To the rest of the country, Puerto Limón, more often simply called Limón, is Costa Rica’s bête noire, a steamy port raddled with slum neighbourhoods, bad sanitation and drug-related crime. The traveller may be kinder to the city than the Highland Tico, although Paul Theroux’s first impressions in The Old Patagonian Express are no encouragement:
“The stucco fronts had turned the colour and consistency of stale cake, and crumbs of concrete littered the pavements. In the market and on the parapets of the crumbling buildings there were mangy vultures. Other vultures circled the plaza. Was there a dingier backwater in all the world?”
Not much has changed in the thirty years or so since Theroux went through town, though the vultures have disappeared. Many buildings, damaged during the 1991 earthquake (the epicentre was just south of Limón), lie skeletal and wrecked, still in the process of falling down. Curiously, however, with its washed-out, peeling oyster-and-lime hues, Limón can be almost pretty, in a sad kind of way, with the pseudo-beauty of all Caribbean “slums of empire”, as St Lucian poet Derek Walcott put it.
It’s a working port but a neglected one, because most of the big-time banana boats now load at the deeper natural harbour of Moín, 6km up the headland toward Tortuguero. Generally, tourists come to Limón for one of three reasons: to get a boat to Tortuguero from Moín; to catch a bus south to the beach towns of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo: to join in the annual El Día de la Raza (Columbus Day) carnival during the week preceding October 12; and, increasingly, to explore Veragua Rainforest. Less well known, but equally worth a visit, is the Reserva Selva Bananito, about thirty minutes to the south and one of the best birdwatching spots on the Caribbean Coast.
Limón patois combines English phrases, brought by Jamaican and Barbadian immigrants to the province in the last century, with a Spanish slightly different to that spoken in the Highlands. Though used less these days, the traditional greeting of “What happen?” (“Whoppin?”) remains a stock phrase, equivalent to the Spanish “¿Qué pasa?” (“What’s going on?”). In Limón, you’ll also hear the more laconic “Okay” or “All right” (both hello and goodbye) taking the place of the Spanish “Adiós” (“hello” in Costa Rica rather than goodbye), “Que le vaya bien” and “Que Díos le acompañe”.
Yet, English might be spoken at home, and among the older Limón crowd, but Spanish is the language taught at school and used on the street, particularly among the younger generation. Older Limonenses sometimes refer to Spanish speakers as “Spaniamen” (which comes out sounding like “Sponyaman”).
Though carnivals in the rest of Latin America are usually associated with the days before Lent, the Limón Carnival celebrates Columbus’s arrival in the New World on October 12. The festivity was first introduced to Limón by Arthur King, a local who had been away working in Panamá’s Canal Zone. He was so impressed with that country’s Columbus Day celebrations that he decided to bring the merriment home to Limón. Today, El Día de la Raza (Day of the People) basically serves as an excuse to party. Throngs of Highland Ticos descend upon Limón – buses fill to bursting, hotels brim and revellers hit the streets in search of this year’s sounds and style. Rap, rave and ragga – in Spanish and English – are hot, and Bob Marley lives, or at least is convincingly resurrected, for carnival week.
Carnival can mean anything you want it to, from noontime displays of Afro-Caribbean dance to Calypso music, bull-running, children’s theatre, colourful desfiles (parades) and massive firework displays. Most spectacular is the Grand Desfile, usually held on the Saturday before October 12, when revellers in Afro-Caribbean costumes – sequins, spangles and fluorescent colours – parade through the streets to a cacophony of tambourines, whistles and blasting sound systems.
Instead of taking place in Limón’s streets as it has in years past (the national press reported on “sanitation” problems that threatened to bring the whole event to a halt), most of the carnival’s night-time festivities now occur within the fences of the harbour authority JAPDEVA’s huge docks and car park. This might sound like a soulless location, but it’s a well-managed affair, and while you may not be dancing in the streets, you’re at least dancing. The overall atmosphere – even late at night – remains unthreatening, with teens and grandparents alike enjoying the music. Kiosks dispense steaming Chinese, Caribbean and Tico food, and on-the-spot discos help pump up the volume. Cultural Street, which runs from the historic Black Star Line (the shipping company that brought many of the black immigrants here), is an alcohol-free zone, popular with family groups. Kids can play games at small fairgrounds to win candyfloss and stuffed toys. Elsewhere, bars overflow onto the street, and the impromptu partying builds up as the night goes on.
Top image: Punta Uva beach in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock