Costa Rica's Caribbean coast is a world apart from the rest of the country. The pace is slower, the food is spicier, the tropical heat is more palpable, and the rhythmic lilt of patois and reggae music fills the air. This remains one of Costa Rica's least discovered and explored regions. More than half of the coastline here is still inaccessible except by boat or small plane. This inaccessibility has helped preserve large tracts of virgin lowland rainforest, which are now set aside as Tortuguero National Park and Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge. These two parks, on the coast's northern reaches, are among Costa Rica's most popular destinations for adventurers and ecotravelers. Of particular interest are the sea turtles that nest here. Farther south, Cahuita National Park is another popular national park, located just off its namesake beach village. It was set up to preserve 200 hectares (494 acres) of coral reef, but its palm tree-lined white-sand beaches and gentle trails are stunning.

So remote was the Caribbean coast from Costa Rica's population centers in the Central Valley that it developed a culture all its own. The original inhabitants of the area included people of the Bribri, Cabécar, and Kéköldi tribes, and these groups maintain their cultures on indigenous reserves in the Talamanca Mountains. In fact, until the 1870s, this area had few non-Indians. However, when Minor Keith built the railroad to San José and began planting bananas, he brought in black laborers from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands to lay the track and work the plantations. These workers and their descendants established fishing and farming communities up and down the coast. Today dreadlocked Rastafarians, reggae music, Creole cooking, and the English-based patois of this Afro-Caribbean culture give this region a quasi-Jamaican flavor, a striking contrast with the Spanish-derived Costa Rican culture.

The Caribbean coast has only one major city, Limón, a major commercial port and popular cruise ship port of call. However, the city itself is of little interest to most visitors, who quickly head south to the coast's spectacular beaches, or north to the jungle canals of Tortuguero.

Over the years, the Caribbean coast has garnered a reputation as being a dangerous, drug-infested zone, rife with crime and danger. This is somewhat deserved because of several high-profile crimes in the area; petty theft is a major problem. Still, overall this reputation is exaggerated. The same crime and drug problems found here exist in San José and most of the more popular beach destinations on the Pacific coast. Use common sense and take normal precautions and you should have no problems on the Caribbean coast.

To Go, or Not to Go? The Weather is Nobler -- The Caribbean coast has a very unique weather pattern. Whereas you'll almost never get even a drop of rain in Guanacaste during Costa Rica's typical dry season (mid-Nov to Apr), on the Caribbean coast it can rain, at least a bit, almost any day of the year. However, the months of September and October, when torrential rains pound most of the rest of the country, most of the time, are oddly two of the drier and more dependably sunny days along the Caribbean coast.

The Best Caribbean Coast Travel Experiences

*          Landing a Tarpon off Barra del Colorado: Reaching lengths of between 1.8 to 2.8m (6–8 ft.), and often weighing in at well over 200 pounds, tarpon are a hard-fighting and high-jumping game fish. Barra del Colorado is a prime fishing ground for these fish.

*          Cruising the Rainforest Canals of Tortuguero: Lined by thick tropical rainforest and rich in wildlife, the canals surrounding Tortuguero are home to manatees, caimans, green macaws, and several monkey species.

*          Tasting Chocolate at the Source: Taking you “from bean to bar,” Caribeans Chocolate Tour starts with a walk through an organic cacao farm and ends with a tasting of freshly made, local organic chocolate.

*          Watching Surfers Challenge Salsa Brava: Sometimes called “Little Pipeline,” Puerto Viejo’s Salsa Brava is a fast and steep wave that breaks over sharp, shallow coral. The wave is also pretty close to shore, which makes this a good place to watch some world-class surfing.

*          Snorkeling Off Manzanillo: One of Costa Rica’s most bountiful and beautiful coral reefs lies just off the coast of the small village of Manzanillo. In addition to coral, sponges, and reef fish, if you’re lucky, you may also catch a glimpse of a dolphin or sea turtle.