Its 100% natural surroundings, relaxing setting, and Afro-Caribbean traditions are just three reasons why the Southern Caribbean should be part of any Costa Rican vacation. This region offers many varied and exciting options for enjoying a visit to the area.
One of the most distinctive attributes is its tropical rainforest, where it’s always warm and moist. These conditions are most well known in places like Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, and Gandoca, which feature a mix of beach, tropical forest, and Afro-Caribbean culture.
The Northern Caribbean is an ideal destination for freshwater and ocean fishing aficionados. This exciting sport is common on both the rivers and along the coast. Other popular activities include bicycling, horseback riding, hiking, diving, canopy tours, daytrips to the Bribrí and Kekoldi Indigenous Reserves, and cocoa (chocolate) plantation visits.
In this region, there is a strong attachment to African and West Indian traditions. This is evident in local lifestyles and the resident’s warmth: locals here are known for helping visitors and proudly sharing the richness of their culture.
Annual Average: 26º C (78.8º F)
Thanks to the region’s natural riches and interesting mix of cultures, the Southern Caribbean invites tourists to sample a wide range of diverse activities. The area’s most popular pursuits include boat trips, surfing, hiking, walking on the beach, turtle observation, dolphin watching, horseback riding, bird and wildlife watching, sea and river kayaking, scuba diving, canopy tours, and other exciting excursions.
Calero is the largest island of its kind in Costa Rica, measuring 156.1 square kilometers (60 square miles). At approximately 44.4 square kilometers (17.15 square miles), Brava is the second largest river island in Costa Rica. Both islands belong to the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge.
At the time of Columbus’s arrive, the area’s indigenous residents exhibited signs of vast wealth and riches. Some believe that this display, in addition to the area’s intense natural beauty, caused Columbus to name the new land “Costa Rica,” or “Rich Coast.” The island, which is very beautiful, was known at that time as Quiribrí. Dense, tropical vegetation, rocky cliffs, and coral reefs characterize the island’s scenic allure. Close to its dock, there is also a nice beach.
Quiribrí also offers excellent conditions for scuba diving, snorkeling, and surfing. A ring trail hugs the island’s coast and is open for hiking. In Limón, Columbus’s arrival is celebrated every September 25 with parades, intricate floats, and performances by school bands from Limón-area elementary and high schools.
History shows that Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and final journey, landed in what is today known as the Port of Limón. Uvita Island, located just offshore from the port, is home to one of the country’s most beautiful coral reefs and is a nesting spot for beautiful seabirds. The island was declared a National Monument in 1985, due to its historical importance as Christopher Columbus’s first contact with Costa Rica in 1502. When the Spanish arrived, only the Bribrí and Cabécar indigenous peoples, who today live in southern Limón province, inhabited the region.
Over the years, emigrant communities from the Antilles, including Jamaica, have further enriched the diverse profile of Limón’s residents. They came to Costa Rica to work in the cocoa harvest, on construction of the Atlantic railroad, and on banana plantations. The arrival of these Afro-Caribbean groups also brought new customs, language, food and music to the region, traditions which live on today. Chinese immigrants were another ethnic group that helped develop the area surrounding Limón, and they too infused their traditions into the region’s diversifying culture.
Beginning in 1870, with the start of railroad operations, Limón was established as a port for exportation, especially of the country’s banana harvest. Today Limón is Costa Rica’s principal Caribbean port and, in addition to exporting and receiving goods, it is a common port of call for cruise ships.
Due to its strategic location, as the midpoint between the province’s northern and southern boundaries, the Port of Limón is and ideal base for traveling to the Northern or Southern Caribbean.
During the trip, rafters enjoy the surrounding scenery, which includes waterfalls and Pacuare tributaries that, complemented by lush and evergreen vegetation, create an extraordinarily beautiful backdrop to a river-rafting journey.
The canals’ unparalleled scenic beauty allows tourists to enjoy very beautiful and contrasting landscapes, especially near the Jalova Lagoon at the southern limits of Tortuguero National Park.
Activities: Organized hikes through the forest and to a waterfall, riding tame buffalos, wildlife watching, local and migratory bird tours, indigenous reserve visits, and horseback riding.
Activities: Hikes or horseback rides into the forest, bird observation from lookout points, waterfall and river lagoon visits, and tours to local farms to observe their production systems.
Activities: Hikes along forest trails and informative talks on sustainable land management, water buffalo, organic home farms, and country life.
Activities: Visits to local indigenous communities such as the Amubri, Yorkin, and Cachabri, and daytrips to waterfalls located around the Finca.
The Bribrís live in this reserve, where tourists are welcome to enjoy, in addition to local culture, several attractions such as a green iguana nursery (the Green Iguana Conservation Farm), located in the Patiño community. The indigenous also sell native artisanal goods like hammocks, arrows, and bags.
The reserve welcomes visitors to enjoy its trails, which lead to several areas that are ideal for flora and fauna observation. One of the most appealing aspects is that during the months of January and February and October and November, the park is a resting spot for raptors migrating from the north or south, depending on the season. In total, birdwatchers regularly spot 17 species of raptors, among them eagles, hawks and falcons, often numbering thousands of birds per day – a spectacular phenomenon!
The Cocles River Waterfall, another local attraction, is accessible with help from local guides.
The Yorkín River lent its name to the neighboring Yorkín indigenous community. The community can only be accessed via its namesake river, which originates in the Panamanian section of La Amistad International Park. In addition to appreciating the nature offerings that surround both of the Yorkín River’s lush banks, visitors to the area are welcome to share in the lives of the community’s residents, who work in cocoa (chocolate) and banana commerce. Some also create artisanal goods offered for sale.
The Yorkín community is a good starting point to visit other local destinations including hot springs, waterfalls, and Buena Vista Mountain. From there, all modern transportation methods end and adventuresome visitors begin hiking through virgin forest. They soon arrive at a waterfall, where they can relax and enjoy the cascade’s natural hot springs. Continuing on, hikers arrive at the Uatsi Indigenous Reserve, where they can shop for artisanal creations and enjoy chicha, a typical drink. On the way back, they will pass by the Patiño community and its green iguana farm.
The second section features darker sands and gentle to moderate surf. These favorable conditions extend from Puerto Vargas until the entrance to the beach. The third section goes from this last point to the Carbón River mouth and is features open coast with strong surf. The beach is clean and safe.
Without a doubt, a particular attraction of this region is the web of river canals that connect the Port of Moín with Barra del Colorado; this intricate canal system constitutes the only means of transportation within the zone. In fact, both tourists and local residents use the area’s serpentine rivers, canals and lagoons to navigate Tortuguero National Park.
A trip along these canals is an ideal way to observe the area’s abundant flora and wide variety of animal life such as land turtles, manatees, crocodiles, a large selection of crustaceans, and 85 freshwater fish species including the Gasper fish, a historic species that has hardly changed since the age of the dinosaurs.
Additionally, the area is a hotspot for many mammals including tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, peccaries, monkeys, sloths, and fishing bats, which are one of the largest species of bat in Costa Rica. Birds are also common and include green macaws (an endangered species), great curassows, turkey vultures, toucans, and common black hawks.
Due to its geographical characteristics, this is also an ideal destination for sport fishing. Please note that to participate in sport fishing, a fishing license – easily obtained at the park’s ranger station – is required.
Within the park, it’s possible to spot aquatic animals such as manatees, caimans, crocodiles, Gasper fish, and numerous schools of tarpon fish; land mammals including tapirs, jaguars, pumas, howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, jaguarundi, and three-toed sloths; and birds like ospreys, keel-billed toucans, neotropical cormorants, blue herons, tricolor herons, white hawks, great tinamous, great curassows, and red-lored parrots.
Barra del Colorado’s system of river canals, combined with its beach ecosystems and populations of wild marine live, offers a unique landscape. For those that like to hike, Tortuguero Mount (Cerro Tortuguero) offers a scenic trail easily traveled in approximately 45 minutes.
The park is located 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the city of Siquirres and is difficult to access. For this reason and due to the fact that it does not offer basic facilities, it is recommend only for tourists who are accustomed to taking long and rustic hikes. Given the conditions of the land, hikes are only permitted with a guide from the nearby community of Las Brisas de Pacuarito, where the park’s administrative area is located.
Barbilla National Park’s habitats range from primary tropical wet forest to very moist tropical forest. The park is home to a wide range of animal species including pumas, jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, monkeys, and many bird species.
Cahuita National Park is known for its coral reef and tropical wet forest. The community of Puerto Vargas is located beside the park; in both locations there are incredible beaches as well as small bays, coconut palm trees, virgin forest, and other natural attractions.
In addition to being surrounded by natural beauty, the beaches of Cahuita and Puerto Vargas have one of the most important coral reefs on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as significant as those located at Punta Cocles, Punta Uva, Manzanillo, and Punta Mona.
These locales are ideal for admiring colorful coral, including brain coral, deer and moose horn coral, fire coral, rose coral, and lettuce coral, among 35 other species that have been identified so far. Other underwater sights include mollusks, sea fans, crustaceans, turtles, rainbow-colored fish, and many other beautiful sea animals.
To enjoy these offerings to the fullest, the town of Cahuita, located next to the park, offers lodging and plenty of dining options. Likewise, the town has information services, potable water, restrooms, showers, picnic tables, trails, and a camping area.
Cahuita National Park and the Gandoca-Manzanilo Wildlife Refuge are world renowned not only for their abundant natural attractions but also for their eco-conservation plans, which are two mostly unique cases in the Greater Caribbean region.
The park’s territory includes habitats such as wooded areas, river plains, and hilled areas, home to a wide variety of plant species including cativo, caobilla mahogany, yolillo palms, mangroves, and mountain almonds. Of course, the wildlife refuge is home to many animals, among them monkeys, crocodiles, peccaries, and agouti pacas. Thanks to its abundant vegetation, there is also a large population of resident birds including parrots, hen harriers, toucans, and more.
In the refuge’s coastal areas, beaches are characterized by their beauty and are ideal for long walks, sunbathing, swimming, scuba diving the coral reefs, and observing flora and fauna.
The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge served as inspiration for an important work of literature, the novel titled La Loca de Gandoca (“The Crazy Woman from Gancoca”), by Ana Cristina Rossi.
The park offers trails, scenic lookout points, potable water, restrooms and other facilities, located all along its corridor, in towns such as Manzanillo, where the refuge’s administrative offices are located. In the Gandoca sector, leatherback turtles are protected; during a boat tour, visitors can travel through the Gandoca Lagoon, surrounded by tropical wet forest and river vegetation, and an important habitat for manatees.
Hitoy Cerere, which in the local indigenous language means “river of moss-covered rocks” and “river of clear waters,” respectively, is located in the basins of the Estrella and Telire Rivers. It is a reserve that covers different altitudes, from 100 to 1,025 meters (328 to 3,363 feet) above sea level. It is home to forests and several habitats, including tropical wet, river, and pre-montane ecosystems.
Among the most prevalent plant species are palms, wild cashew, ojoche, huge nargusta, and many others. Common animal species include many amphibians, like frogs, and reptiles, as well as mammals such as white-faced monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, ocelots, and around 230 species of birds. The park is also home to rivers and streams, perfect for a refreshing dip, and there’s even a beautiful waterfall open to visitors, reached by a natural, riverside trail.
To visit the reserve, travel through the Valle de la Estrella (Valley of the Star); the park’s administrative offices are located five kilometers (three miles) farther down the road, at Finca Cartagena. Here, visitors have access to parking, potable water, restrooms, information, hiking trails, scenic lookout points, and swimming areas.
In addition to offering a butterfly garden, serpentarium, frog pond, and hummingbird garden, the park invites visitors to hike along hanging bridges that weave through the jungle and shimmy up to waterfalls. But the list of attractions doesn’t end there: there’s also a biological station that operates in association with the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), an insect display, a reptile exhibition, an aerial tram, and a canopy tour.
Its strategic location, less than one hour from the Port of Limón, is located in the dampening zone surrounding La Amistad International Park, which is shared by Costa Rica and Panama.
This project, which opened its doors in July 2004, uses less than 1% of its land for ecotourism pursuits. The rest of its terrain is reserved for conservation.
This is not a very wide beach. Its first section features a steep slope and strong surf, which is why it is not recommended to swim in this area. Its middle section, before reaching the Suárez River mouth, is ideal for swimming.
After crossing the river mouth, located in the external part of the surrounding coral reef, the coastline completely transforms into an immense lagoon. On the point, the sand is even whiter and the coral reef is located closeby; scuba diving is popular here, or beachgoers can continue another two kilometers to Puerto Vargas.
Due to its evergreen, rainforest setting, this section of coastline is known for its exceptional scenic beauty, especially in the areas immediately surrounding Punta Mona. Here, the presence of a small island, totally covered with vegetation, makes this one of the Southern Caribbean’s most valuable coastal scenic areas, complemented by patches of coral reef, ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving.
The road that connects Puerto Viejo with southern beaches ends in the community of Manzanillo, just 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) down the road. Manzanillo boast many services including snorkeling and scuba rental, dolphin watching tours, snorkeling day trips, and more.
This beach is famous for being the site where four species of marine turtles lay their eggs: green turtles, the most common species, arrive between April and August; leatherback turtles, from February to July; hawksbill turtles, from April through October; and finally, olive ridley turtles in April and May.
Tourism is the town of Tortuguero’s main source of income; this is complemented by the fishing industry and subsistence agriculture. The region’s diversity produces an interesting mix of indigenous elements that define Tortuguero’s origins and tourist services and facilities that help shape the town’s present and future.
These characteristics make it possible for tourists to enjoy diverse day and nighttime recreational activities: hiking, sunbathing, wildlife watching, boat rides, and canal kayaking, as well as entertainment and interaction with the locals including dining on local dishes, especially typical Caribbean meals, and dancing to the beat of modern and tropical music.
Barra del Colorado Beach, bordered to the north by the Colorado River mouth and to the south by an estuary, is idea for hiking, observing flora and fauna, fishing, and simply enjoying ocean views.
Boat trips are the best way to enjoy the area’s canals and lagoons, and to experience Barra del Colorado’s natural beauty and scenic landscape. The town of Colorado is a quiet fishing and agricultural village, split down the center by its small airplane runway.
Nevertheless, some of the town’s beaches are not meant for swimming since they are composed, more or less, of coralliferous platforms.
The town of Puerto Viejo has many varied lodging facilities, from bed & breakfasts to large hotels offering more than 50 rooms and refreshing swimming pools. There are also many local tour operators that can help tourists arrange activities and daytrips.
Local cultural offerings center around the region’s Afro-Caribbean origins: the Southern Caribbean’s most dominant culture has its own English dialect, known as patois.
Throughout the year, the Caribbean hosts various historic, culture, sporting, civic, and artistic celebrations. Local fairs are also regular happenings and are an important method of raising funds for community development. The following schedule details many of these community events
Chinese New Year. Limón.
31. African Day. Festival of Flowers, Celebrating African Immigrants in Limón.
15. Costa Rican Independence Day
After the Independence Day parties, EXPOCOCI. Guápiles.
Observation of birds migrating south; Puerto Viejo-Talamanca. All month.
25. Commemoration of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in Limón. Parade with color guard and bands in the city of Limón.
Observation of birds migrating south; Puerto Viejo-Talamanca. All month.
Observation of birds migrating south; Puerto Viejo-Talamanca. All month.