Serenity now: 5 days in Caribe Sur, Costa Rica


Caribe Sur, on the very southern tip of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast might be my top mentally-I’m-here places. Its the exact location I pictured as a teenager when I dreamed about a life centered on surfing and sun and bicycles. 

This area starts in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (where the party is) and ends in Manzanillo. You’ll find a string of stunning, secluded beaches between these two endpoints, perfect for walking, hiking and simply wandering.

The culture here feels slightly different from the rest of Costa Rica – residents still live by a pura vida ethos and tico time definitely reigns supreme (my favorite thing ever), but there is a distinct Indigenous influence and a definite Afro-Caribbean culture.  It’s not the easiest place to get to, but if you’re looking for adventure with a side of pura vida, this is the place. 

And here’s the thing: you’ve got options. Spend the entire trip sitting on the deck of your bungalow staring into the rainforest and making friends with the monkeys, or dive into adventure headfirst.

Grab your flip-flops and a bathing suit and hop on this banana bike, ’cause we’re going to the jungle.

It might be a long travel day to get there, but picture yourself on this secluded beach

Here’s the nitty gritty:

Where to fly into: You’ll want to book your flight into Puerto Limón. You can fly into San Jose, but the drive is long and kind of treacherous. Limón is only an hour away from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

How to get from the airport: Rent a car or book a shuttle. The cheapest option is a bus, which takes about two hours; a shuttle or car will take you 50 minutes. If you’re staying at Hotel Aguas Claras (see below), they’ll arrange transportation for you.

Getting around: Renting a car is nice, but you don’t really need wheels in this part of the world. Sights are spread out, but there are plenty of taxis and everyone rides bikes (which is by far the most fun way to get around). 

Where to stay: Personally, I don’t care if I’m right on the beach or not – the jungle is just as wonderful as the sea. I like to book a vacation rental near Playa Chiquita or Punta Uva, both great places for a base, but if you want a hotel, book Hotel Aguas Claras. This gorgeous collection of beach bungalows is owned by long-time resident and artist Elizabeth Steinworth, and as she says, it’s a place for artists, doers and tinkerers. Like most things in this precious corner of the world, it was created with the environment in mind, so your surroundings feel as natural as if the earth had created it itself. And you’ll be enchanted with Playa Chiquita just steps from your door.

When to go: April is the prime nesting season for green turtles, and I promise it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. But if surfing is more your thing, you’ll catch the best swells December through March.

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Settle in with a cocktail from Da Lime followed by dinner at Papaya and you’ll fall instantly in love with Hotel Aguas Claras

Day 1

Arrive:  I usually arrive in the afternoon and settle in, taking a deep breath and remembering I’m on tico time now. Sometimes I head straight to the beach for a swim and a short walk, but usually I just sit on the deck and take in the environment – the spider monkeys tend to swing through in the afternoon, and the howlers come a bit later. The first time I heard a howler monkey I was convinced I was about to be eaten by a mythological monster, but their roar is bigger than they are. They sometimes like throwing things down from above, so watch your head. 

Happy Hour: DaLime Beach Club on the Hotel Aguas Clara’s property is the perfect spot for happy hour before they close at 5 – the cocktails are divine, but my favorite is the Hibiscus tonic (I’m a mocktail girly). They often play reggae tunes, great for settling into the laid-back vibes.

Dinner: When I’m hungry, I head to Papaya, the on-site restaurant at Hotel Aguas Claras. First, let’s talk aesthetics. Pops of pink and orange among the natural wood – did they take design tips from my dreams? Second, let’s talk food. It’s local, organic and it’s healthy, fitting right in with all the things I love about coming to Caribe Sur. The menu is ever-changing, and I’m never disappointed.

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Take a long walk and see how many secluded beaches you can find, or just find one and be done with it.

Day 2

Morning: I am a breakfast person, and since we don’t have much planned until the evening, I’m going to go to Gypsea Cafe in Playa Chiquita because the coffee is delicious and the benedicts are decadent.

Spend the day: I like to spend at least one day wandering the beaches from Playa Chiquita to Punta Uva. There are several isolated coves along the way, so I stop and relax when I find a spot I like. I’ll swim and lay in the sand under a palm tree before continuing on to the next one. I bring a water bottle and a quick-dry towel in my backpack, and I’m ready to explore.

Dinner: Since I brunched and skipped lunch, I enjoy an early dinner at Selvin’s, the top Caribbean spot in the area. Sometimes I order something with shrimp, but I just as often get the Chicken Caribeňo which I crave when I’m not in Caribe Sur.

After dark: Now for a trip highlight. Before you arrive, book a turtle-watching tour in Gandoca. The Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo stretches from just south of Playa Chiquita in Manzanillo, all the way to the border with Panama, and it’s a haven for green sea turtles, as well as green macaws, jaguars and other incredible wildlife. The van picks you up in the early evening, and the drive is about 45 minutes around the refuge to the beach in Gandoca. (Side note: Gandoca is not at all touristy and worth a daytime tour.) But for now, here’s what you need to know. 

  • Wear long sleeves, long pants, socks and shoes. You want to be totally covered to protect yourself from bugs. Dark clothes are preferred.
  • You aren’t allowed flashlights unless they have a red light. The guide will have one.
  • No cameras. This is an enjoy and remember experience.

There is a quiet, meditative feeling that washes over me when I watch a turtle lay her eggs – the turtle’s process is slow, and my breath slows to match her pace. It is incredibly intimate, not something you often feel with wildlife. The process can take up to three hours. There are no words to match the excitement you’ll feel on the drive back to the hotel.

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Bike up to Playa Cocles for a surf lesson. You can rent boards and find an instructor on the beach.

Day 3

Morning: After sleeping off my incredible late night its time to ride a banana bike up to Playa Cocles for the day. I go straight to Caribeans Chocolate and Coffee for, you guessed it, chocolate and coffee before finding a spot on the beach. 

Spend the day: The waves here are just right for beginner surfers, and though I have been trying to surf for more years than I will mention here, I am still an absolute beginner. You can rent boards here and book lessons too. I’ll probably snag lunch at Sage, the beach restaurant at Playa Beachfront Hostel, a convenient stop because I can cruise up in bare feet and a bathing suit, order Caribbean rice and beans, and hang for the afternoon. 

Dinner: After a shower and a quick change into an easy, breezy sundress, it’s time for dinner at El Refugio. I absolutely love diving into gorgeous plates of food under the stars in the garden of this steakhouse run by a husband-and-wife duo from Argentina.

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Go for a hike in the refuge, and try to spot the protected green macaws. 

Day 4

Morning: Since I’m usually staying at a home rental, I’ll grab a light breakfast; either fruit I picked up from the farm stand or quick rice and eggs. But if you’re at a hotel, just choose something light from the hotel restaurant before snagging a banana bike and heading out on an easy 4-mile ride to Manzanillo.

Spend the day: Diving for lobsters. You can pre-book with l0cal chef Andy Cook Campbell who owns the Cool & Calm Cafe in Manzanillo. He’ll load you in his boat, help you free dive for lobsters and then take you to a secluded beach to enjoy your catch. Other, more budget-friendly options include kayaking down the protected waters of the coast or my favorite choice, hiking in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo – the easy coastal trail is about 3 and a half miles. With the rainforest on one side and the ocean on the other, the experience is immersive. Then, sneak in a quick swim at Tom’s Bay and head back to Manzanillo.

Afternoon: If I haven’t booked a lobster tour with Andy, I’ll grab a meal at his Cool & Calm Cafe, an open-air, rasta-themed restaurant right at the entrance to Manzanillo.

Later: If you’re a book-and-bed type like me,grab a light dinner at Arrecife , which is right on the beach in Punta Uva and enjoy one last evening peacefully soaking in the jungle sounds. But, if you’re up for beats on the beach, head to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Jonny’s Place and Hot Rocks are both wildly popular and ridiculously fun. 

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Have one more dip in the pool before heading out.

Day 5 

Wake up. Enjoy one more plate of fresh fruit and an amazing coffee, and take one more dip in the sea. But now we say goodbye and head back to real life. Until next time, Caribe Sur.

Keep planning your trip to Costa Rica:

Enjoy the sea breeze at Costa Rica’s 8 best beaches
The kiddos will have a blast with these family-oriented activities
All the things you need to know before visiting the land of pura vida
Keep your wallet happy with these budget tips





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