Costa Rica with a Caribbean Beat
Story and photos by Geri Bain
Reggae rhythms play at pastel-painted bars and small friendly boutiques sell Bob Marley tee-shirts and chic locally designed sundresses along the main drag in the small town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. My favorite shop, Luna May, offers handmade, nicely draping clothing for men and women with original prints. One of my favorite experiences was a visit to the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center, where local artisans sold their work and Santiago Carvajal (left in photo above), a musician, talked passionately about teaching local kids about their musical and cultural roots.
Puerto Viejo caters to a wide mix of beach- and nature-lovers from around the world and its cuisines reflect its indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, Asian and European cultural influences. Here, eateries offer everything from all-natural frappes and vegan dishes to “sodas” selling hearty Caribbean-style meals with fresh fish, fried plantains and rice and beans. Accommodations also come in many styles, ranging from backpacker-friendly hostels priced from $7 a night to full-service resorts. Rental bikes–at $5 to $10 per day—are a popular way to get around. This is a surfers’ haven and along the beaches, wildly-colored surfboard stands beckon to anyone wanting to rent a board or take a surfing lesson. The signs for yoga classes—free at some hotels—also reveal the town’s appeal to those seeking more inward-directed balance.
The Caribbean vibe is strong at the Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort, where I was based for my visit to Puerto Viejo. About a mile outside town, this jungle-by-the-sea property is just across the street from beautiful Cocles Beach, which stretches for more than a mile and is a popular learn-to-surf spot. The 45-room resort sprawls over five-plus acres, with its own small surf school, spa and bike rentals. My room was actually a bungalow nestled into a rainforest jungle-garden where I awoke to the sound of howler monkeys and stepped out in the morning to see colorful birds flitting through the trees and guinea-pig like agouti scampering around. I also saw a sloth, several neon-colored poison dart frogs and delicate hummingbirds dipping in and out of heliconia plants. And, at the end of a busy day, it was lovely to soak in the hot tub and lounge around the forest-surrounded pool before retreating to my air-conditioned, Wi-Fi equipped bungalow.
Despite the cloudy weather, the snorkeling at Cahuita National Park was impressive. The park is free to enter, but we opted for a guided snorkel and walking tour. Our guide, Rey, took us by boat to a reef that he said was part of one of the largest in Central America. “There are 35 species of coral here, more than 100 species of fish and 128 species of algae,” he told us. Officially, this park has 600 acres of living coral reef, and it indeed was teeming with life, including flamboyant Caribbean lobsters and intriguing fish darting in and out of colorful coral formations. After snorkeling, we had a picnic of fresh papaya and other fruits in the forest before taking a guided walk back along the forest trail. Here, with Rey’s help, we spotted a sloth, followed a trail of leafcutter ants to their nest which he gently kicked, bringing out a battalion of solder ants. We also stopped at a termite nest, where he talked about how the nest makes a good bug repellent how the termite bodies are nutritious, if a bit sour, and watched white-faced monkeys at play high in the canopy.
Traveling with a guide is a big plus in Costa Rica, especially if you’re into nature. Each parks and preserve I visited had excellent guides. I also was lucky to be traveling with driver/guide, Greivin Cubero Ramirez on my five-day journey through Sarapiqui and Puerto Viejo. Certified as a nature and general guide by the ICT (Costa Rica’s National Institute of Tourism), Greivin spotted wildlife I’d surely have missed and knew amazing facts about them. For example, walking to the van one day, he pointed out a golden orb spider web. Its golden threads look like shimmering sunlight, so prey often doesn’t see the web. More interestingly, with more tensile strength than steel, the web can hold prey such as bees and even small birds many times the size of the 2.5 to 5.1 inch spider, which injects its prey with a numbing toxin and wraps it in silk to be eaten at leisure. He also introduced me to the stinky but healthful (non-native) noni fruit, the “bleeding” sangrillo tree, whose sap is used for ulcers, and many other “secrets” of Costa Rica.
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.