Caribbean Coast

May 5th 2013
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Turquoise water & racial diversity

In a country where each new province seems a world apart, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica might just qualify as another universe. Nearly all of the country's blacks, most of its Chinese, and a good part of its indigenous population can be found in the Zona Caribe, as it's known in Spanish.

Though these minorities make up only a few percentage points of the total national population (Afro-Caribbeans and indigenous peoples with about 2 percent each, and the Chinese population weighing in at barely .25 percent), the fact that most live in the sparsely populated Caribbean province of Limón means that this area is the most ethnically diverse in the country.

Puerto Limón (often simply called Limón, which is also the name of the entire province) is the biggest city in the area, a bustling port that has more economic than aesthetic appeal. Puerto Limón has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous city in Costa Rica; its nickname is Piedrópolis (Crack City).

South of Limón there is one decent coastal road linking the beach towns of Cahuita (which has its own beachside national park) and Puerto Viejo, where most visitors head for surfing, sunning, and lazy bike rides along the coast road.

About 8 miles (13 km) south
of Puerto Viejo is the stunning Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Reserve.

Inland, the heavily forested Talamanca mountains are home to several large indigenous reserves, among them the Bribrí and the Talamanca.

North of Puerto Limón, swamps and rivers dominate the area. Waterways are the zone's roads, and boats outnumber cars. In the little town of Tortuguero, at the entrance to the famed Tortuguero National Park, there are no roads. Sand paths connect the wood-frame houses built on stilts to guard against flooding, and almost everyone has a dock and a boat or two in their front yard. You can also fly to Tortuguero by light plane.

It rains more here than in most other parts of the country, and the humidity is higher. The beaches south of Limón look like a South Seas fantasy, the water tending toward turquoise when the seas are calm, coconut palms arcing out over coral-protected coves.

Limón also looks more like your stereotypical third-world country than other parts of Costa Rica--it's the poorest province, and you won't see many upscale shopping malls or mega-resorts here. What you will see are charming ramshackle villages, wildlife-rich jungles, and beautiful beaches.

Around Caribbean Coast...

black-star-line-restaurantBlack Star Line Restaurant
Caribbean Food & History

In the heart of Puerto Limón, in a colorful and ramshackle old wooden building, the Black Star Line is not just a great place to sample Costa Rican-Caribbean cuisine. (see more)

bread-and-chocolateBread and Chocolate
Great breakfasts

I love to savor a late breakfast at Puerto Viejo’s Bread and Chocolate (eggs every which way, bagels, or banana pancakes) then hang out and savor a second cup of filter coffee while taking advantage of their free wifi. Take a couple of ginger cookies and some hand-made chocolate truffles to go. (see more)

budda-cafeBudda Café
Chill waterfront hangout

In the town of Tortuguero, the Budda Cafe has an enviable location right on the canal. It doesn’t look like much from the (carless) street, but once inside you’ll be charmed by the lush garden and the water views. Hang out, boat watch, or appreciate the sunset, while savoring their Mediterranean inspired pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas. Service is not unduly attentive; go with the desire to linger and you’ll be fine. (see more)

cahuita-town-and-parkCahuita Town & Park
Laid back Caribbean beaches and wildlife

A few years ago, La Nación, the country's largest newspaper, called Cahuita "the best beach on the Atlantic coast." It should have used the plural, because Cahuita has a parade of delectable beaches, from black-sand Playa Negra to the 14 kilometers (nine miles) of palm-shaded white sand within the 2,635-acre Cahuita National Park. (see more)

casa-marbella-b-and-bCasa Marbella B & B
Wildlife guide's riverside home

In carless Tortuguero town, near the Catholic church, is Casa Marbella B&B, the small and comfortable home of Canadian expat (and guide) Daryl Loth and his Costa Rican family. (see more)

eddie-brownEddie Brown
World-class Fishing Captain

Avid fishermen and woman will want to get in touch with sport fishing captain Eddie Brown considered one of the best fishermen (especially tarpon) (see more)

explore-costa-ricas-caribbeanExplore Costa Rica's Caribbean
The best of the other coast

Lots of people know about the surf spots and national parks on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast--think Manuel Antonio and Corcovado national parks, and the Nicoya Peninsula's great beach towns. Traditionally, fewer tourists ventured to the country's eastern or Caribbean coast, but that's changing fast. (see more)

gandoca-manzanillo-wildlife-refugeGandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
White sand beaches and deep jungle

About 8 miles (13 km) south of the Caribbean coast beach town of Puerto Viejo is the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, near the village of Manzanillo. (see more)

hotel-cabinas-tropicalHotel Cabinas Tropical
Good value in town

This place is a clean and comfortable mid-range option, within walking distance of the beach and everything in Puerto Viejo but on a quiet back street. Of the ten rooms, eight are doubles, and two are bi-level rooms for 3 or 4 people. All rooms have private bathrooms, with abundant hot water and good shower heads, along with mini-fridges, fans, mosquito nets, satellite TV, quality mattresses, and a terrace with chairs and a hammock. A few rooms have a/c. (see more)

hotel-manatus-lodgeHotel Manatus Lodge
Luxury river lodge has a/c & tv

Manatus Lodge is a lovely small lodge up the canal from the town of Tortuguero. Its 12 separate luxurious cottages are equipped with cable tv, a/c, mini-bar, and even a private outdoor sunbathing area and shower (along with a large indoor shower). Their al fresco dining room has an extensive menu, complete with a tempting selection of cocktails and wines by the glass. They arrange wildlife and turtle nesting tours. (see more)

la-botanica-organica-cafeLa Botanica Organica Café
Smoothies and veggie meals

f you’re heading south from Puerto Viejo along the coast road, stop in at this organic cafe for delicious and organic smoothies, salads, vegetarian breakfasts and lunches, and home-made ice-cream. U.S.-born owners Brian and Lea also run a small “eco-shop” next to the cafe selling things like massage oil, health-minded books, and handmade jewelry. (see more)

park-hotelPark Hotel
Good in-town option

That this is your best bet in downtown Puerto Limon tells you something about the dearth of options here. Not that the Park is bad—it’s just overpriced ($70 – 120/night) for what it is: a clean, decent place to stay, with good beds, good water pressure, and a/c. (see more)

playa-negra-guesthousePlaya Negra Guesthouse
Colorful beach cottages

If you want to be close to the town of Cahuita (and its lovely national park) but not in the dead center, consider Playa Negra Guesthouse, about a kilometer north of Cahuita. All rooms have refrigerators, coffeemakers, ceiling fans, and wifi. The colorful stand-alone cottages also have front porches (and some have kitchenettes). Steps from the beach, and a short walk to a nice waterfront restaurant, Sobre las Olas. (see more)

puerto-limonPuerto Limón
Cruise ships & Carnaval

A major earthquake in 1991 mangled this port city’s wrought-iron balconies and toppled the open-air arcades that gave the city its ragged tropical charm, though there’s been much rebuilding since then and the city is a moderately pleasant place to walk around. (see more)

puerto-viejoPuerto Viejo
Caribbean-flavored beach town

You’ll reach your lifetime Bob Marley limit within a few days in Puerto Viejo, but it's hard to beat drinking an ice cold Imperial while digging your toes into warm sand, watching expert surfers tackle the Salsa Brava--a hard, fast, dangerous wave that draws riders from all over the world. (see more)

punta-monaPunta Mona
Permaculture at Monkey Point

In 1997, Stephen Brooks, a Grateful Deadhead from Florida, bought 35 hectares (86 acres) of land on a remote Caribbean Coast peninsula called Punta Mona (Monkey Point). There were no roads leading to his new property; getting there meant (and still means) a 30-minute boat ride or a few hours tramping through the rainforest of Gandoca-Manzanillo National Reserve. (see more)

samasati-nature-reserveSamasati Nature Reserve
Yoga on the Caribbean Coast

Samasati definitely lives up to the "nature reserve” part of its name. It’s a lush and peaceful place where you might see a troop of howler monkeys on your way to morning yoga. (see more)

sobre-las-olasSobre las Olas
Fresh Fish by the Sea

In Cahuita, on the Playa Negra road (a short walk north of town), this six-table wonder lets you dine alfresco on creative cuisine. Your right on the beach (Sobre las olas means “Over the waves”), and there’s lots of fresh fish, but also treats like jerk chicken and pasta primavera, all for moderate prices. (see more)

tortuga-lodgeTortuga Lodge
Remote riverside luxury

There are more than a dozen canal-side lodges near the town of Tortuguero, but Tortuga Lodge is the oldest and one of the very best. Run by the venerable Costa Rica Expeditions, the lodge has been continually upgraded over the years. Set amid wonderfully landscaped grounds, the charming rooms and suites have hardwood floors, screened windows, ceiling fans (that really do keep the rooms cool), safes, quality beds and bed linens, good reading lamps, wifi, hammocks out on your deck, and thatch roofs. (see more)

tortuguero-park-and-townTortuguero: Park & Town
Caribbean coast wildlife

Tortuguero (the name means "turtle hunter") is a remote and ramshackle hamlet on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean Coast, reachable only by boat or light plane. (see more)

treehouse-lodgeTreehouse Lodge
Beachside luxury in the trees

A few years back, the remarkable bi-level treehouse at Treehouses Lodge was named by Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the top ten treehouses in the world. And it's only one of the lodge's four spacious and private lodging options, all set on 10 acres along a Caribbean Coast beach. (see more)

tucan-hotelTucan Hotel
Backpackers haven plus treehouse

In the Central Pacific town of Uvita, south of Dominical, is a good-value budget hostel with a restaurant, a pen full of rabbits, and high-speed wireless internet. (see more)

veronica-rsquo-s-placeVeronica’s Place
Open Air Vegetarian

On the main road in Puerto Viejo, up the stairs of a colorful wooden building where they rent bikes out front, Veronica makes killer veggie burgers, sandwiches, a variety of juices, and delicious banana pancakes with homemade apple butter. (see more)

wild-gingerWild Ginger
Costa Rica / California Cuisine

Down a bougainvillea-draped path in carless Tortuguero is a stylish open-air restaurant that serves delicious food drawing from both Caribbean and California cuisines. The owners are a young couple, he from Costa Rica and she from California, and they work hard to make this a welcoming, high-quality place. Feast on Ginger Chicken, Mango Bacon Roulade, or a good old-fashioned cheeseburger smothered in guacamole. Top it off with a Browned Butter Espresso Brownie or another fresh fruit daiquiri. (see more)