Melting pots are good for the soul – and the one gurgling in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is really good.
When you arrive here, you’re practically in Panama – but this dusty, rundown beach town on Costa Rica’s southeast coast feels more like the African Caribbean than Central America, with, crucially, a hint from the indigenous Bribri tribe.
The Bribris are a spiritual people. For them, the cocoa tree was a woman. Sibu (God) transformed it into a cocoa tree, meaning that the branches are never used as firewood and only women are allowed to prepare and serve the sacred cocoa drink.
Perhaps it is the Bribri influence that helps attract such a diverse crowd to this glorious place. Add to that the wildlife, vibrant and affordable bars, restaurants and a mix of chic designer boutiques – as well as the artists, spiritual healers, backpackers and hippies, who might have been interested in Ibiza 20 years ago but have been excluded.
Puerto Viejo is where Jamaicans settled when they came to Costa Rica in the early 1900s to build the railroads – or rather, it was where they were told to settle in surrounded by mosquitoes and without fresh water.
Mark Palmer visits Puerto Viejo (above), a beach town on the southeast coast of Costa Rica.
But they made it their own by introducing crops such as cocoa, mining timber, and developing various British customs, including cricket, May Pole dancing, and an interest in Shakespeare.
Then the area’s fame grew as surfers flocked in search of the famous 24-foot wave known as “La Salsa Brava,” which crashes onto the shore between December and March, then again in June and July.
The entire country suffered terribly during the pandemic when the country’s famous motto, “pura vida” (pure life) was replaced by “quedate en casa” (stay at home). But Puerto Viejo bounced back.
Rainforest hideaway: Mark stays at the Aguas Claras Hotel (pictured), which has access to Playa Chiquita beach
Inspiring: Above, beach signs show Costa Rica’s “pura vida” motto
We are staying a few kilometers south of town at the Aguas Claras Hotel, where various cabins on stilts have been built in a rainforest backing onto Playa Chiquita, a beautiful stretch of unspoiled beach that makes me think it’s what Barbados might once have looked like. .
Our raised bungalow has its own porch with an outdoor kitchen, where we sit and listen to the howler monkeys, well, the howls and howls of the macaws.
Speaking of macaws, we are alerted to the Ara Manzanillo project near the hotel.
It was here that, about 35 years ago, a couple established a non-governmental refuge center for these magnificent birds in decline in Costa Rica.
But so far, nearly 100 large greens have been returned to the wild at this conservation center, accessible via a near-vertical track through the heart of the rainforest.
We spend a few hours here and are guided by an American graduate student volunteer, whose love for macaws is truly inspiring.
Our visit coincides with feeding time and we see and hear the birds in all their splendor. Pura vida indeed.
Aguas Claras Hotel offers various stilt cabins, built in a rainforest backing onto Playa Chiquita (pictured), which Mark describes as “a beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach.”
Mark reveals that Puerto Viejo was where Jamaicans settled when they came to Costa Rica in the early 1900s to build the railroads.
Back at the hotel, there is a swimming pool and a sleek bar, where we meet a Dutch couple who are enthusiastic about the Parque Nacional Cahuita. So we leave early the next morning.
It is one of Costa Rica’s smaller national parks, about 20 minutes north of Puerto Viejo, off the road to Limon, which has an airport for connections to and from the capital San José.
Cahuita itself is a charming village, much quieter than Puerto Viejo and offering plenty of cheap accommodation.
You enter the park via a footbridge at Kelly Creek. We had planned to leave the car in the village, but an enterprising boy of about 12 persuaded us to park in the parking lot of a restaurant where, he said, he would “take care of it.”
We don’t think this is necessary as everywhere we go in Costa Rica we feel safe – but we’re happy to give him the equivalent of £3 for his trouble. It produces a wonderful toothy smile and when he finds out we’re from the UK he looks like he’s seen Martians.
From Kelly Creek we head south into the park, with the sea on our left and, beyond that, a significant coral reef 500 meters offshore.
During his trip, Mark visits a refugee center for macaws (photo)
We see a few raccoons maneuvering, a few monkeys but unfortunately no kingfishers.
At one point, there is a commotion at the foot of a huge tree. We know in other parts of the country that it could only be a sloth sighting and, yes, there it is, high on a branch, doing nothing. Lazy people have a reputation far beyond what they deserve. Seen from the ground, it looks like a large abandoned bird’s nest.
From time to time we cool off in the sea and enjoy watching families picnicking on the beach, knowing that they made the effort to get there on foot, because absolutely no cars are allowed in the park.
We are particularly impressed by the sight of a middle-aged woman sitting on a tree stump. Behind her is a young local man whose job, it seems, is to apply oil all over the woman’s skin – and I mean everywhere.
To borrow Charles Lamb’s quote loosely, she seems “satisfied but wishing for more.”
That evening, at dusk, I left our cabin for one last swim. I have the beach to myself, except for a common black hawk circling overhead, as if I were putting on an aeronautical show entirely for my benefit.
I am now happy and can’t hope for anything more.