This is the wettest region in Costa Rica, a network of rivers and canals that is home to diminutive fishing villages and slick sportfishing camps, raw rainforest and all-inclusive resorts – not to mention plenty of wading birds and sleepy sloths. Most significantly, the area’s long, wild beaches serve as the protected nesting grounds for three kinds of sea turtle.
The biggest city on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, the birthplace of United Fruit and capital of Limón Province, this hardworking port city sits removed from the rest of the country. Cruise ships deposit dazed-looking passengers between October and May. Around here, business is measured by truckloads of fruit, not busloads of tourists, so don’t expect any pampering.
Located within the confines of Parque Nacional Tortuguero, accessible only by air or water, this bustling little village with strong Afro-Caribbean roots is best known for attracting hordes of sea turtles (the name Tortuguero means ‘turtle catcher’) – and the hordes of tourists who want to see them.
Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita and Punta Uva
A 13km road winds east from Puerto Viejo, through rows of coconut palms, alongside coastal lodges and through lush lowland rainforest before coming to a dead end at the sleepy town of Manzanillo. The road was paved for the first time in 2003, dramatically shortening the amount of time it takes to travel this route.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo
This little-explored refuge – called Regama for short – protects nearly 70% of the southern Caribbean coast, extending from Manzanillo all the way to the Panamanian border. It encompasses 50 sq km of land plus 44 sq km of marine environment. The peaceful, pristine stretch of sandy white beach is one of the area’s main attractions.
This bustling, no-stoplight town in the foothills of the Cordillera de Talamanca lies at a bend in the paved road that connects Cahuita to Sixaola and the Panama border. The village is primarily an agricultural center and a spot for nearby indigenous communities to take care of errands; most travelers just pass through on their way to the border or on local tours.
For a sense of what Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast was like prior to the arrival of mass tourism, jump ship in this sleepy coastal fishing village, wedged between the Canales de Tortuguero and the Caribbean Sea. Bereft of zip lines, it’s the sort of spot where old men play dominoes on porches and kids splash around in mud puddles.
Parque Nacional Cahuita
This small but beautiful park – just 10 sq km – is one of the more frequently visited national parks in Costa Rica. The reasons are simple: the nearby town of Cahuita provides attractive accommodations and easy access; more importantly, the white-sand beaches, coral reef and coastal rainforest are bursting with wildlife.
Barra del Colorado
At 904 sq km, including the frontier zone with Nicaragua, Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado, or ‘Barra’ for short, is the biggest national wildlife refuge in Costa Rica. It is also one of the most remote – more so since Costa Rica's commercial airlines suspended service to the area in 2009.