Costa Rica is a bucket list destination for nearly everyone. From white sand beaches to lush mountain rainforests, volcanoes to exotic wildlife, there really isn’t anywhere else quite like this Central American hotspot.
For most first-time visitors to Costa Rica, the first decision that they have to make is which part of the country to visit.
While only a mere 180 miles long and just 75 miles wide at its narrowest point, few travelers have the opportunity to see all parts of the country in one trip.
Traveling around Costa Rica isn’t always easy, and with so much to do and see in every region, most people prefer to stay in one general area. That usually means choosing between the Pacific coast or the Caribbean coast. The two coasts are vastly different, and which side is better for you depends largely on your expectations for your vacation and what you like to do.
To help you make the choice, answer these questions.
Do You Prefer Luxury or More Rustic Accommodations?
You’ll find all manner of accommodations in Costa Rica, from luxury, full-service resorts to rustic coastal lodges, rainforest treehouses, private vacation rentals and everything in between.
For the traveler who wants high-end luxury – think swimming pools, full service staff, air conditioning, WiFi and other creature comforts – you are more likely to find what you are looking for on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
This coast is more developed than the Caribbean side (although that is rapidly changing in some areas) and in towns like Tamarindo, you’ll find all manner of big-name Costa Rica beach resorts and hotels overlooking the sea in addition to plenty of dining, shopping, and other amenities.
Until the last few years, accessing the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has been somewhat challenging, so you’re not going to find chain hotels and huge sprawling resorts on this side.
The majority of accommodations is still smaller boutique hotels, eco-lodges, and hostels, along with private vacation rental homes. That could change in the coming years, but if you are willing to “rough it” to an extent for a quieter, less crowded experience, then the Caribbean coast is better for you.
What Do You Want to Do?
Surfing is one of the top reasons people visit Costa Rica, as the surf breaks tend to be counted among the best in the world. The Pacific coast is widely regarded as being a better surfing spot as it has a higher number of established surf breaks, not to mention many surf towns full of shops where you can get all your surfing gear.
There are surf breaks on this coast that are well-suited to both beginner and advanced surfers. The waters on this side tend to be a bit rougher, so snorkeling and diving aren’t as popular, although the reef near Manuel Antonio National Park does attract a lot of snorkelers
If you are looking to spend time on the beach just hanging out – without a lot of other people around – then the Caribbean is a better choice.
The sand on this side is softer and more powdery (the famous Conchal Beach on the Pacific Coast is known for being comprised of small shells and other beaches have darker volcanic sand) and the beach is less rugged with calmer waters.
The drawback, though, is that the weather on the Caribbean coast tends to be more unpredictable – and wetter. Those looking for fun in the sun and fewer rainy days are better suited to visit the northwest coast, near the border with Nicaragua. Still, the Caribbean side is ideal for watersports like kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba, with an abundance of reefs and clear, calm waters.
One thing you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience regardless of which coast you choose is the wildlife. Costa Rica is teeming with wildlife and is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet which is why visiting Costa Rica is a must for animal and nature lovers.
On the Caribbean coast, the rainforest meets the sea, and you have a chance of spotting sloths, toucans, monkeys, frogs and other animals in their native habitats. The eastern coast is also where you will find the Jaguar Rescue Center and Tortuguero National Park, the most important nesting site in the Western Hemisphere for the endangered green sea turtle
The Pacific coast has an abundance of national parks, in addition to multiple wildlife rescue centers. Manual Antonio on the Pacific coast is perhaps the most famous national park in Costa Rica; here you can explore miles of hiking trails through the rainforest.
Fortunately, you don’t need to visit a national park to see some of Costa Rica’s most famous residents here: You probably won’t have any trouble spotting different varieties of monkeys out and about wherever you are as well as humpback whales as they migrate through the Pacific all year round.
What’s Your Budget?
For now, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is still much less expensive than the Pacific coast, largely because it is still relatively undeveloped. Most of the towns have retained their sleepy, beach town vibe, with Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in the south arguably the busiest town and the most likely place to find nightlife.
There is a distinct Afro-Caribbean vibe here, in everything from the language (many people speak Creole in addition to Spanish) to the food and music. You’ll find unique food in this region with a distinct Caribbean influence (read: spicier) and a laidback, slower pace.
The Pacific coast is more developed, and therefore, more expensive. However, you will find more of an American influence here, including chain restaurants that you are familiar with.
That being said, you can still find bargains if you look a little further inland, and many of the small towns are populated with people from all over the world, making them a unique melting pot of languages and culture. Most of the towns are very walkable, and you’ll have no trouble finding fresh seafood (especially sushi) on the Pacific coast.
Costa Rica is a diverse country, and there really is something for every type of traveler. So, whether you want a quiet, rustic, beach getaway or a more luxurious and action-packed trip, you’ll find it here.