Head down the paved Hwy-36, which runs from Limón to Sixaola on the Panamanian border, 43km southeast of Limón and you’ll come across the tiny village of CAHUITA. Pay attention, as the turn-off sign is by no means blatant. Like other villages on the Talamanca coast, Cahuita has become a byword for relaxed, inexpensive Caribbean holidays, with a laidback atmosphere and great Afro-Caribbean food, not to mention top surfing beaches further south along the coast. The local “dry” season is between March and April, and from September to October, though it’s pretty wet all year round. Close to the village, the largely marine PARQUE NACIONAL CAHUITA was created to protect one of Costa Rica’s few living coral reefs; many people come here to snorkel and take glass-bottomed boat rides.
The sheltered bay was originally filled with cawi trees, known in Spanish as sangrilla (“bloody”) on account of the tree’s thick red sap – Cahuita’s name comes from the Miskito words cawi and ta, which means “point”. Most of the inhabitants descend from Afro-Caribbean settlers of the Bocas del Toro area of Panamá and from workers brought to help build the Jungle Train. Older residents remember when fishing, small-scale farming and some quadrille-dancing formed the mainstay of local life. These days, Cahuita – along with the rest of the Talamanca coast – has become very popular with backpackers and surfers, its semi-Rasta culture offering an escape from the cultural homogeneity of Highland and Pacific Costa Rica. Yet while tourism has undoubtedly brought prosperity to the village, it has also created problems in its wake – at one point Cahuita was known for its drug scene and bouts of opportunistic theft. In recent years, though, the community has made huge and largely successful efforts to clean up the village, with extra policemen drafted in to patrol the sandy streets. Still, it’s worth being cautious: lock your door and windows, never leave anything on the beach and avoid walking alone in unlit places at night. Nude or topless bathing is definitely unacceptable, as is wandering through the village in just a bathing suit.