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Caribbean Coast, Caribbean Coast's insider take:

Costa Rica's Caribbean coast extends almost ruler-straight between the Nicaraguan and Panamanian borders. Lined with mostly gray-sand beaches and coconut palms, this region is humid and often battered by rainstorms. But when the sun shines, it blazes with color. The region's Afro-Caribbean population looks east to Jamaica for inspiration (most are descended from Jamaican laborers), as evidenced by the region's spicy cuisine, reggae music, and wooden clapboard houses painted in bright tropical pastels. The coast is sparsely populated, with many miles of rainforest between villages.

The Jamaican spirit lives on most strongly in Cahuita, a coastal hamlet where simple cabinas and charming small hotels are strung out along Playa Negra, which abuts Cahuita National Park, a rainforest habitat and wildlife haven akin to Tortuguero National Park on the north coast. Sloth sightings are virtually guaranteed while walking the park's trails and are a sure thing at the Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge with a slothpital for injured sloths. A 15-minute drive south, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is Costa Rica's capital of cool. Many visitors settle in here for long days spent relaxing in hammocks. This off-beat, edgy, slightly raffish place has hyper nightlife, great restaurants, and dozens of accommodations, from surfer hostels to upscale eco-lodges. Experienced surfers make a pilgrimage to hang ten on Salsa Brava, a killer storm-generated wave that kicks up to 20 feet high in winter months and poses a Hawaii-style challenge. Several outfits offer board rentals and surfing lessons (try Salsa Brava Surf Shop, 506-2750-0689), and horseback riding is popular along the beach and into the mountains (try Seahorse Stables).—Christopher P. Baker

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.