One of the nicest ways to spend a day in Puerto Viejo is to visit the Finca La Isla Botanical Gardens ★★ (tel. 8886-8530; Fri–Mon 10am–4pm), inland from the Black Sand Beach on a side road just north of El Pizote lodge. Peter Cringe and his late wife Lindy poured time and love into the creation of this collection of native and imported tropical flora. Here you’ll see medicinal, commercial, and just plain wild flowering plants, fruits, herbs, trees, and bushes, plus gorge on whatever is ripe at the moment. A rigorous rainforest loop trail leaves from the grounds. Entry to the garden is $6 per person for a self-guided tour (you can buy a trail map for an extra $1), or $30 for a 2 1/2-hour guided tour (minimum of three people).
Cacao Trails ★★ (tel. 756-8186), also called the Museo Nacional de Cacao, is near Hone Creek between Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. It’s a one-stop attraction featuring botanical gardens; an open-air museum, demonstrating cacao cultivation and processing; a series of trails; a large open-air restaurant; and a swimming pool. You can take canoe rides on the bordering Carbon River, and even watch leatherback sea turtles lay their eggs during the nesting season. Admission is $25, including a guided tour. A full day of activities, including lunch and a canoe trip as well as the guided tour, costs $47. During turtle nesting season, night tours are offered in Cahuita National Park.
Another top cacao experience can be had through Life Culture & Travels ★★ (tel. 8708-0486), which pairs visits with an indigenous BriBri family in the community of Watsy, who explain the chocolate making process. Participants also hike to a waterfall, learning about medicinal plants along the way. The 3-hour tours include transportation and costs $72 per person. The agency also offers a wide variety of tours with indigenous BriBri and Cabecar communities in Talamanca focused on cooking, dance, language, and medicinal plants.
Pure Jungle Spa ★★ (www.purejunglespa.com; tel. 2756-8413) offers a similar menu of treatment options in a lovely space close to downtown, just across from Rocking J’s. The spa makes many of its own oils, masks, wraps, and exfoliants.
Better suited to a longer stay or organized retreat, Samasati (www.samasati.com; tel. 800/563-9643 in the U.S., or 2224-1870 in Costa Rica) is a lovely jungle yoga retreat and spa, with spectacular hillside views of the Caribbean Sea and surrounding forests. Rates run between $115 and $215 per person per day, depending on occupancy and room type, and include three vegetarian meals per day and taxes. A wide range of tour, massage, and yoga packages are available. If you’re staying elsewhere in Puerto Viejo or Cahuita, you can come up for yoga classes ($15), meditation ($5), or private massages ($110–$200) with advance notice. Samasati is located a couple of kilometers before Puerto Viejo (near the turnoff for Bribri) and roughly 1.6km (1 mile) up into the jungle.
Cultural & Adventure Tours: The Asociación Talamanqueña de Ecoturismo y Conservación ★★★ (ATEC; Talamancan Association of Ecotourism and Conservation; www.ateccr.org; tel. 2750-0398), across the street from the Soda Tamara, is a local organization dedicated to preserving the environment and cultural heritage of this area and promoting ecologically sound development. If you plan to stay in Puerto Viejo for an extended period of time and would like to contribute to the community, ask about volunteering. In addition to functioning as the local info center, Internet cafe, and traveler’s hub, ATEC runs a little shop that sells T-shirts, maps, posters, and books.
ATEC also offers quite a few tours, including half-day walks that focus on nature and either the local Afro-Caribbean culture or the indigenous Bribri culture. These walks pass through farms and forests; along the way you’ll learn about local history, customs, medicinal plants, and indigenous mythology, and have an opportunity to see sloths, monkeys, iguanas, keel-billed toucans, and other wildlife. A range of different walks lead through the nearby Bribri Indians’ Kéköldi Reserve, as well as more strenuous hikes through the primary rainforest. Bird walks and night walks will help you spot more of the area wildlife; there are even overnight treks. The local guides have a wealth of information and make a hike through the forest a truly educational experience. ATEC can arrange snorkeling and fishing trips in dugout canoes, and everything from surf lessons to dance classes. ATEC can also help you arrange overnight and multiday camping trips into the Talamanca Mountains and through neighboring indigenous reserves, as well as trips to Tortuguero and even a 7- to 10-day transcontinental trek to the Pacific coast. Half-day tours and night walks range from $37 to $90, while full-day to overnight tours run between $75 and $129. Some tours require a minimum of three or four people and several days’ advance notice. The ATEC office is open Mon through Sat from 8am to 8pm and Sun from 11am to 7pm.
Local tour operators Exploradores Outdoors ★★ (www.exploradoresoutdoors.com; tel. 2750-2020), Gecko Trail Adventures ★★ (www.geckotrail.com; tel. 2756-8412), and Terraventuras ★ (www.terraventuras.com; tel. 2750-0750) all offer a host of half- and full-day adventure tours into the jungle or sea for between $50 and $280 per person. One especially popular tour is Terraventuras’s zipline canopy tour, which features 22 treetop platforms, a large harnessed swing, and a rappel.
Scuba Diving: Scuba divers can check in with Punta Uva Dive Center (www.puntauvadivecenter.com; tel. 2759-9191) which offers frequent a variety of dive sites between Puerto Viejo and Punta Mona. If you’re lucky the seas will be calm and visibility good—although throughout most of the year, it can be a bit rough and murky here. Punta Uva Dive Center has its operations center right off the beach in Punta Uva. Rates run between $85 and $140 for a two-tank boat dive.Sunning & Surfing: Surfing has historically been the main draw here, but increasing numbers of folks are coming for the miles of beautiful and uncrowded beaches ★★, acres of lush rainforests, and laid-back atmosphere. For swimming and sunbathing, locals like to hang out on the small patches of sand in front of Lazy Mon and Johnny’s Place. Small, protected tide pools are in front of each of these bars for cooling off. Lazy Mon has several hammocks; you’re likely to stumble upon a pickup beach volleyball match or soccer game here.
If you want a more open patch of sand and sea, head north out to Playa Negra, along the road into town, or, better yet, to the beaches south of town around Punta Uva and all the way down to Manzanillo, where the coral reefs keep the surf much more manageable.
Just offshore of Puerto Viejo is a shallow reef where powerful storm-generated waves sometimes reach 6m (20 ft.). Salsa Brava ★★★, as it’s known, is the prime surf break on the Caribbean coast. Even when the waves are small, this spot is recommended only for very experienced surfers because of the danger of the reef. Other popular beach breaks are south of town on Playa Cocles.
Several operators and makeshift roadside stands offer bicycles, scooters, boogie boards, surfboards, and snorkel gear for rent. Shop around to compare prices and the quality of the equipment before handing over money.
Another Way to Get Wet & Wild: Exploradores Outdoors ★★ (www.exploradoresoutdoors.com; tel. 646/205-0828 in the U.S., 2222-6262 in San José, or 2750-2020 in Puerto Viejo) runs daily white-water rafting trips on the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers. The full-day trip, including transportation, breakfast, and lunch, is $99. If you want to combine white-water rafting with your transportation to or from the Caribbean coast, the company can pick you up at your hotel in San José or La Fortuna with all your luggage, take you for a day of white-water rafting, and drop you off at day’s end at your hotel anywhere on the Caribbean coast from Cahuita to Manzanillo. You can use this option in the other direction, as well. Exploradores Outdoors also offers a combination kayaking and hiking tour to Punta Uva, as well as overnight tours to Tortuguero.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.