Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (Costa Rica) and Bocas del Toro (Panama)
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Panama is considerably less popular among tourists than the Pacific coast and interior regions of these countries. That is explained, at least in part, by the fact that the beaches located on Panama’s and, especially, Costa Rica’s Caribbean have more difficult access conditions and much higher precipitation levels most of the year. Nevertheless, the Caribbean side of both countries offers a completely different experience than that proposed by any other part of these nations and definitely deserves being considered when planning an itinerary across Central America.
Lying on the Costa-Rican Caribbean, 220km (135mi) away from the capital, San José, and almost 60km (37mi) away from Limón, the main city of the region, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is rapidly gaining on popularity. Slightly more than a fishermen village, it attracts a young crowd and is particularly loved by surfers. Nevertheless, the area also offers options for other visitants as well, particularly thanks to the pretty beaches found nearby, like Punta Uva and Manzanillo, respectively 13km (8mi) and 8km (5mi) away from the main village.
Puerto Viejo itself is a very relaxed place, with several small hotels and restaurants serving a diversified mix of dishes. Just like any other place on this side of the country, it has a marked Afro-Caribbean influence, with culture and customs distinct from what is usually seen in Costa Rica. Reggae is heard all the time and Bob Marley’s image is a constant feature in t-shirts, shops and even on the decoration of local houses. By the way, even in the central part of Puerto Viejo, it’s easily possible to interact with local families; walk a few blocks away from there and it is just as if any trace of touristic destinations had been removed.
A good complement or alternative to visiting Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, already on the Panamanian side. To get there, continue for 41km (25mi) until the border and, then, another 47km (29mi) until Almirante, from where boats leave frequently to downtown Bocas del Toro on a trip that takes about half an hour. Almirante can be also reached after 175km (110mi) from David, or after 585km (360mi) from Panama City. Both David and Panama City have international airports and bus lines connecting them to Almirante (rather infrequently). Besides, Bocas del Toro has its own airport which is well connected to the Panamanian capital.
The city of Almirante has one key function on this story: to serve as a strategic transportation hub – and trust me when I say you will want to leave earlier than later. Bocas del Toro, on the other hand, offers several attractions, usually related to sea activities, like diving, snorkeling, surf and wildlife observation. The city of Bocas del Toro is not particularly charming, but serves as a convenient (and economic) place to be used as a base. Other places in the main island (Isla Colón), as well as the neighboring islands Carenero and Bastimentos, offers more exclusive accommodations, often in touch with the nature.
The climate is one of the main frustrations of most visitors coming to this area. Opposed to the rest of Costa Rica and Panama, which have a decidedly dry season between December and April, this part of the Caribbean coast is prone to very frequent rains, often incessantly for extended periods of time. Nevertheless, if that is not a big issue for you, the reward will be a place not yet flooded by mass tourism and that offers an outlook that differs from what can be found on the most popular areas of Central America.