A visit to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
by Bonnie Vining
Our exploratory trips to Costa Rica in 2012 and 2013 focused on places we considered living such as the Central Valley, the Southern Zone, Orosi Valley, Nicoya Peninsula, Los Santos, and Lake Arenal. Nobody in their right mind would retire on the Caribbean side, right? After all, poverty and crime are prevalent, it rains a lot, the roads are bad, and it’s hot and humid as so many people told us. We jokingly referred to it as the “dark side” of Costa Rica. But every now and then, someone would tell us that they actually prefer the Caribbean side, and curiosity finally got the best of us.
We obtained our residency in mid-September and decided to celebrate with a trip to the dark side a few weeks later so we could check it out for ourselves. It would truly be a vacation for us as we’ve never given one thought to living there. After many hours of searching online for a pet-friendly place to stay, we almost opted out of going to the Caribbean. We hung in there though and felt like we hit the jackpot when we found a listing for Casa de Delfines. With three bedrooms and two bathrooms, it was way more house than we needed for the two of us and our dog, Marley, but it was pet-friendly, and there were a few days available in late September.
The owner, Krystle Richardson, explained that she and her property manager would both be in the U.S. during our visit and assured us that her gardener friend, Oscar, would take good care of us. Oscar was wonderful, even stopping by on our last full day there with a machete to demonstrate how to cut open a large coconut we had found near the beach in Manzanillo. He then cut open a pipa (a young coconut that is full of juice) to show us how different the mature coconut and the pipa are inside.
Casa de Delfines is located on a quiet street about 200 meters from the beach. The home is securely gated, and the neighborhood felt safe. We took the normal precautions that we take wherever we go, and we did not feel any less safe on the Caribbean side than we do in any other place in Costa Rica or in the U.S. Limon is reportedly much more dangerous than Puerto Viejo, and we did not go any further into Limon than we had to en route to Puerto Viejo. Being a port city, the truck traffic became increasingly heavy the closer we got to Limon.
We traveled to Puerto Viejo with more curiosity than high expectations, and we were pleasantly surprised to find a clean, charming town with an international population and a youthful, laid-back vibe. Besides the usual assortment of Canadians and United Statesians, we met people from all over the world, but more from Italy than any other country. You won’t find high-rise resort hotels or chain restaurants in the Caribbean beach towns, but the local businesses are very service-oriented, and English is commonly spoken.
Before heading to the Caribbean, I connected with Jana Stotler through a Facebook forum. Jana and her husband Tom have lived in Puerto Viejo for about five years. They are dog lovers like us, so it was an easy and natural friendship. We met them for dinner on Monday night at a restaurant called The Point which is on the beach just west of Puerto Viejo. Marley was with us, so we sat outside enjoying the refreshing sea breeze and the sound of the waves rolling onto the shore. The two margaritas that I drank there have dulled the memory of whatever I ordered for dinner, but I have a vague recollection that it was really good.
Jana and Tom invited us to their home which is in the jungle, but not far from the beach, for a very special dinner on Wednesday night. Tom grilled chicken right in their open-air, but covered, sunken living room, and while enjoying dinner there, we were treated to the only rain shower of our stay in Puerto Viejo. It came down quite hard, but for fewer than 30 minutes, and it was very magical having the rain for a backdrop on two sides of their living room. While the rain on the Caribbean side is spread more evenly throughout the year, we learned that generally, when rain is heaviest on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, it is lightest on the Caribbean side. And most of it falls at night, so it’s perfect for keeping everything green while providing nice, long days to enjoy outdoor activities in the daylight. It was easy to see why Jana and Tom love living on the Caribbean side.
Dining was a pleasurable experience everywhere we ate in Puerto Viejo. There are so many restaurants in the area that it would take several weeks to try them all. The variety of ethnic choices provided a nice change of pace from the comida typica that prevails in San Marcos de Tarrazu. In addition to the two dinners with Jana and Tom, we enjoyed Taco Tuesday at Tasty Waves in Playa Cocles, dinner at Stashu’s con Fusion, and breakfasts at Bread & Chocolate and De Gustibus Bakery, an Italian-owned bakery which serves up some of the best pastries we’ve encountered anywhere in Costa Rica.
Living in San Marcos where I’m afraid to ride my bicycle unless we take it by truck to a smaller town with less traffic, we found the Southern Caribbean to be a bicyclist’s paradise. Beach cruisers are the primary mode of transportation in the area, and we estimated that they outnumber cars by about ten to one. It’s an easy ride down the coast from Puerto Viejo to the end of the highway in Manzanillo, and we really enjoyed riding along the flat coastal highway with very light traffic, pulling Marley behind in a cart.
Along the way, we stopped at secluded beaches where we enjoyed playing in the ocean and then stopping in town for meals on the way back to Casa de Delfines. Marley was welcome to sit outside with us at every restaurant, and he was quite a hit riding along in his cart. A man even stopped along the highway to take pictures of us which he later emailed to Joe. Mornings and evenings were cool and comfortable, so we ate every meal outside. Afternoons were warm and humid, best spent reading or taking siestas under the ceiling fans on the veranda.
Each coast of Costa Rica has its own unique and wonderful beauty, so I’ll avoid making any judgments as to which coast is more beautiful. I did love the cooler weather and the beautiful blue water on the Caribbean side as well as the gentle waves that allowed us to walk way out into the ocean without getting knocked down or pulled under. We were told that tides are higher during other times of the year.
Joe absolutely loved Puerto Viejo and was ready to pack our belongings and move there. I enjoyed our time there immensely, but as the accountant for our household, I felt it would be more difficult to make ends meet there than where we currently live in San Marcos de Tarrazu. Restaurant prices are roughly double what we pay in San Marcos, and with the variety of dining options available in Puerto Viejo, there would be a tremendous temptation to eat out more often. While we didn’t shop for food there, prices in the grocery stores in a tourist area are likely to be higher as well. So I offered Joe a deal. Once we obtain permanent residency, if he wants to eat at Bread and Chocolate in the morning and surf in the evening, he’ll need to get a part time job to offset the higher cost of living. Meanwhile, we’ll keep exploring other areas of Costa Rica, and the Caribbean coast will linger in our memories as a wonderful place to take a vacations. The cool, Caribbean vibe may not be for everyone, but we loved it and can’t wait to go back again!