WHAT makes this beach town so memorable is perhaps what it’s not…there’s no ultra-luxe hotels and restaurants, gaudy tourist traps, or flocks of high school students on spring break. Unlike the pacific coastline in almost every way, Puerto Viejo is an unassuming beach town that sits on the eastern, Caribbean coastline of Costa Rica. Don’t get me wrong it’s touristy – but in a completely different way. There is a distinctive laid-back vibe in this and neighboring towns, frequented by backpackers, roaming Europeans, and the perfect wave hunting surfers. Like much of the eastern coast of Costa Rica, the Afro-Caribbean presence here is rich and carries with it pulsing reggae music, distinctive cuisine and art, and above all else, good times
1) Imperial Pool
After taking the bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, not to be confused with another town called Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, follow the main downtown dirt road of Puerto Viejo (it’s the only road) and walk through the small shops and outdoor restaurants where the road curves gently, hugging the shoreline. For a quick drink, stop at any of the open-air bars and chat with locals or fellow travelers. To check into your hotel, continue down the main road and look for the Lizard King where you will be greeted with a pleasant wood deck, hot showers, and a secluded pool. Grab an Imperial beer and kick back.
2) Dinner Live
Stroll down the street in formal dinner attire: flip flops, shorts and a shirt. Close to the crashing waves, there are several fine places with live music so pick one that suits your eye and order either a Casado ($12), with your choice of shredded beef, chicken, fish of the day, or the Pargo Frito ($15) a fried red snapper with sweet coconut rice and a salad of crisp cabbage.
3) Smoky Air
At night, this one-road town comes alive with Marley reggae beats from each restaurant and bar, all offering tropical drink specials and cold Imperial beer. Whether out on a terrace or walking the beach side street, there’s a subtle scent of sticky ganja and cigars mixing with the smell of coconut and sunscreen. If the bar scene is too much, you can always grab drinks at the local grocery store and sit beachside with newly made friends.
4) French Toast and Pineapple
Rise early, ok well early-ish, and enjoy the quite and calm waves nearby as you have a cup of dark coffee and read a local paper or scan the internet to see if everything back home is how you left it. Back where the party was last night, you will find a line of restaurants serving both Costa Rican and American breakfasts. Order either the Gallo Pinto ($9), a plate of fried eggs, white rice, red beans, and a slice of chewy white cheese, or the French toast ($8), slices of French toast with powdered sugar, grilled ham, or bacon, and fresh fruit. The standout, no matter where you are in Costa Rica, will always be the fresh pineapple.
5) Bikes and Beaches
All who visit must rent bikes for the day ($5), peddling south along the road lined with flora and fauna towards Manzanillo. Along the way, admire the howler monkeys screaming and the waves crashing. When you can see a clear path cut from the road to the beach, turn off and make a stop. The beaches are wild, untamed and rustic but that’s part of the fun. Continue south, stopping where you like until you reach Punta Uva and enjoy the sun and waves for the afternoon. To head back, ride north again for an hour.
If after the full day of crashing waves and biking your body is shutting down, you will find great comfort in finding a hammock stretched between two trees and rocking gently back and forth until you’re sound asleep. If you are up for more, head to Salsa Brava right off the main dirt road where you are staying, and watch the surfers ride big waves.
7) Rocking J’s
To mix it up check into Rocking J’s beach hostel, a ten-minute walk south on the main road. Bohemian, eclectic, hippy, all could be used to describe this place, but what’s important is that you’ll have a great time. Set along the water, this sprawling beach hostel offers cheap rooms, great food, and is one big party. The adjoining restaurant E’s, named after Cordon Bleu trained chef Eric, serves up a mix of American classics and Asian inspired fare.
While the restaurant at J’s serves up great food, one of the perks of your new accommodation is the fully stocked kitchen and outdoor grill. Head to the local store across the street and collect what you’d like to cook up. The communal kitchen is great place to meet others, swap stories, and plan your night out.
9) In & Out
Staying in for the night is easy with the full bar at J’s featuring live music, cheap drink specials, and plenty of people from places you’ve never been. To go out, head back to the downtown on the main dirt road and look for a place that’s packed with bodies. The nightlife stretches into the early hours, and probably should if this is your final night. Also check out the hedonistic bonfires by the beach at Rocking J’s.
10) Pancakes in the Sand
To start your day off right, whip up some pancakes in the full kitchen and eat while sitting out on a soft sand beach. If cooking just is not you’re thing, try walking south along the road and stopping at any restaurant with “Soda” in the name, where sign boards offer breakfast or lunch options.
11) Surfs Up
Just north of town sits Playa Negra, a stretch of beach with charcoal black sand and lapping, green waves. Locals know this is a great spot for surfing and rain or shine, you’ll find a group floating out beyond the break. If you are up for a lesson, make friends with a local or ask around for board rentals. But you can always swim, body surf, or make sandcastles if the board is too difficult. When it’s time to pack up and move on the bus stop heading back to San Jose will be filled, but no one will want to leave.
IF YOU GO:
For budget travelers and groups, Rocking J’s offers camping/tent rentals for as low as ($6), private rooms for ($20), and various suites ($40-70 for groups). http://rockingjs.com/
The Lizard King Resort offers nice private rooms, hot showers, clean bathrooms, a bar/restaurant and a large pool. Rooms start at $35 for the night. Ask about specials and group rates. http://www.lizardkingresort.com/