The first time Seattle-native Camille Willemain, 26, touched down in Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, she had plans to settle down in a cabin and finish her graduate school applications. Two years later and she’s still traveling, but Puerto Viejo is still the one place she calls “home.” She’s returned again and again to hike waterfalls, play with rehabilitated howler monkeys, practice yoga and surf with some legendary talent. She’s as much a local as any, so we caught up with her to have her fill us in on this hot and humid jungle paradise.
Puerto Viejo, Limon, Costa Rica
What is this destination known for?
Puerto Viejo is Costa Rica with Caribbean flavor. A Hawaiian style break called Salsa Brava brings surfers from all over the world, the stunning jungle backed beaches and reggae parties are adored by backpackers, and the national parks, world class yoga and plenty of outdoor activities attract nature lovers hoping to escape the development on the Pacific Coast.
What did you pack with you in your suitcase?
I packed some cotton tank tops, jean shorts, one long-sleeved shirt, a rain jacket, yoga pants, water shoes and beach flip flops. During the rainy season, packing things that will dry quickly is key as the weather is intensely humid, and there is not much direct sun.
Favorite activity you did in Costa Rica?
Hiking through the Manzanillo Wilderness Refuge is an unforgettable experience in Puerto Viejo. From town you ride your bike down a fifteen-kilometer jungle road past local homes and darling cafes. It’s not uncommon to see monkeys and sloths on the way. Within the park are private golden sand beach coves surrounded by coral reef. When the swells are big, local surfers come to ride, and when the sea is calm, the reef is a snorkeler’s dream. The highlight of my hike in Manzanillo was climbing into caves made of coral where bats hide from the crashing waves.
Best meal you chowed down on:
My favorite meals in Puerto Viejo are often had at La Pecora Nera. Tucked into the jungle off of the main road you will find some of the best Italian food in the world lovingly prepared by a transplant from northern Italy. Dinner is served with homemade flatbread crackers and garlic aioli as well as three types of bread made daily. Must-try dishes include the fish carpaccio topped with arugula, tomatoes, and fresh pesto and the gnocchi baked in gorgonzola cream sauce with walnuts and radicchio.
Must-try local food:
The best dish in Puerto Viejo is Caribbean rondon. Beachfront bars fill large cast iron pots with local root vegetables, whole fish, corn, and fresh lobster simmered in coconut milk and spices. Enjoy your stew with some crispy fried plantains for a truly decadent treat.
Coolest geological feature:
The Isle of Cocles sits offshore from the popular surf spot called Beach Break. The rocky cliffs are covered in jungle and seafaring tropical birds. Locals and adventurous tourists paddle out on their surfboards, climb the island, then jump into the rushing waves.
Best way to describe the weather:
Puerto Viejo is intensely humid and tropical all year round. It does not have a specific dry or rainy season, which keeps it green and lush. August and September are generally sunniest with calm seas for snorkeling. December through March is sunny with big swells for surfers, and the rest of the year fluctuates between sunshine and complete downpours daily.
First culture shock moment:
When I first arrived in Puerto Viejo, the culture shock was pretty intense. I had never been somewhere so undeveloped and remote. I was staying in a cabin about seven kilometers outside of town on the beach in the jungle. At night the sounds of animals are everywhere. Cabins are quite simple, and development is pretty scarce. After a few days, the shock was done, and I was in love with the place.
Best footwear for the region:
Supportive water shoes for climbing coral and along rocks at the waterfalls and proper hiking boots for muddy trails.
A bar of local chocolate from Caribbean’s Cafe.
First time visitors should prepare for:
Puerto Viejo seems to cast a magic spell over many people who visit. Be prepared to stay longer than you expected or perhaps to never leave at all. Stay close to town, or have a vehicle if you plan to go out to dinner or experience nightlife. Walking in the dark—no matter how early—is not safe.
Tell us your best story from the trip:
Determined to conquer my fear of Playa Cocles’ Beach Break, where I had almost drowned the year before, I pushed my way through white water with my surfboard. My friend Nena and I had challenged one another to go surfing daily despite the conditions. We miraculously made it into the green water after a rough voyage out. Floating on my board beyond the break I felt a sense of calm. The swells seemed to be flattening out and I considered catching a wave back to the shore. However the sea quickly rose and the breaks began closing out ahead of me. Surfers who had rode these waves their entire lives were wiping out like go-carts on a banana peel covered track. The waves in the distance grew in size, and I knew I could not clear them. I threw my board behind me and dove under each one. When the intensity waned, I took a deep breath and rode in. Back on shore a crowd had gathered. My friend Dexter, a local and seasoned surfer, looked at me and said, “Camilla, don’t ever do that again.”
If you could book a one-way ticket anywhere, would Costa Rica be on the list?
Absolutely. It is one of my favorite places I have ever traveled to. The sheer variety is what makes it so amazing. The endless beach offers adventure for surfers, snorkelers, sailors, kayakers, divers, hikers and so much more. The culture is a fascinating blend of Latin, Caribbean, and European with food and languages from all over the world. Since first visiting Puerto Viejo two years ago, I have returned at least six times.
In a word, describe the trip:
Camille Willemain is an adventure seeker, coconut lover, storyteller and sun worshipper. You can find her lazing on beaches, trekking barefoot in jungles and testing her balance on and off the yoga mat. She writes about her travels and life lessons on her blog, This American Girl. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram @thisamericangirl.