Costa Rica’s Pacific v Caribbean: Which Coast Is Better?

This piece of Caribbean paradise is in Manzanillo, south of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
This piece of Caribbean paradise is in Manzanillo, south of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca | © Simon Dannhauer / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Jenn Parker
2 September 2021

Both sides of Costa Rica promise adventure, so it’s not easy having to decide between the Pacific coast or the Caribbean coast if time is short. Consider your budget, the time of the year, the climate and what you ultimately want from your trip. If it’s still too close to call, this guide should help you determine which coast is right for your next trip to Costa Rica.

If your mind is already made up and you want to visit Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, you can experience the very best of it – and nearby national parks and cloud forests – on our exclusive nine-day trip to Costa Rica. Led by local insiders every step of the way, you’ll discover destinations and Costa Rican culture in ways other visitors won’t.

Reasons to visit the Pacific coast

It’s a little more developed

The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is home to luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons | Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo / Expedia

The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is more developed than the Caribbean coast, so dozens of fantastic beach towns line the way, including Samara, Tamarindo, Montezuma, Nosara, Dominical, Santa Teresa, Uvita, Quepos and Drake Bay. All along the Pacific coast is a variety of accommodation, ranging from hostels and budget-friendly hotels to five-star luxury boutique hotels and resorts. In addition, these developed beach towns have tons of dining options, bars, markets, health clinics, boutiques, yoga studios and other amenities to keep you occupied.

It’s closer to both international airports

The west side is more accessible from the Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José 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 many affordable private and group shuttles available.

There are more national parks

Corcovado National Park sits on the Osa Peninsula along the Pacific coast in Costa Rica | © Rob Crandall / Alamy Stock Photo

The Pacific coast is home to more than 10 national parks and many other reserves, wildlife refuges, tropical dry forests, rainforests, mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs. These parks offer great opportunities for some unique wildlife encounters. For example, howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkey sightings are common inside and outside the parks and reserves, as are humpback whale sightings as they migrate to Costa Rica throughout the year.

The surf is better

Playa Guiones is an excellent place to go surfing | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

The Pacific coast is home to some world-class and beginner-friendly surfing breaks. Tamarindo, Samara and Jaco are great choices for first-timers and beginner and intermediate surfers and have multiple surf schools, camps, instructors and shops – experienced surfers already know where to head for the bigger waves. Also, since there are breaks up and down the coast, moving from one spot to another (for swell direction, wind conditions, etc) is relatively easy.

There’s less rain

Playa Tamarindo, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, enjoys less rain than its Caribbean coast counterparts | © Thornton Cohen / Alamy Stock Photo

The Pacific coast has two pretty predictable seasons: wet and dry. During the dry season, which lasts a bit longer farther north, there’s almost zero rainfall. January, February and March are exceptionally dry, and every day looks the same – clear skies and sunny. Keep in mind, though, that because the dry season is ideal for a beach vacation, it’s a busier and more expensive time to visit. Even the wet season isn’t rainy every day, but there can be fierce storms in the early mornings or evenings.

Feeling inspired? You can now visit Tamarindo and many other wonderful destinations on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast by joining Culture Trip’s specially curated nine-day Costa Rica tour, led by a local insider.

Reasons to visit the Caribbean coast

It feels a bit more authentic

Manzanillo and its sandy palm-fringed beach lie on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica | © travelib prime / Alamy Stock Photo

The Caribbean coast has been under the radar for quite a while, partially due to the difficulty 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 the reason why the Caribbean is so charming. Instead, most accommodation comes in the shape of independent boutique hotels, backpacker hostels and ecolodges.

It’s more affordable

Places such as Puerto Viejo de Talamanca tend to attract backpackers and surfers | © Minkimo / Alamy Stock Photo

While Costa Rica is generally 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 you can find on the Pacific side. While the Caribbean coast is becoming more popular, most tourists are still backpackers and surfers, so the Caribbean feels much less touristy.

Tropical vibes and food

You’ll find unique spins on classic Costa Rican dishes, such as the casado, on the Caribbean coast | © foodfolio / Alamy Stock Photo

The Caribbean has its own take on traditional Costa Rican dishes. The smells and flavors – such as coconut, ginger, curry, allspice, cinnamon and chili peppers – pair perfectly with the palm tree-lined beaches, crystal turquoise waters and beautiful rainforests. The people are warm, friendly and peaceful, helping you feel relaxed wherever you stay.

It has the best beach bars and parties

There are some excellent beachside bars on the Caribbean side | © Holden Travel / Alamy Stock Photo

The daytime might be mellow, but Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is well known for its nightlife. Multiple bars in the area – most of them on the beach – have 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, with reggae, roots, electronic and dance hall music playing late into the night. It’s the perfect place to let loose and to have some fun.

The wildlife is incredible

Look for the colorful red-eyed tree frog when in Costa Rica | © Zdeněk Macháček / Unsplash

While there may not be as many national parks on the Caribbean side, the few that exist are spectacular. Though you can find some species of wildlife on both coasts, many species only make their home along the Caribbean coast. Four different sea turtle species nest on the beaches of the Tortuguero National Park, and the Cahuita National Park has some of the best coral reefs in the country for snorkeling. The sloth sanctuary Tree of Life Wildlife Rescue Center and the Jaguar Rescue Center are also on the Caribbean coast.

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

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