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 Cahutia. 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.
According to local history, in the 1800s the coastal waters of the Caribbean crawled with pirates. Two shipwrecks in the bay on the north side of Punta Cahuita are believed to be pirate wrecks, one Spanish and one French. You can sometimes see the Spanish wreck on glass-bottomed boat tours to the reef although it has been (illegally) picked over and the only thing of interest that remains are encrusted manacles – an indication of the dastardly motives of the ship’s crew.
In her excellent collection of local folk history and oral testimony, What Happen, sociologist Paula Palmer quotes Selles Johnson, descendant of the original turtle hunters, on the pirate activity on these shores:
"…them pirate boats was on the sea and the English gunboats was somewhere out in the ocean, square rigger, I know that. I see them come to Bocas, square rigger. They depend on breeze. So the pirate boats goes in at Puerto Vargas or at Old Harbour where calm sea, and the Englishmen can’t attack them because they in Costa Rican water…so those two ships that wreck at Punta Cahuita, I tell you what I believes did happen. Them was hiding in Puerto Vargas and leave from there and come around the reef, and they must have stopped because in those days the British ship did have coal. You could see the smoke steaming in the air. So the pirate see it out in the sea and they comes in here to hide."
Where you find pirates you also find pirate ghosts, it seems, doomed to guard their ill-gotten treasure for eternity. Treasure from the wrecks near Old Harbour, just south of Cahuita, is said to be buried in secret caches on land. One particular spot, supposedly guarded by a fearsome headless spirit dressed in a white suit, has attracted a fair share of treasure hunters; no one has yet succeeded in exhuming the booty, however, all of them have fainted, fallen sick or become mysteriously paralysed in the attempt.
Arcing around Punta Cahuita, the arrecife de Cahuita, or Cahuita reef, comprises six square kilometres of coral, and is one of just two snorkelling reefs on this side of Costa Rica (the other is further south at the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo). Corals are actually tiny animals, single-celled polyps, that secrete limestone, building their houses around themselves. Over centuries the limestone binds together to form a multilayered coral reef. The coral thrives on algae, which, like land plants, transform light into energy to survive; reefs always grow close to the surface in transparent waters where they can get plenty of sun. The white-sand beaches along this part of the coast were formed by shards of excreted coral.
Unfortunately, Cahuita’s once-splendid reef is dying, soured by agricultural chemicals from the rivers that run into the sea (the fault of the banana plantations), and from the silting up of these same rivers caused by topsoil runoff from logging, and the upheaval of the 1991 earthquake. The species that survive are common brain coral, grey and mushy like its namesake, moose horn coral, which is slightly red, and sallow-grey deer horn coral. In water deeper than 2m, you might also spot fan coral wafting elegantly back and forth.
This delicate ecosystem shelters more than 120 species of fish and the occasional green turtle. Lobsters, particularly the fearsome-looking spiny lobster, used to be common but are also falling victim to the reef’s environmental problems. Less frail, and thus more common, is the blue parrotfish, so called because of its “beak”; actually teeth soldered together. Unfortunately, the parrotfish is causing a few environmental problems of its own as it uses its powerful jaws to gnaw away at the coral’s filigree-like structures and spines.
Top image: Cahuita, Costa Rica © Michal Sarauer/Shutterstock