The small beachside town of Puerto Viejo is the perfect place if you’re up for a little sun, maybe some surf, spotting a native animal or two and most importantly – a lot of chilling out.
This popular backpacker’s destination is barely an hour from the Panamánian border, nestled on Costa Rica’s stunning tropical Caribbean coast.
It’s colourful, laid back, friendly, a little rough around the edges, and for a such a tiny beach town, it has a great selection of bars and restaurants.
After you’ve checked into your hostel, hotel or house rental, get your bearings by wandering the main street. You’ll find it’s lined with eateries, a couple of grocers, a bank, butcher, tour operators, bike rentals and gift stores.
You can pick up some fresh fruit or pipa fria* from a local on the street, grab a smoothie and wrap from Pirata Deli on the beach, or an espresso, bagel or delicious Dreadnut salad (5,000) studded with avocado, mango, olives and cheese at Dreadnut cafe. A perfect spot to perch on a stool, catch the cool breeze and watch the waves roll in.
*Pipa fria is local lingo for cold coconut water, straight from the source – a coconut. Some guys even bottle it and keep it cool in an esky.
There are plenty of places to hang out during the day. That is if it’s not the beach.
Bookworms can settle into Café Rico, flick through some well-thumbed pages as you sip on good home-roasted coffee, some French toast or a sandwich. The garden setting is wonderful and if you look and listen carefully, you’ll see and hear plenty of tiny red dart frogs jumping and chirping in the foliage.
For some classic Costa Rican fare you need to head to a soda, which is basically a type of diner that offers local food at very affordable prices. Soda Requísimo is one such place where you can chow on some kind of casado – a plate that consists of rice and beans, some plantain, salad and type of meat.
Alternatively cool down with one of their excellent fresh juices, omelettes or the delicious arepa rellenas (12,000), which is more of an empanada that’s filled with ham, tomato, onion, sweet chilli and cheese.
Head to Bread & Chocolate Café for breakfast, local coffee and freshly baked breads. Where does the chocolate come into it? Check out the cabinet for many tempting truffles and tiny handmade chocolates, plus a few other chocolate products.
Bread & Chocolate Café
When the sun sets and the lights come on, parts of Puerto Viejo can turn into boozed-up party central. It depends where you go, really.
For a chilled beachfront location in a stunning set-up, there’s KoKi Beach Restaurant with its colourful cushions, lounges, fabulous cocktails, innovative menu and cruisy house beats. Go for the fab mojitos, and if you’re a vino drinker, they’re pretty generous on the pouring.
KoKi Beach Restaurant
Bike rental in Puerto Viejo costs around $5 a day, and thanks to the terrain being relatively flat, riding the coastal road is an easy exercise.
About 25 minutes east of the hamlet is one of the region’s biggest draws – the Jaguar Rescue Center. It came about after the first animal they tried to save – a jaguar – and ever since it has grown to house snakes, adult and baby sloths, monkeys, owls, anteaters, crocodiles and native cats. Plus many more.
This non-profit centre nurses injured or orphaned animals back to health, releasing them into the wild as soon as they’re good to go. Some can’t be released due to being kept as pets, and if this is the case, they’re released into the surrounding forest and offered food if they haven’t developed their own hunting skills.
Tours are conducted in English and Spanish, are held twice a day and last about two hours. Cost is $18. Highly recommended!
Jaguar Rescue Center
The tiny hamlet of Manzanillo is as far as you can go on the coastal road towards Panamá, and if you take a short diversion, you can stop in at Punta Uva which is meant to be the prettiest beach in the region. A little too windy for us, that day, so it wasn’t exactly somewhere we wanted to swim, or linger.
Manzanillo itself is a tiny cluster – and I mean tiny – of residential dwellings, a few eateries and not much more. The beach isn’t the best you’ll encounter, but it may be worth stopping to wet the toes and take a breather.
Drop into Coccoloba Lounge just metres from the rolling surf and countless coconut trees that line it. It’s a small cabaña with a handful of tables offering breakfast tortillas, omelettes, fruit and granola. Cool down with a fresh juice and fill up on a lunchtime empanada Caribeña (2,800) or rice & beans con pollo (4,000).
We booked our transport through Coopeguitours in Bocas Town. It includes the ferry back to Puerto Amirante, then a vehicle to the Costa Rican border. You’re dropped off at the border and met with your next driver, after paying the $4 at the border crossing, then taken in a mini-van to Puerto Viejo.
Departure from the Coopeguitours office in Bocas Town is 8am and arrival in Puerto Viejo is 11am. Cost is $25 per person. It’s secure, convenient and easy.
Note – When crossing the border you’re required to walk across a bridge between security points. When you’re first dropped off, a guy will grab your bags and trolley them over the bridge for you. This isn’t part of the service. He will expect to be paid after he’s done it. Alternatively, take your own luggage with you and save your beer money.