A monkey in Cahuita National Park, close to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

14 Incredible Things to do in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

I first visited Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in 2021, when it was a small, quiet coastal town whose small tourist trade had been all but demolished by Covid. I returned this year (February 2024) to find the place absolutely booming with tourists soaking up its lively atmosphere.

Now, “touristy” doesn’t suit a lot of places, but it suits Puerto Viejo, and you just have to accept it. If you’re one of those travellers that “doesn’t like going to touristy places” then don’t go here. Trust me, you’ll hate it. For the rest of you, embrace your inner gringo and get down to the coast, because the incredible Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica awaits.

The Caribbean is the gemstone of Central America and one of my favourite places to be in the whole world. There’s something magical about the vibe in these coastal towns, but none more than the town of Puerto Viejo. It’s one of the best things that Costa Rica has to offer and an absolute must-see on your itinerary.

I returned to Puerto Viejo for the second time on this bus route between San Jose and Cahuita/Puerto Viejo. (I’d also recommend giving Cahuita a visit on your way, if you have the time!)

Here are the best things to do in Puerto Viejo…

Walk Down Playa Cocles to the Black Sand Beach

Playa Cocles is by far the best beach in Puerto Viejo. It’s so big that it’s never too crowded, it’s the best surf spot in town (which isn’t such a great thing if you’re more into swimming, like me, but I love watching people surf, too!), and it has an amazing view of Isla Cocles, an uninhabited island just off the coast. There are a few bars and places to grab food on the side of Playa Cocles that’s closer to town, but as you walk further down it becomes more deserted, a little eerie, and eventually you’ll come across a pretty mysterious looking black sand beach (be careful not to get stuck out there at high tide!).

Now, of course, the best time to visit the beach is during the dry season (I went in the dry season this year). However, don’t automatically give it a miss if it starts to rain. It was rainy season the first time I went to Costa Rica and we still had an amazing time swimming despite the rain! 

Take a Day Trip to the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge 

Gandoca – Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, Limón is yet another animal-related activity that passes my animal cruelty tests with flying colours. This incredible refuge cares for some of the most endangered species of animals in the world, as well as the only natural mangrove oyster beds found on this coast. Their endangered animals list includes crocodiles, pacas, West Indian manatees, caimans, tapirs, tarpons, dolphins, green sea turtles and leatherback sea turtles. You have to be very careful in this Wildlife Refuge to be mindful of the habitats around you.

It is possible to hike this wildlife refuge without a guide, but I would recommend taking a guided tour as robberies have been reported in more remote areas. 

Take a Snorkeling Tour to see the Coral Reef 

Cahuita National Park, just north of Puerto Viejo, is home to an incredible 618 acres of coral reef. Of course, this makes it a popular spot for snorkelling whether you choose to do a tour or not, but I would recommend a tour because they’ll take you straight to the best spots and advise you on how you can take care of the coral reef and marine life whilst you’re there. Cahuita National Park is really nice, but it also closes early (as early as 2pm, depending on where you come in and leave from), so it’s important to make sure you make the most of your time there.

Visit Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park is a great place to visit for nature lovers, and is a little more accessible than the gandoca-manzanillo wildlife refuge, for example. If you enter from the entrances closer to Puerto Viejo the park closes at 3pm, so make sure you get up early to start your hike.

The hiking trail through the park is clearly marked, so you don’t need to worry too much about getting lost.

There are quite strict rules on what you can and can’t take into the park, including no cigarettes, no disposable plastic, and limits on food. I recommend not taking any food with you at all, because I have heard more than one horror story about people being attacked by howler monkeys in Cahuita National Park, and when we did the hike ourselves we were turned back by some hikers that told us aggressive monkeys were up ahead (and we saw an abandoned t shirt and pair of sunglasses on the floor to prove it…)

Read more about Costa Rica: How to Take the Bus from Nicaragua to Costa Rica

Spend the Day in Cahuita

I’ve already mentioned Cahuita quite a lot in my articles because I really enjoyed my time there. It’s a very small, less touristy town just a 20 minute drive from Puerto Viejo.

We spent three days there and have some wild stories to show for it, but my all time favourite was watching my friend get completely accosted by a Costa Rican girl who fell head over heels for him while he sang Backstreet Boys at karaoke. This was the very same bar we sat at two days later when one of the locals, who knew us by this point, returned another friend’s phone that he’d lost dancing down the street belting out the Fray. Like I say, wild times. 

Although we had the best time getting to know the locals, one day is probably enough to see the whole of Cahuita.

Getting between the two towns is a bit of a pain in the ass – the easiest way is to take a taxi, which works out fairly cheaply if there’s four of you (around $20 total). (By the way, here’s your guide to money and currencies in Costa Rica). You can take the Mepe bus but it’s unreasonably expensive given that you have to pay for the whole bus route that came from San Jose at around $12 per person. Other options are to take an unauthorised taxi (cheaper but more risky), hire a scooter (fun but also a bit risky), or find someone willing to make the journey in a tuk tuk. 

Remember that you do need to get back in the evening and, whilst Uber does exist in Costa Rica, finding one in Cahuita late at night is near impossible (which my friends learned the hard way about half an hour before they had to sleep on the beach with me 100% oblivious, safe in my hostel dorm). 

(And no, that’s not even all of my Cahuita stories!)

Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center

I usually don’t like to encourage activities that involve animals because they are so often and so easily exploited. However, the Jaguar Rescue Centre in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a completely transparent organisation and does really great work in conservation and research, as well as providing a home for injured and recovering animals (not just jaguars!). You can read more about the Jaguar Rescue Center’s incredible work here.

Try Caribbean Food on the Beach

I’m sure there are many places to try Caribbean food on the beach in Puerto Viejo, and I’m sure they’re all amazing, but I need to tell you about the one we went to. It was a small food truck on the street in front of the beach called McCloud’s Munchies and the two boys I was travelling with were instantly drawn in by the smell of cooking chicken. We went over to enquire and the guy at the stall told us it would be ready in half an hour. Already convinced, we wandered around for probably exactly thirty minutes before we went back. 

Of course, I’m vegetarian, so there was no chicken for me. I paid a little less and got extra plantain and extra salad, along with a huge helping of rice totally smothered in jerk sauce. And let me tell you, this is one of the best places in town to get jerk sauce. 

The boys obsessed over their chicken.

I obsessed over my jerk rice (and I know it sounds like I’m lying, but no, it really doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on anything…)

We took our takeaway boxes down to the beach and watched the world go by in a picturesque whirlwind of waves and sunbeams and reggae music. It was a vibe, and this simple moment was one of my favourites from Puerto Viejo.

Read more about Costa Rica: How to Plan the Perfect 10 Day Itinerary

Take a Chocolate Tour 

I am the kind of person that’s really into my chocolate, and I was very tempted when I saw the signs for a chocolate tour in Puerto Viejo right next to our hostel. I didn’t actually end up going (I was travelling with two guys and, let’s be honest, I wasn’t even going to try and convince them to go on a chocolate tour vs. hiking through the jungle), but upon some research I discovered it’s more than just a chocolate tour. You start with a short hike through a sustainable cacao forest, learning how cocoa is grown and harvested, before heading back to your chocolate tasting with Caribeans Chocolate and Coffee.

Visit Playa Punta Uva 

Playa Punta Uva is a spectacular sight around 10km from Puerto Viejo. You can hike it, of course, but it’s also easily reachable by bike (more on how to hire a bike later!), by car, and by public bus. If you’re not up for hiring a bike or are saving that for another day, you can take the bus towards Mazanillo (which goes every 1-2 hours) and get off at Playa Punta Uva (you can ask in the bus station which buses are going to Playa Punta Uva and they’ll be able to tell you). Playa Punta Uva is one of the most magical beaches in this region, and feels a million miles from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Take Some Surf Lessons

Although most people will tell you that the Pacific Coast is amongst the best places for surfing (and, well, they would be right), the waves down at Playa Cocles are pretty sizable and a great place to start learning. You don’t need to look far in the town of Puerto Viejo to find somewhere selling surf lessons!

Go to Playa Negra

Playa Negra literally means “Black Beach” but, interestingly, you won’t see the same black sand that you would find on the other side of Playa Cocles. Instead the sand is a more muddy grey colour, formed of volcanic materials, which is pretty cool. It’s something in between a true black sand beach and the white sand beaches you usually expect from the Caribbean Coast.

Visit the Bri Bri Waterfalls 

Visiting the Bri Bri Waterfalls is something else that didn’t quite make it off my list. It’s a true shame because it looks absolutely stunning and quite isolated. The Bri Bri Waterfalls are a bit off the beaten track, so if you’re lucky you might get the whole thing to yourself. Similarly to the Wildlife Refuge, there have been increased reports of robberies in this area, which is unfortunate but tourists are a hot target for robbers, especially when they’re in the middle of nowhere! Be sure to only take what you need, and either make the most of a guided tour or take a local guide with you when you go.

Enjoy a Reggae Night at Salsa Brava Beach Bar

Speaking of reggae music… reggae music it’s got to be one of the most iconic things that came from the Caribbean and your visit there would not be complete without it. Again, you can hear reggae music floating out from just about any corner as you walk down the main strip in Puerto Viejo, but somewhere guaranteed to have live music and a good time is Salsa Brava Beach Bar.

Rent a Bike

So, I’ve already mentioned a couple of places that are ideal to get to with a bike, but if you’re not feeling too adventurous they can even just be a cute way to get from the town centre to Playa Cocles (otherwise a 10-15 minute walk). 

There are 101 bike rental places in Puerto Viejo, but make sure you ask them what kind of bike you’re renting before you climb on! 

We (knowingly) rented bikes on which you have to pedal backwards to break. Yep, you read that right! It was a little tricky to get the hang of at first, but it was a cool novelty and something a little different to hiring normal bikes.

Next Stop…

After spending a few days exploring Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, we travelled to Bocas del Toro in Panama. Expect more travel guides soon! 

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