Why You Should Go to the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica

Spring cometh and it is time for some well-deserved family travel adventures. In search of a place with beach shacks and not oceanfront condos with a sprinkle of jungle love, I found myself drawn to the Limon province on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Stretching from the gateway town of Puerto Limon all the way down to the border with Panama, this region echoes the true meaning of laid back beach living. You won’t find any big resorts or condo developments on the oceanfront (or elsewhere), just a bunch of people in search of “Pura Vida” [the pure life].

If you are looking for fancy pants luxury and michelin starred restaurants, you may find disappointment in the infrastructure of Limon Province. But for “middle of the road” travelers (and backpackers), there is something for everyone. You’ll learn very quick that this is the land of early risers, since darkness comes sooner than you might expect. It is not uncommon to see the buzz of people as early as after daybreak (around 6am these days). Surprisingly you can get a lot done being an early riser or a whole lot of nothing! Hey, it’s your vacation, do whatcha like.

Which leads me to…some of the top reasons to visit Limon Province:

1. Whether you have a new baby or a gaggle of kids, this place will suit their needs

We found there weren’t any real safety issues (barring some local driving techniques and potential petty theft). So you can have some peace of mind in letting your kids run around like banshees. There are tons of other kiddos hanging around to entertain your children too, so let them babysit them while you hit the town (kidding of course…).

For all the places we stayed, we felt perfectly accommodated with our 7 month old son (with obvious limitations). Each of our hosts offered us cribs (without even asking) and though we did not use them (and therefore cannot attest to their sturdiness), it speaks volumes that cribs are even readily available at vacation rentals.

My husband and I love to go out to eat and do not shy away from taking our son to any kind of restaurant (formal or not). Everywhere we took our son, he was welcomed, which I’m sure many of you understand is not the case in certain parts of the U.S. and other countries (highchairs? why would we have those? [insert evil stare]). I would also give a plug to the breeze of public breastfeeding here. I breastfeed mostly wherever, if my son is hungry, he’s going to get fed. I never ever received a negative look, let alone inappropriate comment from a proprietor or patron at a restaurant or any place else. This is a big deal when you are away from your home country where you may not know the cultural norms (or law for that matter) concerning breastfeeding.

While we couldn’t go scuba diving, there were still many things we could do that didn’t require us finding a babysitter. Wading in the calm sea with the baby was one of our favorite activities. I was also lenient on the idea of canoeing, so we went into the jungle with a guide to see the indigenous village in Yorkin. There are a couple of beaches to choose from, but Punta Uva and Manzanillo had the safest water/currents for swimming. The sloth rescue is a great outing (and cause to support) for families as well as farm tours where the kids can run amok discovering new things.

2. The abundance of things to do

Expanding on the list above, the possibilities seem quite endless: swimming, sunbathing, hiking, fishing, snorkeling, exploring indigenous culture, live music, culinary adventures, flora and wildlife watching, hammocks, institutions to learn a new skill or language, farm tours, food tours, spa indulgences, voluntary work or just lay there and read on the hammock (an activity after my own heart).

3. Friendly convergence of expat and local folks

So you know how in some beautiful destinations you will find a vibrant expat community, but much to the detriment of the local community? Limon province is a melting pot of culture and language — Criollo, Afro-Carribean, and Indigenous groups. And while you’ll find plenty of foreigners here [Europeans, Americans, Latin Americans], this land belongs foremost to the Ticos [local Costa Ricans] and it shows. On any given weekend you will find an influx of Tico families hitting the beach for some fun and bonding time. You don’t get the sense that there is a strong push for gentrification occurring here, many of the expats have been here 15+ years and want this place to stay true to its roots, none of the sh**ty foreigner superiority complex. Rather the spirit of this province exudes a co-mingling of appreciation around “Pura Vida. A stroll through Puerto Viejo’s farmers market any Saturday will show you just what I mean. People are neighbors and act like it. So should you! Get to know the local people where you are staying, you never know how your experience can be enriched or what you might learn.

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4. The beaches are beautiful and uncrowded

The picture showcased at the top was taken upon our arrival on a Friday. As you can see, the beach is pleasantly sparse of people. The situation changes a bit on weekends when Ticos from other parts of the province/country come to spend time with their families. But there is something special about watching how local people spend their days off. Everyone needs a vacation and we’re just visitors here.

Each of the beaches offers a different kind of experience and vibe. Overall the water is like a lukewarm bath and relatively clear straight to the sandy floor, but the tides vary from beach to beach. Puerto Viejo’s beach is in town with little swimming alcoves formed by mini reefs. So these may serve parents well when they want to chill by hanging at one of the beachside restaurants and let the little ones play in the shallow water. Playa Cocles is the surfing beach with nice soft sand, but the tides are strong and the area for swimming is very limited here (I would not recommend allowing your children to swim here). Punta Uva’s beach is one of my favorites, located in a large cove where the jungle comes right up to the beach, the protective nature of the physical location makes it a great swimming beach.

Finally, Manzanillo is the most laid back of all of them and the most empty (except weekends, Ticos favor this one). The bonus is the coral reefs at the south tip of the beach that create great swimming conditions and an opportunity to snorkel!

The major exception to the [lack of] crowds is during big holidays. No person can estimate the sheer volume of people who will descend on the province during such times as oh um…Semana Santa! If you choose to go during that time, you’re on your own…godspeed.

5. You can stay right near da beach or cozy up to the wildlife in the jungle

Move it along big real estate investors… And while everyone enjoys the occasional indulgence, our family likes to travel in a way that mimics day-to-day life, getting to know the local vibe and local people. This inevitably means renting a house or staying at one of the local guesthouses. Deciding to split our time between the beach and the jungle, Airbnb landed use a great rustic house nestled in the center of the village of Manzanillo right across from the beach. At night we could feel the ocean breeze and be lulled to sleep through the sounds of crashing waves. For the next segment of our journey, we set out for the jungle, but we literally went 2 km down the road. You don’t need to drive miles (km) inland to enjoy the adventures of sleeping in the jungle. Best of both worlds, we chose to stay at another rustic house, this one situated in the middle of jungle landscape, but only 200 meters from a private beach in Manzanillo.

The majority of accommodations in the Limon Province are rustic. This means you will find ceiling fans instead of AC and screened buildings with mosquito nets to keep the creepy crawlies and flying insects at bay. I recommend bringing bug spray/essential oils/citronella with you on your trip. We found ourselves completely inundated by mosquitoes both when staying at the beach and while staying in the jungle. Despite my best efforts, everyone in the family looked like they had random signs of chicken pox for a few days, you have been warned…

 

6. It is the land of cacao

Yes, as in CHOCOLATE. This should really be #1 on the list, because – do I really even need to elaborate? This province is known for its cacao fincas [farms]. Sometimes I think I can just smell the chocolate in the air, but in reality this is just an internal reminder for me to take my daily dose of it [iced chocolate drink, brownie, ice cream, flan, cake, etc. etc. etc.]. Chocolate outright delicious and cacao is a powerful tree with a deep cultural roots. This is why you should eat it every day (or maybe why I feel justified in my attempts to do this).

Many of the cacao fincas in the area do farm tours, some official, some unofficial. I recommend visiting the local chocolate shops and inquiring about their farm tours and also chatting up the vendors at the Saturday farmers market to cast a wider net. Also, don’t forget about the indigenous villages – they have a breadth of knowledge and unique perspective into cacao and chocolate making. You read about my visit to one of these communities here.

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7. It is the land of a great cup of coffee

And a TIE for #1, my other indulgence. Costa Rican coffee is amazing. Though the coffee fincas are not in this region (they need higher elevation), there isn’t a bad cup of coffee in this joint, the bar starts at “pretty damn good” and leaps upwards to “DAMN that was an awesome cup of coffee.” My husband and I made it a personal challenge to try coffee everywhere we could from the farmers market to local sodas (cafes) to restaurants to specialty shops. No need to get fancy, just ask for a regular cup of cafe con leche. It makes a fabulous gift to bring home in thanks to people who housesat and watched your dog for a couple weeks (you know who you are!).

8. Fresh food abound

Can you tell yet that I love food? My true colors are showing through. Anytime you are near the beach, you can see the colorful pangas [fishing boats] lined up from that morning’s explorations and trucks with loudspeakers emerge from the surrounding areas to sell fresh produce and fruit. The culinary choices are indicative of the melting pot of culture, particularly demonstrating Afro-Caribbean influences. Rondon is a local delicacy – a coconut milk-based soup traditionally comprised of anything the cook can “rundown” from the garden. Fresh seafood is plentiful, you’ll find many restaurants serve red snapper, camarones (shrimp), tuna, mackerel, and marlin brought in right off the boat. Given the tropical landscape, fruits are plentiful, so soak it up — mamon chino (a sort of lychee fruit), soursop, cas, “pipa fria” (fresh cold coconut water from the local green ones), mango, and passionfruit to name a few. 

Whether you go to a local soda (cafe) or one of the more expensive joints, you can pretty much guarantee that the food is boat-to-table or farm-to-table. Local and foreign proprietors alike are fans of the slow food movement and put local ingredients and heart into their cooking.

Always in search of the quintessential beach area, Limon province definitely hit the mark paying homage to the fishing villages of yore while offering a great retreat to bask in that sun.

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