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.
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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 Panama 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.