She could have been Curtly Ambrose’s mother. Admittedly, she was only about half his height, but she had the same high cheekbones, hands-on-hip stance and, most noticeably, penetrating stare as the great West Indian fast bowler. Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” her eyes seemed to implore.
What I was trying to do was order food, having just stepped off a four-hour bus ride from Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, to Cahuita on the Caribbean Coast. Typically, I wasn’t doing a particularly good job of it, still stammering hopelessly in Spanish despite a month in Latin America. It was only when, exasperated, my no-nonsense waitress addressed me in English that I realised the source of her impatience.
Cahuita is not what you have in mind when you think of Central America. In the early 19th century, the east coast of Costa Rica became a haven for immigrants from the Caribbean islands. With the colonial Spanish focused almost exclusively on the Pacific Coast, the black Garifunas were free to come in increasing numbers to work on the railroads and banana plantations. By default, they almost took over the entire coastal province, known as Limon. Eventually, the influx led to ethnic tensions with the Costa Rican majority, and in 1934 the Government banned further Garifuna immigration, and even passed a law preventing blacks from leaving the country’s eastern areas. While this was overturned in 1948, the province of Limon remains the poorest in Costa Rica.
Nowadays, though, the region seems at home with its diversity, and provides travellers a tranquil holiday from their Central American travels. Bob Marley blasts from car stereos and English is widely spoken throughout town (although both it and Spanish are in minority to the local, seemingly unintelligble, Creole dialect).
Within five minutes of my mildly harrowing food ordering experience at Miss Rita’s restaurant, I found myself talking cricket with an elderly gent selling necklaces. As Miss Rita was about to show me, though, it’s Cahuita’s food that provides the most welcome surprise, with fiery jerk chicken and divine tropical fruit crepes offering respite from the ubiquitous rice and beans. And while, compared to London, Costa Rica time is already somewhat leisurely, in Cahuita life drifts by in almost imperceptible increments. By the following morning, my biggest concerns were perfecting my hammock-entry technique, and whether to swim before or after breakfast.
For those so inclined, Cahuita has no shortage of activities on offer, with the town and nearby beaches hosting snorkelling, surfing, horse riding and mountain biking. Be warned, however, that once you’ve started, lounging is a difficult habit to break, especially when you’re lounging on beaches such as these.
Directly north of the point Cahuita inhabits is Playa Negra, a lengthy black sand beach renowned for its swimming. Most tourists, though, head south into Cahuita National Park, where a postcard-perfect white sand beach stretches unspoilt into the distance. Even for a sun and beer-soaked journalist, the metaphor was difficult to miss: Cahuita is, quite literally, the meeting point of black and white.
In the national park – one of more than 30 in Costa Rica encompassing about one seventh the country’s area – a narrow strip of sand is all that separates the coastal jungle from the surf. Coconut palms jut conveniently from the neighbouring forest at a 45° angle, providing beachgoers with shade from the hot sun until, seemingly exhausted, the trees too collapse into the sea. And don’t be concerned about leaves spoiling your spot on the beach – someone from the national park rakes them up every morning. All you need do is pick up a bottle of water and bag of freshly cut pineapple at the park entrance, and you can easily while away the day without a care in the world.
Even wildlife-spotting is a remarkably easy affair. Forget early mornings spent scouring the trees for rare birds; our best wildlife spot came as I drained the last of my post-lunch beer at our beachside restaurant when, not 5m in front of us, a sloth emerged to forage around on the coastal scrub. Well, forage might be an exaggeration. Never has an animal better typified the local environment, as it ambled painstakingly slowly across our eyeline, looking like a cross between a monkey and an ewok. The sighting was made all the more impressive when I later found out that seeing a sloth on the ground is a rare event – they generally only come down to go to the toilet, and only do this once a week.
Perhaps it was the exhilaration of our sloth-spotting that motivated us to finally break out of Cahuita, and head further north in Limon to Tortuguero. Referred to as Costa Rica’s Amazon, the town is extremely remote, occupying a narrow strip of land between a canal and the ocean in the country’s north-east. The only way to get there is a lengthy boat journey that winds up through chocolate-coloured canals surrounded on both sides by dense jungle. You can see why the Spanish didn’t come out here much.
Nowadays, though, the small town is frequently inundated with tourists who come to watch four different species of turtles trudge up the beach to lay eggs. While we had missed the turtle season, the surrounding national parks have no shortage of other wildlife with which to wow visitors. By the time we’d even made it to Tortuguero we’d spotted caimans, iguanas, birds in all shapes and colours – including a toucan and some roseate spoonbills (which, I admit, I mistook for flamingoes) – and three types of monkey, including a tree full of howler monkeys who seemed intent on putting on an acrobatics display for us.
Wildlife spotting in Limon doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. Neither does anything else. The hardest thing you’ll have to do in this piece of paradise is leave.