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Caribbean Dreamin'

by Michael L. Smith

Caribbean. 1. A word that beckons images of adventure, conquest and romance. 2. A region of ageless mysticism, where visions of escape lead and dreams are known to come true.

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--world-class fishing, hiking, bird watching, 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.

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.

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.

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

Limón is the gateway to the Caribbean and 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.

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.

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.)

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.), as well as dozens of different birds.

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.

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When to do it

Although the northern Caribbean coast has one of the heaviest rainfalls in the country--as much as five and a half meters per year--at Manzanillo the average precipitation is much less, similar to the two and a half meter-average of Guanacaste's coastal regions. The rain is distributed more evenly throughout the year than in other areas of the country making this a more pleasant "evergreen" environment, without the extremes of dry and wet that other areas experience. The average 77- to 86-degree temperature is moderated by the warm, shallow Caribbean water and refreshing tropical breezes.

As far as seasonal variations go, as in the rest of the country, the changing factor is rain and this is how it falls:

For diving, Shawn Larkin at Aquamor said March, April and May, as well as September and October, are "bookable" diving months, there's no doubt of weather conditions suitable for diving on any given day. He said the other months are variable, but periods of more than a couple days of bad weather are rare.

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Getting there

The drive to the Caribbean coast is a pleasant three hours on the Guápiles Highway over the Central Mountain Range and across the lowland plains. The scenery changes dramatically along the way from dense tropical forests through banana plantations and horticultural farms to the coconut palm-lined roads of the coast.

An hour out of San José on the Guápiles Highway is a spot worth adding to your itinerary. The Rain Forest Aerial Tram is a cable car ride into and above the jungle canopy. This installation, unique in the world, offers any age and physical ability the perfect opportunity to peek into an ecosystem where over half of all species on earth live. (Open the Aerial Tram Web site in a new browser window.)

EARTH University, near Guápiles, brings students from around the world to study agricultural sciences and natural resources in regions known as the humid tropics. This private, non-profit international institution offers four-year academic programs as well as research facilities and continuing education courses in sustainable development of these tropical regions. (Open the EARTH Web site in a new browser window.)

An adventurous way of getting to the coast is to sign on with a white water rafting trip, possibly down the Pacuare River, then catching transportation to Limón or Cahuita instead of busing back to San José. Check with tour operators listed in this article for availability of these options.

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Interesting places to stay

If you are spending some time around the city of Limón, there are several places scattered along the coast road between downtown Limón and the port at Moín. Sitting high on a cliff overlooking the ocean and Playa Bonita is Maribú Caribe Hotel. A very pleasant location with large, comfortable rooms and a good restaurant. The staff is very helpful arranging tours to local attractions.

Stress release and escape from the rat race are what this area is about and one of the best places to achieve this goal is the Aviarios del Caribe Lodge. The treatment here is to drift silently through the canals for a couple of hours then sit on the veranda and watch birds flit by and sloths hang motionless from the trees. The rooms are large, well-appointed and very clean.

The newly-renovated Atlantida Lodge in Cahuita is the perfect retreat after a day in the wilds or on the beaches. The tranquil atmosphere of the grounds allows for quiet contemplation of the day's activities, and tomorrow's adventures. Don't miss Lucas's Mom's spicy vegetable soup and the Atlantida ceviche.

The Punta Cocles Hotel, at the beach of the same name, has a resort-type ambiance. Planted in the middle of the jungle, it offers generous, comfortable rooms, trails coursing the 25-acre property, and tours by local providers.

Shortly before reaching Manzanillo is one of the most unique "lodges" you will find in Costa Rica. Almendros y Corales (Almonds and Corals) Lodge Tent Camp opened in 1993 in a privately-owned area of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Each tent is erected on a raised platform, protected with a canvas roof and draped with mosquito netting. Add a private bath, hammock, electric fan and light and you have all the conveniences of modern camping in the heart of the jungle. A white sand beach is only a short stroll down a raised boardwalk.

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Activity arrangements

Laura's Tours in Limón provides a variety of activities for adventuresome travelers. White water rafting on the Sarapiquí, ocean kayaking, diving at Isla Uvita, hiking in Hitoy-Cerere, sportfishing and a historical trip around Limón are but a few of their offerings. Telephone/fax: 758-2410.

Tony Mora at Cahuita Tours can show you everything you ever wanted to know about the place he grew up. Diving, hiking, camping, horseback riding, visits to Indian reservations and jeep tours are only the beginning. And if you ever contemplated hiking across the Talamanca Mountains to the Pacific side of the country, Tony can put you on the right trail. Telephone: 755- 0082; Fax: 755-0052.

Atlantico Tours in Puerto Viejo has this region covered. They will help you on your way to Tortuguero or Gandoca-Manzanillo or any place in between. Among their offerings is a three-hour horseback ride into the mountains and ending up along the beach. Telephone: 750-0004.

Also in Puerto Viejo is ATEC, a grassroots organization for "the development of socially responsible ecological tourism in Talamanca." They have a wealth of general information, several publications, and tours guided by local experts. Telephone: 750-0188.

If it's water sports in general and spectacular diving in particular that interest you, talk to the people at Aquamor in Manzanillo. Owner Shawn Larkin, a sixteen-year diving veteran, is a certified PADI Instructor. Shawn has recorded over one hundred dive sites in his little corner of the world around Manzanillo. From shallow, inshore plunking about to one hundred-foot wall dives, he'll show you the best of the best. Aquamor also offers half-day "resort" courses, and full PADI certification. Contact them by email at or through Atlantico Tours in Puerto Viejo.

If you like seafood and you are anywhere near the Talamanca Coast, you owe it to yourself to drop in at Maxi's Restaurant. Fresh lobster the way you have never seen it prepared. Your Caribbean experience won't be complete if you miss this. Maxi's, on the beach in Manzanillo.

Other culinary delights distinctly Caribbean are Pan Bón--a spicy fruit bread--and "riceanbeans"--rice, black beans, coconut milk, delicious.


The author would like to thank these people for their help and generosity during the research for this article:

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A note about phone numbers: It is easy to direct dial Costa Rica from North America using the international access code "011" plus the country code "506" plus the listed seven-digit number.
Caribbean Lodging Possibilities
Almendros y Corales Lodge
Wildlife Refuge
Tel: 272-2024/272-4175
Fax: 272-2220
Atlantida Lodge
Tel: 755-0115
Fax: 755-0213
Aviarios del Caribe Lodge
Estrella River
Tel/fax: 382-1335
Maribú Caribe Hotel
Tel: 758-4010/758-4543
Fax: 758-3541
Matama Hotel
Tel: 758-1123
Fax: 758-4499
Punta Cocles Hotel
Puerto Viejo
Tel: 750-0017
Fax: 750-0043
Silver King Lodge
Barra del Colorado
Tel: 381-1403
Fax: 288-1403
Suerre Hotel & Country Club
Tel: 710-7551/710-7552
Fax: 710-6376

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