Costa Rica richly deserves its name “Rich Coast” since it’s bounded on two sides by broad expanses of water: on the western side, the Pacific Ocean, and on the eastern side, the Caribbean Sea. Travelers to Costa Rica will discover loads of beach destinations, but two of our favorites include more than simply fine sand, they offer the nature enthusiast fantastic opportunities for breath-taking wildlife encounters and nature photography. These two areas are
- Cahuita National Park, on the eastern Caribbean coast
- Manuel Antonio National Park, on the western Pacific coast
While they are both equally excellent parks worth visiting, your needs or preferences may point to one or the other as being better for you on your next trip to Costa Rica.
The Parks – An Overview
Both national parks share striking similarities in many respects. Both are small nature reserves, approximately 2,000 acres in size. Both feature beautiful beaches fringed by lush, humid tropical rainforest. Wildlife is abundant and approachable in both parks, and similar in terms of diversity and species, with one difference being Manuel Antonio’s fun resident troops of squirrel monkeys and occasional flocks of noisy scarlet macaws streaming through the canopy. Both parks are easy to enter and navigate on your own, but we like to book a guided tour on the first morning in the area to help our travelers identify the wildlife and get a lay of the park for future visits.
Cahuita National Park
Situated about 4 hours east of San Jose, this park is easily accessible from the seaside town of Puerto Viejo. Here the cultural vibe is distinctly Caribbean, making a unique departure from the more typical Costa Rican culture you’ll find everywhere else. Snorkeling and diving – since Cahuita is on the Caribbean side – can be outstanding. The park has a number of easy nature trails for wildlife viewing, where one can see monkeys, sloths, squirrels, white-nosed coati, plus phenomenal birds and insects, and a dizzying array of plant life.
Long beaches, like the black sand Playa Negra in Puerto Viejo, are found here in the Puerto Viejo–Cahuita–Manzanilo area. There are bright sand beaches too, like Playa Blanca, which is inside Cahuita National Park and reaches almost two miles in length. While the beach is scenic, not all of it is recommended for swimming – for the best swimming, head toward the center of the Suarez River estuary. Near the river mouth, there is a huge lagoon, and at the tip, the sand is fine, water is clear during much of the year, and the coral reef is very close, making it good for snorkeling or diving. From here, there are beach strolling options all the way to nearby Puerto Vargas. Beaches at Punta Uva, Playa Chiquita, Playa Cocles (where surfing can be popular, and lifeguards are on staff) and Manzanillo are worth checking out. Just a little further down the road from Manzanillo (itself, about 8 miles from Puerto Viejo) is Gandoca, a park that offers seasonal opportunities for observing sea turtle nesting. In town, check out the wonderful Jaguar Rescue Center. Regular bus services and affordable taxis connect travelers and locals throughout the area.
Best times to go to Cahuita
Overall, climatically, the best times are February through May, and again August through October. June, July, November, and December are arguably months to avoid due to rains plus November and December can see seasonal closures of some businesses. The best time of year for snorkeling in Cahuita (clearest water, calmest seas) is September and October, while May can be good for swimming. The best time for sea turtles (a night-time tour) in nearby Gandoca is between April and August.
How to visit Puerto Viejo and Cahuita
We arrange comfortable van transfers from San Jose and other points in Costa Rica to Puerto Viejo. As for hotels, we particularly like the more modest 3-star and intimate boutique hotels, though we’re always happy to match a traveler’s preferred style of travel. Also nearby are two other highly interesting places to visit – Tortuguero and Selva Bananito Lodge – if you have more time available (like an extra 2 or 3 nights) for the region.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s premier tourist hot spots so it contrasts with the less-developed atmosphere in Puerto Viejo and Cahuita. The park is located south of San Jose, about a three-hour drive, on Costa Rica’s western Pacific coast. However, especially for travelers looking for just a taste of the beach or who are short on time (for example, travelers with just 2 nights to spare for the coast), then this area in particular sparkles as a fantastic option.
Home to what National Geographic once labeled as a top 20 beach in the world, the more alluring draw is probably the wildlife viewing. Here animals are habituated to people so the animals are often unafraid and approachable. Travelers can see white-faced monkeys, sloths, coatis, raccoons, iguanas and many bird species, as well as the Costa Rican squirrel monkey, which is endemic to Manuel Antonio and very hard to find anywhere else.
Several stunning beaches are found in the park (primarily Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio, and Puerto Escondido), plus a small lagoon and a mangrove forest. Connecting Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur beaches, Punta Catedral offers an attractive ocean vista and is a nice side-hike off the main trail.
Special notes – The park is closed on Mondays. Most hotels are situated on a scenic ridge overlooking the ocean and not on the beach – this is to promote beach conservation in the area.
What to do in Manuel Antonio
There are loads of excellent activities in the area, ranging from strolling the long public beach outside the park to horse riding on the beach to surfing to nature walks. We outlined a number of our favorites in a previous post, the Top 8 Things to do in Manuel Antonio. If you have specific interests, please let us know and we can advise options.
When to visit Manuel Antonio
The best time to go is December through April, though rainy season months like May often see afternoon or evening showers, meaning mornings are often clear. The worst rain is usually in September or October.
How to Visit
The drive between Manuel Antonio and San Jose International Airport is only about 3 hours now that the new highway is in place. We organize private van transfers in such a way that if your departure flight on your final day is at 1:30pm or later, we can get you to the airport in time for your departure. Getting to Manuel Antonio is just as easy and travelers have the choice of departing from your present location (like Arenal Volcano or the Monteverde Cloud Forest) to Manuel Antonio either in the morning – allowing for a free afternoon on the beach – or in the afternoon, allowing a free morning wherever you are before visiting Manuel Antonio.
In a perfect world, you’d visit both parks (and both coasts, by extension) on an 11-13 day grand “Coast to Coast” custom adventure. But most of our travelers only have between 7-9 days, and in that case, it’s better to pick one coast and save the other for next time. If you’ve never been to Costa Rica before, then you’ll probably want to include Arenal Volcano in your itinerary and Manuel Antonio makes a convenient second or third destination (for example, after a stop in Monteverde).
If you prefer getting a little more off-the-beaten-path, then head to rustic and wooly Puerto Viejo and Cahuita. From here, it’s easy to get away from the crowds on one of the area’s many beaches and the area as a whole is far less visited than Manuel Antonio. Seasonally, the area offers some of the best snorkeling in the country too. Tortuguero, with its “Amazon-in-miniature” feel, is close by, so an 8-day trip combining the Caribbean coast’s Tortuguero and Cahuita would be fabulous for easy-going nature lovers looking for wildlife and beach.
Contact us and we’ll help design the ultimate Costa Rica itinerary for you based on your needs, interests, and budget. We hope you’re able to experience why Costa Rica lives up to its Rich Coast name!