Puerto Viejo is now established along with Cahuita as a centre for individual travellers on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side.
In addition to beautiful beaches, species-rich waters, national parks and other nature reserves, the special atmosphere of this coastal strip attracts a growing number of visitors. The vast majority of the black population can be traced back to immigrants from the West Indies, mainly from Jamaica, who came to Costa Rica in the late 19th century to build the railroad to the Caribbean coast and later work on the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company. In contrast to the rest of Costa Rica, English is usually spoken, reggae, calypso and garifuna rhythms replace the Latino sound, and even the everyday dish “casado”, prepared with coconut milk, tastes less monotonous than elsewhere in the country. In addition to a growing number of restaurants and pubs, Puerto Viejo also has a number of small hotels and guesthouses primarily addressing backpackers. The few upscale bungalow complexes along the beaches south of the village also have little capacity. Fortunately, a development similar to the beach resorts of Guanacaste has not taken place so far.
The most important attraction in the surrounding area is the nature reserve “Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca – Manzanillo”, whose 5300 hectare area includes rare habitats such as a lowland rainforest, an extensive wetland and the only intact mangrove swamp with natural oyster beds on the Atlantic coast. The area also protects the country’s only Raphia palm swamp and is nesting ground for various species of sea turtles, crocodiles and caimans as well as a habitat for dolphins, manatees and tarpoons. Playa Manzanillo, part of the 10-kilometer-long coastal strip within the national park, is considered Costa Rica’s Caribbean picture-book beach. Other popular beaches are Punta Uva and Playa Cocles, a few kilometres south of Puerto Viejo. Nature lovers are also recommended to visit the botanical garden of the “Finca la Isla”, whose owners grow spices, exotic fruits and ornamental plants on five hectares and offer them for sale. Toucans and sloths are regular guests here, as are poison dart frogs, which are native to the bromeliads. A visit to the Reserva Indígena Keköldi, where almost 200 Bribri and Cabecar live, provides a glimpse into the everyday life of Costa Rica’s indigenous population. The Cahuita National Park can be reached 13km northeast of Puerto Viejo. It was once founded to protect the offshore coral reef, but is now largely considered dead. The cause of this coral death was the earthquake of 1991, as a result of which huge amounts of mud from the rivers were washed from the mainland into the sea, where they stuck together the breath pores of the sensitive molluscs and literally suffocated them.
The landscape of the 14km long coastal strip on this side of the water is still breathtaking and rich in species. Hordes of howler and capuchin monkeys, agoutis, armadillos, anteaters and raccoons can be observed from the beach just as easily as kingfishers, ibises and, from December to February, bright red macaws. Other attractions, which are advertised on the spot and in some travel guides, seem rather dispensable and have been created by clever people as a purely tourist source of money, e.g. the Punta Uva Butterfly Garden or the Cacaotrails consisting of a restaurant, souvenir shop, a pool and a small exhibition on the subject of cocoa.