The Wild Caribbean Coast

The Pacific coast has been more popular than the very different, straight and shorter Costa Rica Caribbean coast, but this is slowly changing. The Caribbean is divided into two halves. North of Puerto Limon, the largest city on the Caribbean, the area is a lush alluvial plain separated from the long straight coast by a series of freshwater meandering natural and man-made canals and lagoons many running parallel to the beach. They form the only overland transportation network and service all the way north to Nicaragua. The coast is not great for swimming or surfing as the low waves pound the shores, but it is ideal for an estimated forty thousand protected green, leatherback (the worlds largest sea turtle), and hawksbill sea turtles to annually lay their eggs. Lodges in Tortuguero sell overnight packages including bus and canal boat transportation, lodging, all meals, a visit to the turtle educational facility and canal excursions into the interior for spotting wildlife. There are some three hundred bird species, amphibians, reptiles, sixty mammal species, including ocelots, jaguars, and even the occasional manatee. Manatees were traditionally hunted for their meat and tough hides and their numbers have severely dwindled. The remaining ones have moved into the more remote western lagoons, where the biggest detriment to their survival may be the pesticide, fertilizer and sediment run-off from the banana plantations.

If you might enjoy Costa Rica fishing, a little farther north by canal is the wildlife refuge, Barra de Colorado, which boasts the best snook and tarpon fishing in the world. With as much as six meters of rain per year, it is one of Costa Rica’s wettest parks. A maze of waterways, lined with palms, criss-cross the marshy wetlands making only boat traffic possible. Several sport fishing lodges center around the Barra del Colorado Village, near the mouth of the half kilometer wide Rio Colorado.

South of Limon is the Talamanca coast, backed by mountain headlands that get closer to the coast the nearer one gets to Panama. Until the late 1970s, train and canoe were the only means of reaching this area, but the coast road today makes the area very accessible. The dusty or muddy (depending on the season) little seaside town of Cahuita, forty five kilometers south of Limon and farther south the more picturesque and interesting Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, are frequented by backpackers and budget travelers. The population is an interesting combination of Black, Spanish, Caucasian hippies, and Talamanca Indians, with the black Caribbean culture predominating. The Rastafarians take everything in stride, sporting knee-length baggy shorts, tattoos, dreadlocks, colorful knitted Rasta hats, and discretely smoke ganga. They often support themselves by selling sea shell and coral jewellery, fruits from a stand, guides into the Talamanca Mountains or other clandestine means. Some run moderately successful restaurants, bars and cabinas. You are always within earshot of Reggae music.

South of Puerto Viejo, approaching the Panama border, the newly paved coastal road winds through the jungle with few ocean sightings. There is a colorful array of small lodgings, restaurants, bars, diving, surf and t-shirt shops are nestled in the greenery, with funny names and inviting signs. Because of points and inlets, the beaches are no longer pounded here by the unbroken surf, and small coral reefs are easily accessed for snorkeling from the shore. Some of the beaches are what dreams are made of, with a dense jungle backdrop, and clean, soft, unlittered sand, the occasional piece of driftwood, and the turquoise water gently lapping on the shore. At places you can see a kilometer of the beach in both directions without a hint of humanity. It is almost surreal. This is my personal favorite Costa Rica beach.

The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) is planning another major tourist development in the Puerto Viejo region to the dismay of local residents who are already distressed by the number of foreign business owners that have inundated the area. The concern is a strain on local utilities. The tourism ministry has promised to respect the protected zones with maximum fifty room hotels, and height limitations though bribes and corruption often play a roll in reducing the enforcement of regulations.

Along most of the Caribbean coast, and on both sides of the coastal road south of Limon are very basic utilitarian homes, seemingly open to the elements with tin roofs, sporadically clustered with an unkempt, windblown appearance. Life has that laid back Afro-Caribbean atmosphere, nobody is in a hurry to make money or be overly friendly. What you don’t get done today, you may not do tomorrow either.

Costa Rica’s sixty thousand black people that still predominantly live along the Caribbean coast trace their ancestry to either the slaves of British pirates, the ten thousand that were hired from Jamaica to build the Atlantic Railroad (for pitiful wages), or the waves of migratory workers that came later to work the banana plantations. Nearly everyone living in the Province of Limon today has some mixture of black, the British pirate settlers, the indigenous Mestizo Indians, the Spanish, and the six hundred Chinese (Chinos) who were also brought in to build the railroad. Among themselves, a patois English is spoken widely, though most speak and write perfect English and Spanish.

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