Limón: The Costa Rican Caribbean
Costa Rica’s Caribbean province of Limón offers a cultural flavor rarely seen in the rest of the country. Before the government built a highway in the late 1970s, Limón was physically isolated from the rest of Costa Rica. This isolation sheltered the local cultures from outside influence, preserving language and traditions.
The first English-speaking Afro-Caribbean people moved into the coastal areas in the mid-1800s, and even more came in the end of that century to construct the railroad. Mainly of Jamaican descent, these people have customs with both British colonial and African roots combined with local traditions to form its own identity. Cricket is a popular pastime. English is still widely used, heard as a musical Caribbean-tinged dialect. Mekatelyu, a local Creole dialect, is also spoken.
The music and food are important components of the area’s feel. Restaurants serve fresh, creative recipes using flavorful ingredients that contrast the laid-back music played by small acoustic bands. Spicy jerk chicken is a favorite, seafood, coconut rice and beans, spicy meat pie patti and fruitcake-like pan bon are regional specialties. If you can, try the rondón, a special soup that takes an entire day to prepare.
The most accessible Caribbean destination from San José is in the Cahuita/Puerto Viejo region. Less than three hours from the capital in car (4 in bus), this region of Talamanca is a vacationer’s favorite. Arriving by the Braulio Carrillo Highway, you pass by Puerto Limón, the busy provincial capital. Off the shore you can see Uvita Island, the spot where Columbus landed during his fourth voyage to the New World. The isle has great lefts for surfers and some nice scuba diving opportunities, including the wreck of the Fenix, a sunken cargo ship. The island is twenty minutes from shore by boat.
An hour south of Puerto Limón is Cahuita. Being there is like living in a Jimmy Buffet song. Lazy, sweaty drinks flow to steel drum rhythms as the locals lounge near the town center. Cahuita is famous for its laid-back feel and the national park of the same name. This park protects the only mature marginal reef on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. This underwater world is a maze of intricate coral formations and colonies of brightly colored fish. Remember, the coral are living organisms and can die by touching them. Please follow responsible diving techniques when investigating the coral. Snorkeling and scuba diving are great ways to see the reef, and if you dive down around seven meters you can see two shipwrecks complete with cannons. When the sea is calm and rainfall light, go in the morning with waterproof sun block. Ask around for guides and equipment.
The surrounding forests in the park offer great opportunities to hike and see wildlife, including three species of monkeys (white-faced, howler and spider) along with sea birds, wetland species and other rare birds. Start at the southern entrance and walk a few easy kilometers along the beach back into town for a nice hike. Bring water and binoculars.
South of Cahuita lies Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica’s Caribbean party hotspot. Several easy-going bars and hip clubs offer entertainment, and there are accommodations for on-the-cheap backpackers and luxury seekers alike. A wide variety of restaurants serve local and international cuisine.
World-famous surfing on Puerto Viejo’s Salsa Brava draws the planet’s top surfers to brave the massive waves. As Greg Ruzicka writes, these crazy souls drop “into fifteen-foot barrels that surge over razor-sharp coral just four feet below the surface. One old surf dog said he likes Salsa because ‘it scares the piss out of me.’” Other beaches are also accessible for novice and intermediate surfers.
In the area of the southern Caribbean you also find two of Costa Rica’s largest indigenous groups, the Bribrí and Cabécar. You can tour the villages and reserves for an insightful glimpse into indigenous life in Costa Rica. Due to the strong influence of traditional medicine, the area has a certain mystical quality. Sukias (local medicine men) administer herbal remedies, claiming to have a solution from cancer to birth control.
Just southeast of Puerto Viejo is Manzanillo, and between the two lie some of the most breathtaking, underrated beaches in the world. Beginning in Manzanillo is the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, which has over 400 species of birds and the only mangrove estuary on the Caribbean coast, including the area’s most important leatherback turtle nesting sites.
Established in 1970, Tortuguero National Park is the hemisphere’s most important nesting site of the endangered green turtle. The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) uses sustainable development practices to involve the locals in protecting the green turtles in addition to the leatherbacks, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles that nest there as well.
The turtles annually draw crowds to experience the awesome, timeless sight of the arribada, or nesting of turtles. The park has an informational kiosk, natural history museum and visitor center which describe the sea turtles’ story.
The exact dates of the arribadas depend on the species and other factors, but generally turtle nesting season in Tortuguero is from early March to mid-October. Apart from the beach, the area is a dense swap and low-altitude rainforest. Roads are scarce and the main transportation system is a vast network of canals. To arrive, you must fly in and then navigate the canals, or drive until the road runs out and grab a boat (recommended, as you intimately see the countryside). Within these canals you can observe some 57 species of amphibians, 111 different reptiles, 60 types mammals and over 300 different classes of birds all within a canopy that stretches over 200 feet into the air.
Apart from the beach, the area is a dense swap and low-altitude rainforest. Roads are scarce and the main transportation system is a vast network of canals. To arrive, you must fly in and then navigate the canals, or drive until the road runs out and grab a boat (recommended, as you intimately see the countryside). Within these canals you can observe some 57 species of amphibians, 111 different reptiles, 60 types mammals and over 300 different classes of birds all within a canopy that stretches over 200 feet into the air.