Costa Rica is a small country which has borders on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Although it is a small country, it can take a long time to drive between each coast. Most travelers who visit for a week or two tend to only visit one coast. However, which coast should that be? Should you visit the Costa Rica Pacific side or Caribbean side?
We created this guide to break down the pro’s and cons of each coast and to help you decide the best place to visit based on your travel plans.
Places to Visit on the Costa Rica Pacific Coast
The top places to visit on the Pacific coast are: Playas del Coco, Tamarindo, Nosara, Samara, Santa Teresa, Montezuma, Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, Uvita, Puerto Jiminez, and Drake Bay.
Places to Visit on the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast
The top places on the Caribbean Coast are: Tortuguero, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo.
Best Time of Year for the Pacific Coast
The dry season on the Pacific runs from late December until the end of April. During this time you can expect blue skies and dry weather. However, this is also the most popular time to visit Costa Rica. Prices tend to be higher.
From May until August you can expect prices to go down, everything to turn green again, and daily afternoon rain storms.
September through December can be really wet and cloudy, but you just never know. Sometimes you will actually have great weather.
Best Time of Year for the Caribbean Coast
The best time to visit the Caribbean coast is between August and December. This is considered the dry season. We have had very good luck with complete sunny days during that time of year.
That being said, if there is a tropical storm passing through in the fall you can obviously expect some stormy weather. Costa Rica actually very rarely gets hit by any tropical storms or hurricanes (like once every few years), but there have been a few in the past few years.
During the Caribbean rainy season, it can rain hard! However, usually, it rains at night and in the early morning. It seems to typically stop by midday.
We have also visited in April and had absolutely zero rain for our entire trip. It’s just so hard to predict!
We created a complete guide to the weather throughout the country by month.
Top Things to Do on the Pacific Coast
There is just so much to do on the Pacific that it is difficult to narrow it down! Here are just some of our favorites.
– Hike at Corcovado National Park. Corcovado National Park is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It is possible to do a day hike here or spend a night or two inside the park. You can find out more with our guide to Corcovado National Park.
– Check out the whale’s tale at Marino Ballena National Park. During low tide, it is possible to walk out on a jut of land into the ocean in Uvita. From above this jut of land looks just like the tale of a whale. We created a guide to Marino Ballena National Park to help you plan your visit.
Throughout the year you may also have the chance to see a humpback whale here.
– Hike at Manuel Antonio National Park. Manuel Antonio National Park is the most popular tourist destination in Costa Rica. You can see tons of wildlife here within a condensed space. Plus the beaches are really nice.
We have a complete guide to Manuel Antonio National Park for you.
– Go surfing at one of the many great surfing beaches. Costa Rica is a super popular surf destination. Some of the best surf beaches are Dominical, Santa Teresa, Nosara, Samara, and Tamarindo.
– Go bioluminescent kayaking on the Nicoya Peninsula. Have you ever seen bioluminescence? It is a really cool experience.
The best spot we have found for bioluminescent kayaking in Costa Rica is in Paquera (next to the ferry landing) on the Nicoya Peninsula. Bahia Rica does tours every evening. Try to go when it is a new moon for the darkest waters and best experience.
– Do some sport fishing. The Pacific coast is a great place for fishing! There are various fishing options depending on your budget. We created a complete guide to fishing in Costa Rica to help you out.
– Go snorkeling. There are several great places to snorkel on the Pacific coast. It is always possible to take a tour with a boat out to some good spots, but if you would like to stick to a budget you can always just bring your own snorkel mask and swim out from shore.
– Relax at a beach bar. There are some amazing beach bars on the Pacific coast. Our two personal favorites are Lola’s near Tamarindo and Banana Beach Restaurant in Santa Teresa. We also have a complete guide to all our favorite beach bars in Costa Rica.
– Watch the sunset. There isn’t any real bad place to see the sunset on the Pacific. You will have an amazing view no matter where you go.
We like to find a restaurant on the beach or on the cliffs and watch the sunset while eating dinner. Sunset occurs around 5:30 pm year round.
– See baby sea turtles make their way into the ocean. The best place to see sea turtles is at Ostional beach near Nosara.
– Go swimming. The beaches in Costa Rica are great for swimming. The water is always the perfect temperature. Just as someone before swimming, there are rip currents at several beaches.
Top Things to Do on the Caribbean Coast
– See sea turtles in Tortuguero. Between July and November, it is possible to see big momma sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs. To view this unique experience you will need to set up an evening tour with a registered guide. Your hotel in Tortuguero can arrange this for you.
– Go on a wildlife canoe ride. Head out on a guided canoe from Tortuguero National Park and you are sure to spot tons of wildlife. These canoe trips tend to occur early in the morning (around 6am) when the animals are the most active.
There is no need to book this ahead of time. Just ask at your hotel in Tortuguero on the day before and they can set it up for you.
– Hike Cahuita National Park. Cahuita National Park is our favorite national park in Costa Rica. We created a complete guide to Cahuita National Park to help you out.
– Party in Puerto Viejo. Puerto Viejo is a popular destination with backpackers. If you are interested in doing some partying, there is a great nightlife scene here.
– Visit the nice beaches near Puerto Viejo. Just south of Puerto Viejo are a bunch of very nice beaches. Our favorites are Punta Uva and Playa Manzanillo.
– Head down to Bocas del Toro, Panama. The Panama border is about 45 minutes south of Puerto Viejo. From there you can easily get to Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Bocas del Toro is a collection of small islands that feel like literal paradise with bright turquoise waters. We have a complete guide to Bocas del Toro to help you out.
– Watch the sunrise. Sunrise happens around 5:30 am every day. Our personal favorite spot to watch the sunrise is on Playa Negra in Cahuita.
Getting to the Pacific Coast
Both international Airports (San Jose and Liberia) are great options for visiting the Pacific Coast. Also, if you are traveling down from Nicaragua it is easy to get to the Pacific beaches.
From Liberia airport, the closest big beach towns are Playas del Coco and Tamarindo. These are also the closest beach towns from Nicaragua. The drive from the airport to both towns is very easy, on flat well-maintained roads.
From San Jose, the closest beach towns are Jaco and Manuel Antonio. This drive is along a well-maintained highway and frequently driven. Just be aware that there are tolls on this road. Also, the lanes frequently change from one to two lanes. Look out for the signs.
It is also possible to travel by public bus or private shuttle. We find the public bus to be an OK option if you are just going to one destination, but if you plan on visiting several places it can be a challenge due to poor connections. Sometimes you will have to go back to San Jose before connecting to your next destination.
Getting to the Caribbean Coast
It is best to get to the Caribbean coast from the San Jose airport. Driving from Liberia airport will take you a very long time. Also, if you are coming up from Panama, we suggest visiting the Caribbean coast.
The drive from the San Jose airport can be a bit stressful at first. You will have to drive through some back roads of San Jose. We suggest starting this drive after 9 am and before 2 pm because during rush hour it can be a nightmare.
Once you get through San Jose the drive becomes very pleasant. You will drive on well-maintained roads through Braulio Carillo National Park. I love this drive because it always feels like you are entering Jurassic Park.
After you get through the national park you will drive towards the city of Liberia. Sometimes things back up a bit here because this is the main port for exporting bananas (you will see tons of banana plantations on both sides of the road).
Once you get to Liberia you will take a right and head down the coast. These roads are really nice. You will get plenty of glimpses of the Caribbean.
If you would like to travel by bus, that is a great option as well. The bus leaves from downtown San Jose several times throughout the day. The bus runs to the border town of Sixaola, but it also stops at Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
You can find out more about the bus schedule on the Mepe website.
How to Visit Both Coasts
It is definitely possible to visit both coasts on your trip. We would suggest a minimum of a two-week stay in Costa Rica if you plan to visit both coasts. It’s just a lot of driving to go to both sides and to actually spend the time to enjoy each area. Also, there are several places in the middle of the country which we suggest exploring as well (La Fortuna & Monteverde).
If you do opt to visit both coasts we suggest doing this route: San Jose -> Cahuita or Puerto Viejo -> Tortuguero -> La Fortuna -> Monteverde -> Pacific beaches of your choice.
One of my Costa Rica goals is to watch the sunrise on the Caribbean and watch the sunset on the Pacific in one day. I grew up near Boston. It would never be possible for me to watch the sunrise on the Atlantic and then drive to the Pacific for the sunset. I just find it so cool that Costa Rica is small enough that you could actually do that.
Anyway, if you are weird like me and think this sounds cool, it is definitely doable. I’d suggest watching the sunrise in Cahuita and then heading to Jaco for the sunset (it’s the closest Pacific beach). The drive will take about 5 hours.
Our Opinion on Each Costa Rica Coast
It is hard for us to say that the Costa Rica Pacific side or Caribbean side is better than the other. We suggest making your decision based on the things you want to do and the projected weather for the time you are visiting.
Most people do not visit the Caribbean coast. The Pacific beaches are definitely far more popular because they are typically white sand beaches.
The thing we love about the Caribbean is that it has such a unique vibe that you won’t find in the rest of Costa Rica. There is a Rasta vibe in the towns here and it is just so fun!
We typically tend to visit the Pacific coast more than the Caribbean because there is more to see (and it’s better for fishing and that is how Thomas makes all travel decisions in life).
No matter which coast you opt to visit you are bound to have an amazing time!
If you have any questions about the Costa Rica Pacific side or Caribbean side just leave them in the comment section below and we will get back to you ASAP. We are always happy to help you out! Also, if you have any other tips for travelers, let us know! We love to hear your opinions!
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