The first time I visited Puerto Viejo, over a decade ago, the bus has to stop while a sloth slowly crossed the road. It was that kind of place. Where life (and the small amount of traffic) slowed down and nature came into its own. A string of beaches make up the region on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and the vibe couldn’t be more different than the rest of the country.
Visiting more recently, there was definitely more development, more traffic and fewer sloths but as a tourist destination, Puerto Viejo has grown up, acquired a sophisticated side, and somehow this seems to rub up reasonably nicely against the small fishing village’s original hippy, reggae side. It’s definitely a far cry from the vibe in San Jose.
It’s very likely that, like me, you’ll fall in love with this little slice of Caribbean paradise. In this guide I’ll give you the highlights of the best things to do in Puerto Viejo.
1. Go beach hopping
One of the first thing you’ll notice in Puerto Viejo is the beach and, I’m not going to lie, it’s not the stunning – certainly not compared to many of the other beaches in Costa Rica. You will see dedicated beach goers lazing on the small swatch of partially rocky sand. Your better bet is to rent a car or bike (or take the bus) along the coast line. Some of the nearby beaches to check out are:
- Playa Arecife
- Playa Chiquita
- Playa Cocles
- Playa Grande
- Playa Manzanillo
- Playa Negra
- Playa Punta Uva
The good news is with so many different types of beach (white sand, black sand, good for surfing, good for kayaking etc), you can pick the kind of beach you want. And it’s an entirely different vibe from the beaches like Santa Teresa over on the Pacific coast.
2. Surf the salsa brava (if you dare)
I’ve been on a surf board precisely once (in Costa Rica) so I’m hardly an expert but you don’t need to be to know that the reefbreak in this part of Costa Rica is legendary. Called salsa brava to describe the torn up flesh you’re facing if you topple off your board on these waves, the salsa brava surf is definitely for the experienced surfer only. If that’s you, you’re definitely going to want to grab a board and head out – for surfers this is one of the top activities. If that’s not you, it’s a great spectator sport. You can find out more about the salsa brava and the best surf spots here.
3. Take surf lessons
Not an expert surfer but want to be? (Or at least want to give it a go), you’re in one of the best spots in the world to take surf lessons. You can either find something online or, for a lower price, find a local surf instructor when you turn up – there are plenty of leaflets up in cafes and bars advertising classes. And don’t worry, there are plenty of gentler surf spots good for beginners so you don’t need to lose the skin of your shin.
4. Visit the Jaguar rescue centre
This was by far one of the best things I did in Costa Rica, let alone Puerto Viejo. The Jaguar rescue centre is a place where rescued animals are rehabilitated before returning to the wild. You can take a half day tour of the centre where you’ll get to see sloths (adults and babies), monkeys, reptiles, spiders, exotic birds and other animals. Be aware – there are no jaguars at the centre but that doesn’t make the experience any less wonderful. If you like wildlife, consider a stop in Manuel Antonio or Tortuguero National Park or La Fortuna when you’re in Costa Rica.
5. Party with the Reggage crowd
Wondering what to do in Puerto Viejo at night? Upscale cafes and restaurants might be edging their way into Puerto Viejo but the Reggae vibe holds strong. If this is the reason you’re in Puerto Viejo, to cut loose and party all night long, there are plenty of bars to help you do just that.
Here are some of the most popular bars to check out:
- Johnny’s Place
- Salsa Brava Rasta Bar
- The Lazy Mon
- Hot Rocks
Otherwise, just turn your ear to the air and follow the music.
6. Cross the border in Bocas del Toro in Panama
In just four hours you can be out of Puerto Viejo, across the Panama border, on a small boat and landed on the island of Bocas del Toro. While I wouldn’t recommend it for a day trip, if you want to explore a bit beyond Costa Rica or if you’re on a longer trip, Puerto Viejo and Bocas del Toro go hand in hand on any Central American itinerary. If you’re beach hopping, it’s ideal.
What is Bocas del Toro? Collectively it’s an archipelago of islands off the coast of Panama. It is also the name of one of the main islands within the archipelago – you can explore further from there (Isla Bastimentos is one of my favourites), or you can stay put and experience a slice of Panamanian Caribbean paradise.
You can do the trip yourself. Otherwise, shuttles run daily from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro and, of course, run the same route in reverse. I use Hello Panama! Travel. The cost is around $33 one way and includes hotel pick up in Puerto Viejo, help at the border, onwards to the port in Almirante and the boat to Bocas del Toro. From there you can typically walk to your accommodation if you’re staying in Bocas town. Here is my full guide to visiting Bocas del Toro in Panama. Related: How To Get From Costa Rica To Nicaragua
7. Shop at the artisanal markets
There are lots of sloth related things to shop for but thought you’d prefer a picture of a puddle of sloths
I’m not much of a shopper, unless we’re talking food, but the shops and stalls in Puerto Viejo were just too cute and crammed with artisanal crafts that even I couldn’t resist. My tip would be don’t buy everything you need before your trip, especially things like beach sarongs and dresses – leave space for a few extra purchases. And if you want packing suggestions, here’s my Costa Rica Packing List.
8. Eat in the local sodas
Puerto Viejo is changing fast but it’s lovely to see the sodas (local restaurants) still doing a roaring trade. It’s no surprise – the protein (meat or fish), rice, bean, plantain, salad combo is simple, budget friendly and usually the best food you can get. There’s a lot of fish and seafood to be had in this coastal spot (no surprise). There are veggie options also available – the same plate but with a nice serving of veggies instead of the protein. Here are some of my favourite sodas which I tried:
- Tamara – a great soda I simply liked the look of and wasn’t disappointed.
- Soda Mirna – I had a wonderful local plate of shrimp, rice and salad.
- Soda Tayito – another good local eatery.
- Soda Lidia – to be honest, I went because this place got rave reviews. Personally, I didn’t think it was as good as some of the other places I ate and the reviews have pushed the prices up. But still, decent food.
9. Taste Costa Rican coffee and chocolate
Another thing Puerto Viejo is not short on is cafes. Having been on various coffee and chocolate plantation tours on my travels, these days I’m just as happy to swing by a good cafe and get straight down to the business of tasting. And I did a lot of tasting in Puerto Viejo. Here are my favourite cafes:
- De Gustibus Bakery – my favourite of all the many cafes I tried.
- Bread & Chocolate – excellent cakes and coffee.
- Deelite – great for acai bowls and ice creams.
If you love coffee and chocolate, add Monteverde to your Costa Rica list.
10. Day trip to Cahuita National Park
A coastal park that is packed with wildlife, wild beach of the black sand and white sand variety, visiting Cahuita National Park should be on your list. Even better, why not stay overnight? Cahuita is arguably what Puerto Viejo was like 10 years ago (I should know, I visited Puerto Viejo back then). And is perfect if you’re looking for a laid back small-town Costa Rican vibe. You can read my guide to Cahuita and how to get there.
11. Sleep in Puerto Viejo
I’ve written a full guide to the best hostels in Puerto Viejo. Here are two of note.
Pagalu Hostel – this is where I stayed on my most recent trip. Whether you go for a dorm or a private room, I highly recommend this place. The beds are solid wood, the hostel is clean, there’s a great kitchen and common area with hammocks.
Rockin J’s – this is the hostel I stayed at during my first visit to Puerto Viejo over 10 years ago and it’s not changed much. If you’re backpacking and want the ‘original’ Puerto Viejo vibe, stay in one of the hammocks here. There are tents and dorms also available. Be warned, it’s a bit of a party place and can be a bit…grungy…but there are lots of lovely free-spirited folk to have a deep and meaningful with.
Map of Things To Do In Puerto Viejo
I’ve put all of the places listed in this article in a Google Map.
So, that’s my guide to Puerto Viejo. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below.