Manzanillo, with its youthful edge, is replacing Montezuma as a hotspot for offbeat travel
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Manzanillo is located on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, close to the Panama border
VISITORS PER YEAR 35,000
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 77°F (25°C); Apr: 79°F (26°C); Jul: 79°F (26°C); Oct: 79°F (26°C)
The fishing hamlets of Montezuma, on the Pacific Coast, and Manzanillo, on the Caribbean, are gateways to two of Costa Rica’s premier wildlife reserves. Montezuma has been the nation’s unofficial offbeat travel capital for more than two decades.
But Manzanillo now has the more youthful edge, and its taupe, palm-shaded beach backed by forested mountains is more than equal in beauty to the legendary sands of Montezuma.
Manzanillo was virtually unknown until barely a decade ago, when a road finally linked this sleepy village to the outside world. The pavement peters out here, close to the border with Panama and abutting the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, a tropical fantasia protecting a precious rain forest, mangroves, and swamps.
Four species of marine turtles crawl ashore to lay their eggs in the soft sands of the beach. The lagoons and estuaries are a habitat for endangered manatees, and a rare dolphin species – the tucuxí – cavorts in these waters. Tapirs often wallow in the swampy pools, where crocodiles and caimans slosh about in the mud.
Toucans and parrots are among at least 350 bird species here.
And you’re sure to see coatis, sloths, and monkeys galore. The refuge extends out to sea, protecting coral reefs teeming with colorful fish, a treat for snorkelers and divers. The watery world is also a breeding ground for tarpons and snooks – feisty gamefish that give anglers a rod-bending thrill to remember.
There’s even a fishing lodge in the heart of the refuge. A local cooperative offers guided hikes and horse-riding along well-marked trails, as well as canoe trips through the snakelike creeks.
Although accommodations in Manzanillo are budget-focused, the access road from Puerto Viejo is lined with several diverse options, from safari- style tent camps to deluxe modernist eco-lodges with spas and fine-dining restaurants.
Surfers are drawn to the challenge of nearby Salsa Brava, where massive waves can reach heights of up to 33 ft (10 m). And the Crazy Monkey Canopy Ride is guaranteed to give you an adrenaline boost as you whizz through the forest along a zipline slung between trees.
Unlike on the Pacific Coast, local inhabitants include Afro-Caribbeans, descendants of Jamaican immigrants who have infused local culture with reggae music and spicy cuisine, and the local dialect with a lilting patois. Uniquely, Manzanillo is also a base for exploring the indigenous reserves of the Bribrí and Cabecar native people.
THE BUILD-UP A favorite of budget travelers, this laid-back village is an idyll for those who love paradise on a budget. The once sleepy fishing hamlet fronts a rocky cove and has a gorgeous wave-washed beach to the east.
Visitors can choose from a variety of activities, from ATV rides to waterfall rappels. Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve is nearby.
THE LETDOWN With so many backpackers, Montezuma has a bit of a “hippy” aura, and much of the budget lodging leaves a lot to be desired. Swimming in the ocean is dangerous due to riptides. Much of Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve is off-limits, and if you miss the bus, it’s a long walk.
GOING ANYWAY? Carry sturdy footwear for hiking the trails in Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve and come prepared for rain. Do not clamber up La Cascada, the waterfall west of Montezuma, as several people have slipped and died doing so.
US$140 includes food, travel, and accommodations.