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 (contact one of the town’s tour companies on For more information, see Information) 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.

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