The tourist brochures tout the country’s Caribbean coast as “the other Costa Rica.” Everything about this part of Costa Rica seems different: different culture, different history, different climate, and different activities. Expect different prices, too. Your travel dollar goes further here than elsewhere in the country. This region was long ago discovered by European adventure seekers— you’re quite likely to hear Dutch, German, and Italian spoken by the visitors here—but is much less known in North American circles.
The ethnic mix differs markedly here, as it does all along the Caribbean coast of Central America. The region was first settled by the British, and then, throughout the 19th century, by the descendants of Afro-Caribbean slaves who came to work on the banana plantations and construct the Atlantic railroad. That makes the Caribbean coast the best place in the country to find English speakers, although the language is disappearing as Spanish takes over.
It is rainier here than in other parts of Costa Rica, and the rain is distributed pretty evenly year-round without a distinct dry season—though October (when the rest of Costa Rica is getting deluged with rain) is the driest month. The region will never draw the typical fun-in-the-sun crowd that frequents the drier Pacific coast, but it does offer a year-round forested lushness and just as many activities at a more reasonable price.
POINTS OF INTEREST
TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK
In 1975 the Costa Rican government established Tortuguero National Park to protect the sea turtle population, which had been decimated after centuries of being aggressively hunted for its eggs and carapaces. Still, despite preservation efforts, less than 1% of the hatchlings will make it to adulthood. Turtles may be the name of the game here, but keep your eyes peeled for nonturtle species, too: tapirs, jaguars, anteaters, ocelots, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, three-toed sloths, collared and white-lipped peccaries, coatis, and blue morpho butterflies also populate the park. You can wander the beach independently when the turtles aren’t nesting, but riptides make swimming dangerous, and shark rumors persist.
CAHUITA NATIONAL PARK
The only Costa Rican park jointly administered by the National Parks Service and a community, it starts at the southern edge of the village of Cahuita and runs pristine mile after pristine mile southward. Whereas most of the country’s protected areas tender only land-based activities, this park entices you offshore as well. Roughly parallel to the coastline, a 4-mile trail passes through the forest to Cahuita Point. A hike of a few hours along the trail—always easiest in the dry season—lets you spot howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, coatimundis, armadillos, and raccoons. The coastline is encircled by a 1- square-mile coral reef. The park was first created to protect this reef. You’ll find superb snorkeling off Cahuita Point, but sadly, the coral reef is slowly being killed by sediment, intensified by deforestation and the erosive effects of the 1991 earthquake that hit the coast.
BRAULIO CARRILLO NATIONAL PARK
One of Central America’s largest tracts of primary cloud forest looms just north of the San José metro area. The primary highway to the Caribbean coast passes right through the park, and most visitors see it from their car or van windows.
BRAULIO CARRILLO NATIONAL PARK (PARQUE NACIONAL BRAULIO CARRILLO)
In a country where deforestation is still rife, hiking through dense, primary tropical cloud forest is an experience to be treasured. The park owes its foundation to the public outcry provoked by the construction of the highway of the same name through this region in the late 1970s—the government bowed to pressure from environmentalists and, somewhat ironically, Braulio Carrillo is the national park that is most accessible from the capital, thanks to the highway. Covering 171 square miles, the extremely diverse terrain ranges from 180 feet to about 9,500 feet above sea level and extends from the central volcanic range down the Caribbean slope to La Selva research station near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. The park protects a series of ecosystems ranging from the cloud forests on the upper slopes to the tropical wet forest of the Magsasay sector; it is home to 6,000 tree species, 500 bird species, and 135 mammal species.
PUERTO VIEJO DE SARAPIQUÍ
One of Costa Rica’s lesser-known eco-destinations has been developing a growing selection of nature-themed activities in recent years. In the 19th century, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí was a thriving river port and the only link with the coastal lands straight east. Fortunes nose-dived with the construction of a full-fledged port in the town of Moín near Limón, and today Puerto Viejo has a slightly run-down air. The activities of the Nicaraguan Contras made this a danger zone in the 1980s, but now that the political situation has improved, boats once again ply the old route up the Sarapiquí River to the San Juan River on the Nicaraguan frontier, from where you can travel downstream to Barra del Colorado or Tortuguero. (Wars of words still occasionally flare up between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but they need not concern you as a visitor.) A few tour companies have Sarapiquí River tours with up to Class III rapids in the section between Chilamate and La Virgen, with plenty of wildlife to see. If you prefer to leave the driving to them, many of the lodges operate boat tours on the tamer sections of the river.
The hub towns of Guápiles and Guácimo aren’t destinations in their own right, but rather the nucleus for a few on-the-way-to-the-Caribbean activities. Guápiles, one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, is the hub of northeastern Costa Rica, and with all the facilities in town, residents of the region barely need to trek to San José anymore. The smaller town of Guácimo lies 7 miles east on the Guápiles Highway.
Siquirres anchors a fertile banana-and pineapple-growing region, and marks the transition point between the agricultural lowlands and the tropical, palm-laden coast. The odd name is a corruption of the words Si quieres (if you want), fittingly impassive for this lackluster town. Siquirres has the unfortunate historical distinction of having once been the westernmost point to which Afro- Caribbean people could migrate. Costa Rica implemented the law in the late 1880s—when large numbers of Afro-Caribbeans immigrated (mainly from Jamaica) to construct the Atlantic Railroad—but abolished it in the 1949 constitution.
The hamlet of Tortuguero is a pleasant little place with 600 inhabitants, two churches, three bars, a handful of souvenir shops, and a small selection of inexpensive lodgings. And one more plus: there are no motor vehicles here, a refreshing change from the traffic woes that plague the rest of Costa Rica. You can also take a stroll on the 20-mile beach, but avoid swimming here because of strong riptides and large numbers of bull sharks and barracuda.
TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK (PARQUE NACIONAL TORTUGUERO)
There is no better place in Costa Rica to observe sea turtles nesting, hatching, and scurrying to the ocean. The July–October nesting season for the green turtle is Tortuguero’s most popular time to visit. Toss in the hawksbill, loggerhead, and leatherback—the three other species of sea turtle that nest here, although to a lesser extent—and you expand the season from February through October. You can undertake night tours only with an authorized guide, who will be the only person in your party with a light, and that will be a light with a red covering. Photography, flash or otherwise, is strictly prohibited. The sight of a mother turtle furiously digging in the sand to bury her eggs is amazing, even from several yards away, and the spectacle of a wave of hatchlings scurrying out to sea is simply magnificent.
If you want to watch the deshove (egg laying), contact your hotel or the parks office to hire a certified local guide, required on turtle-watching excursions. The Turtle Scout Program, affiliated with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, maintains a network of knowledgeable guides and has cut out a route of less obtrusive trails that minimize long walks on the beach, all to the benefit of the turtles. Note that you won’t be allowed to use a camera—flash or non-flash—on the beach, and only your guide is permitted to use a flashlight (and that must be covered with red plastic) because lights can deter the turtles from nesting. Wear dark clothing if you can and avoid loud talking. Smoking is prohibited on the tours.
A few unscrupulous locals will offer to take you on a turtle-watching tour outside the allowed February-through-November season, disturbing sensitive nesting sites in the process. If it’s not the season, don’t go on a turtle excursion. As the signs around town admonish: “Don’t become another predator.”
The colorful Afro-Caribbean flavor of one of Costa Rica’s most important ports (population 90,000) is the first sign of life for seafaring visitors to Costa Rica’s east coast. Limón (sometimes called “Puerto Limón”) is a lively, if shabby, town with 24-hour street life. Most travelers do not stop here, heading immediately to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca farther south. The wooden houses are brightly painted, but the grid-plan streets look rather worn, partly because of the damage caused by a 1991 earthquake. Street crime, including pickpocketing and nighttime mugging, is not uncommon here. Long charged with neglecting the city, the national government continually promises to turn new attention to Limón, although the results never match residents’ expectations.
Limón receives thousands of visitors every year, owing in large part to its newest incarnation as a port of call. Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, MSC, Norwegian, Oceania, P&O, Princess, and Silversea cruise ships all dock here on select Panama Canal or western Caribbean itineraries. The downtown Terminal de Cruceros hums with activity between October and May, with one or two boats daily during the peak season (December through March). This is the place to find telephones, Internet cafés, manicurists (they do quite a brisk business), a tourist-information booth, and tour-operator stands, too. The terminal contains souvenir stands staffed by low-key vendors who invite you to look, but they don’t pester you if your answer is No, gracias. Much to the chagrin of local businesses, most cruise passengers exit their ships and head out on organized shore excursions, seeing the town only through the windows of their tour vans. This has become an increasingly common complaint among residents of Costa Rica’s ports of call who were promised an economic boom when the ships arrived.
CAHUITA NATIONAL PARK
A perfect, white-sand beach with palm trees lining its edge sits just outside downtown Cahuita and will be your first glimpse of Cahuita National Park. (There’s also a southern entrance halfway to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.) The reserve’s true reason for existence is to protect a coral reef just off the coast, and that ensures the best of both land and marine wildlife here. The location means you’ll find a great selection of in-town dining and lodging options within a few blocks of the park’s northern entrance, making this one of the country’s easiest protected areas to visit. The good folks here know which side their bread is buttered, however, and aren’t about to let development encroach on the park itself.
GANDOCA-MANZANILLO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo). The refuge stretches along the southeastern coast beginning southeast of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca to the town of Manzanillo and on to the Panamanian border. Its limits are not clearly defined. Because of weak laws governing the conservation of refuges and the rising value of coastal land in this area, Gandoca-Manzanillo is less pristine than Cahuita National Park and continues to be developed. However, the refuge still has plenty of rain forest, orey (a dark tropical wood) and jolillo swamps, 6 miles of beach where four species of turtles lay their eggs, and almost 3 square km (1 square mile) of cativo (a tropical hardwood) forest and coral reef. The Gandoca estuary is a nursery for tarpon and a wallowing spot for crocodiles and caimans.
The easiest way to explore the refuge is to hike along the coast south of Manzanillo. You can hike back out the way you came in or arrange (in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca) to have a boat pick you up at Punta Mono (Monkey Point), a three-to four-hour walk from Manzanillo, where you find secluded beaches hidden by tall cliffs of fossilized coral. The mangroves of Gandoca, with abundant caimans, iguanas, and waterfowl, lie six to eight hours away. Park administrators can tell you more and recommend a local guide; inquire when you enter Manzanillo village and the locals will point you toward them.