Costa Rica is in many ways typically Latin American. The people are mainly mestizo – or of mixed native and European descent – they speak Spanish, and their culture is typically Latino.
There is however, one part of the country that is radically different. The southern Caribbean coast.
Well, the people here are mainly of African descent, you are more likely to hear English than Spanish, and even the landscape is different from the mountainous interior.
A 6-8 hour bus journey from the capital will take you down from the highlands to the towns of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita. As you descend, the mountains make way for vast flat plantations that span for miles. This is banana country. Much of the land is owned by the big companies like Chiquita. It has been for decades, and the plantations must be the main source of employment in the area. Along the way you pass villages named things like ‘Farm 21’, and they are often built entirely by the fruit companies to house their workers.
It is the plantations that are responsible for the demographic differences found here compared to the rest of the country. Workers were needed to work the fields and so Jamaicans were encouraged to come over. This led to the black, English speaking population that exists there today.
After what seems like hours of driving with nothing but bananas in sight, you reach the coast and pull into the village of Cahuita. As soon as you get off the bus the atmosphere hits you. Locals lounge about by the side of the road, reggae drifts on the sea breeze, and the smell of barbecued sea food is everywhere. I am yet to visit the Caribbean proper (I have been all around its edge, but not yet to any of the islands), but this must be what it is like.
I stayed in Hakuna Matata Hostel, right by the bus station and only a few minutes walk from the beach. The dorms were nice enough and the owners were a friendly Italian couple. The husband was always about making jokes and challenging people to games of table football which made for a nice atmosphere. I would recommend it.
Cahuita is the smaller of the towns that I visited here, but there are still many bars and restaurants and there is a good relaxed atmosphere in the evenings. The streets are full of people doing nothing but sitting and simply enjoying each others company over a drink. The town also sits on the edge of a national park that runs along the beach. This beach is really special with white sand and picture perfect palm trees. In fact, I consider it to be one of the best beaches in Latin America. Behind the beach, a path runs through the forest which makes up the rest of the park. Nature is everywhere here and during a short walk I saw monkeys (close enough to touch), a sloth, countless birds and insects, and other animals which I have no idea how to identify.
A few miles further along the coast is Puerto Vieja. This was once the main port for shipping the fruit out (Puerto Vieja means old port), and as such it is a bit larger than Cahuita. Since it no longer fulfils that function however, it is still pretty small. The beaches here are beautiful too, although more crowded, and bars lining the edge of the sand. The atmosphere is relaxed with the same island vibe as Cahuita, however it is a bit livelier thanks to the greater number of tourists. The town is popular with backpackers and hippies meaning that there is a party scene here, and the town possesses that beach backpacker feel which can be found across the world when the backpackers move in. Think beach shacks, handmade jewellery stalls, and dreadlocks.
The town’s streets are lined with brightly painted wooden buildings, many of which are restaurants. I had an amazing jerk chicken curry in one of these buildings cooked by an old local woman. She told me in dense patois English that she had come over from Jamaica as a child, and that her family had brought their cuisine with them.
The beach towns of southern Caribbean Costa Rica are a little slice of paradise. The laid-back atmosphere and cultural differences make it stand out from the rest of the country, and the quality of its coastline is remarkable. Due to time constraints (I was going to meet a friend living in Panama) I only had a few days to spend there, but it’s the kind of place where time moves slowly and I could see it being very easy to end up staying for longer than intended.