The Coasts: Pacific vs. Caribbean
Many people have asked us which coast we preferred. That question is actually really difficult to answer, because both coasts have so much to offer and we really loved both. I highly recommend visiting both coasts if you can because they are so different. In order to save some time, I suggest starting your trip on one coast, going to La Fortuna (or wherever) , and then going to the other coast.
Just in case there is only time to visit one or the other, here are my personal thoughts on each of them.
I can only speak from our experience and very limited time in Samara. We were only there for two nights, and I would gladly go back again. Samara has a funky feel; there are surf schools, tourists, locals…a nice mix. It’s not overrun by tourists, which allows the town to keep its character. The beach is very clean, and we found the water to be fairly clear, warm, and calm. There were not many people on the beach at any given time. Spending at least a day or two (or more) at Playa Carrillo should also be on your must-do list. Carrillo is beautiful…there are no restaurants or bars or hotels on the beach, so it has an even more tropical feel. The water is even more beautiful and clear…it was definitely one of my favorite beaches of the entire trip. The walk from Samara to Carrillo is long, but the exercise is great and the reward is priceless.
The sun was really hot on the Pacific side. A sun hat is a must, as well as the strongest sunblock you can find. When we went to Carrillo, I applied SPF 50 at least 3 times and I still got really burnt. THANK GOD our hotel had air conditioning, because we would have been miserable without it. Our hotel was okay, and we only stayed there because 4 of us were sharing the $110/night cost. We would have NEVER paid that for just 2 people. There are lots of cool looking places on the beach in Samara, but I recommend double-checking that they have A/C.
The people in Samara and Carrillo were wonderful. Friendly, helpful, welcoming. I never felt unsafe…I walked down to the beach by myself at night (I was trying to get a picture of the Milky Way, which was impossible of course) and never felt uncomfortable. There are sidewalk vendors selling clay pots and jewelry and all kinds of other things…all of them were so nice and the prices were great. I regret not buying pottery there because the same stuff was way more expensive in Puerto Viejo.
Puerto Viejo (we visited Cahuita, PV, and Manzanillo)
We spent the most amount of time in Puerto Viejo – 5 nights. Our guest house was right on the beach, and I can’t say enough wonderful things about Banana Azul. If you don’t mind taking taxis or taking the bus to Manzanillo/Cahuita, then you don’t need a car in Puerto Viejo (especially if you stay in town).
The beaches on the Caribbean side were breathtaking. Playa Negra is pretty, but my least favorite of the three we visited in Puerto Viejo. Cahuita is my middle choice, and Manzanillo blows both of them out of the water. Playa Negra offered some pretty big waves for our first day there, so that was awesome, but Cahuita and Manzanillo both had very very calm water.
There seemed to be so much to do in Puerto Viejo and the surrounding areas. You can snorkel in Cahuita National Park or Manzanillo, do jungle hikes to see lots of wildlife, relax on the beach, etc. I felt like we didn’t have enough time to do everything, but we managed to fit in almost all we wanted to do.
Puerto Viejo is a super funky reggae town. The culture there is totally different from the Pacific side, which is why we wanted to go; we wanted to experience different cultures within the country. Afro-Caribbean is the main nationality in Puerto Viejo, with a mix of ex-Pats from other countries and Ticos. Bob Marley is king. Reggae music blasts from many restaurants and bars (and it was really relaxing actually). There are live bands playing at night, which gives the town a really exciting feel. The downside is that there are not many street lights (and by not many, I mean 2) and walking in the dark can be a bit intimidating. We were warned to not carry a lot of cash or valuables with us because non-violent muggings happen. I do know they can happen ANYWHERE so this is not a problem only in Puerto Viejo…but this was the only place we were warned of it. Just putting that out there. The people weren’t as friendly as in Samara, but again, the culture is very different. When we took the time and made an effort to talk to shop keepers or locals, they were usually very responsive…just not as warm in the beginning.
The weather was PERFECT. It was still very hot, but there were more ocean breezes. We were able to sleep with only fans and a sheet as a blanket. On at least 2 nights, I had to put on a long-sleeve shirt in order to sleep because the temperature dropped. We were fortunate and only saw about two seconds of rain. It rained once or twice while we were sleeping, but during the day, we had absolutely perfect weather.
Food and souveniers are a bit more expensive in Puerto Viejo, but still pretty reasonable. Accomadations can be found from Cahuita down to Manzanillo (Punta Uva, Playa Cocles, Puerto Viejo, etc) and range in price from $8/night to $300+.
I hope some of this information helps…but again, definitely visit BOTH COASTS if you have time! The public buses are cheap (look for the DIRECT bus and avoid the other ones) and dependable. I would definitely just use the public bus system if I had to do it all again. We didn’t plan well enough and had to go from one side to the other, and no bus does that.
Please feel free to ask any questions!