Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, not to be confused with the popular beach destination of Puerto Viejo de Limon, is located in the province of Heredia and life in this small pueblo revolves around the Sarapiquí River, a tributary of Río San Juan, the river that marks the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
During the 19th century Puerto Viejo, which means Old Port in Spanish, was a bustling port town, but its glory days ended after construction of the port in Moín, in the province of Limón.
Nowadays, visitors can visit Puerto Viejo to take a break from the madness of the more crowded tourist destinations, enjoying its slow pace of life in and observing the daily lifestyle of locals. Restaurants, grocery stores, shops and souvenir stands are limited here and tourists quickly understand that the magic of this destination lies in nature.
The town is surrounded by a number of wildlife and nature reserves. The non-profit Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) has a biological station (La Selva Biological Station) here that is open for visitors to observe the local flora and fauna and learn about their work. Selva Verde, about 7 km. west of Sarapiqui, is a private rainforest reserve and lodge nestled in the jungle next to the Sarapiqui River. It offers bird-watching tours and hikes along multiple trails through the dense tropical forest.
The Sarapiqui area is also well known for its ornamental plant, banana and pineapple plantations, a butterfly sanctuary and a serpentarium.
Boat tours along the Sarapiqui River, where you may observe sloths, crocodiles and monkeys, are popular among those who prefer a more serene ride to the rapids.
Arenal and Turrialba volcanoes are both located within a reasonable drive (couple hours), and tours can be arranged to the sublime La Paz Waterfalls, often as part of a combo that includes white-water rafting on the Sarapiqui River.
Planning a vacation to Sarapiqui
We recommend a two night stay for most visitors to Sarapiqui. While the area is very interesting, most tourists will want to dedicate more time to other destinations with more choices. However, if you are an avid nature lover and do not mind staying in a setting with little to do outside of the reserves, you may want to consider staying 3 nights.
Lodging in the Puerto Viejo and Sarapiqui area is rustic. There are no luxury options. The majority of hotels in the area are specialty eco-lodges that cater to scientists, biologists, naturalists and eco-tourists.
If we were to make a single recommendation as a must see attraction, it would have to be to visit the La Selva Biological Station. This is a very interesting and educational tour that will shed light on the wonders of the rainforest.
Reasons to visit
- You want a good chance at seeing exotic wildlife without traveling a long distance from San Jose (only a couple hours)
- You would like to stay at a real eco-lodge
- Seeing wildlife is more important than modern comforts
- You want to learn about the rainforest
- You want to experience the real off the beaten path Costa Rica
Reasons NOT to visit
- A comfortable hotel with modern amenities is more desirable than seeing the real Costa Rica
- You are not interested in learning about the rainforest
- Sarapiqui is not located within 4 hours drive of any beach
- You are not comfortable with bugs and insects
- There is no nightlife
How to get to there
From San Jose: Take the Braulio Carrillo Highway towards Braulio Carrillo National Park. At Santa Clara, take the paved Highway 4 to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. You can also take the old route, a road that winds through Heredia and Vara Blanca.
Weather and packing list
The northern plains where Sarapiquí is located are characterized by unpredictable weather, with temperatures usually ranging between the upper 70s in the daytime and the lower 60s at night. The rainy season here usually falls between May and June and September through November, with the heaviest showers expected between September and October.
Visitors to Sarapiquí should pack shorts, t-shirts, hiking shoes, rain gear, sunblock. Pants and long sleeved t’s are also recommended for chilly evenings or to guard one from pesky mosquitoes. Our packing list page offers plenty more ideas.
Fun Fact: Puerto Viejo means Old Port in English. There is another Puerto Viejo along the Caribbean coast which is often confused by tourists.