Located near Puerto Viejo, Jaguar Rescue Center specializes in animal rescue and offers guided tours to visitors. // © 2014 LatinFlyer.com
Feature image (above): The coastal town of Puerto Viejo draws in visitors with its beautiful beaches. // © 2014 ICT/Costa Rica Tourism Board
Costa Rica may be known mostly for its lush interior and sunny Pacific shores, but there’s another world in this Central American paradise that fewer travelers have discovered: the Caribbean coast. A melting pot of languages, cultures and cuisine, it’s a sun-soaked alternative to Costa Rica’s better-known tourism offerings.
To explore the region, I chose to stay in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a town more commonly called “Puerto Viejo.” It is considered a laid-back hub for tourism in the region.
Arriving in Puerto Viejo is part of the fun. Visitors who travel by land from San Jose can easily stop for other activities en route. We survived a breathtaking whitewater rafting adventure with a company called Exploradores Outdoors on the way there and a stop at the Rainforest Adventures park for a scenic canopy tour on the way back. Exploradores Outdoors offers rafting trips that include transport to and from San Jose, the Arenal volcano or the Caribbean coast, making it easy to coordinate visits to Puerto Viejo with other excursions.
Before arriving on the coast, we passed sprawling fruit plantations and giant stacks of cargo containers near the city of Limon, Costa Rica’s biggest port. Soon after bypassing Limon, the palm-lined, unpopulated Caribbean coast peeked out at us. We had arrived.
I stayed at Banana Azul, a 14-room hotel situated on beautiful beachfront grounds.
“People come here for a cultural experience,” said Colin Brownlee, a co-founder of Hotel Banana Azul and a Vancouver native.
According to Brownlee, a Hotel Banana Azul-conducted survey revealed that most of the hotel guests chose Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast because of its culture — not just for its beaches and natural beauty (although those are good selling points, too).
Indeed, Puerto Viejo is something of a melting pot, with a rich mix of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, Spanish, Costa Rican and expat influences. Spotting colors, flags and food from Jamaica and coming across other English-speaking locales is as frequent as finding Costa Rican signs.
Brownlee added it was this relaxed vibe and mishmash of cultures that first attracted him to the destination.
“You could tell [Puerto Viejo] had this Bohemian, hippie culture,” he said. “That appealed to me. [People with Type A personalities] do not do well here.”
It’s not uncommon to see Rastafarian-inspired decorations and hairstyles in Puerto Viejo. Residents and visitors blend together as they stroll along the main street, popping into small bars, restaurants and shops by day and night. It’s a place where expats are drawn to visit and live since English is a prominent local language (in fact, the original name of the town was Old Harbor until the Costa Rican government changed it).
Small-scale hotels, bars and restaurants are the norm here, with a variety of attractive accommodations. In addition to Banana Azul, there’s Le Cameleon, the destination’s most upscale property with a stylish contemporary vibe and a hip beach club; Cariblue Beach and Jungle Resort, which has 45 rooms and a lovely restaurant; and La Costa de Papito, offering 12 rooms and a beautiful spa facility.
Rolando Soto, president of Southern Caribbean Tourism Chamber, said approximately 72 percent of the land is dedicated to national parks and wildlife, and the largest hotel in the area contains only 40 rooms.
He explained nature lovers and surfers are among the most common types of visitors and that the “virgin nature, which you won’t find easily on the Pacific coast” is what differentiates the region from the rest of Costa Rica.
One of Soto’s main goals is to support the acquisition of land between the towns of Puerto Viejo and neighboring small city Cahuita by constructing a small airport for more efficient flights to and from Costa Rica’s San Jose. He hopes that within four years, they will be able to welcome 30-passenger planes.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast can provide as many or as few activities as a traveler desires. Days can be spent lazing along the beach, sipping pipa fria (i.e., coconut water served inside the coconut) or taking tours. I enjoyed a walk through the nature preserve at Manzanillo Beach, where it’s possible — though not guaranteed — to spot species of toucan, kingfishers, snowy egrets, iguanas, howler monkeys and anteaters.
Animal viewing is a safer bet at the Jaguar Rescue Center, which was founded by a biologist and a herpetologist about 6 years ago. Named after one of the center’s first residents (a baby jaguar), the facility is staffed mostly by volunteers. It provides shelter to dozens of injured, abandoned, mistreated and orphaned animals, including deer, howler monkeys, toucans, ocelots, caimans and more. Guided tours last about an hour and a half.
Additional activities, which can be arranged either through tour companies or independently, include kayaking, bicycling, snorkeling, horseback riding, cooking classes and visits to former cocoa plantations to learn about decades-old traditions of chocolate production.
It’s also easy to combine Puerto Viejo with a visit to equally laid-back Bocas del Toro, Panama, which is approximately 4 hours away by Caribe Shuttle bus.