Major Cities of the Caribbean Region
By some accounts, Limón lacks the charm and lure of all other major towns in Costa Rica. However, beyond its somewhat unsightly and destitute nature, the city possesses a colorful and offbeat magnetism. Recent efforts to bolster the tourist industry along the Atlantic continues to promisingly transform the city.
With the inception of the Atlantic railroad in the late 1800s, and the subsequent boom in banana exports by eastern routes, the burgeoning port city of Limón enjoyed a favorable period of growth. However, the slow demise of the banana trade starting in the 1930s, and the consequent exodus by United Fruit in 1985 left the port idle and useless. Only in the past half decade has Limón seen a dramatic positive change.
Today, Puerto Limón radiates with excitement and vibrance. The sights, sounds and smells are inescapable, drawing in visitors with its vivid, in-your-face character. Like much of the Carribbean, its has a strong African-American tradition, produced by the once-active slave trade that flourished in the region. The streets are lined with colorful shacks and shanties, the food reflects a Jamaican influence, and the local language resembles English Creole.
The most popular attraction in Puerto Limón is the annual El Día de las Culturas, a colorful carnival held in mid-October. Originally designed to honor Christopher Colombus, the holiday was slated to coincide with the anniversary of his arrival to Limón on October 18, 1502. Out of respect for those whose ancestors were killed by the conquestadors and, most devastatingly, the diseases they introduced to the region, the festival was changed to encompass all cultures of the Caribbean. These included Spanish, indigenous, African, Chinese and Italian - the latter two having arrived in the 1870s to work on the Atlantic Railroad as indentured servants. Steel-drum music, dynamic parades, energetic dancing, Caribbean fare, and a lot of carousing, El Día de las Culturas resembles a fusion of traditional Caribbean song and dance with the uninhibited revelry of Mardi Gras.
A walk around the heart of Puerto Limón can be a culturally-stimulating experience. The Museo Ethnográfico, displaying exhibits on the history and contributions of the Limónense people, is located in the middle of town. Nearby, the colorful and bustling local market is worth a stroll through. Parque Vargas, on the east side of Avenida 1, is the main town plaza of Limón, and was named after a local governor. The grounds feature expansive banyan trees, busts of Columbus and his son, Fernando, and the occasional sighting of the slow-motioned three-toed sloth.
The largest and most developed town of the Talamanca coast, Cahuita (pronounced kawi) presents a rustic, laid-back, youthful and organic feel. The local culture is rich in Jamaican influence, creole fare, and reggae tunes. Just beyond Kelly Creek, the Cahuita National Park offers tourists the pleasures of strolling along its pristine, sandy beaches and diving around its thriving coral reef.
An offbeat, little village, flanked by the Caribbean Sea on one side, and an inshore lagoon on the other, Tortuguero proper, equipped with its well-worn airstrip, is the ususal springboard for adventures into Tortuguero National Park.
The surfing hot-spot of the Caribbean, Puerto Viejo draws a colorful assembly of nouveau-hippies, surfing enthusiasts, and marijuana-toking rastas. It is here that the Salsa Brava wave, admired as a surfing legend, pounds the shores which are backed by funky, yet sophisticated, bars and restaurants. Scuba diving, horseback riding, a visit to Finca la Isla Botanical Garden, and explorations of local indigenous communites make this hip, little hamlet well worth a visit. At night, strap on your disco sandles and let the good times roll!
Major Lakes, Rivers & Beaches
North of Cahuita, Playa Negra is a stunning black-sand beach, backed by laid-back restaurants and bars. Many explore the beach and surrounding area by horseback, and there are a few stables in the area offering guided services. Rip currents at the beach are known to be strong, so be careful when swimming.
Near Puerto Viejo, six miles of white sands beaches, including Playa Cocles, Playa Manzanillo, and Playa Chiquita, are the backdrop for numerous hotels, hostels and bungalows. These accommodations range from rustic and budget to hip and pricey. A short jaunt south of Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva is one of the Caribbean's best beaches, featuring a calm surf and plenty of charming accommodations.
Playa Bonita, north of Puerto Limón, is a popular beach among tourists, and a great surfing spot. Small eateries line the beach serving ice-cold beer and seafood snacks.
Parks and Reserves
Parque Nacional Tortuguero
One of the nations most popular parks, Tortuguero's 47,000 acres are home to a great abundance of birds, monkeys, iguanas, and the ocassionally-spotted jaguar, sloth, and tapir. Its most notable attribute, however, is its 15-mile shoreline that is the premier site of green sea turtle nesting in the Caribbean.
The park is largely dominated by swampy wetland and coastal rain forest ecosystems. A vast network of rivers section the territory into distinct parts, lending to the area's commonly-cited association with Bogart and Hepburn aboard The African Queen. Transportation in the park is best achieved, and no less more exciting, by hitching a boat ride through the river mazes. Speed boats, cargo boats, and canoes are common modes of transportation. Several package tours are also available, offering tourists lodging, food, guided tours, and transportation to and fro.
A five-minute walk from the town of Tortuguero, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation's H. Clay Frick Natural History Visitor Center comes highly recommended. The exhibits here spotlight the local ecology, and are colorful, high-quality, and imaginative. Specifically, there is a great deal of information on the local turtle populations, and the current conservation projects of C.C.C.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado
This 240,000-acre park consists of mixed swamp and palm forests, and is located on Costa Rica's northern border with Nicaragua. So remote is Barra del Colorado that access to most of the park is only acheived by its network of waterways. Visions of Apocalypse Now come to mind as one winds down the meandering rivers, spotting glimpses of caimans, crocs, monkeys, and sloths.
Under the surface of the interconnected rivers and lagoons, exist a great many fish species, making Barra del Colorado one of the best inland sport fishing destinations. Snook, tarpon, snapper, and mackeral can be caught either by renting a boat or by acquiring the services of a guided tour.
Parque Nacional Cahuita
Just south of Cahuita, this 2,700-acre park is renown for the fine sand of its beach and the 600-acre coral reef that exists off the rocky headlands of Punta Cahuita. The diving is great here, but visibility in the water can be a hinderance. While the turquoise water is almost totally transparent, nearby banana plantations create visibly-obstructive and environmentally-destructive clouds of particulates in the water. The best time to go is between February and May.
Visitors can expect to see countless tropical fish species, crabs, sponges, sea anemones, and over 30 varieties of coral. Just off the shoreline, in about 20 feet of water, the wreck of an 18th-century slave ship provides an additional spectacle. Tours are available and diving equipment can be rented in Cahuita proper. On the other hand, those who wish to stay dry can acquire the services of a glass-bottom boat tour.
Wildlife abounds in the rain forest that backs the shoreline. Uninhibited racoons and coatis, as well as monkeys and a great many bird species, can be seen while you sun-bathe on the beach. Adventure in along the hiking trails, and you will probably be able to spot three-toed anteaters, four-toed armadillos, caiman and howler monkeys.
Day trips to the park can be made with Cahuita proper as a base, or you may choose to camp within the park territory. The park ranger station is located at Puerto Vargas. Along the shoreline there, visitors will find restrooms, showers, camping and picnic sites.
Finca la Isla Botanical Garden
Besides the surfing, the only other point of interest around Puerto Viejo is the Botanical Garden, a 10-acre gem offering pristine rain forest, and exquisite fruits and flowers. In addition to the monkeys, sloths and birds, the poison-arrow frog make its home here. Self-guided tours through the trails are facilitated with an insightful booklet.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzillo
South of the rustic hamlet of Manzillo, this wildlife refuge protects over 23,000 acres of wetlands, lowland rain forest, turtle nesting sites, coral reefs, and the only mangrove stand on the eastern seaboard. Hiking is of the truly adventurous variety as the trails are poorly maintained and the park lacks any facilities.
Protecting almost 1,000 acres, this university south of Guácimo offers curricula in tropical agriculture and sustainable farming. Those who are not interested in going back to school are welcome to visit and hike the well-maintained trails.
Located just north of Guácimo, his exquisite garden, consisting of 300-acres of floral tracts, claims to be the largest flower farm in the world!
Aviarios del Caribe
North of Penhurst along highway 36, this private reserve protects about 185 acres of marsh and wetlands, and provides refuge for over 300 bird species. In association with the Caribbean Biological Bird Station, the park offers guided canoes trips, wooden boardwalks, and observation platforms from which visitors can watch the spectacular wildlife.
This remote reserve and lodge is big on conservation and sustainablity, and protects about 2,100 acres of rain forest, rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife. The accomodations are quaint, yet very rustic at the lodge, which also coordinates several informative guided tours. Jungle tours at dawn, tree climbing with ropes and harnesses, and a waterfall hike with optional rappelling are all options for the avid adventure-seeker.
Reserva Biológica Hitoy-Cerere
40 miles southwest of Limón, and about an hour and a half from Cahuita, this biological reserve is one of the most remote territories in the eastern portion of the country. In fact, there are several unexplored portions along the upper Talamanca Mountains.
There is a great abundance of mammalian fauna here, including jaguars, peccaries, white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, armadillos, pacas, deer, and agoutis. In addition, there are over 300 species of birds. But be prepared to work for it; the trails here are poorly maintained and the uphills are arduous.
Carnival or El Día de las Culturas
The most popular attraction in Puerto Limón is the annual El Día de las Culturas, a colorful carnival held in mid-October. Originally designed to honor Christopher Colombus, the holiday was slated to coincide with the anniversary of his arrival to Limón on October 18, 1502. Out of respect for those whose ancestors were killed by the conquestadors and, most devastatingly, the diseases they introduced to the region, the festival was changed to encompass all cultures of the Caribbean. These included Spanish, indigenous, African, Chinese and Italian - the latter two having arrived in the 1870s to work on the Atlantic Railroad as indentured servants. Steel-drum music, dynamic parades, energetic dancing, Caribbean fare, and a lot of carousing, El Día de las Culturas resembles a fusion of traditional Caribbean song and dance with the uninhibited revelry of Mardi Gras. A similar celebration takes place in Cahuita during the same week.
Specific Plants and Animals of the Region
Named for the sluggish rate at which these peculiar mammals move, the sloth's leaf diet generates very little metabolic energy. In addition, they possess much less muscle tissue compared to other mammals. Using their strong arms and long-hooked claws, they hang upside down from trees, slowly scooping leaves into their mouths. The sloth has few predators. It grooms rarely, so algae, a natural camouflage, covers the beast. In addition, its flesh tastes bad, even to the most indiscriminate of eaters.
How to Get There
Highway 32, or the Guápiles Highway, is a straight shot from San José to the provincial capital of Puerto Limón. This route can be traveled by car or bus and takes about two hours. From Limón, Highway 36 explores the towns to the south, including Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.