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[Maps of the Caribbean] [TEXT ONLY]
Caribbean Dreamin'
Caribbean. A word that beckons images of adventure, conquest and romance. A region of ageless mysticism, where visions of escape lead and dreams are known to come true. On page 2:
When to do it
Getting there
Places to stay
text & photos by Michael L. Smith

Among the many natural blessings afforded Costa Rica, one of its most priceless and least visited areas is the lush Caribbean coast, an area of untold natural riches. From the canals of Tortuguero and the multi-colored sand beaches lined with towering coconut palms, to the rugged mountains of Talamanca, adventure and discovery await all visitors.

Costa Rica's Caribbean offers a vast variety of outdoor activities--hiking, bird watching, world-class fishing, horseback riding, jungle camping, all types of water activities including white water rafting, ocean and river kayaking, first-class surfing and diving, snorkeling, canoeing . . . the list goes on. In the Talamanca region add hiking and camping in uncharted wilderness and visits to various Indian reservations.

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The Atlantic slope is a fertile area extensively exploited for agriculture, horticulture and ranching. However, it is also an area of great biodiversity which the country is endeavoring to retain through several protected zones. Perhaps Costa Rica's most well-known area is the northern coast where Tortuguero National Park and Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge protect a vast alluvial flood plain and the famous canals of Tortuguero. A peaceful boat ride through these meandering channels reveals an abundance of animal life and a multitude of birds in the exuberant foliage lining the waterways. The fishing lodges of Barra del Colorado take advantage of the world-class tarpon fishing available here. The beach at Tortuguero is the most important nesting site in the western Caribbean for the green sea turtle. The giant leatherback and the hawksbill turtles also nest along these shores. You can visit the Caribbean Conservation Corporation's Natural History Center near the nesting beach to learn about these ocean giants.

Caribbean capital

Limón, gateway to the Caribbean, is where the cruise ships dock and is the perfect place to begin exploring. Capital of the Afro-Caribbean culture in Costa Rica, many of the region's people speak English dialects that have survived since colonial times thanks to the mountainous natural barriers between this zone and the rest of the country. Stroll through the city's central park and see if you can spot the sloths in the trees; relax on beautiful crescent beaches like Playa Bonita north of the city; visit areas of historical interest and discover the roots of Caribbean culture.

Uvita Island

Off shore from Limón is Isla Uvita, the small island where Cristobal Colón (Christopher Columbus) anchored during his discovery voyage to this area in 1502. Tours to the island offer ocean kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving on a sunken Galleon.

Southward bound

If a stop in Limón produces a little culture shock, it's a good equalizer for the journey ahead. Following the coastal road south of the city quickly leads to the laid-back tropics envisioned in dreams. The pace is not hurried here, nor should it be. There can be no rush to get through this area to . . . where? This way will take us to the end of the road; and perchance the beginning of life.

On the canal at Aviarios del Caribe

About an hour south of Limón, one kilometer from the Río Estrella bridge, is Aviarios del Caribe, Costa Rica's newest national wildlife refuge. This privately operated reserve encompasses more than 104 acres of marshy land including canals and a lagoon. An early-morning canoe ride through these serene canals reveals a wealth of animal life. Sloths, river otters, crocodiles and monkeys are a few of the inhabitants easily spotted in the area. This refuge, as with most of the Talamanca region, is a birder's paradise. The owners of the lodge, Luis and Judy Arroyo, and their guests have identified over three hundred resident and migratory species. The trails along the canals lead to more discoveries for the naturalist and photographer.

The Talamanca Coast south of Cahuita is the least known but richest part of this mystical region. Although the Atlantic narrow-gauge railroad connected Limón to the Central Valley in the 1890s, a highway didn't cut through Braulio Carrillo National Park to access the area until 1970. But it wasn't until 1976, when a bridge finally spanned the Estrella River, that a road connected the villages of Talamanca to the rest of the country.

Sprawling reef, sheltering forests

As Limón is the gateway to the Caribbean, Cahuita is the threshold to the Talamanca Coast. Without electricity until 1976, it is the original laid-back Caribbean village. Cahuita National Park protects a beautiful stretch of white sand beach and the only mature marginal reef on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. The nearly 600-acre reef has an outer ridge enclosing a lagoon of coral debris, stands of live coral, patches of sand and prairies of turtle grass, an important food source for the green sea turtle.

Inhabitants of this area are being given a leg up into the modern era with help of internationally sponsored projects like NAMASÖL. This project focuses on many socio-economic and environmental aspects relating to the Indian Reservations of Talamanca and communities around Cahuita National Park and Hitoy-Cerere Biological Reserve. Improvements of the local infrastructure, training in environmental concerns and vocational skills are a part of what NAMASÖL provides, always working to help the people help themselves. (For more information on the NAMASÖL project contact Alfredo Chavarría at tel/fax (506) 283-0174.)

This area lived primarily on farming, fishing and the production of cocoa until a fungus wiped out the plantations in the 1970s. Bananas have been a large multi-national business in this zone for many years. Companies have clear cut thousands of acres of forest and treated the plantations with chemicals to fight pests and aid banana production. Silt and chemicals in runoff water have threatened sensitive ecological systems such as the national park's coral reef. Efforts to prevent damaging erosion and chemical runoff have had limited success. As costs rise and the world market changes, some of these plantations are being abandoned. With recent world demand for chemical-free foods, local inhabitants are seizing on opportunities to grow bananas again, but in a sustainable, environmentally sane way without chemicals.

Half an hour south of Cahuita is Puerto Viejo, where everyone goes to party--Caribbean style, of course. This lazy village, a center of community life since the earliest years of this century, was finally electrified in 1987 and had only three phone lines until October of 1996. Puerto Viejo has become well known by surfers for its fine waves. Long boarders come from all corners of the globe to challenge the surf at Salsa Brava, literally "Angry Sauce." At night the disco at Stanford's keeps things lively with plenty of reggae and other Caribbean beats.

The coral reefs of Cahuita National Park are known by many, as is the extraordinary surfing available at several points along this southern coast. But there is much more to do here and local tour operators provide a generous offering. All manner of water activities including snorkeling and scuba diving the reefs of Cahuita and Manzanillo are prime options. River kayaking is an excellent way to probe the interior around Manzanillo. Hikes into the jungle to visit several Indian Reservations give good insight into indigenous life. Other pursuits available for the adventurous nature lover include camping in the jungle near Cahuita and jaunts into primary forest areas like Hitoy-Cerere Biological Reserve, wading far upriver into the interior where you're as likely as not to see several varieties of poison arrow frogs (Dendrobates sp.) [D. pumilio, D. auratus)], as well as dozens of different birds.

The coast at Manzanillo

Manzanillo is the end of the road and the beginning of many great adventures. From here you take a boat, a horse, or set off on foot. This area is part of Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, one of the most scenic regions in Costa Rica and one rich in flora and fauna. Nearly four hundred species of birds have been identified in and around the refuge and the only mangrove estuary on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast is here. Several endangered species such as the tapir and crocodile find protection in the park. With off-shore diving as good as any in Costa Rica and enviable weather all year round, Manzanillo is as close to that lost tropical land of your dreams as you are likely to discover.

Names, numbers and travel suggestions on page 2.

Also about the Caribbean - A World Apart


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