Costa Rica isn’t known for its colossal size. The country would easily fit into the state of West Virginia and most destinations are no more than half a day away by road. But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, until little over twenty years ago, great stretches of the country were almost as inaccessible by land as the deepest of South American jungles.
Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast was one of the last regions to become connected to the rest of the country. It was only in 1987 that the first paved road linked the regional capital of Limon to San Jose meaning that for most of the country’s history, the Afro-Caribbean east coast communities developed in almost complete isolation from the rest of Hispanic Costa Rica.
Talking with Mrs. Rose, the elderly owner of a small guesthouse in the sleepy coastal town of Cahuita, the Costa Rica of her childhood sounded a universe apart from the country I was traveling through.
“Before they built that road it took us three days to get to San Jose. We took mule carts and went up the river by canoe. There were no tourists around here back then, it was all just fishing and farming.”
This extended isolation has left an enduring legacy in Costa Rica’s east coast communities where Afro Caribbean identities have remained vibrant and strong. Most residents are direct descendents from Jamaican slaves and immigrants; a patois variation of English is still the local language; the scent of spicy Caribbean dishes and a constant hum of reggae beats fill the air.
Despite recent investments in roads and transport services, Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast still feels separate and distant, almost like having two countries rolled into one. And not just for the passing visitor: Mrs. Rose constantly referred to “the Spanish” as though they were people of a different continent, not her fellow Costa Ricans.
Following the road south from Cahuita to the town of Puerto Viejo, the Caribbean vibe only grows stronger.
Puerto Viejo is known for being Costa Rica’s party town and stepping off the bus I was immediately confronted by the town’s well-established attitude: music is everywhere, literally flowing from the bars, guesthouses and passing cars. Surfers stroll, their boards underarm, towards the reefs that produce Costa Rica’s most famous wave: the Salsa Brava.
The town congregates itself along a few streets that run parallel to the coastline and are fringed with restaurants, hotels and beach-side bars. Meandering down the main road, every step gives you a new insight into the unique cultural fusion that is taking place here: Afro-Caribbean meets Hispanic, plus Chinese settlers and a healthy dose of European and American expats and visitors; everyone enjoying this relaxed, hybrid community that has evolved under the warm Costa Rican sun.
My first night in town and I sought out the locally renowned Miss Lidia’s for a taste of the local delicacy, the Costa Rican staple of rice and beans with a Caribbean twist: soaked in rich coconut sauce and packed with spice. Sated, I wandered into the first bar I found and expecting a room full of reggae, I was gently surprised to find a four piece blues group playing to an enraptured crowd, where one rum and coke quickly turned into another.
Further down the coast, relaxed bars and restaurants spilled out onto the sand itself, as the distinction between bar and beach became blurred by vacationers and locals mingling under by beachside bonfires under the night sky.
But there’s a lot more to Puerto Viejo than music, partying and surfing. The next morning I decided to work off my hangover and for a few dollars, hired a pushbike and headed further south down the freshly paved road towards the tiny settlement of Manzanillo, just a few kilometers from the Panama border.
The route takes you past some of Puerto Viejo’s most luxurious lodges, most of which boast their own pools, private beachfronts and first-rate fusion restaurants. I eventually left the town behind me and continued down an increasingly quiet, densely forested road where the silence was occasionally interrupted by the sound of roaring howler monkeys hidden within the trees.
A slight detour to Punto Uva brought me out onto an almost deserted beach where white sands met turquoise blue water: a beach scene that was almost too cliched to believe.
Reaching Manzanillo you get a glimpse of what this region might have looked like before the paved roads brought it into modernity. The village is little more than a few homes, a hotel and of course, the mandatory, reggae-filled bar, all clustered around a small central square which doubles up as an undersized football pitch.
And curving around the settlement is an arc of white sand gently leading down to the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, a perfect place to stop and cool off following my long cycle ride.
Further south from this point there is nothing but the thick forests of the Manzanillo Refuge, a few border settlements and then Panama and the beginnings of Hispanic South America; the next stage of my journey.
Before hopping back onto my bike and making the return journey to Puerto Viejo it seemed like an appropriate place to pause and say goodbye to this quiet, tiny Afro-Caribbean corner on a vast Latin continent.