In his book Tekkin a Waalk, journalist and travel writer Peter Ford uses the ingenious term “an anthropological Galápagos” to describe the ethnic and cultural oddities encountered in Limón, where the Caribbean meets Central America. There’s no doubt that the province provides a touch of multiculturalism lacking in the rest of Costa Rica’s relatively homogeneous Latin, Catholic society. In Limón, characterized by intermarriage and racial mixing, it’s not unusual to find people who are of combined Miskito, Afro-Caribbean and Nicaraguan ancestry. Though the first black inhabitants of the province were the slaves of the British pirates and mahogany-cutters who had lived in scattered communities along the coast since the mid-1700s, the region’s ethnic diversity stems largely from the influence of Minor Keith, who brought in large numbers of foreign labourers to work on the construction of the Jungle Train. They were soon joined by turtle fishermen who had settled in Bocas del Toro, Panamá, before migrating north to escape the Panamanian war of independence from Colombia in 1903. The settlers brought their respective religions with them – unlike in the rest of Costa Rica, most Afro-Caribbeans in Limón Province are Protestant.
Regardless of race or religion, the coastal settlers were resourceful and independent. They not only planted their own crops, bringing seeds to grow breadfruit, oranges, mangoes and ackee, all of which flourished alongside native coconuts and cocoa, but also made their own salt, charcoal, musical instruments and shoes and brewed their own spirits – red rum, guarapo, cane liquor and ginger beer.
Limón’s diversity has never been appreciated by the ruling and economic elite of the country. Until 1949, blacks were effectively forbidden from settling in the Valle Central or the Highlands, and while the indigenous communities have a degree of autonomy, their traditional territories have long since been eaten up by government-sanctioned mining and banana enterprises. Official discrimination against the province’s Afro-Caribbean inhabitants ended in 1949 with a new constitution that granted them full citizenship. Black Limonenses now make up around 30 percent of the province’s population.