Costa Rica Caribbean or Pacific
When your country’s name means “Rich Coast,” then chances are you have a coastline, and while this is a fitting name, it should actually be plural because Costa Rica has both Caribbean and Pacific coast.
Historians say the “Rich Coast” was actually given because of all the indigenous’s gold when the Europeans showed up. We will assume you are not visiting Costa Rica and deciding on which coast you have by the amount of gold you will find on one or the other.
The main problem I see when people visit Costa Rica is that they design their itinerary around the beaches. If it is your first trip to Costa Rica, you should always design your itinerary around what you want to do on Costa Rica’s interior and let that dictate which coast you go to. Now that we said that, lets we assume you are coming to be at the beach, which is always an option. Those doing our SUPSurf Academy usually spend their entire stay at the beach.
1. What makes the Decision Difficult
There is a famous TedTalk out there that talks about the paradox of choice. If you watch it, you will start applying it to almost all decisions in life and how modern society has made us less happy by giving us too many things to choose from, always leaving us with the thought of what if we bought the other pair of shoes instead of the ones we picked. The same happens when trying to decide between which coast to visit in Costa Rica. The best part is you can’t go wrong. So while the decision is difficult, once you make it, there is a perfect chance you won’t regret it.
But that would make this topic too easy and no reason for a blog. We could have told you that in a text message, not a blog which is why we are going to dive a little deeper into the differences between the two coast.
The Pacific coast is entirely a culture that is in the making. The Costa Rican farmer and dusty dirt roads you see less and less of on the Pacific. It is mostly made up of ex-pats and local Costa Ricans that work in or for the “inversionistas” (foreigners who invest in different projects) or tourism industry.
This is how the Pacific has been and most likely how it will stay from a cultural standpoint. The only time it leans more towards an authentic Costa Rican culture is on weekends or holidays when you can have weekend visitors from the central valley, bringing everything “Tico” you can imagine, which actually makes for a fun time you don’t mind crowds.
During the pandemic, it has been interesting to see the Ticos get out and enjoy their beaches. It will be interesting to see how it continues and the co-existence of crowds when tourism comes back. But chances are many won’t be working remotely, but it sure is nice to get to see the locals enjoy their beaches.
The Caribbean coast definitely holds more culture than the Pacific. Here you have the Afro-Caribbean culture from workers that came to Costa Rica to help build the railroad.
While many foreigners have come to the Caribbean, it is a different type of foreigner. Many Afro-Caribbean landowners are not looking to sell their land, so many locals are still in the area.
In the center of Puerto Viejo, there is a giant culture center, and you can feel the vibrant energy in the live music, shops, and food of the Afro-Caribbean Culture.
This is a major plus if you are someone who enjoys culture.
3. Investment and Development
The Pacific is much more developed and is where all the “big money” is. Tom Brady, Mel Gibson, and Paris Hilton all joined in on the great land grab in the last 15 years. The Four Seasons, Marriots, and all-inclusive are on the Pacific.
Your major highways, which are always a work in Costa Rica’s progress, were all invested and built before considering the Caribbean side.
It should be noted that the Pacific is much, much longer, so there are plenty of places that do not resemble an all-inclusive. You have touristy towns, vast stretches of the national park with ecolodges where you can trek for days, and everything in between, but it is all very spread out.
The Caribbean, for many reasons which we will not get into on this blog, has suffered from being somewhat forgotten about. The foreigners that have populated the area have brought more and more money, and now you can find nice restaurants, luxurious small boutique hotels, and options for tours and transportation. In the last five years, you are now starting to see local and national governments make some massive investments in the area. A new highway and infrastructure in downtown Puerto Viejo could take the Caribbean to a whole new level.
4. Distance & Topography
When I say distance, I am talking about the distance from one nice beach to the next. The major difference in this is due to the topography.
You can be in Cahuita, where the “nice” beaches begin in the Caribbean. You can drive to Manzanillo in around 30 minutes, passing a handful of different beaches, never being farther than 5 blocks from the beach with nothing but flat terrain between the ocean and the road you drive on.
The Pacific could not be anything further from the truth. If you are on the northernmost beach and want to drive to the southernmost beach, it will take you probably around 10 hrs, and that is on the Inter-American Highway. If you wanted to go down the coastline beach-by-beach, then it’s gonna take you a few days.
The reason for this is the Terrain. The mountains on the Pacific are much more developed and rise much higher off the coastline. It’s where the mountain meets the sea. The Caribbean is more an erosion style where it is much flatter and less gradient. The first and only ridge on the Caribbean is a quarter of some of the mid and southern Pacific ridges.
5. Views & Water
Based on the last topic, the views on the Pacific are better. You can get higher and have less obstructed views because it’s steeper, so the trees don’t block views as much.
In the Caribbean, the horizon almost looks closer. Why is this? I have no idea and would love a horizonologist to email me and tell me because it happens even when you stand on the beach.
The water on the Caribbean wins. When conditions are right, it’s one of the most beautiful you will see anywhere. That is usually from September to November.
The Pacific has that deep dark blue feel.
6. Rainforest, Wildlife, & Sand
The rainforest on Costa Rica’s northern pacific is what we call the dry tropical rainforest. It could not be any more different from the Caribbean. As you move south on the Pacific, you will eventually get to a more moist rainforest and ultimately end up in the southern Pacific at the Corcovado National Park, which gets plenty of rain but absolutely majestic.
The Caribbean gets a lot of rain and is home to some of Costa Rica’s largest trees. Because the terrain is flat many home builders have had no reason to cut trees for views because the tree on the next property is probably blocking the view. The Pacific, on the other hand, has many more areas that feel wide open. In the Caribbean, you feel immersed in the rainforest.
Because of this, the wildlife is better in the Caribbean. Every time I go, I see a larger variety of species in one day than I might see in a week on the Pacific. This, of course, depends on where you go, but because the Caribbean is small, it just feels more populated. There are excellent pockets for wildlife on the Pacific, but they feel more like pockets and not free for all the wildlife corridors connected to larger areas.
Probably one of the main questions or subconscious things you are thinking when walking up to a beach for the first time in the color of the sand.
Costa Rica does not have the white sandy beaches as you find in the Bahamas. Too many volcanos here. The closest you get is the southern Caribbean. A few beaches on the Pacific seem whiter because they are made up of shells, but the Caribbean has white sand in certain areas because of the coral reefs offshore.
7. The Waves
Well, the best for last and again it’s a tough decision. I have grown to love the Caribbean surf after 15 years of Pacific. The Pacific certainly has more variety, and if you are on a surf trip, it’s a no-brainer, but if you want to get some waves in and nothing crazy, then the Caribbean. Unless, of course, you want to surf Salsa Brava on the Caribbean, which is one of Costa Rica’s most epic waves. You won’t see me out there.
As mentioned before, the Caribbean gets plenty of rain but plenty of sunshine. If it rains, you have so much to do in short distances like chocolate tours, Green Macaws, Hikes, Jaguar Rescue, and more.
The dry season in the Caribbean is from September to November.
The Pacific is so large it falls into two different regions, as we mentioned with the dry and moist rainforest. The northern Pacific is going to get the most sunshine anywhere in Costa Rica. As you move south along the pacific, you gradually get more and more rain.
9. Access to Other Parts of Costa Rica
All I got to say here is that the Caribbean is closest to the most spectacular gem of Costa Rica, the Pacuare River!