Our friend Mary arrived safe and sound on Wednesday evening at the Hostel
Urbano, more than 3 hours after touching down at the airport – due to the insane traffic around San Jose – ready for a drink, something to eat and an early night, strictly in that order. So the next morning our expanded group of intrepid travellers was ready to leave San Jose and the sanctuary of Hostel Urbano and head out to explore some more of Costa Rica.
Our first destination was Cahuita and its national park, at the southern end of Costa Rica’s 125-mile long Caribbean coastline and just a few miles north of the border with Panama. The day started out wet, grey and miserable as our shuttle bus threaded its way across the city centre and out of San Jose through the appalling traffic. Despite the creativity of our driver, leaving the highway at every opportunity for the bumpy little rat-runs on the side roads, it took almost 2 hours to clear the city. The landscape was mountainous at first – San Jose is situated in a natural bowl in Costa Rica’s central highlands and both times we’ve left the city, the last time on the pan-America Highway headed south and this time headed east towards Limon, the road has climbed over a mountain range. Along the way torrents of water cascaded down at the sides of the road and we crossed a number of very large, swollen rivers. Sometime after our 20 minute food stop we descended to the flatlands near the coast and the landscape changed dramatically. The most striking feature here was the many, many hectares of banana plantations with all of the bananas shrouded in their blue plastic insect-proof bags. As we approaching Limon we passed numerous heavily-guarded container depots with the names Geest, Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole and Maersk all prominent.
Limon is Costa Rica’s main port on the Caribbean coast and came into operation in
the late 1800s following the completion of a railway linking the town to San Jose. At the time coffee was Costa Rica’s main export and the only sea port back then was at Puntarenas, on the Pacific Coast. The problem with this setup was that the main markets for the coffee were in Europe so in the 1870s, the Costa Rican government contracted with U.S. businessman Minor C. Keith to build the railway. Most Afro-Costa Ricans, who today make up about 3% of the country’s population, descend from the Jamaican immigrants who worked on the construction of that railway. Also, in exchange for completing the railway, the Costa Rican government granted Keith large tracts of land and a lease on the train route, which he used to produce bananas and export them to the United States. As a result, bananas came to rival coffee as the principal Costa Rican export, while foreign-owned corporations began to hold a major role in the national economy – hence the Geests, Chiquitas, etc. This heritage is still plain to see today on the Caribbean coast in the culture and lifestyle which has much more in common with Jamaica than with the Spanish roots of the other bits of Costa Rica that we’ve seen so far.
After the banana plantations the second most striking feature of this region was the amount of water everywhere – not surprising given how much was falling from the sky – swollen, fast-flowing rivers and houses on stilts surrounded by swamplands; there seemed to be water everywhere! Then a little way after Limon the Caribbean came into view on our left and it wasn’t the Caribbean as we (think) we know it, with the powerful surf crashing on the long beach next to the road and the water very brown with all of the silt carried down by the rivers. The beaches were mainly of black sand with lots of natural debris, both on the beach and floating in the sea– fallen trees, logs, etc. Our impression was that life on this flat land was a bit precarious with the swamps and crocodiles on one side and the wild sea on the other!
We finally arrived at our base for the following three nights, Piscina Natural just to the north of Cahuita village and to a warm welcome by Patty, from Colorado and one of the co-owners of this charming little guest house. Just after we got there the rain finally stopped and we were treated to a tour of Piscina Natural’s, wonderful gardens and their resident wildlife by Patty, all to the backdrop of the Caribbean crashing against the coral, just a few metres away from us. Over the rest of that day and the whole of the following one we didn’t feel the need to stray far from these gardens and in fact the intermittent torrential rain didn’t encourage us to go far. In any case Mary was like a kid in a sweet shop, disappearing for hours at end around the gardens with her camera. To be fair, there was a great deal to see in that small plot of land; we were treated to a sloth at breakfast time then spent many leisurely hours taking photographs of the flora and fauna – poison dart frogs, crabs, Iguana, etc, etc. Apart from that it was very restful sitting in the rocking chairs in the open-sided lounge area, watching the waves crash on the rocks at the bottom of the garden.
We did venture out on the first afternoon for the 30 minute walk into the village centre where we needed to buy some food for that evening. Cahuita has a definite Caribbean feel about it with a variety of wooden buildings in all states of repair. It has a surprising amount of eating places and bars and it was to one of these
watering holes that we gravitated after we’d visited the bank and bought our provisions for the night. There was a guy playing guitar on the terrace and, before we knew it, Mary was up there “on stage” with him performing an impromptu and heavily improvised blues number, to rapturous applause from ourselves and all of the other drinkers. The guitarist certainly seemed to appreciate the additional “spice” that Mary brought to his act but he still wanted us to put money in his hat before we left to go home!
Our final day in Cahuita was scheduled to be a walk through the national park, starting at the entrance in the village and ending 10 km away at the other end where the bus takes you back to the village. Our taxi dropped us at the park entrance nice and early, just after the gates opened at 0600 and the Ranger at the entrance, who informed us that the Rio Perezoso river crossing was passable and we should be able to complete the whole trail. Jan and Mary weren’t really tuned in at that point nor had they paid much attention to the guidebook, otherwise they may not have had such a pleasant surprise a mile or so into the walk!
All was well at first as we walked on a firm sandy path next to the beach, taking our time to look for any signs of wildlife. We did see a Toucan in the early stages, high up and far away and also a number of interesting looking seabirds and we ambled along, taking our time and also taking lots of photographs. Then came the rivercrossing – it would have been a dreaded river-crossing if Mary and Jan had known it was coming! Coming upon it suddenly did take us aback somewhat; it was about 40 metres wide, reasonably fast flowing and, watching another couple cross it in front of us, about thigh deep. There followed a few moments of panic until we all realised that, unless we wanted to cut the walk short, we were going across. Ian did
an initial reconnaissance with his backpack then came back to make a special crossing with Mary’s camera bag and its valuable contents. Then it was back twice, for the girls and, just as he was about to put his boots back on, Mary announced that she’s left her trouser bottoms behind on the far side! So throwing aside any thoughts of snakes or crocodiles back Ian went to look for them. He’d just about stepped ashore on the other bank when Mary realised that she had them with her after all – good job Ian’s the patient sort!
Fairly soon after we’d dried off our feet and put our boots back on the path deteriorated to the point that we were walking ankle deep in swampy ground. After
initially trying to keep our boots dry by sticking to the edges we eventually gave up and just walked through it. The concentration required to stay upright through these stretches – not to mention the noise we were making – weren’t conducive to wildlife spotting so our “finds” were limited to some evil looking spiders and some gorgeous Blue Morpho butterflies. We were even given the opportunity to get some close-ups of one drinking from a piece of hanging fruit that it had landed on.
Eventually, near the end of our little hike, we came to the swimming and snorkelling areas at Playa Vargas and the ground once again became dry and firm underfoot. Stopping to admire the view we were amazed by the sheer number of hermit crabs that were all around us, even in the trees. Then as we were looking at them, along came a family of Raccoon, which we later learned feed on the crabs and they gave us an amazing photo-opportunity. A bit further on we came to the ranger station at Puerto Vargas and, being a bit tired by now, were happy when the
friendly ranger offered to call a taxi for us. On the way back we were just telling the taxi driver how disappointed we were not to have seen any monkeys when there was this loud primeval noise to the left of the car and there, in the trees, right next to the road were a troop of howler monkeys. Our final phot-opportunity of the day.
So ended a reasonable day for wildlife spotting, a good bit of exercise with lots of fun along the way and by the time we got back to Piscina Natural we were ready for a siesta before packing again in preparation for the next leg of our Costa Rican travels – further up the coast to Tortuguero.