Costa Rica’s Caribbean corner

Cut off for more than a century, the country’s east coast is now reachable by road. Matthew Barker explored its Caribbean connections

A basilisk lizard warms itself in the morning sun in Cahuita National Park. Photograph by Matthew BarkerA capuchin takes a break from stealing tourists` picnics to enjoy the beach at Cahuita. Photograph by Matthew BarkerFishermen relax in their boat at Puerto Viejo after a long day`s work. Photograph by Matthew BarkerPlaying in the surf at Punta Uva, south of Puerto Viejo. Photograph by Matthew Barker

It can come as a surprise to visitors to find that the diminutive Costa Rica is virtually a country of two nations rolled into one. While Hispanic Costa Rica draws most of the attention, the little-visited Caribbean coast has more than its fair share of attractions – and also an identity and heritage that is a world apart from the country’s Spanish-speaking side.

Arriving at the small coastal town of Cahuita by bus from San José, you notice the difference immediately. As you step into the warm sun, Caribbean sounds and scents drift through the still air. Long gone is the hustle and bustle of the capital, replaced by gentle waves breaking on an almost deserted tropical beach.

This vast difference between Costa Rica’s east coast and the rest of the country is unsurprising, given the region’s history of isolation and segregation. Black people were brought from the Caribbean islands during the late 19th century to establish plantations and railroads, but it was only in 1949 that black Costa Ricans were granted permission to live and work beyond the eastern Limon province, and only in the late 1980s that the region was connected to the rest of the country by paved road. Until that time, this quiet Caribbean corner, perched above a vast Latin continent, remained in almost total isolation. Chatting with the elderly Miss Rose, the English-speaking descendant of Jamaican immigrants, I realised just how cut off it used to be.

“Before they built that road, it took us three days to get to San José. We took mule carts and went up the river by canoe. There were no tourists here back then, it was all just fishing and farming.”

But in recent years, the flow of visitors making the journey from the western cloud forests and beaches towards the eastern coastline of the Caribbean Sea has grown from a trickle of backpackers to a steady stream of travellers.
Cahuita is the embodiment of Costa Rica’s Caribbean character: a relaxed town set on a beautiful black-sand beach, lined with palms that sway over the water in a barely discernible sea breeze. The town itself is little more than a couple of paved roads and a few disorderly blocks, but along each street is a string of bars and restaurants, serving up an intoxicating blend of music, welcoming patois banter, and the region’s signature cuisine of spicy, rich concoctions of seafood and coconut.

The town’s most highly regarded cook is another elderly lady of Jamaican heritage, Miss Edith. Her ramshackle restaurant disguises the magic that takes place inside the kitchen, where the day’s catch is transformed into meals that are fully loaded with Caribbean flavour. Her specialties include red snapper in coconut curry, jerk snapper, yucca in coconut milk, and lobster. Even Costa Rica’s famously bland staple, gallo pinto, receives a culinary overhaul and comes out dancing with new zest.

But Cahuita’s main draw is neither the town’s beach nor its glorious cuisine. It’s the Cahuita National Park just to the south of the town that is most deserving of attention. It hugs the coastline and extends out into the sea, to incorporate a large, living coral reef which harbours a huge volume of fish and other marine life. It is possible to arrange diving and snorkelling trips out to the reef, but access is only allowed with a registered guide, in order to protect the fragile environment. Just offshore lies the wreck of a shipwrecked 18th-century galleon, a fascinating throwback to the region’s more turbulent era of slavery and piracy.

Visitors who prefer to keep their feet dry can follow well-maintained trails through the park’s dense forests, home to a multitude of wildlife, much of which is easy to spot even without a guide. Fearsome-looking but timid basilisk lizards scuttle around in the undergrowth, while their bolder iguana cousins sunbathe in the branches overhead. Sloths, capuchins and howler monkeys all inhabit the park, along with inquisitive coatis, raccoons and agoutis. The park’s popularity has caused many of the mammal species to become familiar and confident with their human guests, and it’s not uncommon for a cheeky capuchin to accost an unsuspecting picnicker for their lunch. But park authorities are very clear on these interactions: no contact with or feeding of the animals is allowed – for their health as well as that of the park’s bipedal visitors.
Leaving Cahuita and following the road south brings you to the Caribbean coast’s most famous destination, the party and surf town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Puerto Viejo has grown much more rapidly than its sleepier neighbour, largely driven by the number of backpackers and surfers who have arrived here seeking out Costa Rica’s most revered – and feared – wave, the Salsa Brava. With the surfers came all their characteristic trappings: lively, late-night parties and bonfires on the beach, live music spilling out of almost every bar, budget hostels and a good-time vibe that is beyond infectious.

But there is more to Puerto Viejo than partying and surfing. The town has seen a growth in higher quality lodge-style resorts that are set just out of town and along the more tranquil stretches of beach, often with their own pools and spa services. It’s also very easy to hire a car, motorcycle, or better still a bicycle, and enjoy a pleasant ride south along a newly paved road which leads past Punta Uva, a picture-postcard beach, towards another beautiful but much less visited park, Refugio Gandoca-Manzanillo, virtually on the far southern border with Panama.

 

But for the Caribbean coast’s most spectacular natural wonder, travellers have to head north, to a wilderness so remote that it makes Cahuita and Puerto Viejo seem like buzzing metropolises. Tortuguero National Park is only reachable by boat or plane, but visitors are well rewarded for making the journey. This relatively large park encompasses no fewer than 11 distinct habitats, making this one of the most biodiverse areas in Costa Rica. Tortuguero is an intriguing environment, with numerous natural channels, manmade canals, lagoons and rivers interconnecting to create a watery world, which can only be properly explored by boat.

Even though the park is known for its natural wealth, there is one species in particular that makes the area famous: the majestic green sea turtles which flock to Tortuguero’s beaches in colossal numbers to lay their eggs before returning to the sea. (Hence the name: tortuga is the Spanish for turtle.) These beaches are thought to be the primary turtle nesting ground for the entire western Caribbean, and the spectacle of these enormous beasts returning to their birthplace to lay their offspring is a remarkable and memorable sight.

There’s some spartan accommodation in tiny Tortuguero village, but most visitors prefer to stay at one of the comfortable lodges within or near the park, where service generally includes three meals, professionally guided tours and transfers in and out of Tortuguero. What the village lacks in services, it more than makes up for with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation museum, founded by the widely regarded naturalist Dr Archie Carr, who was a pioneer in the fight to protect the endangered turtle species and establish Tortuguero National Park in 1970.

From Tortuguero, a combination of boat and road take you to rejoin the rest of Costa Rica, once again crossing the imaginary line between the country’s Hispanic and Caribbean sides. By the time you get back to San José, the tranquility of the eastern coast will be just a pleasant memory.

Matthew Barker is a British travel writer and photographer living in Lima, Peru. He wrote this article while travelling with Vaya Adventures