Young boy in swimgear swings on a rubber tyre swing hanging from a rope on the beach. Waves are rolling in in the the background and trees reach over the beach from the right of the frame.

Costa Rica with kids: the Caribbean Coast (2024)

We opted to spend the last two weeks of our time in Costa Rica on the Southern Caribbean Coast, taking some time to chill have a pretty hectic first three weeks! It’s the perfect spot in Costa Rica for kicking and relaxing, even with kids!

We’d learnt over the first few weeks of the trip that the more ‘formal’ elements of homeschooling – maths and english – worked much better when we had a base for at least a few days, as the days spent travelling/moving around and then settling back in/packing up were pretty much write-offs in terms of any school work.

I’d originally got a few stops booked on the Caribbean Coast – including Tortuguero – but we took the decision to scrap a couple of stops and focus on staying longer in the Southern part, to give ourselves some time to chill out on the beaches, catch up on school work and also to save some cash!

We LOVED our time in this area – it’s a beautiful stretch of coast to unwind on and really relax. Read on to plan your own perfect Caribbean chill time!

How to get to the South Caribbean Coast

If you’re hiring a car in Costa Rica, the south section of the country’s Caribbean Coast is a reasonably easy drive down paved highways.

If you don’t have your own wheels then your options are essentially public bus or private/shared shuttle. Private or shared shuttles via companies such as Interbus are convenient as they offer a door-to-door service but they do come at a cost; we were coming to the coast from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and they were very limited bus services so we opted for a shuttle and it set us back around £200.

If you are coming to the coast from a location that is served by public bus then this is a much cheaper option. For example, the bus from San Jose takes around four hours and costs £35 for a family of four.

MEPE buses run the route between San Jose and Limon/Cahuita, departing from the Terminal Atlantico in San Jose. Tickets are available in cash from the station (or from Cahuita station for the return leg) and it’s advisable to try and book a day or so in advance, particularly on weekends.

Clear blue sea laps gently on a white sand beach. Two large branches lie in the water and palm fronds hang down on the left of the frame. In the distance is a stretch of jungle covered coastline

Where to stay on the South Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

The South Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica stretches down from the port town of Limon to Manzanillo, which is right at the end of the road (literally!) before you hit Panama. There are a number of little beach towns you can opt to stay in along this bit of the coast, all with access to pretty glorious stretches of sand. Deciding where to stay just depends on what kind of vibe you’re looking for!

Manzanillo

Our first stop for five nights was Manzanillo, right at the end of the road on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica before Panama (and there really is only one road!). 

After a four hour shuttle from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, I have to say that our first impression of Manzanillo wasn’t actually great – it was a Monday and there had clearly been some partying over the weekend as the beach was covered in litter. This was a  bit of a shock as it was the first litter I think we’d seen anywhere in Costa Rica! 

There had also been some stormy weather which meant that the sea was pretty churned up and as well as the litter there was a lot of sticks, branches and massive tree trunks washed up on the beach too.

The first couple of days it rained. And it rained. And it rained. It was so heavy, and the thunder was so loud that I struggled to sleep at night in our little wooden cabin (part of which was just mosquito net instead of outer walls!). We filled this time with a good chunk of school work, more Exploding Kittens and a couple of meals out in the evenings.

Once it cleared we saw a much better side to Manzanillo!

A deep red sunset on a Costa Rica beach. Two palm trees are in the near shot standing on a black sand beach. Small waves roll in in the sea beyond
What is the beach like in Manzanillo?

The beach at Manzanillo is a long stretch of dramatic black sand, fringed by palm trees which provide some welcome shade from the sun!

This feels very much like a locals beach, and in the evenings and weekends it was busy with big family groups set-up with coolboxes and BBQs.

Image of a beach on a clear sunny day. To the left of the frame gentle waves roll in on to a black sand beach. The shoreline is thick with green palm trees. On the beach is a pile of cleared up branches and leaves

The surf while we were there varied – it was rough for the first few days of stormy weather, then once this had passed it felt much calmer and the boys were able to swim without any issues (although there are strong rip tides all along this stretch of the coast, so make sure you check conditions and keep a close eye on kids in the water).

There were lifeguards on duty but the timings seemed to be a little sporadic.

One of the best things about the beach at Manzanillo is the sheer length of it – it goes on for around 4km so there is plenty of space even on busy days. There’s also a shipwreck close to the shore that is slowly decaying and covered in graffiti, which makes for an interesting place to watch the waves crash.

Visiting Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

As with so many places in Costa Rica, Manzanillo has it’s own little National Park, which is a great place for a day’s hike.

It’s a fairly small national park so is easy to navigate with kids – the hike is a bit more challenging that Manuel Antonio National Park (check out our post on Manuel Antonio here). There are several inclines which can make for tough going in the heat, but it was still very manageable for our 7 and 9-year old.

Image of waves crashing on to a beach backed with thick jungle.

The coastline that wraps around the park is absolutely spectacular. There is a viewpoint about a 15-minute walk from the entrance at the top of a cliff where you can watch as the waves hit the rocks below. The waves were still pretty powerful when we visited and so it was quite dramatic watching them roll in and crash against the rocks.

The park is scattered with lovely little beaches that feel really hidden away and secluded (on the stretch we hung out on there was literally no-one else there). We spent hours watching the crabs darting in and out of their holes and scurrying around on the sand.

Whilst you can swim in the national park, the water was quite rough while we were there so we didn’t venture very far in.

Entry to the park is based on a donation, so you can pay whatever you can afford. The park is open from 8am to 4pm.

Two young boys play on a white sand beach while small waves roll in

Where to stay in Manzanillo

We stayed for five nights at Cabinas Yamann, a handful of wooden cabins with a pool about a 2-min walk from the beach. The cabins were basic but functional and cleaned daily; the beds were comfortable. It was a bit of a tight fit for the four of us and our stuff!

There is also a small outdoor kitchen at Cabinas Yamann, which was really handy for keeping costs down. You also get a decent-sized fridge in your room which was really helpful. The cabins don’t have aircon but we found that the fans were sufficient.

The top half of the cabins is just mosquito netting; this does make it really feel like you are surrounded by nature, as the noise from the insects and frogs is deafening at night! This was the only place in Costa Rica where we felt like we needed our mosquito nets.

Best of all, they offer one free laundry service per stay – which given how expensive we found laundry in Costa Rica was a great bonus!

In total we paid £320 for a cabin for four (two double beds) for five nights.

Cahuita

I’d booked 8 nights in Cahuita – the longest stay we had booked anywhere. We really wanted to have some chilled out beach time at the end of a hectic few weeks and be based in one place without the constant packing and repacking that we’d been doing during the rest of the trip.

I was a bit nervous about booking anywhere for such a long stretch, but I’m so pleased we did! We struck gold with Cahuita, which is definitely one of our favourite places we’ve stayed during this leg of the trip.

Two young boys stand in front of a brightly coloured mural that states 'Welcome to Cahuita'. The mural shows jungle and a range of animals and bright flowers
What is Cahuita like?

Cahuita falls somewhere between Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo de Salamanca in terms of size – big enough to have plenty of options in terms of accommodation and places to eat, but quieter than Puerto Viejo. It has a handful of small supermarkets and souvenir shops, ATMs and a bus station with good links up and down the coast (and to San Jose).

Like the rest of the coast, it has a really laidback vibe. You can walk to the national park or down to the beaches within around 15mins.

There are loads of little restaurants in Cahuita and a Reggae Bar just off Playa Negra which is quite lively in the evenings and has seats right on the sand.

What is the beach like in Cahuita?

There are two beaches within walking distance of Cahuita. There is a beautiful length of pristine white sand just inside the national park (Playa Blanco); if you walk northwards you’ll find the long stretch of black sand known as Playa Negra.

Playa Negra was where we hung out most days. This is a massive stretch of beach with a few little bars/snack places dotted along the road behind it, lots of space and sloths hanging out in the trees! 

Young boy in swimgear swings high in the air on a rubber tyre swing attached to a rope hanging from a tree on the beach. Waves roll in behind and trees line the edge of the beach

The rip here was OK most days but very powerful on a couple of others where we had to keep a very close eye on the boys (there were a couple of times when the boys were dragged out a few metres and we had to grab them!). There are lifeguards on duty at the weekend but not on weekdays. 

The boys had hours and hours of fun on the sand here, and in the little natural swimming pools just off the far end of the beach (if you head to the North end of the beach, you’ll see a little track that cuts into the trees. Follow this and you’ll hit the natural pools). We definitely preferred the beach here to Manzanillo – it was just easier as a family with a few snack bars dotted around and loads of space. The sloths we spotted here were really low in the trees so easy to spot and fab to watch for a while. We even found a geocache just off the beach here that had a sloth literally sitting right on top of it!

Cahuita National Park

We all spent one of the days of our stay in the small but excellent national park, which was about a five-minute walk from Cabinas Cahuita. Again, entry is a donation.

We did a 2-hour-ish hike into the park (all flat, mostly on wooden walkways or well-trodden trails). There is a beautiful white sand beach – Playa Blanco – right by the entrance and more stretches of sand further along the trail. We hiked up to the top point of the park and spend a couple of hours in the sea here – it was very calm and good for swimming for the boys.

A conch shell lies on a white sand beach. The sea beyond is bright blue and flat with no waves; to the left of the frame is an abandoned pier that has been reduced to poles sticking out of the water

And, again, the wildlife – we spotted a couple of sloths, an eyelash pit viper (which a tour guide pointed out to us, even though we weren’t on his tour!), loads of capuchin and howler monkeys, a coati and several raccoons. The raccoons and the monkeys WILL try to steal your stuff so if you go in the sea keep a close eye on it! A couple of raccoons had a good go at our bag (and I even had to rescue my book from them!).

Steve did the full trail through the park on his own one morning (as a grown up treat!) and it took him around 4 hours, including swimming stops. Steve spotted a massive rat snake and a raccoon feeding it’s cubs on his walk – I think the earlier in the morning you go the better the wildlife spotting (and the temperatures are a lot more bearable too!).

Visiting the Jaguar Rescue Centre

The only other day trip we did in the region was to the Jaguar Rescue Centre, about halfway between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. There is a little bus that runs down the length of the coastal road (a bit infrequently) that you can get between the towns, and we took this down to the rescue centre from Cahuita. 

We weren’t actually going to include this one (as we felt we’d seen plenty of wildlife over our few weeks in Costa Rica) but a few other people at Cabinas Cahuita had been and raved about it so we thought we’d check it out.

First up – there are no jaguars at the Jaguar Rescue Centre. And there never were (that is a whole other story that you’ll likely get from your guide)! But this doesn’t stop it from being a fab morning out, mostly because the volunteer guides are so enthusiastic and knowledgable. We saw sloths (including a very tiny baby), a marguay (my cat-loving youngest was very impressed by this), snakes, monkeys, deer and macaws (including a very aggressive one that we had to back away from pretty sharpish – being chased by a macaw was not something I expected on our trip!). It was really educational for all of us and really interesting to hear about how they go about ensuring that as many of the animals they receive can be re-released in to the wild.

There is also an excellent gift shop (always a bonus). Entry was £40 in total for the four of us (plus we left a tip for the guide).

Where to stay in Cahuita

We’d both been yearning for a bit of the whole communal travel experience – it’s much cheaper for us to stay in private rooms but we missed the vibe of hostels/more communal spots. Cabinas Cahuita definitely struck the right balance here- we had a small but perfectly formed room with a double and bunk beds, which was right off the big open plan kitchen/dining/living area. We had a great time hanging out in the space with other people from all over the world, doing some school work and doing yoga every day (me! They have yoga mats so I was keen to make the most of them!)

There’s also a little pool and more space to hang out outside (plus two super lovely dogs – love a dog at a hotel). 

Young boy in swimgear lies on his back on the wooden decking next to a small oval shaped swimming pool

I honestly couldn’t recommend this place highly enough – it was one of our favourite places on our travels. The owners are super friendly and full of local knowledge and travel tips, the kitchen is really well-equipped (there is even free pasta/rice/beans etc) and there’s even a pretty well-stocked book exchange.

We stayed at Cabinas Cahuita for 9 nights and paid a total of £390 for the four of us, staying in a family room with one double bed and bunk beds (with aircon).

Puerto Viejo de Salamanca

The main ‘tourist’ town on the South Caribbean Coast is Puerto Viejo, and this is where you’ll find the biggest concentration of accommodation options. We spent a day/evening here and it was pretty nice – lots of choice of eateries, souvenir shops and bars. We’d chosen not to stay there as the Lonely Planet had described it as more of a party town; I can imagine you could have a good time here but it’s still pretty small and didn’t seem particularly loud/crazy so we probably could have stayed here no problem.

There’s a whole heap of accommodation options along the road out of Puerto Viejo as well, so there is plenty of choice if you want to stay somewhere a bit livelier.

We did also enjoy the night time tuk tuk ride back to Manzanillo, with all four of squeezed in to the back of the very small tuk tuk!

The verdict

Cahuita ended up being one of our favourite stops in Costa Rica – it’s still small and not that developed at all, but it has enough little restaurants/bars/shops to make life pretty easy. It’s super chilled out but you’ve also got a national park to explore right on your doorstep.

If we were to visit this region again (which I think we’d all LOVE to!) our vote would go to Cahuita in terms of a base, and we’d return to Cabinas Cahuita in a heartbeat.

Planning a family trip to Costa Rica with kids?

If you’re considering travelling to Costa Rica with kids, then check out our top tips and travel information in our other posts here:

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