many horseback riding, ziplining and ATV tours as well as white water tubing and sky diving.
When it comes to adventure and things to do, the Pacific does have more variety than the Caribbean. The Caribbean is also far from any other type of natural attraction like volcanoes and cloud forest. The closest is Turrialba Volcano, which is a 3 hour drive.
In the Pacific, there is the Guanacaste mountain corridor so Rincon de la VIeja volcano, Miravalles Volcano and Tenorio Volcano National Park (Rio Celeste) is 1 hour from Liberia. Monteverde Cloud Forest is 3 hours from Liberia. However, the South Pacific is far from those attractions but it has amazing wildlife watching. Within the Corcovado National Park and Osa Peninsula, you can experience one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet.
In Northern Guanacaste, you are very close to Nicaragua so you can easily go for a day trip or stay overnight.
Tourist amenities and services in Pacific vs Caribbean
Tortuguero is a tiny village and doesn’t have an ATM so it is not the most tourist friendly, especially as it is boat access only and there are no hospitals close by. But it does have its own airport.
Puerto Viejo on the other hand has everything for tourists: banks, pharmacies, ATM’s, hostels, laundromats, car rental companies, info centers, tour companies and more. It is easy to get around Puerto Viejo as there are daily direct buses from San Jose and buses that go all the way from Limon down to Manzanillo. You can also rent bikes or scooters to get around.
You can find everything for tourists on the Pacific side, even all the way down at the Costa Ballena. However, the Nicoya Peninsula takes quite some time to get to and there are no large hospitals nearby but there is a local airport at Tambor and Nosara.
Who should visit the Caribbean and Pacific
Europeans prefer to visit the Caribbean since they don’t want to go where the Americans go, which is the Pacific. Many Europeans aren’t keen on all-inclusive resorts or stay at fancy hotels, they rather experience nature and more local life so they tend to gravitate towards the Caribbean. The months of August and September are extremely popular for Europeans on the Caribbean side.
The Caribbean side also attracts more birdwatchers, young USA/Canadian nomads and hippies since they like the unspoiled atmosphere.
Canadians and Americans love the Pacific side, particularly retired expats who like the Northern Guanacaste area since it is more Americanized. Many American and British young adults like the Guanacaste area because it has more all-inclusive resorts. Surfers and yogis like the South Pacific and Nicoya Peninsula.
You can have a great time on either coast of Costa Rica but here are some reasons why you should visit one over the other.
Reasons to visit the Pacific coast of Costa Rica
One of the main reasons why you should visit the Pacific coast of Costa Rica versus the Caribbean can be summed up in two words: more choices.
There are more beach towns, more choices for hotels and activities, more national parks, more snorkeling spots and more surfing spots on the Pacific than the Caribbean. This is just because the Pacific is more developed and bigger. You can spend two whole weeks in Guanacaste and do/see something different every single day.
Other reasons are that it’s closer to the international airport (LIR), Guanacaste tends to rain less so you have more sunny days and there are more luxury options.
You are also closer to other natural attractions so if you want to see Arenal Volcano, the rain forest or cloud forest, it is the better choice, especially if you are only going to one destination and plan to do day trips from there.
Reasons to visit the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica
Despite not having as many choices, there are still a plethora of strong reasons why you should visit the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
First, the wildlife is incredible. You can’t find anywhere else in Costa Rica that has so much flora and fauna in such a small radius! If you want to see sloths, monkeys, turtles, snakes, macaws and toucans, you can tick all of those off your list in the Caribbean and in just one national park!
Another reason is the natural charm. Since it’s not that developed and Puerto Viejo is an eclectic melting pot of cultures all over the world, you can experience a Costa Rica only found in that corner of the country. The beach and jungle landscapes and scenery are absolutely breathtaking and it’s green all year long, unlike the North Pacific.
The only time you’ll run into a crowd is in downtown Puerto Viejo but go out 1 kilometer and you’ll feel like you’re a world away. Go for a walk in the jungle and you may be the only one to witness a sloth climbing a tree right in front of you. Go to the beach and you may be the only one swimming in the warm water. You will get addicted to having the beach all to yourself!
It’s also not as hot as the Pacific. Since the climate is different and can be cloudy most of the time, it’s hot but a very comfortable hot whereas the Pacific can get unbearably hot. You won’t find yourself yearning for air conditioning as much on the Caribbean as the Pacific!
And another reason is the food. Caribbean Costa Rican food is damn delicious and I have never been able to find a better rice and beans than at our favorite restaurant, Soda Lidias in Puerto Viejo. And since people from all over the world move to Puerto Viejo, we’ve also had great Italian food and sushi!
How to visit both coasts
Although the travel time between the coasts is a good chunk, it is totally possible to visit both the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Since you can do a 1 night, 2 day trip to Tortuguero from Puerto Viejo, you can even visit the entire Caribbean coast! You will have to go through San Jose and most people will break up the travel time because to drive from coast to coast is extremely tiring and long (Tamarindo to Puerto Viejo can take 8-9 hours straight depending on traffic).
I wrote a couple of itineraries that go to both coasts you can read here:
The easiest way to visit both coasts is to fly if you’re short on time or to use San Jose as your central stopping point. I do recommend having at least 10 days or 2 weeks to visit both coasts since you will need to dedicate 1-2 days just for travel.
I hope this post helps you decide which coast to go to in Costa Rica and if you can, visit both! Although we live on the Pacific coast, we absolutely love Caribbean. I wish it was easier for us to go there because I get some serious rice and beans craving from time to time!