The last part of our trip, almost a week, was reserved for relaxation on the Caribbean Coast. We went to the multi-cultural region of Limón, where we saw much more than just beautiful sandy beaches.
The Limón region is inhabited both by indigenous tribes Bribri and Cabecar (next to the border with Panama) and Afro-Caribbean population mostly from Jamajka and Barbados. Afro-Caribbean inhabitants make a 30% of the population of Limón region and the Limón city is one of the few “black” seaside metropolis (besides Bluefields in Nicaragua and Livingstone in Guatemala).
The history of Limón region
Why are there so many Afro-Caribbeans in Limón? We have to look for the answer in the region's history and the story connects two biggest industries in Limón – railway and production of bananas.
In his 4th sail to the New World, Cristopher Columbus came to the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rican region Limón. From then until the mid 18th century, only British pirates, rum smugglers, and Spanish sailors visited those shores. They were attacking and stealing from Costa Rican, Panamanian and Nicaraguan ships. This region was always less densely populated because of the danger coming from the pirates.
The situation changed at the end of the 19th century with a decision of building a railway. The railway should transfer the most important Costa Rican export product, coffee, from the Central Valley to the closest port to Europe, Limón. An American Minor Keith got the task to build a railway in 1877.
Minor Keith, in order to finance the construction of the railway, planted banana trees next to the railway tracks. He hired cheap labor force from China, India, and Italy to build the railway, but they started to get sick from yellow fever. In the final stage of the construction, Keith started hiring workers from Jamajka and Barbados. It seemed that they were more immune to yellow fever.
Afro-Caribbeans stayed in Limón region until today. They assimilated to the local culture and they brought something form their own culture. They planted orange, mango, and breadfruit trees, they brought popular reggae rhythms, as well as the popular Creole cuisine.
What happened with the railway and bananas, you wonder? The production of bananas had a bigger success than the railway, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1991. Keith became a rich man thanks to his United Fruit Company, a company, which is today one of the largest world-known exporters of bananas, Chiquita Brands International.
How to get from La Fortuna to Cahuita
We had luck with our transportation to Cahuita, a village on the Caribbean Coast. My mom and I were the only passengers in the shuttle, so it was actually a private shuttle for the price of a shared one (about 60$). We came to Costa Rica during the pre-season (the tourist season is in January and February), so there were not so many tourists around. We went on tours with only 6-7 people and we were practically the only tourists in Cahuita.
On our way to Cahuita, we passed through Limón, the largest Costa Rican port on the Caribbean Sea. Limón is also the biggest container port in Costa Rica and 90% of the exported goods travel from here, including the Chiquita bananas.
It took us about 6h to get to Cahuita and it was already dark when we got there. Our shuttle left us in front of the hostel Hakuna Matata, where we had an unpleasant surprise. The backyard of the hostel was nice: a lot of green areas, small pool with old deck chairs around it, armchairs for relaxing around the reception.
The owner was a young guy who hung out with his friends from Italy and Argentina on the armchairs listening to Italian music. The hostel was obviously owned by Italians. He showed us around the hostel: “This is your room, the showers are down the corridor; the shower on the left has hot water.” And the other one doesn’t??
In our room was a double bed with a mattress that needs to be changed ASAP, an old bunk bed with a dirty mattress (we used it as a storage place for our backpacks), a worn out closet, a non-functioning cooling fan, and nets and bars on the windows to protect us from mosquitos. The room cost 30$ per night. I wonder how the cheaper rooms look like… The owner fixed us the cooling fan and we went out for dinner (and to drown our disappointment in alcohol :D).
Cahuita is a village with two main streets named “Calle principal” and “Cahuita Main Road” and a few small streets that end at the beach. On the southern part of the village lies one of the smallest national parks in Costa Rica, Parque Nacional Cahuita (although the park is 8km long). On the northern part of the village, there is a beach with dark sand, Playa Negra, and a line of restaurants, bars (among them a lively Reggae bar) and hotels. Our Hakuna Matata hostel was in the center of the village, next to the bus station, supermarket, bank, and a post office.
In our search for food, we found a restaurant Roberto La Casa de la Langosta. We were the only customers in the restaurant. There were only a cook, a waitress and an Afro-Caribbean owner Roberto, who was drinking a glass of red wine and supervised the situation. We didn’t order a lobster because it cost more than 30$. Instead, we wanted to try Caribbean Creole cuisine.
An inevitable ingredient in a creole cuisine is coconut milk, as well as the African spices such as cumin, coriander, black pepper, chili, etc. I know well those tastes because we use it often in our kitchen for “exotic” Thai or Indian dishes. My fish in “a coconut sauce” tasted more like a fish in an unseasoned soup. I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant. :/
The most typical Creole dishes are rice with beans on coconut milk, rondón (a fish or meat coconut milk stew with different African fruit and vegetables) or different desserts (sweet black bread pan bon, coconut cookies cocadas or a pastry filled with sweet bananas plantintá).
After dinner, we turned our disappointment with the hostel and the food into laughter with cheap cocktails (about 4$) in the most popular local bar Coco’s Bar.
Parque Nacional Cahuita and a coral reef
The next day, we decided to explore Cahuita on our own. We went to the Parque Nacional Cahuita without a guide. At this point of our trip, we already knew where to look for some animals: sloths like to “hang out” on trumpet trees, tarantulas and snakes are hiding inside the holes of the trees, raccoons are moving around people in search for food. In the afternoon, we went to check the Playa Negra beach.
The entrance to the park was next to the Kelly Creek and the white sand beach Playa Blanca. It was our first encounter with the Caribbean Sea. The entrance to the Parque Nacional Cahuita is voluntary, but they expect at least 5$ for the maintenance of the park.
At the entrance, there’ll be a few annoying Afro-Caribbeans offering you their guiding services for “a good price”. They’ll follow you around a bit to prove to you that you’ll see more animals with their help. Just refuse them firmly and continue on your own. Most of the tourists walk without a guide through the park and they’ll inform you about some animals’ hiding places that they discovered.
We passed only 2 km of the park, which is covered by a dense (sometimes even impassable) tropical rainforest. We got to the Río Perezoso and had to walk through the river to get to the Playa Blanca, where we had our rest and swam a bit.
Although it was late in the morning (around 11-12 a.m.), we saw many animals: sloths, a cute squirrel, capuchin monkeys, howler monkey, agouties, a small poisonous yellow snake (the Caribbean Coast has the largest number of poisonous animals!), and raccoons searching the backpacks of people swimming int he sea. From dense vegetation, we heard sounds of many birds, even tucans, which, unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to see on our whole journey.
A part of the national park is 6 km2 of the coral reef around Punta Cahuita with more than 120 fish species. Every tourist agency in Cahuita offers a snorkeling tour around the coral reef for about 30$. I wanted to try it.
It’s possible that I chose the wrong agency (Rose tours), but I expected more from this experience. The tour started at 8 a.m. in front of the agency in the center of Cahuita. Our “guide” came to pick me up on a motorcycle and he gathered more people along the way to the small harbor. We set sail in one of the blue boats, which was barely sailing (a few times we stood in the middle of the sea waiting for our guide to turn on the engine).
We got old (and a bit dirty) snorkeling equipment and our guide explained to us that we will have two dives in the 2-4 m deep sea and the third one next to Punta Cahuita. The first dive was somewhere in the mud, where we could see very little because of the sand. If you don’t wait for the water to calm down, you could bump into the reef. The second dive was more interesting and I saw colorful fish species, schools of fish and even a black ray fish.
If you imagine a coral reef as a colorful reef forest (the way that I imagined it), you’ll be disappointed with your dive. Here you’ll see “bleached” rocks in form of a giant brain (Diploria celebriformis), a small grey bush (Clavulinopsis corniculata) or branched Acropora palmate, which is the most similar to the ideal image of a coral reef.
We didn’t have the third dive. Instead, our guide took us to Punta Cahuita, where he left a part of the group who wanted to see the national park. The rest of us came back to the harbor without a fruit snack, which was also promised to us in the tour program.
El Purgatorio restaurant - the best restaurant in Costa Rica
The second evening of our stay in Cahuita, we found the best, the cheapest restaurant and the restaurant with the most delicious food on our whole journey – El Purgatorio restaurant in the center of Cahuita. You’ll recognize it by the wooden plateau and the backyard with a treehouse. The treehouse is actually a plateau with two tables where you can eat your dinner or hang out with sloths.
It seemed that the restaurant was newly opened since many people didn’t hear about it. There were many Peruvian dishes on the menu, so the family that owns the restaurant must be from Perú. The owner walks around the tables to check out if everything is alright with the food and to talk with his guests. His teenage daughter, who served us the meal, was very talkative and sweet, as well.
El Purgatorio is primarily a fish restaurant with a large choice of fish and seafood and a few meat dishes. My mom had a delicious lobster for only 15$ (!!!) and I had a tuna steak with sesame and fresh salad for 12$. We also ate the cheapest ceviche in whole Costa Rica (6$) and we could choose between 3-4 different types of ceviche. We came to the same restaurant the next day and we got mini ceviche for free because we waited for the food only 15min more than usual. The best restaurant with the best service in Costa Rica!
The Sloth Sanctuary
Our last day in Cahuita, we went to the Sloth Sanctuary, a shelter where people take care of wounded sloths and their babies. The Sloth Sanctuary was a 15min ride away from Cahuita by local bus. The guy at the bus station in Cahuita sold us the bus tickets from Cahuita to the turning for Penshurt (2$ per person), but the Sloth Sanctuary was one stop further away. Just ask the people on the bus where is the stop for Sloth Sanctuary and ride along, the bus driver won’t ask you to leave the bus. A one-way taxi ride from Cahuita costs 17$. :/
In the Sloth Sanctuary, we bought a 2h tour (30$) that includes a visit to about 10 sloths, baby sloths and a boat ride on the river Estrella, where you might see sloths in their natural habitat. Although we had a pretty annoying guide throughout the sanctuary, we learned a lot of new information about the sloths.
Sloths are anteaters’ and armadillos’ “cousins”. There are two completely different species of sloths, two-fingered and three-fingered sloths. Two-fingered sloths are cuter (in my opinion) and less hairy around their face, so we can see them smiling more easily. 🙂 Three-fingered sloths, on the other hand, are covered with fur. Two-fingered sloths are larger and faster then three-fingered sloths (sloths are moving with an average speed of 0.24km/h). Two-fingered sloths are more active at night, while the three-fingered sloths are diurnal animals (this is why we see them more often).
Sloths are herbivores. They also grow algae on their fur, whose green color allows them to camouflage in the wild. Although the sloths rarely bath, they don’t stink. They have a neutral scent because of the plants and algae growing on them.
When a female sloth wants to mate, she’ll scream so that the males in the jungle could hear her and come to her. One of the female sloths in the sanctuary started to scream, but our guide explained to us that it’s strictly forbidden for sloths to mate inside the sanctuary. Why? If the youngster is born and raised behind the bars in the sanctuary, it won’t be prepared for the ruthless life in the jungle. This is why they keep males and females in separated cages in the shelter.
It happened once that a male and a female sloth managed to mate through the bars of their cages. Nobody in the shelter knew that the female is carrying a baby until she gave birth. It’s hard to tell a sloth’s pregnancy. Luckily, the female sloth was already cured by that time so they could return her to the jungle to raise her baby.
A female sloth usually gives birth to only one youngster, who stays with her until it’s ready to survive on its own in the wilderness. If a sloth gives birth to two youngsters, she has to leave one of them on its own because she cannot take care of both youngsters. Sloths normally live up to 20-30 years. Their primary predators are jaguars, pumas, and eagles. When a sloth dies, his muscles are so strong that he’ll stay hanging from the three, where the predators cannot catch him.
After a relaxing boat ride on the river Estrella, we visited a sloth called Buttercup, the star of the Animal Chanel’s documentary series “Meet the Sloths”, which is filmed here in the sanctuary. Buttercup, who smiled at us from her swing, is the oldest three-fingered female sloth (22 years old) ever found and she’s the first resident of the Sloth Sanctuary. We bought many souvenirs in a sanctuary souvenir shop and in that way, we contributed to the maintenance and the care for wounded sloths.
On our way to Puerto Viejo...
We came back to Cahuita to pick up our backpacks and got on a bus to our next destination – Puerto Viejo. The bus ticket cost us 1$ each. While we waited for our bus to arrive in Cahuita, we observed a barber Rasta in an open barbershop at the bus station. His customers were waiting on the plastic white chairs in the middle of the station reading today’s newspaper.
Although we were disappointed with Cahuita at the beginning, in the 4 days that we spent here, it captured our hearts with its simplicity and warmth of the locals. We found our favorite restaurant and I even got a job offer in the tourist agency Willie’s tours. However, we had to continue our travels and the road took us to the picturesque surf town of Puerto Viejo.