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Every part of Costa Rica is amazing, but whether the Pacific or Caribbean coast is better for your vacation depends on various factors: budget, time of the year, climate, personal interests, modern conveniences, just to name a few. Can’t do both? Read on to discover which coast is right for your next trip to Costa Rica.
The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is more developed than the Caribbean coast, so dozens of fantastic beach towns line the way: Samara, Tamarindo, Montezuma, Nosara, Dominical, Santa Teresa, Uvita, Quepos, and Drake Bay. All along the Pacific coast is a variety of accommodation ranging from hostel and budget-friendly hotels to five-star luxury boutique hotels and resorts. These developed beach towns have tons of dining options, bars, markets, health clinics, boutiques, yoga studios, and other amenities.
Closer to both international airports
The west side is more easily accessible from both the Juan SantaMaria International Airport in San Jose and the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia. While Costa Rica isn’t known for its well-maintained roads—and there are definitely areas with terrible roads—it’s all part of the adventure. Rent a car or use one of the plenty of affordable private and group shuttles available.
More national parks
The Pacific coast is lined with 11 national parks as well as multiple other reserves, wildlife refuges, tropical dry forests, rain forests, mangroves, wetlands, and coral reefs. These parks offer great opportunities for some very special and unique wildlife encounters. Howler, white-faced capuchin, and spider monkey sightings are common inside and outside parks and reserves, as are humpback whale sightings as they migrate to Costa Rica throughout the year.
More established surfing breaks
The Pacific coast is host to some world-class and beginner-friendly surfing breaks. Tamarindo, Samara, Nosara, and Jaco are great choices for first timers or beginner/intermediate surfers and have multiple surf schools, camps, instructors, and shops, but experienced surfers already know where to head for the more advanced spots. Since there are breaks up and down the coast, moving from one spot to another (for swell direction, wind conditions, etc.) is relatively easy.
The Pacific coast has two pretty predictable seasons, wet and dry. During the dry season, which is a bit longer farther north, there is almost zero rainfall. January, February, and March are exceptionally dry, and every day looks exactly the same: clear skies and sunny. Keep in mind, because the dry season is totally ideal for a beach vacation, it is a busier and more expensive time to visit. Even the wet season, however, isn’t rainy all day either; it usually storms in the early mornings or evenings.
More natural charm
The Caribbean coast has been under the radar for quite a while, partially due to the difficultly of getting there, but new infrastructure means accessing this coast has become a bit easier. Still, there are no big resorts or chain hotels here,part of why the Caribbean is so charming. Most accommodation is small, boutique hotels, backpacker hostels, or eco lodges.
While Costa Rica in general is not a cheap destination, the Caribbean coast is somewhat less expensive than the Pacific, partially due to the lack of luxury accommodations and dining options that might be found in Los Suenos, Tamarindo, or Papagayo. While the Caribbean coast is becoming more popular, most tourists are still backpackers and surfers, so the Caribbean much more rustic.
Tropical vibes and food
The Caribbean has its own take on traditional Costa Rican dishes. The smells and flavors— like coconut, ginger, curry, allspice, cinnamon, and chili peppers—pair perfectly with palm tree-lined beaches, crystal turquoise waters, and beautiful rain forests. The people and places are warm, friendly, and peaceful, making for a relaxing vacation.
Beach bars and parties
The daytime might be mellow, but Puerto Viejo is well known for its fun nightlife. Multiple bars in the area, most of them on the beach, all have their own happy hours and weekly specials, and it’s not uncommon to find live music somewhere every night of the week. Everyone is out to have a good time and dancing is a must: reggae, roots, electronic, and dance hall music plays late into the night in Puerto Viejo. It is the perfect place to let loose and have some fun.
While there may not be as many national parks on this side, the few are absolutely incredible. Though the coasts share some wildlife, many species are local to just the Caribbean side, so toucans, macaws, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and sloths are incredibly common to see. Four different sea turtle species that all nest on the beaches of the Tortuguero National Park, and the Cahuita National Park has some of the best coral reefs in the country and is a fantastic place to go snorkeling. The sloth sanctuary, Tree of Life Wildlife Rescue Center, and the Jaguar Rescue Center are also all on the Caribbean coast.