Visiting Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

Two sets of footprints dot the beach as light reflects off the water.

Stopping at the beach in Puerto Viejo while on a cacao tour. Photo © Everjean, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

About 13 kilometers (8 miles) south of Cahuita, the road forks just after Hone Creek (also spelled Home Creek). The main road turns east toward Bribrí; a spur leads three kilometers (2 miles) to Playa Negra, a black-sand beach that curls east to Puerto Viejo, enclosing a small bay with a capsized barge in its center. The tiny headland of Punta Pirikiki at its eastern end separates Puerto Viejo from the sweep of beaches—Playa Pirikiki, Playa Chiquita, and others—that run all the way to Manzanillo and Panamá. You can walk along the beach from Cahuita at low tide.

The surfer, backpacker, and counterculture crowds are firmly rooted here and dominate the scene, having settled and established bistros and restaurants alongside the locals.Puerto Viejo is one of the most happenin’ spots in Costa Rica. The discos are hopping, and on peak weekends, you can’t find a room to save your soul. Nonetheless, it is low-key and funky. The surfer, backpacker, and counterculture crowds are firmly rooted here and dominate the scene, having settled and established bistros and restaurants alongside the locals. Drugs traded up the coast from Colombia find their way here, and the whiff of ganja (marijuana) drifts on the air. Violent crime has risen accordingly: In March 2013, the U.S. Embassy issued a warning: “Armed robbery continues to be the primary criminal threat facing tourists in the Southern Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica.”

The first deluxe hotels, however, have opened, as have malls, although a proposed 398-slip marina was killed in 2008 due to local opposition.

Demand is high for accommodations; make your reservation in advance or secure a room as soon as you arrive. Beware touts who wait as the bus arrives and try to entice you to specific lodgings—they’re known to tell lies to dissuade you from any specific place you may already have in mind. Refer to the accommodations section starting on page 213 of Moon Costa Rica best of dozens of options.

The overpriced Cacao Trails (tel. 506/2756- 8186, $25), at Hone Creek, is a cacao farm with a tiny “chocolate museum.” There are also crocodiles, a snake exhibit, a museum on indigenous culture, and a botanical garden, plus canoeing ($25) on canals through the cacao plantation. Stay a while and enjoy a meal at the thatched restaurant.

Map of Puerto Viejo and Vicinity, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo and Vicinity

Sights in Puerto Viejo

Finca la Isla Botanical Garden

The five-hectare (12-acre) Finca la Isla Botanical Garden (tel. 506/2750-0046, 10am-4pm Fri.-Mon., self-guided tour $6, guided tour for 3 or more people $8-10 pp), one kilometer (0.6 miles) west of town, is a treat for anyone interested in nature. Here, Lindy and Peter Kring grow spices, exotic fruits, and ornamental plants for sale, and even makes his own chocolate from cacao. You can sample the fruits and even learn about chocolate production. There’s also a self-guided booklet ($1). Toucans and sloths are commonly seen, and four species of poison dart frogs make their homes in the bromeliads grown for sale. You’re virtually guaranteed to see them hopping around underfoot even as you step from your car. The finca is 400 meters (0.25 miles) from the road and 200 meters (660 feet) west of El Pizote Lodge, and it’s signed. Lunches are offered by arrangement.

Kèköldi Indigenous Reserve

The 3,547-hectare (8,765-acre) Reserva Indígena Kèköldi, in the hills immediately west of Puerto Viejo, extends south to the borders of the Gandoca-Manzanillo refuge. It is home to some 200 Bribrí and Cabecar people. Reforestation and other conservation projects are ongoing. Gloria Mayorga, coauthor of Taking Care of Sibo’s Gift, educates visitors on indigenous history and ways.

You can visit the Iguana Farm ($1.50) where green iguanas are raised; the turnoff is 400 meters (0.25 miles) south of Hone Creek, beside Abastacedor El Cruce, then 200 meters (660 feet) along the dirt road.

The Talamanca Association for Ecotourism and Conservation (ATEC, tel. 506/2750-0398, 8am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.) arranges tours (from half-day $20, full-day $35). The Costa Rican Association of Community-Based Rural Tourism (tel. 506/2248-9470) also offers tours.

You can spend a day at Aiko-Logi-Tours (tel. 506/2750-2084. com, $60 including transfers), a 135-hectare (334-acre) sustainable farm and rainforest four kilometers (2.5 miles) west of Hone Creek. It’s a perfect locale for hiking, swimming in crisp mountain pools, and engaging with nature. Volunteers are welcome to work on various ecooriented projects. You can sleep here in tents on overnight tours ($99 pp, including transfers).

The Kèköldi Scientific Center (tel. 506/2756-8136) works to safeguard the local environment through research projects. It welcomes volunteers and offers dorm accommodations ($20 per night, including meals). You can also donate to The Bridge (tel. 506/2750-0524), a community-assistance organization that works to help indigenous communities help themselves.

Entertainment and Events in Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo is known for its lively bars and discos, and folks travel from as far afield as Limón to bop.

The happenin’ bar is the Tex-Mex (from 6pm daily until the last guest staggers home), which epitomizes Puerto Viejo’s laid-back philosophy; its cocktail list runs from mojitos to orgasmos, and its Jungle Open-Air Cinema shows Hollywood movies at 6pm, 8pm, and 10pm nightly.

A seven-piece band plays merengue, salsa, and calypso at Mango Sunset (tel. 506/8594-2923), a disco-bar, 4:30pm-6:30pm daily; it also has a Tuesday-night open jam, and Latin jazz and “roots” music on Thursday, plus occasional beach barbecues and its trademark pirate’s party.

For a groovy disco-lounge scene, Baba Yaga (tel. 506/2750-0587) is the reggae hot spot on almost any night of the week, while next door, high-octane Glow competes with nightly themed music: Latin on Sunday, Hip-Hop and R&B on Wednesday, etc.

Bar Maritza (on the waterfront, tel. 506/2750-0003) packs ’em in for karaoke (Fri.) and live music (Sat.-Sun.) with reggae, calypso, and salsa.

Johnny’s Place (tel. 506/2750-0445, 6pm-2:30am Mon., noon-2:30am Tues.-Sat.) has a bonfire drawing patrons to dance in the sand. El Dorado (tel. 506/2750-0604, 8am-midnight daily), on the main drag, has a bar, a pool table, board games, and movies on a TV.

Each Fall, Puerto Viejo hosts the ArteViva Festival (tel. 506/8729-3888), a three-day festival dedicated to Caribbean art and culture, with fireworks, live music, and art exhibits.

Sports and Recreation in Puerto Viejo

The local community organization ATEC (tel. 506/2750-0398, 8am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.) offers hiking and nature excursions, including into the Kèköldi reserve. Hiking and horseback trips into Kèköldi (7 hours, $25 pp, including box lunch and a contribution to the Indian Association) are also offered by Mauricio Salazar from Chimuri Beach Retreat (tel./fax 506/2750-0119). Threeday trips cost $140, including overnight stays with the locals.

Terraventuras (tel. 506/2750-0750) and Exploradores Outdoors (tel. 506/2750-2020), in Centro Comercial Puerto Viejo, offer a range of tours from local rainforest hikes to canopy zip lines and ocean kayaking. Bad Monkey (tel. 506/2756-8017) and Gecko Trail Adventures (tel. 506/2750- 0730) offer similar trips.

For horseback-riding adventures, call Caribe Horse Riding Club (tel. 506/8705-4250) at Playa Negra.

Puerto Viejo is legendary among the surfing crowd. November through April, especially, the village is crowded with surfers, who come for a killer six-meter (20-foot) storm-generated wave called La Salsa Brava. Beach Break, at Playa Cocles, about three kilometers (2 miles) south of Puerto Viejo, is good for novices and intermediates. Snorkelers should use extreme caution in these waters, and never snorkel during rough weather.

Reef Runner Divers (tel. 506/2750-0480) offers guided dive tours (1 tank $50, 2 tanks $80, night dive $60), PADI certification ($325), and dolphin ($75) and snorkeling ($35) tours. Juppy & Mikey Adventures (tel. 506/2750-0621) has kayak tours to Gandoca and also rents kayaks, boogie boards, and snorkeling and surfing gear, as do Caribbean Surfing (tel. 506/8357-7703), which also offers lessons, and Salsa Brava Surf Shop (tel. 506/2750-0689). For private lessons, call Hershel Gordon (tel. 506/8357-7703, $50 for 2 hours, including transportation and surfboard). He also offers a kayak tour on the Río Punta Uva.

Food in Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo has a cosmopolitan range of eateries, even gourmet cuisine. For breakfast, I head to Bread and Chocolate (tel. 506/2750-0723, 6:30am-6:30pm Tues.-Sat., 6:30am-2:30pm Sun.) for killer cinnamon-oatmeal pancakes ($4), crispy sautéed potatoes with jerk barbecue sauce, grilled sandwiches, and more. Competing in style and substance, Café Rico (tel. 506/2750-0510, 6am-2pm Fri.-Wed.) is a laid-back place serving food on a palm-fringed veranda; Roger, the English owner, serves huevos rancheros ($4), omelets ($4), granola with yogurt and fruit ($3.50), pancakes, and sandwiches. I recommend the Annarosa special: fried potatoes with cheddar cheese, fried eggs, and bacon ($4). It has a book exchange and bicycle rentals.

Alternatively, consider Pan Pay Panadería (tel. 506/2750-0081, 7am-5pm daily), which serves omelets and scrambled breakfasts (from $2.50) and has fruit salads ($2) and fruit-filled pastries, croissants, breads, tortillas, and coffees. The Caribbean Coffee & Chocolate Factory (tel. 506/2750-0850, 7am-9pm Mon.-Fri., 7am-9pm Sat.-Sun.) is a cool spot to enjoy home-baked muffins, macadamia cookies, multigrain breads, and veggie dishes, plus organic coffee and chocolate drinks. It has free Wi-Fi. The squeaky-clean Puerto Viejo Bakery (tel. 506/2750-0511, 7am-7pm daily) sells delicious fresh-baked baguettes, french rolls, croissants, and chocolate cake. For a light lunch, Sel et Sucre Crêperie & Fruit Bar (tel. 506/2750-0636, noon-9:30pm Tues.-Sun.) serves delicious crepes. The clean, air-conditioned Fruit & Veggie Land (no tel., 8am-7pm Mon.-Sat., 8:30am-7pm Sun.) sells fresh salads plus fruit juices and batidos (milk shakes).

Justifiably popular by night, Chile Rojo (tel. 506/2750-0025, 9am-10pm daily), upstairs in the Centro Comercial Puerto Viejo, packs in diners who come to savor Asian-inspired dishes. I recommend the veggie samosa with tamarind chutney ($3.50), Thai fish-and-coconut soup ($6), and the delicious green curry with coconut milk and veggies ($9). There is an allyou- can-eat sushi and Asian buffet ($12) on Monday nights.

Restaurante Tamara (tel. 506/2750-0148, 11:30am-10pm Thurs.-Tues., $5-10) has a shaded patio done up in Rastafarian colors. The menu runs to burgers and típico dishes such as fried fish with patacones (plantain), plus great batidos. For genuine Caribbean fare, head to Jammin’ (tel. 506/8826-4332, 9am- 9pm daily), a small Rasta-styled soda with treetrunk stools. I recommend the jerk chicken ($5) and roast fish ($3.50). It has tremendous rootsy Jamaican atmosphere. Another atmospheric local charmer, Veronica’s Place (tel. 506/2750-0263, 10am-8pm Sun.-Thurs., 10am-4pm Fri., 7am-10pm Sat.), above Color Caribe on the main drag, offers an open-air perch in a colorful Caribbean structure. Veronica serves pancakes, omelets, and gallo pinto breakfast, plus a large vegetarian menu with raw-food dishes. Veronica also offers cooking classes (and rents charming and simple rooms for $20 pp). She accepts volunteers for the kitchen and at her organic farm in Cocles.

Meanwhile, the world’s your oyster at Stashu’s Con Fusión (tel. 506/2750-0530, 5pm-10pm Thurs.-Tues.), with an eclectic globe-spanning menu and nightly specials. How about spicy chicken chocolate chili with garlic roasted mash potatoes? Or macadamia-crusted fillet of snapper in white chocolate and lemon cream sauce? It specializes in organic dishes, and has a groovy open-air ambience.

Good for a moonlit dinner of fresh red snapper on the sands is The Beachhut (tel. 506/2750-0895, 11am-noon Tues.-Sun.). Maybe start with mango, avocado, and shrimp salad, or mahimahi with guacamole and yucca. Linger afterward in a hammock with a mojito made by “Fungy,” alias owner Juan Carlos.

For an airy oceanfront setting head to the offbeat Spanish-run Salsa Brava (tel. 506/2750-0241, noon-11pm Tues.-Sun., $4- 15), with rainbow-hued furniture. The menu includes tuna ceviche salad, caesar salad with chicken teriyaki, and grilled garlic fish, plus sangria and ice cream. Portions are huge and the fare is surprisingly good. Nearby, the beachfront Restaurante Parquecito (tel. 506/2750-0748, noon-midnight daily, $5- 10) offers a fabulous ambience, with pendulous surfboards. It’s good for cheap casados and specializes in simple seafood. Café Viejo (tel. 506/2750-0817, 6pm-10pm daily), the snazziest place in town, serves good Italian fare, including pizzas (from $3), pastas ($5), and a large dessert menu.

At night, a delightful Jamaican lady named Bou Bou sells jerk chicken from her street-side stand outside Johnny’s Place. “Miss Sam” bakes tarts and bread and offers meals at Soda Miss Sam’s. For ice creams, sundaes, and shakes, head to Lechería Las Lapas (no tel., 10am- 10pm daily). There’s a feria agricola (farmers market) every Saturday morning.

Information and Services

ATEC (tel. 506/2750-0398, 8am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.) is the informal node of local activity and acts as a visitor information bureau.

Dr. Pablo Brenes (Calle 213, Aves. 69/71, tel. 506/8333-7317) has a clinic and speaks English. There’s also a medical clinic (tel. 506/2750-0079, emergency tel. 506/8870- 8029, 10am-7pm Mon.-Fri., for emergencies Sat.-Sun.) at the entrance to town, plus a dental clinic (tel. 506/2750-0303, emergency tel. 506/2750-0389) 50 meters (165 feet) inland of the beachfront bus stop.

The police station (tel. 506/2750-0230) is next to Johnny’s Place. There’s a bank with ATM, plus a pharmacy, in Centro Comercial Mané; and, 50 meters (165 feet) south, Mall Caribeño has a pharmacy (tel. 506/2750- 2109), a laundry (8am-7pm daily), and the post office (tel. 506/2750-0404). Café Rico also has laundry service using biodegradable products and offers free coffee while you wait.

The ATEC office has public phones (tel. 506/2750-0188).

Getting There and Away

The bus fare from San José to Puerto Viejo is $8, and from Limón $2. Transportes Mepe (tel. 506/2257-8129) buses depart the Gran Caribe terminal in San José for Puerto Viejo at 6am, 10am, noon, 2pm, and 4pm daily and run via Cahuita. Return buses depart Puerto Viejo (tel. 506/2750-0023) for San José at 7:30am, 9am, 11am, and 4pm daily, and for Limón hourly 7:30am-7:30pm daily. The Puerto Limón-Puerto Viejo buses are usually crowded; get to the station early.

Interbus (tel. 506/2283-5579) operates minibus shuttles from San José. Caribe Shuttle (tel. 506/2750-0626) offers bus service to Bocas del Toro and Panamá City from Puerto Viejo ($32) at 7am and 1:30pm daily. Navi Tours (tel. 506/7037-2458, also has shuttle from San José ($35) at 6:15am daily, returning at 2pm daily.

Getting Around

You can rent beach-cruiser bicycles from Tienda Marcos (tel. 506/2750-0303, $6 per day, $48 per week) and from Surf Rentals (tel. 506/8375-7328, For ATV rentals, head to Dragonfly Quad Rentals (tel. 506/2750-2067, $55 for 5 hours, $75 per day). For scooters ($15 for 1 hour, $40 for 6 hours, $50 per day, $250 per week) and golf carts ($60 per day, $300 per week) head to Red Eye Cart & Scooter Rental (tel. 506/8395- 6211). Poás Rent-a-Car (tel. 506/2750-0400) has an outlet here.

Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.

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