What is the best side of Costa Rica to stay on? What side of Costa Rica has better beaches? How can I visit both? What are the differences between the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica?
These are some questions that people ask us when they are planning their vacation. Both sides of Costa Rica are excellent places to visit for all tourists. Although we recommend visiting both coasts of Costa Rica if possible, it is not as easy due to long travel times. Here are the differences between the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica to help you decide which side is best for you.
Caribbean and Pacific Coast of Costa Rica: Main Tourist Areas
The entire Caribbean coast is in the province of Limon and is divided into two main areas: Caribbean North aka Tortuguero and Caribbean South aka Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
Tortuguero, nicknamed “Little Amazon” is a tiny boat/plane access only rural town. It’s famous for Tortuguero National Park, rainforest covered sandbar canals and green turtle nestings. It’s fairly remote but many people visit to experience an untouched pristine jungle. You can read this post on how to get to Tortuguero. Most people spend 1-3 nights in Tortuguero.
Puerto Viejo is the main tourist town in the South Caribbean, surrounded by gorgeous beaches and nature. Although the area is touristic, the town is small and maintains a raw charm that people love. You can drive, shuttle or take the bus to Puerto Viejo. Driving is around 5 hours, bus is around 6.5 and shuttle is around 5-6 hours.
Cahuita is a small town 13 kilometers (8 miles) north of Puerto Viejo. It’s home to the Cahuita National Park which houses some of the biggest coral reefs in the country.
The Pacific coasts are the Guanacaste and Puntarenas provinces.
The Pacific side is divided up into several sections: North Guanacaste, South Guanacaste, Nicoya Peninsula, Central Pacific, South Pacific and the Osa Peninsula. Guanacaste is the main province on the Pacific coast and the Nicoya Peninsula is in the Puntarenas province.
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, snorkeling, surfing and scuba diving. This is where the most amount of high end resorts are in Costa Rica. Gulf of Papagayo is 25 minutes driving from Liberia International Airport.
Southern Guanacaste goes from the Tamarindo area down to Samara and Nosara. This area has excellent surfing, fishing, surfing and scuba diving. Tamarindo is a 1 hour drive from Liberia International Airport, Samara and Nosara is 2, 2.5.
The Nicoya Peninsula consists of the Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, Montezuma, Paquera and Tambor. These are more remote. This is about a 4 hour drive from Liberia International Airport and 4-5 hour drive or drive/ferry from San Jose International Airport.
The Central Pacific coast is mostly Jaco and Manuel Antonio, two popular beach destinations. They are 1.5-2.5 hours from San Jose.
The South Pacific coast is the Costa Ballena: Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal, about 3-4 hours from San Jose.
The Osa Peninsula is the biologically diverse place in Costa Rica as it’s home to Corcovado National Park. It’s fairly remote and not for everyone as it takes a bit more planning to visit. To Puerto Jimenez, the main town in the Osa Peninsula, it is about an 8 hour drive or 1 hour plane ride from San Jose. If you’re interested in visiting this area, you can read our Osa Peninsula guide to get started.
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.
Beaches on the Pacific vs Caribbean Side of Costa Rica
It is impossible to say which side of Costa Rica has better beaches. Both the Pacific and Caribbean sides have beautiful beaches.
The main beaches on the Caribbean side are Playa Negra, Playa Puerto Viejo, Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Playa Blanca and Vargas (in Cahuita National Park), Playa Punta Uva and Playa Manzanillo.
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 huge range of type of beaches. Furthermore, not all the beaches are developed and touristy. In fact, much of the Guanacaste coast is undeveloped since it is so vast. There are just certain towns that are developed for tourism such as Tamarindo, Playas del Coco, Samara, Potrero and Nosara.
Jaco and Manuel Antonio are arguably the most touristic and developed beach ares on the Pacific coast. As Jaco is a city beach just 1.5 hours from San Jose, you will see plenty of high rise condos and beachfront hotels. Manuel Antonio has a ton of luxury hotels.
Down in the Costa Ballena, it changes completely as this area is still quite rural and very spread out. Nearly all the beaches in the South Pacific are dark sand and darker waters. The South Pacific is a little like the Caribbean in the sense that there aren’t many people and it’s more jungley but it has dark sand beaches.
Weather in Pacific vs Caribbean
If you are visiting Costa Rica in October, consider visiting the Caribbean side as the weather is better during that time of year than on the Pacific side.
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica doesn’t follow the tropical tropical dry-rainy season weather pattern. Instead, the Caribbean is much more humid and can rain all year long. The summer month is October and the rainiest months are June and November on the Caribbean coast.
Average year round daytime temperatures on the Caribbean coast are low to mid 80s F (26-30 C) and cools off at night. Humidity is extremely high all year round.
The Pacific coast does follow the typical rainy and dry tropical season which is from the end of April to beginning of December and beginning of May to end of November respectively. The rainiest months are usually September and October and the hottest months are March and April.
The Guanacaste coast dry season turns the forests dry and very yellow, almost like a desert. Temperatures can soar into the high 90s and low 100s F (38 C) during March. In rainy season, it’ll be around 85 F during the day (29 C).
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. Temperatures are similar to the Caribbean side.
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. 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 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.
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 enjoy bonfires at the beach.
The Pacific side has many more national parks and better water sports like surfing, kitesurfing, fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling spots than the Caribbean.
When it comes to adventure and things to do, the Pacific does have more variety than the Caribbean. This is just because the Pacific is bigger with more tourist destinations.
Who should visit the Caribbean and Pacific
The Caribbean vibe is way more chill, relaxed and natural.
More Europeans prefer to visit the Caribbean since according to them, they don’t really want to go where the Americans go, which is the Pacific. Many Europeans aren’t keen on all-inclusive resorts or staying at fancy hotels either. They rather experience nature and rural tourism, so they tend to gravitate towards the Caribbean. The months of August and September are extremely popular for Europeans on the Caribbean side, particularly Tortuguero.
The Caribbean side also attracts more birdwatchers, young USA/Canadian nomads and hippies since they like the unspoiled atmosphere.
When it comes to vibes and crowds, the province of Guanacaste is much more touristic and developed with more American/Canadian expats and immigrants. You will find a lot of all-inclusives in this area. The Nicoya Peninsula including Nosara and Samara maintain low key vibes, but are equally touristic. The Central Pacific towns of Jaco and Manuel Antonio are extremely touristy and developed. The South Pacific is very low key and less touristic since this area is much more spread out.
Canadians and Americans love the Tamarindo and Playas del Coco area. We actually wrote a post comparing Tamarindo and Playas del Coco in case you’re trying to decide.
Many young American and British adults like the Guanacaste area because it has more all-inclusive resorts and is more developed. Surfers, yogis and those interested in more rural areas like the Nicoya Peninsula and Costa Ballena (Uvita, Dominical, Ojochal) for the laid back atmosphere and undeveloped nature.
Reasons to visit the Pacific Side of Costa Rica
You can have a great time on either side of Costa Rica but here are some reasons why you should visit one over the other.
Two of the main reasons why you should visit the Pacific side of Costa Rica over the Caribbean are that there are more choices and a closer proximity to the international airport and attractions.
There are more beach towns, more hotels, more 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.
Another reason is close proximity to the airport. The closest beach town to Liberia International Airport is only 25 minutes away! Additionally, Guanacaste has more sunny days. Lastly, it has more resorts.
Reasons to visit the Caribbean Side of Costa Rica
There are a plethora of reasons to visit the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. First and foremost, you will experience a unique side of Costa Rican culture as it has heavy Caribbean influence.
Furthermore, the wildlife is incredible. And in such a small radius too. If you want to see sloths, monkeys, turtles, snakes, frogs, macaws and toucans, you can tick all of those off your list in just one national park on the Caribbean side (Tortuguero).
Another reason is the natural charm. 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.
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. But the trade off is that it is very humid all year long on the Caribbean coast and may rain any time of the year.
And another reason is the food. Caribbean Costa Rican food is so delicious and I have never been able to find a better rice and beans than at our favorite restaurant, Soda Lidias in Puerto Viejo.
How to visit both coasts
It is possible to visit both the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Costa Rica. You will have to break up the drive as it’s around 9-10 hours coast to coast. Or you can fly, which is fastest. I do recommend having at least 2 weeks in Costa Rica if you want to visit both coasts.
I wrote a couple of itineraries that go to both coasts you can read here. We hope this post helps your trip planning!
2 week Costa Rica itinerary: Caribbean and Pacific
10 day Costa Rica itinerary: San Jose, Puerto Viejo and Manuel Antonio