The Caribbean or “Miskito” coast (in Spanish, Mosquito) forms part of the huge, sparsely populated Limón Province, which sweeps south in an arc from Nicaragua to Panamá. Hemmed in to the north by dense jungles and swampy waterways, to the west by the mighty Cordillera Central and to the south by the even wider girth of the Cordillera Talamanca, Limón can feel like a lost, remote place.
Those seeking palm-fringed sands and tranquil crystalline waters that the word “Caribbean” conjures up will be disappointed. Limón has very few really good beaches to speak of and most are battered, shark-patrolled shores, littered with driftwood, and huge, bucking skies stretching out to sea. However, you can watch gentle giant sea turtles lay their eggs on the wave-raked beaches of Tortuguero; snorkel coral reefs at the unspoilt Cahuita or Punta Uva; go surfing at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca; or go animal- and bird-spotting in the region’s many mangrove swamps. The interior of Limón Province is crisscrossed by the powerful Río Reventazón and Río Pacuaré, two of the best rivers in the Americas for white-water rafting.
Although Limón remains unknown to the majority of visitors – especially those on package tours – it holds much appeal for eco-tourists and travellers off the beaten track. The province has the highest proportion of protected land in the country, from the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado, on the Nicaraguan border, to the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo near Panamá in the extreme south. That said, however, the wildlife reserves and national parks still offer only partial resistance to the considerable ecological threats of full-scale fruit farming, logging, mining and tourism.
The Caribbean coast exudes a greater sense of cultural diversity than anywhere else in Costa Rica – a feeling of community and a unique and complex local history. Puerto Limón, the only town of any size, is one of several established “black” Central American coastal cities, like Bluefields in Nicaragua and Lívingston in Guatemala. A typical Caribbean port, it has a large, mostly Jamaican-descended Afro-Caribbean population. In the south, near the Panamanian border, live several communities of indigenous peoples from the Bribrí and Cabécar groups, none of whom has been well served by the national government.
The area’s diverse microclimates mean there is no best time to visit the Caribbean coast. In Tortuguero and Barra del Colorado, you’ll encounter wet weather much of the year, with somewhat drier spells in February, March, September and October. South of Limón, September and October offer the best chance of rain-free days.
Although the coast has been populated for at least ten thousand years, little is known of the ancient indigenous Bribrí and Cabécar people who inhabited the area when Columbus arrived just off the coast of present-day Puerto Limón, on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas in 1502. Well into the mid-eighteenth century, the only white people the Limón littoral saw were British pirates, rum-runners and seamen from the merchant vessels of the famous Spanish Main, plying the rich waters of the Caribbean, and bringing with them commerce and mayhem. Nefarious buccaneers often found refuge on Costa Rica’s eastern seaboard, situated as it was between the two more lucrative provinces of Panamá and Nicaragua, from which there was a steady traffic of ships to raid. Their presence, along with the difficult terrain, helped deter full-scale settlement of Limón.
The province’s development was inextricably linked to two things, themselves related: the railway and bananas. In 1871 it was decided that Costa Rica needed a more efficient export route for its coffee crop than the long, meandering river journey from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí to Matina (midway between Tortuguero and Puerto Limón) from where the beans were shipped to Europe. From the other main coffee port – Puntarenas on the Pacific coast – boats had to go all the way round South America to get to Europe. Minor Keith, an American, was contracted to build a railroad across the Cordillera Central from San José to Puerto Limón; to help pay for the laying of the track, he planted bananas along its lowland stretches. Successive waves of Highlanders, Chinese, East Indian (still locally called Hindus) and Italian immigrant labourers were brought in for the gruelling construction work, only to succumb to yellow fever. At least four thousand people died while laying the track for the Jungle Train. In the final stages, some ten thousand Jamaicans and Barbadians, thought to be immune to the disease, were contracted, many of them staying on to work on further railroad expansion or in the banana plantations. In 1890, the first Jungle Train huffed its way from San José via Turrialba and Siquerres to Limón, bringing an abrupt end to the Caribbean coast’s era of near-total isolation. This also marked the beginning of Costa Rica’s banana boom. Initially planted as a sideline to help fund the railroad, the fruit prospered amid this ideal climate, leading Keith to found the United Fruit Company, whose monopoly of the banana trade throughout Central America made him far wealthier than the railroad ever could.
Traditionally neglected and underfunded by the government, Limón suffered a major blow in the 1991 earthquake, which heaved the Caribbean coast about 1.5 metres up in the air. Already badly maintained roads, bridges and banana railroads were destroyed, including the track for the Jungle Train, one of the most scenic train rides in the world. While much has been rebuilt, an air of neglect still hangs over parts of the province, from housing and tourist infrastructure to basic sanitation.Read More
Ethnicity in Limón Province
Ethnicity in Limón Province
In his book Tekkin a Waalk, journalist and travel writer Peter Ford uses the ingenious term “an anthropological Galápagos” to describe the ethnic and cultural oddities encountered in Limón, where the Caribbean meets Central America. There’s no doubt that the province provides a touch of multiculturalism lacking in the rest of Costa Rica’s relatively homogeneous Latin, Catholic society. In Limón, characterized by intermarriage and racial mixing, it’s not unusual to find people who are of combined Miskito, Afro-Caribbean and Nicaraguan ancestry. Though the first black inhabitants of the province were the slaves of the British pirates and mahogany-cutters who had lived in scattered communities along the coast since the mid-1700s, the region’s ethnic diversity stems largely from the influence of Minor Keith, who brought in large numbers of foreign labourers to work on the construction of the Jungle Train. They were soon joined by turtle fishermen who had settled in Bocas del Toro, Panamá, before migrating north to escape the Panamanian war of independence from Colombia in 1903. The settlers brought their respective religions with them – unlike in the rest of Costa Rica, most Afro-Caribbeans in Limón Province are Protestant.
Regardless of race or religion, the coastal settlers were resourceful and independent. They not only planted their own crops, bringing seeds to grow breadfruit, oranges, mangoes and ackee, all of which flourished alongside native coconuts and cocoa, but also made their own salt, charcoal, musical instruments and shoes and brewed their own spirits – red rum, guarapo, cane liquor and ginger beer.
Limón’s diversity has never been appreciated by the ruling and economic elite of the country. Until 1949, blacks were effectively forbidden from settling in the Valle Central or the Highlands, and while the indigenous communities have a degree of autonomy, their traditional territories have long since been eaten up by government-sanctioned mining and banana enterprises. Official discrimination against the province’s Afro-Caribbean inhabitants ended in 1949 with a new constitution that granted them full citizenship. Black Limonenses now make up around 30 percent of the province’s population.
Creole cuisine in Limón Province
Creole cuisine in Limón Province
Creole cuisine is known throughout the Americas, from Louisiana to Bahía, for its imaginative use of African spices and vegetables, succulent fish and chicken dishes and fantastic sweet desserts. Sample Limón’s version at any of the locally run restaurants dotted along the coast. These are often family affairs, usually presided over by respected older Afro-Caribbean women. Sitting down to dinner at a red gingham tablecloth, with a cold bottle of Imperial beer, reggae on the boombox and a plate heaped with coconut-scented rice-and-beans is one of the real pleasures of visiting this part of Costa Rica. Note that many restaurants, in keeping with age-old local tradition, feature Creole dishes at weekends only, serving simpler dishes or the usual Highland rice concoctions during the week.
Everyone outside Limón will tell you that the local speciality, rice-and-beans (in the lilting local accent it sounds like “rizanbin”), is “comida muy pesada” (very heavy food). However, this truly wonderful mixture of red or black beans and rice cooked in coconut milk is no more pesada – and miles tastier – than traditional Highland dishes like arroz con camarones, where everything is fried; it’s the coconut milk that gives this dish its surprising lift. Another local speciality is pan bon, sweet bread glazed and laced with cheese and fruit which is often eaten for dessert, as are ginger biscuits and plantain tarts. Pan bon doesn’t translate as “good bread”, as is commonly thought; “bon” actually derives from “bun”, brought by English-speaking settlers. Rundown (said “rondon” – to “rundown” is to cook) is a vegetable and meat or fish stew in which the plantains and breadfruit cook for many hours, very slowly, in spiced coconut milk. It may be hard to find, mainly because it takes a long time, at least an afternoon, to prepare. Though some restaurants – Springfield in Limón, Miss Junie’s in Tortuguero and Miss Edith’s in Cahuita – have it on their menus as a matter of course, it’s usually best to stop by on the morning of the day you wish to dine and request it for that evening.
Favoured spices in Limonese Creole cooking include cumin, coriander, peppers, chillies, paprika, cloves and groundspice, while the most common vegetables are those you might find in a street market in West Africa, Brazil or Jamaica. Native to Africa, ackee (in Spanish seso vegetal) was brought to the New World by British colonists, and has to be prepared by knowledgeable cooks because its sponge-cake-like yellow fruit, enclosed in three-inch pods, is poisonous until the pods open. Served boiled, ackee resembles scrambled eggs and goes well with fish. Yucca, also known as manioc, is a long pinkish tuber, similar to the yam, and usually boiled or fried. Local yams can grow as big as 25kg, and are used much like potato in soups and stews. Another native African crop, the huge melon-like breadfruit (fruta de pan), is more a starch substitute than a fruit, with white flesh that has to be boiled, baked or grated. Pejiballes (pejibaye in Spanish – English-speaking people in Limón pronounce it “picky-BAY-ah”) are small green or orange fruits that look a little like limes. They’re boiled in hot water and skinned – and are definitely an acquired taste, being both salty and bitter. You’ll find them sold on the street in San José, but they’re most popular in Limón. Better known as heart-of-palm, palmito is served in restaurants around the world as part of a tropical salad. Plantains (plátanos in Spanish), the staple of many Highland dishes, figure particularly heavily in Creole cuisine, and are deliciously sweet when baked or fried in fritters. Right at the other end of the health scale are herbal teas, a speciality of the province and available in many restaurants: try wild peppermint, wild basil, soursop, lime, lemon grass or ginger.