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.

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