Playa Chiquita. Photo by Manuel Pinto
One of my favorite things about the south caribbean coast is that the different communities and beaches are themselves so diverse. You've got Black sand and white sand, exciting surfing beaches and calm snorkeling beaches. There are places for in town buzzing with life, action and activities and others where you'll barely see another person all day.
Puerto Viejo / Chino Beach
While Puerto Viejo is often used to refer to the whole area or at least include the neighborhoods of Playa Negra, Cocles, Chiquita and Punta Uva, the center of the action is the small area between the south end of Playa Negra and the north end of Playa Cocles.
This small grid of streets may be just 3 or 4 blocks square but is packed with an amazing selection of hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars and shopping.
Staying here you'll definitely be closer to the action and some places will be noisier so it's not for all travelers. But around the edges also cluster some quiet and beautiful spots.
There isn't much of a swimming beach in town itself, most head north to Playa Negra or south to one of the many options, but advanced surfers can be found on the Salsa Brava reef just off of downtown.
Cocles is the first community south of Puerto Viejo and it north of Playa Chiquita. It is one of the most well developed. The beautiful beach is very popular with surfers, especially at the northern end, and also for swimmers. It is one of the few area beaches that is patrolled by lifeguards via the community supported Playa Cocles Lifeguard program
There's a big variety of businesses located at Cocles, including basic hostel type accommodation up to luxury hotels and rental homes. There are also many restaurants and services although it is just a few minutes by bicycle to Puerto Viejo should you need something more than is on offer here.
The uncrowded Playa Chiquita is a favorite for those who want to relax on the fine sand and in the beautiful waters surrounded only by nature. It is really several small bays so you may be able to find your own small beach with no one else in sight. As well, there is no road to access to the beach so the short walk down one of several trails to the beach also provides privacy. There's a nice trail to the beach just past Hotel Shawandha for example.
There is no central commercial area but there is a smattering of restaurants and services along the main road including a gourmet supermarket. There are also a wide variety of hotels and vacation homes. For supplies beyond groceries you'll need to head into Puerto Viejo. Transport options between Playa Chiquita and Puerto Viejo include the local bus (running hourly or less during daylight hours), bicycle (most hotels rent bicycles), taxi and car. Check the local transport page for more details.
The quiet beach at Punta Uva is known for its calm reef protected water and white sand. This is a great place to bring the kids to swim. It is 8.5 km (about 5 miles) from downtown Puerto Viejo so appeals to those looking for a quieter spot to spend their vacation. Most of the area is located within the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge so nature viewing opportunities are abundant with monkies, sloths and many types of birds common sights.
The area does have a big variety of hotels and vacation homes, mostly from the midrange up to luxury options. There is a supermarket and a good selection of restaurants. For supplies beyond groceries you'll need to head into Puerto Viejo.
The village of Manzanillo has long been off the beaten track, even since the paved road arrived in 2003. This is as far as you can go along the coastal road towards Panama. This little town remains a vibrant outpost of Afro-Caribbean culture and has also remained pristine, thanks to the 1985 establishment of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, which includes the village and imposes strict regulations on regional development.
Activities are of a simple nature, in nature: hiking, snorkeling and kayaking are king. (As elsewhere, ask about riptides before heading out.) Other than that, you may find the occasional party at the locally renowned Maxi's bar and restaurant at the end of the road, which is the end of the line (where buses arrive).
To go beyond Manzanillo along the coast you'll need to continue on foot along the path into the refuge (a local guide is strongly recommended, both to see the maximum amount of nature and for security) or head out on a boat. A half day round trip hike will get you to lovely Punta Mona. Further southeast, deep in the reserve, is the village of Gandoca which is reached from the main inland highway via a 4x4 track or by boat.