Exploring the Coasts

of Costa Rica

A 10-Day Itinerary Highlighting Black Communities

Costa Rica is the perfect place to visit if you want to travel to a tropical destination within 3-5 hours of most US cities. One of its main economic activities is tourism. There are tourism operations ready to help you do anything from relax in the jungle, learn to surf, or even participate in land and wildlife conservation. I visited Costa Rica recently, and I want to give you a glimpse into my 10 day journey spanning the central region, and reaching the Caribbean (Atlantic), and Pacific Coasts.

 

Use this complimentary guide as a template to customize your own trip. Dive into each section to expertly navigate Costa Rica and its vibrant coasts as you seek local culture and adventure in a sustainable way.

Updated 1/13/20

Introduction

The name Costa Rica literally translates to "rich coast", which fits well given that the small nation is abundant in the natural resources that conquistadors saw fit for exploitation and economic export as a Spanish colony. Since its founding the 16th century, the nation has become one of the most stable sovereign nations in the world. It prides itself on being a peaceful nation as one of few countries without a standing army, and ecologically-minded, sourcing nearly all of its energy from green sources.

 

The Central American nation is home to cultural, ethnic, and biological diversity--and they are proud of it. This is evident in the various skin tones that you see, the bright and vibrant cultural manifestations present at every turn: murals, handmade artisan goods, lively music, savory food, and myriad terrains and micro-climates that you can see and feel while navigating through the landscapes. Although it has a warm and tropical climate, temperatures can turn cool at a moment’s notice.

 

10 Day Itinerary​

Ten days spent in Costa Rica is a good amount of time journey to both coasts and spend a bit of time in the local communities. The itinerary below will initially position you in San José, the capital and cultural hub of the country. Then you'll whisk off to Limón province, home to the nation's largest port and home to Black communities descendant from enslaved Africans brought to the area in the 1500s, and West Indian (Jamaican, Belezean, Trinidadian) laborers that built the railroad and helped build national wealth through the banana and cocoa trade. After a short respite back in the national capital, you'll head to the Pacific coast and Manuel Antonio National Park. You'll end your time in the country in San José, just in time for a return home.

 
Day 1
Get Acquainted with San José

12:00

Arrive to San José (airport code: SJO)

13:30

Check-in to your accommodations

See my AirBnB recommendations and get $55 off your first say.

17:00

People watch at Paseo Colón, the city's pedestrian-only thoroughfare

18:30 

Dine on comida típica at Mi Tierra,  overlooking the plaza of Museo Nacional.

My Pick: Chorreada con natilla (cornmeal pancake with sour cream dip as an appetizer). Some entrees served on banana leaves, and ecologically friendly practice borrowed from the indigenous peoples of the area.

While most guide books will tell you to immediately depart crime-ridden San José, there is beauty and lively culture here. It is the repository for all things Costa Rican, and will serve as an ample base camp for exploring the country.

View westward over San José's central business and cultural districts

Practical Tips for Costa Rica

 Choose accommodations that put you near sites that you want to see.

 Stock up on liter or gallon bottled water at a local market and use a refillable bottle.

Pack a washcloth. Most accommodations will not provide one.

Bring a light jacket to be ready for cooler micro-climates as you traverse the country. Download a free Packing List for Warm Climates.

Beware: Uber is illegal in Costa Rica. No problems catching them in the city, but be cautious when calling them for pickup at the airport. Try meeting your driver on the street on the opposite side of the parking lot.

 San José's nickname is Chepe, and residents are known as chepeños.

Day 2
Experience a Taste of Local Culture in Chepe

San José's cultural district provides fertile ground for learning about Costa Rica's history and culture.

9:30

Visit Museo Nacional, housed in former Bellavista Fortress; view treasures documenting the nation's history.

12:00

Take lunch in the chic open-air patio cafeteria at Jardín de Lolita complete with Instagram worthy photo ops; located in the hip Barrio Escalante. Options range from burgers to sushi.

My Pick at Jardin de Lolita: Buffalo chicken burger from Hamburguesa A Dos Manos.

14:00

Stroll down Avenida Central, which runs right through the city's bustling business district.

14:45

Walk through Mercado Central to get a glimpse of small scale commerce and daily life in the capital.

Excursion: If time allows, head to see the Black Virgin, the representation of the Virgin Madonna in the likeness of Black and indigenous people.

 

Located in nearby Cartago, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles is accessible by Uber or bus.

 

Afterwards, walk to Cartago's Museo Municipal for a glorious mural that depicts Costa Rica's rich history, and point out the Afro-descendants speckled throughout.

Catch a show at the Teatro Nacional, or a free performance in the Plaza de la Cultura.

16:30

Either stay around to catch rush hour and stand-still traffic, or head in for downtime before finding dinner nearby.

Cultural Notes

Comida típica is traditional Costa Rican food, the type of meal that folks would actually eat in their homes.

A type of comida típica known as a casado is a complete meal that contains a meat, plantains, rice and beans, and a salad.

Day 3
Journey to the Caribbean Coast: Cahuita

Rolling into the very relaxed town can seem underwhelming, yet Cahuita is the perfect place to unwind in the midst of natural beauty and Afro-Costarican hospitality.

09:00

Take a bus from Terminal Gran Caribe to Limón (sometimes called Puerto

Limón). Duration: 3.5-4 hours.

13:00

Arrive to the Limón Terminal. Walk to the Terminal de Mepe behind the Big Boy baseball stadium (5 minute walk), and take the bus to Cahuita. Duration: 45 mins-1hr.

14:30

Arrive to Cahuita bus station. 

15:00 

Check-in to your accommodations

17:00

Leisurely around the small town and get a flavor for its laid back style.

18:00

Dine and share libations at Coco's Bar, a reggae themed restaurant on the main strip, or at Miss Edith's Restaurant near the water.

My pick at Miss Edith's: Try the coconut  stewed shrimp. But beware: nibble (don't bite) the green pepper garnish. It is extra spicy as the waiter might warn you.

Practical Tips for Cahuita

 There's no need to book tours/excursions before you arrive. Agencies line  the main strip and are eager for your business.

Cahuita is a small laid-back town full of local families and tourists. No one is in a rush, so take it easy.

 Bring a flashlight for walking through some of the roads which are safe, but not well lit after dusk.

 Most dogs are not leashed in Costa Rica. They may bark, but most will only chase if you run. Locals simply ignore them, and have no problem.

✔ Cahuita National Park is funded through donations. A ₡5000 donation is generous and will underscore your commitment to sustainable tourism. 

Be prepared to sporadic, torrential rain showers that clear up quickly.

Day 4
Be Captivated by Cahuita National Park

09:00

Enter Cahuita National Park through the town (not thru the other entrance at Puerto Vargas)

Take the trail through the rain forest, keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife. Meander from the trail to the pristine secluded beaches.

13:00

Cool down with gelato at the shop at the entrance to the park.

My pick: Try any (or all), but coconut and piña flavors are sure to satisfy.

14:00

Find a hammock to relax in, or explore Playa Negra, about 15 mins north on foot.

17:00

Enjoy chic upscale ambiance at and pizza at Pizzeria Cahuita.

19:00

Browse the artisan shops for locally crafted souvenirs. 

My pick: Although pricey, Samoa Boutique features bohemian accessories, skincare items, and linen clothing made in Costa Rica.

The most reknown example of Costa Rican natural conservation on the Caribbean Coast, this national park embodies paradise (rain forest) and pleasure (beach) at the same time.

The earthen trail in Cahuita National Park is scenic and tranquil, with the occasional howler monkey calls in the treetops.

Regional Travel by Bus

Buses offer convenient and inexpensive options for travel throughout the country. From San Jose, there is a bus terminal for each regional destination.

For Limon and all  Caribbean destinations, buses depart from Terminal Gran Caribe. For cities south along the Pacific Coast (ie. Quepos/Manuel Antonio), buses depart Terminal Tracopa

A ticket on the routes departing these stations provide you access to a reserved seat on a modern, air-conditioned coach bus. There are less expensive, less comfortable, slower options that I'll mention below.

Collectivo vs. Directo

Intra-city buses are often known as collectivos, because they stop anywhere on the route to pick up passengers that flag them down. While some regional buses are collectivos, they may be referred to as corriente, meaning most passengers board at the station, but can get dropped off anywhere along the route to the final destination. While convenient for local commuters, the stop-and-go can add hours to a trip. Taking a directo, a bus that makes limited stops before reaching the final destination is the quickest way to get to a destination that is further away.

Day 5
Journey South to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

This seaside town is unlike its neighbor Cahuita: it cannot be described as sleepy. It is a bustling tourist hub full of Afro-Caribbean gems. It is also known as Puerto Viejo de Limón.

08:00

Take a bus from Cahuita Terminal de Buses to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Limón). Duration: 45 minutes

10:00

Arrive to Puerto Viejo. Either get off the buss at the bus stop in the center of town, or get the driver to let you down closer to your accomodations if they are along the route.

10:30 

Check-in to your accommodations.

12:00 

Buy  homemade snacks from Liz (see the the house with a blue awning across from the Puerto Viejo Hotel). She'll tell you about her Jamaican heritage while reminiscing about local life before the impact of tourism.

My pick: Chicken empanada and sorrel (dark red drink made from hibiscus). Liz adds extra ginger!

13:00

Leisurely around the small town and get a flavor for its laid back style.

Local culture: As a fishing community, you may notice men building cage-like structures from link fencing. These are traps used to catch crabs, fish, and other seafood that they will sell to local restaurants.

17:00

Sit down for open-air dining at Lidia's. Away from the main strip, this homey attracts foodies for its vibrant African inspired decor, and flavorful Caribbean cuisine.

My pick: Splurge on the lobster (choose it from tank) dinner. Wash it down with a sugarcane and lime juice concoction known as hiel.

Tony, a local business man in Puerto Viejo makes traps to catch fish, crabs, and lobsters to sell to local restaurants.

Cahuita History

The town's central plaza is home to some clues about the town's West Indian heritage. Founded in 1915, two of the life-sized busts that sit prominently in the park represent its founders Leslie Williams Henry, and Selles Johnson Smith. The bust in the middle represents the nation's totalitarian president at the time, Alfredo González.

Decedent of West Indian immigrants that settled in the region to work the land or fish, natives of the town speak Spanish and English with a West Indian (some say Jamaican) accent.

The federal government funded the national park in a land conservation effort against agriculture in 1978. Still, there are efforts to expand the park, which would overtake adjacent farmlands, which some locals oppose.

Cahuita is also home to Walter Gavitt Ferguson, who immigrated from Panama as a child. He'd become known as the King of Calypso. His family owns cabinas and a restaurant near the entrance to the national park.

 

As you will notice, most business in town are locally run by native families (many related to the orignal founders); making Cahuita a perfect place to engage in sustainable tourism.

Day 6
Make Base Camp in San José

07:00

Catch an early bus heading back to San José. Duration: 4.5 hours

11:30

Check-in at your accommodations.

12:00

Rest and plan the rest or your afternoon in comfort.

13:00

Be adventurous and take an unguided walking tour of the neighborhood. Check with the doorman, your host, or concierge about local safety.​

Orient yourself with landmarks, then explore a few blocks in either direction.

18:00

Treat yourself to a Michellin-rated dinner at Park Cafe which doubles as an antique shop.

21:00

Grab drinks at the vine covered rooftop terrace bar at at Azotea Calle 7 inside of Hotel Presidente.

Tip: For higher-end popular restaurants, make reservations ahead of time, check business hours and local holiday schedules that you may not be aware of.

Trekking from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast by bus in one day, while doable, is unadvised. Instead, use San José as a base camp and a reprieve from long bus rides--taking a day or more, for relaxation and planning.

Mural in Barrio Escalante depicting Costa Rica's Black patron saint known as "La Negrita".

Day 7
Traverse the Mountains to Reach National Treasure

07:00

Catch an early bus heading to Manuel Antonio (Quepos - Pacific Coast)

Duration: 4 hours

11:30

Check-in at your accommodations at Manuel Antonio (the area around the highway that ends at the National Park)

12:00

Rest and plan the rest or your afternoon in comfort.

13:00

Head to the entrance of Manuel Antonio National Park. Explore the trails through mangroves and forest that beaches known as the best in the country.

My pick: Avoid the crowds drawn to the east side of the park by finding serenity and shade under the trees at Playa Espadilla Sur on the west side.

16:00

Take an early dinner at any of the restaurants along the road departing the park.​

19:00

Walk to take a taxi to get drinks at Hotel Villa Roca, a cliffside gay friendly hotel with a spectacular view of the ocean.

My pick: Try a Chiliguaro shot featuring Cacique distilled sugar cane spirit (guaro) with lime, salt, black pepper, Tabasco, and tomato juice. Its Costa Rica's version of the Bloody Mary, but with a kick!

21:00

Grab a savory snack and desert at Rafaeles Las Terrazas.

The route to Quepos, home to Manuel Antonio National Park is about as scenic as they get. And once you arrive, you'll be constantly reminded of the power of the ocean and the beauty of the rain forest.

The raised walkway over the mangroves at Manuel Antonio National Park.

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

If you do a quick internet search for the best beaches in Costa Rica, surely Manuel Antonio will pop up at the top of the list.

The namesake town is home to the national park, public access beaches, and a strong economy geared toward tourism where you will have a wide range of options in food, lodging, and entertainment. Quepos, the town that you'll pass through on the way to Manuel Antonio is also home to a more urban selection of amenities. 

 

Unlike Cahuita National Park, Manuel Antonio requires an entrance fee and ticket. This ticket can be purchased at the financial co-op near the gate. At $16 USD, it is not inexpensive, but definitely worth it.

The trails in the park is actually a raised concrete platform which makes it accesible to wheelchairs. Traversing forest and mangrove, the walk is easy and wildlife is easy spotted. Although many will try to sell their services, you do not need a personal guide to enjoy the park. 

The grand prize for getting through the trails is your pick of several beaches. Playa Espadilla Sur on the west side is tranquil, while Playa Manuel Antonio on the east side is a favorite for groups and families. 

Day 8
Soak Up the Sun All Day

Start the day with an exciting zipline, then spend the remainder of the day soaking up the sun and eating local treats.

10:00

Grab breakfast at your hotel, or at a local restaurant. 

11:30

Zip line (with a twist) through the rain forest canopy at Zip Coaster, about a kilometer uphill from the beach on the main highway.

12:30 

Head back downhill and take a spot on the beach. Rent a chair and umbrella from one of the attendants.

14:30 

Take a late lunch at one of the restaurants on the road that connects the national park to the highway.

My pick: Savor the locally sourced red snapper and your choice of sides...patacones (mashed and fried) green plantains make a perfect pairing.

16:30

Catch the waning sun as it sets and creates pink and plum hues between the sky and ocean.

18:00

Catch a taxi to Quepos for an evening in town, or grab a seat at a local hotel restaurant for fine dining.

My pick: Arbol restaurant nestled within Hotel Makanda, features locally caught seafood and contemporary Central American cuisine.

Playa Espadilla Sur on the west side of Manuel Antonio National Park.

Day 9
Return to San José

07:00

Catch an early bus heading back to San José.

Duration: 4 hours

11:30

Check-in at your accommodations

12:00

Rest and plan the rest or your afternoon in comfort.

14:00

Souvenir shop along Paseo Colon, and be sure to check out the Municipal Craft Market for local handmade items.

My pick: If you are checking baggage, consider stocking up on local liquors like guaro, and coffee, or Costa Rican condiments like Salsa Lizano at a local grocery store. They make great (and edible) souvenirs.

Spend your last full day in Costa Rica in leisure, and shopping for momentos.

Day 10
Depart Costa Rica

Depending on your flight departure, enjoy a local breakfast or lunch.

Check out of your accommodations, and if its a hotel, be sure to tip. If its an AirBnB, be sure to leave the place in a condition that will warrant a great review from your host.

Grab an Uber or taxi to SJO airport. Arrival 2-3 hours before departure should be sufficient for this medium sized airport. However, beware of timing and rush-hour.

Packing for Costa Rica's Changing Weather

 

Costa Rica's weather can change from steamy hot, to torrential downpour, to cool and cloudy within a matter of minutes. Exacerbated by the diverse terrain, the weather will change as you traverse the country. Be prepared for it all. In this tropical climate, I recommend packing for warm weather, and being prepared for rain and wet conditions.

 

Download the Packing Guide for Warm Climates to access an expertly curated packing list.

My AirBnB Picks

 

Here are my top AirBnB picks representing a variety of options to fit your travel needs; whether you're with a group or traveling solo. You can now book hotel rooms through the platform. I've actually stayed at and approved each of these picks, so you can't go wrong!

 

Get $55 off of your first adventure with AirBnB!

San José
Pick 1
24th Floor City View in the Heart of Barrio Escalante, w/Balcony 

Located in a hip and safe neighborhood, this accommodation is within walking distance to the cultural and business districts. Incredible amenities on-site.

San José
Pick 2
Ultra Contemporary High Rise Studio with Murphy Bed, South of CBD

On the southern perimeter of the city core. Great stay, but Uber required. Use of in-apartment washer costs extra.

San José
Group Trip Pick
Spacious High Rise Condo, 3BR

Easy self check-in, comes with parking. Spacious and super clean space with beds galore is perfect for a friends' trip.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Budget Pick
Oceanfront Bedroom at Cabinas Yucca

Budget, quality stay. Comfortable bedroom with actual beach access and hammock. Perfect for chill respite.

Available on Booking.com

Cahuita
Budget Pick
Simple Bedroom steps from Ocean at Cabinas Arrecife
Manuel Antonio
Group Trip Beach Pick
Spacious Suite near the beach, 2BR/4 Beds at Beach Jungle Hotel

Seafront just feet away, but an obstructed view. Great for a couple nights of no-frills accommodation. Breakfast included.

Second floor  suite with kitchen. Hear the monkeys run across the roof at dawn. Five minute walk to beach. Breakfast included.

Reflection

 

Although I spent time in Costa Rica as a member of the Peace Corps, I still found there is much to discover nearly ten years later. The country is a draw for tourists because of its natural beauty and terrain which make it perfect for adventure sports and beach vacations. But I also find immense value in it's stature as one of the region's most peaceful countries, also boasting a track record for being energy conscious and ecologically-minded.

Even with all of this positive marketing, the country still struggles with its racial issues. Not until 1949 were Black Costa Ricans able to freely travel outside of Limón. The influx of tourism and backpacker culture has not greatly benefited Black communities. In fact, its led to displacement and racial exclusion of Black communities in the Atlantic. This is visibly apparent when I compared the living conditions and infrastructural inequalities between the beach side communities on the Caribbean (Black), and those on the Pacific (non-Black).

I especially enjoyed time with my former host family where they live on the Quitirrisí indigenous reserve outside of San José. Belonging to the Huetar ethnic group, they face distinct challenges of poverty, substance addiction, and joblessness as a result of racism and ethnic exclusion. On their land I feel welcomed and valued, and they share so much with me even when they have so little.

When I step back to understand what a beautiful place like Costa Rica means to me, I must focus on the people. The physical land that they inhabit is sacred because it is home to the first peoples of the Americas. And the African and Black people brought there are the foundation for the nation's birth as an agricultural economy. The people give Costa Rican its richness. The people make it unforgettable. And the history of the people that you might not see at first glance, are key to unlocking that richness as a traveler.

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