Caribbean Costa Rica: Authentically Yours

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Caribbean beaches are deliciously deserted.
Caribbean beaches are deliciously deserted.

Let’s seriously consider a corner of Costa Rica that this traveler is not sure even the Costa Ricans know is there—the Caribbean coast, no match for the high-end pleasures and treasures of the Pacific coast, but a perfect match for clients who want wildlife viewing, snorkeling and surfing, laid-back beach towns, a join-in nightlife, and a less-costly vacation.

When we say “Caribbean coast,” we mostly mean the province of Limon, whose largest town is also called Limon, which divides the northern Caribbean from the southern. Except during Carnival time (Oct. 12), when it’s a quiet place with brightly painted plantation houses and colonial buildings in various states of repair skirting the city streets, not a lot goes on, but close by—12 minutes by car—cruise ships and fruit transporters dock at the port of Moin.

Limon is also the gateway to the beaches and other attractions of the south coast; and heading south from Limon, the direction we took during a recent press trip, as guests of the Costa Rica Institute of Tourism (ICT), is a drive that puts mostly deserted beaches on your left and mountain jungle on your right all the way to the border of Panama—about 50 miles ahead.

The southern coast is also noted for the pristine rainforests of the Talamanca mountain range, although surfing, snorkeling and quality beach time are the main activities. The flavor of the “south” is a special melting pot of cultures including the indigenous BriBri natives who have lived there for centuries, the Jamaicans who initially came in the 19th century to work on the railroad for the banana trade, and the Costa Ricans of Spanish descent.

Hotspot surfing—for experts only—is La Salsa Brava south of Cahuita, a sleepy beach village 30 miles from Limon. It’s a colorful hamlet whose Afro-Caribbean inhabitants live in brightly painted houses, and whose Jamaican heritage shows up in its patois English and spicy foods. The village is the gateway to exploring Cahuita National Park, which protects nine miles of beaches, the country’s largest coral reef, lush forests, marshlands and mangroves. The wildlife is splendid—howler and capuchin monkeys, sloths, pacas, armadillos and iguanas, plus dozens of species of land and water birds. The beach walks here are sublime.

A short distance from town is the Mariposario Cahuita, a new butterfly garden, and just beyond is the Buttercup Sloth Rescue Center, the country’s main facility that looks after these creatures when they are injured. The rescue center is part of the privately run wildlife refuge, Aviarios del Caribe, created by Americans Jody and Luis Arroyo. Taking a boat tour through the wildlife sanctuary, visitors can see sloths in their natural habitat, as well as caimans, turtles, otters and kinkajous. Additionally, more than 300 bird species have been catalogued here in the Estrella River Delta.

An aerial tram view of the rainforest.
An aerial tram view of the rainforest.

Exploring
During our stay, we did some really neat things:

  • Hiked in the very accessible Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge—a 23,348-acre area embracing rainforest and wetland habitats—and watched for monkeys, sloths, iguana and the famed poison dart frog. Offshore the coral reef offers snorkelers the chance to see a large array of colorful tropical fish, sting rays and possibly a reef shark or two.
  • Learned all about wildlife rescue operations at Jaguar Rescue Center, dedicated to the rehabilitation of injured, orphaned or confiscated animals. Once the jaguars are jungle-fit again, they are reintroduced into protected habitats. The center is the masterwork of Sandro and Encar Garcia who also rehabilitate other animals and birds; a special display showcases many of the poisonous and non-poisonous snakes of Costa Rica.
  • Didn’t have to actually make chocolate, but enjoyed a Chocolate Tour of a working organic cacao plantation and the family’s personal demonstration of just how painstaking the process of making a single good bar of chocolate can be.
  • Appreciated just how gorgeous the coastline, fringed with cliffs and caves, is here during a Small Boat Cruise along the coastline; and watched for dolphins who occasionally sped by in the turquoise waters.
  • Discovered that Puerto Viejo is still considered the capital of cool on the coast; and a night on the town was a welcoming affair. Banana Azul restaurant treated our group to an imaginative Caribbean feast including some really zesty jerk chicken. Dinner was accompanied by simply wonderful music, including traditional folk calypso sung by an elderly woman, a Jamaican descendant of the original black workers.
  • Detoured on the way back to San Jose into a jaw-dropping virgin rainforest and the protected Braulio Carrillo National Park to board the Rainforest Aerial Tram, which accommodates adventurers in 4-passenger open gondolas with a guide, who really know where those sloths are hiding. The ziplining here is also swing-through-the-canopy perfect.
Colorful houses in Costa Rica.
Colorful houses in Costa Rica.

Staying There
The Caribbean coast does not have a big hotel inventory—and certainly no lodging is very large, for none surpasses the height of a palm tree.

I stayed at Cariblue Beach and Jungle Resort, a lovely, well-run resort surrounded by expansive grounds and gardens. It’s located right in front of Cocles Beach, one of the best on the coast, and a mile south of Puerto Viejo. Among the 45 units, recommend the Superior Bungalows, which are individual cabins raised off the ground; they feature a private balcony with hammocks. Guest features include complimentary WiFi, two pools, a jacuzzi, an Aqua Spa, bike rental, a beach bar, and the very good Soleluna restaurant, serving Italian specialties and local seafood. It’s a good place for family travelers. For more information on Cariblue Resort, e-mail info@cariblue.com or visit cariblue.com. Rates range from $95 to $125 for double rooms, suites range from $170 to $270, including full Costa Rican breakfast.

I really liked the zaniness of the 14-unit Banana Azul Guest House, for accommodations. This adults-only boutique hotel sits at Puerto Viejo’s outskirts on the far end of Playa Negra beach. Rooms are simple and artfully decorated, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Top floor ocean rooms with decks, hammocks and beach views are the most popular; then there is the Red Frog Suite and the Treehouse Apartment. Guest facilities include complimentary WiFi, a good restaurant, a bar, a pool, a jacuzzi, and bike rental. For more information on the Banana Azul Guest House, e-mail info@bananaazul.com or visit bananazul.com. Rates range from $104 to $155 for double rooms; and suites range from $164 to $207.

Bottom line of this report, I like this corner of Costa Rica better and better each visit for it is beautiful and uncrowded, welcoming and fun, and serves up deliciously spicy food and mellow reggae music. Frankly, it’s Costa Rican. For more information, visit visitcostarica.com.