Cycling Along the Caribbean Coast: Four Beaches in Costa Rica

My first couple of nights in Costa Rica were a total fiasco. My friend and I had been planning this trip since March and, as the date drew closer, we were increasingly excited to arrive in what every site on the internet promised would be heaven on Earth.

We arrived in San José and made our way to Stray Cat Hostel —which was, by the way, pretty and comfy and had the kindest staff—. We stayed there two nights and I think it’s accurate to say we spent most of the time at the hostel since there really isn’t much to see or do in San José and it’s dangerous to wander about after dark. Usually, when a trip starts on the wrong foot it means it can only get better, and this is exactly what happened here.

Puerto Viejo

On our second morning in Costa Rica, we took an early bus from San José to Puerto Viejo, a beach town located in the southeast, close to the border with Panamá, in the province of Talamanca. We booked two beds at Bikini Hostel and decided to stay in Puerto Viejo while exploring this region. Puerto Viejo is a wonderful town, busy and vibrant day and night, perfect for partying and meeting people. Although our hostel was not the cleanest and there was no AC, we met interesting people we later travelled with and got some very useful tips and recommendations from the staff. The town itself honours the “pura vida” motto with its chill/reggae atmosphere.

The easiest way to move around Puerto Viejo is by bike. There are a lot of places that will rent a bicycle for around $5 US a day, and that’s all you need to explore the beaches in Talamanca. Although Puerto Viejo doesn’t have the most beautiful beaches, it is the perfect place to stay at night, for there are plenty of restaurants, bars, handicrafts and an interesting array of internationals. Puerto Viejo became our base for four nights and we had the fortune to meet a wonderful set of people at our hostel with whom we usually dined and shared our adventures.

Manzanillo

Punta Manzanillo is one of the most beautiful places we visited in Costa Rica. It took us one hour and a half to cycle from Puerto Viejo to here, and the ride was so nice! I recommend you go in the morning since the sun can be a bit too strong in the afternoon. Since there’s not a path exclusively reserved for bicycles, you must be careful with the cars, but the road is paved decently and there’s little traffic; you’ll find many other cyclists.

The National Reserve Gandoca-Manzanillo is where you should go. Entrance is free—you’ll be asked to give a voluntary donation— and you can just leave your bike outside. The reserve is not very big but you’ll find good hiking trails and wonderful beach spots. You’ll probably get a glimpse at some monkeys, too; we had the fortune to see some howling monkeys and many different kinds of lizards.

Punta Uva

Punta Uva is closer to Puerto Viejo than Manzanillo, about 45 minutes by bike. Although the beach here is beautiful, too, it’s a bit busier than Manzanillo. There is a river in Punta Uva, too, and you can hire a kayak and go kayaking both in the river and the sea, where you’ll see many cave-like rock formations.

Cocles

Playa Cocles is pretty close to Puerto Viejo, only 20 minutes away by bike, and it’s a wonderful place to chill. Cocles also has a surfer atmosphere about it, there are surfboards everywhere, coconut water stands and many wooden signs with funny inscriptions.

The South Caribbean was one of my favourite regions of Costa Rica and I only wish we had spent more time there —we spent four days out of fifteen there—. Many people told us about seeing sloths in this region, but unfortunately, we didn’t see any. The good vibes and beautiful beach spots made up for that though. Have you been to the Talamanca region in Costa Rica?

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Hidden Waterfalls in Vallarta

This week I had the chance to escape to the beach for a few days. I went to Puerto Vallarta, a place I have visited often since I was a little girl. So this time I wanted to do something different and hopefully discover new places. Fortunately we were able to find someone to guide us to a beautiful set of waterfalls in the middle of the rainforest, near Mismaloya beach.

To get there we did a 40 minute hike trough streams, rocks and huge tree roots. As we walked through the rainforest we saw different birds, squirrels and an iguana, a common find in the area. It was not a difficult hike, we mostly followed a small stream to the waterfalls, so the main obstacles were rocks and puddles. It is, however, a mountainous area, so the hike was mostly uphill. Now in spring there’s not much water, so the landscape might not be as pretty as during the rainy season, but the weather was lovely: 26ºC and only a few scattered clouds in the sky.

We arrived at our first stop after 40 minutes: a beautiful waterfall surrounded by rocks, flowing into a small pool hidden by trees, an idyllic spot… except for the fact that there were around 10 very loud American ladies already there. Nevertheless, we still got to jump into the water from about 3 meters high, something I hadn’t done before (come to it, I was really scared). Our guide taught us how to jump, where to stand, and signalled the spot we should aim for. It was a thrilling experience, the vertigo and then the shock of cold water made it very exciting. Moreover, we jumped in while the American ladies cheered for us. The water was really deep and clear and cool.

After swimming a bit, we continued up towards another set of waterfalls. This part of the hike had to be done holding on to support cables that were tied to the rocks along the trail, something I hadn’t done before either. It wasn’t very dangerous, only felt so when you looked down to the waterfalls. As it usually is with hiking or climbing, once you find your balance and move intently and slowly, one foot (and hand) at the time, I found a rythm I was at ease with. What I like about hiking, and specially these more technical hikes, is that it requires all your attention, you’re all there, doing it with all your energy, there’s no time to be scared.

To this last spot I arrived alone with our guide, as the rest of our group didn’t feel like going up. It was a breathtakingly beautiful place, a couple of natural pools and a set of waterfalls surrounded by walls and vegetation, with sunlight filtered green by the trees above. From there we coulnd’t see or hear ayone else, just the birds and the flow of the water, the wind rustling through the trees. We swam there too, and the water was even colder, so it was refreshing after the hike. Hiking is never about the destination, but there’s some pride in knowing you got to someplace beatiful using your feet and hands and mind and heart.


Even though I’ve been visiting Puerto Vallarta at least once a year since I was three, I never knew places like this were so close to the crowded beaches and fancy resorts. I had seen the quiet beaches of Nuevo Vallarta and the caribbean-looking corners of Mismaloya, but never such a secluded spot in which a hike felt like a hike and not as some touristy expedition.

Now, I have to be honest and say that the last spot we arrived to was the only one where we did not see plastic bottles or bags. Even though these waterfalls are not very popular —I had never heard of them and don’t even know if they have a name, there are no signs — we constantly found forgotten plastic bottles and beer cans along our hike, specially at the beginning and even close to the first set of waterfalls. I assume most people don’t go all the way up with picnic stuff because it’s tough and you need all your extremities. Fortunately, my friend had a bag with her and she picked up most of what we saw, but I’m ashamed to admit that environmental education is not common in my country.

The basic rule, “leave no trace”, is not known by many people, mostly locals, who visit these places, but I believe that sharing our experiences with nature can help educate more people on this issue. Environmental protection is also the reason I’m not geotagging this location, or sharing the directions in here, but if you’re interested in doing this hike just send me an email and I can contact you with our guide.

This was an epic hike for me, both because the locations were beautiful and because I did some cool stuff I was a bit scared to try (such as diving). I had probably driven close to this place on my way to Mismaloya or Puerto Vallarta many times before, and I never saw it. I am always happy to discover new places in familiar areas and so I will keep sharing with you my new findings in Mexico.

Have you visited Puerto or Nuevo Vallarta? I like it much more than other more popular places, like Acapulco. I’d love to hear of similar hikes or favourite beaches, I’m really considering moving to the coast soon.

Cancún & Playa del Carmen

This Summer some friends and I visited the area known as the Mayan Riviera, which comprehends some 140 kilometers along the coast in the state of Quintana Roo, México. We made base in Playa del Carmen and drove to different towns and beaches along the Riviera from there. Although Cancún is a very popular and touristy place, it is also one of the most beautiful spots of the south of Mexico in terms of nature: sand as white as snow, the clearest, bluest water and lots of vegetation. Also, not everything is big chain hotels and luxury resorts, recently there has been a boom in ecotourism in the area, so apart from finding ecological, little hotels along the coast in Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún, you can also enjoy nature in many of the natural reserves (like Sian Ka’an) and see some of the native animal species (like sea turtles, jaguars and monkeys) without harming their environment.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 50 minutes away by car from Cancún International Airport. We stayed there because it is a bit cheaper than Cancún and is right in between Cancún and Tulum. There’s a lot going on in Playa, as well as many beaches that are worth visiting, although in my opinion they’re not as beautiful as Cancún’s. This season I got to see the problem that has been haunting the Mayan Riviera for the last couple of years: sargasso. While we parked out battered rented car some 600 meters away from the beach, we could already smell the decomposing seaweed. Even when it is a real environmental threat possibly caused by global warming and the authorities are doing everything they can to take it away from the beaches, it is not really harmful in any way. Every beach we visited in the Riviera had the same problem, except for the islands.

In Playa del Carmen we went to Playa Paraíso (although many people recommended us to go to Mamitas), and we had a nice, quiet time once we walked away from the hubbub around the parking area. Most public beaches are busy during the Summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a quiet spot if you walk far enough. As it happens in many places in México, vendors of all kinds of food and drinks (specially coconut water and fresh mangoes), so a towel, sunscreen, a book and some cash will be all you need to spend a morning in the beach. There are some hammocks and umbrellas for rent, too.

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Playa Paraíso and sargasso.

Playa del Carmen’s most famous street is called the Quinta Avenida, a long street that goes parallel to the beach and where you can find all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafés, malls, bars and nightclubs. During the day it is nice to take a stroll there as you can find many places where they sell handcrafts and traditional food. During the night, this is definitely the place to go for dinner and drinks. We had really nice cocktails at a place called Patio 8, and would have gone partying to Mandala, but went home instead (*sigh*).

The Quinta Avenida is a really interesting place to be at night, full of street performers, mexican pop culture everywhere and in many bizarre shapes and more foreigners than locals (as I think happens in all of the Mayan Riviera’s touristic places). The atmosphere from the bars and nightclubs seemed to reach the streets, people would walk along singing, sit on some bench to talk or eat ice-cream, boisterous laughter came from everywhere. All in all, I think Playa del Carmen is a perfect place to have one of those relax-during-the-day-party-at-night holidays. Not being our type of holiday, it was good to only spend the nights there and two or three full days.

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Cancún

Cancún is perhaps the place in Quintana Roo I am most familiar with and my favourite time to go there is definitely October. The weather is good all year round, altough Summers can be rainy and too hot, so the “colder” months are the best option, but bear in mind that December and January are the busiest, so everything from flights to accommodation will be more expensive. This year we went in July and it was perhaps too hot, but not too crowded. Cancún’s hotel zone is in the furtherst end of the Riviera, a street with hotels and seaviews on both sides, and also some of the prettiest public beaches.

 

On this trip we did not spend much time in Cancún itself, but we had a lot of fun in Playa Delfines. Parking there is free and renting some chairs was cheaper than in other beaches (300 mxn for the whole day). It is a nice beach to practice surfing and other aquatic sports, but if you want to do it you should arrive really early; when were there, arounf 12.00 pm, the waves were already too strong. The beach is a typical Caribbean beach, with white sand, clear blue water and many palm trees and vegetation. It is a good sport for a run too (the beach is 30 km long), or just to relax. We found that around 4pm many people started coming with beer and loud music, so perhaps the mornings are better if you’re not carrying beer and a speaker yourself.  

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Playa Delfines

Cancún, just like Playa del Carmen, is a great place for partying, but not being big on parties myself, I recommend you leave Cancún to find more exciting day activities and less crowded natural spots. You can visit any of the beaches along the hotel zone, or you can just visit one the nature parks along the Playa del Carmen-Cancún road, like Xel-Há, Xplor or Xcaret. Xcaret is definitely my favourite, because even if the admission is a bit more expensive (around $1,800 mxn), it has a bit of everything: you can be there from 8am until 10pm, swim in cenotes and underground rivers with all equipment included, have food in many different restaurants, see the wildlife (monkeys, jaguars, flamingoes), while being sure you’re not damaging them in any way, snorkeling in the sea, doing some more extreme things like ziplining and scuba diving, and finally enjoy some dinner or drinks while watching traditional mexican dances. If you’re only into adventure and extreme sports, however, the best option would be Xplor. Of course you can also find other cenotes on your own, as well as water activities in public beaches, but I really recommend any of the parks as a one-day activity.

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Xcaret

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Xcaret

Finally, when it comes to food, both Playa and Cancún offer great food from every place in the world, as well as wonderful mexican food and mouth-watering seafood. I believe, however, that both cities offer a kind of travel experience that is becoming less and less interesting for me: luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and giang nightclubs. But I am also happy to notice that ecotourism is making a big arrival in the area, as well as in some other areas of my country (Yucatán and other parts in Quintana Roo like Tulum and Holbox being ahead in that respect). Few things beat the beauty of the Mexican Caribbean, but it saddens me to see that what has made these cities famous around the world is also very damaging for both the environment and the local people. If you’re interested in reading about harming tourism in Quintana Roo, this article might be helpful (athough the author mistook Quintana Roo for Yucatán).

Tulum

During our road trip along Quintana Roo and Yucatán, one of the first stops was Tulum. The archeological site of Tulum, which means “enclosure” or “wall”, was a very important city for the ancient Mayans, functioning too as an observatory. Now, the ruins of Tulum are inside a natural reserve, not far from the modern town of Tulum and the hotel zone— the whole area goes by the same name.

The ruins

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Our first stop in Tulum, after a one-hour drive from Playa del Carmen was, of course, the ruins. The entrance to the ruins. We parked in the archeological site for $100 mxn, then we walked through some kind of shopping/food court area, and finally made it to the entrance. You can either queue to buy the tickets from a booth or buy them from a ticket machine, which is faster. We were there on a Thursday in July, and even when there were many people, it was nowhere near as crowded as some other places in the Mayan Riviera. The tickets cost $70 mxn per person.

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Once there, it took about three hours to walk around the ruins. The day was sunny and very hot, and there are not many shadowy spots, so water and appropiate clothes for walking are a must. Although they are not the most impressive Mayan ruins, they are the only ones that overlook the sea. The sights of The Castle, the most famous building in the archeological zone, facing the sea, are unbeatable. The variety of the vegetation is also a distinctive trait of Tulum, because the ruins are surrounded by grass, palm trees and other tropical plants. Also, iguanas abound in the area and they’re not afraid to go near people.

For those interested in history and prehispanic culture, a guided tour might be the best option, although for me it was enough to read some information about the uses of each structure from the signs on the grass.

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Another iguana

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Touristic area

About 15 minutes away by car from the archeological zone, there is Tulum’s most famous area, the hotel zone along coastal highway 15. This is really just a narrow street along which there are shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels on both sides. Most of the restaurants sell organic food and many of the hotels are small, eco-friendly huts. Finding a good place to have lunch or dinner is just difficult because there are too many options. However, when it comes to dessert, I believe you should go to Matcha Mama, a nice hawaiian-like hut that has one of the best matcha ice-creams I’ve had. They also have matcha tea in different presentations, as well as other dishes and juices.

The hotel zone in Tulum was one of my favourite places in Quintana Roo. Not because of the shops or restaurants, but because of the vibes. Everybody, locals and tourists alike, seemed chill and friendly. Highway 15, surrounded by palm trees and surfboards is a small hippie paradise, specially tranquil during sunset. However, it is one of the most expensive areas in the state, so be prepared for overpriced meals. Also, as much of the Riviera Maya this time of the year, Tulum’s beaches are being badly affected by sargasso, a recent problem in the Caribbean, caused by climate change.

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Tulum sign right outside the archeological site.

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Turquoise sea, sargasso.

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Chill vibes at sunset