Last year it’s estimated that 700,000 Americans visited Costa Rica. While the number of visitors may seem small when compared with Mexico, a country that welcomed more than five million American visitors, it’s still a pretty large number considering that Costa Rica is still regarded as more exotic and less mainstream than popular all-inclusive beach destinations like those in the Dominican Republic or Jamaica. When I studied abroad in Costa Rica back in 2005 I certainly encountered SOME Americans at popular tourist destinations like Arenal and Manuel Antonio National Park but it was never an overly large amount. The majority of American visitors that I met were either college or language students like myself or the all-inclusive hater, supreme thrill-seeker. It’s been over seven years since I studied there and I know that the tourist industry has greatly taken off; Costa Rica has not only become an extremely popular honeymoon spot but more and more families are vacationing there, so I know if I were to return today, things would be different. While areas along the central and northern Pacific coast (Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Guanacaste) and in the central and northern valleys (Monteverde, Arenal) are extremely popular with vacationing American tourists due to their relatively close proximity to the country’s two principal international airports, I know that one area is probably still devoid of American land visitors (I say land since numerous cruise ships do make stops)-the Caribbean coast.
For visitors to the Caribbean coast, Puerto Viejo is the most popular destination spot. I first went there with my fellow interns from a local newspaper where I was working. The three of them had all been before and just raved about everything from the food to the beaches to the overall ambiance. When I told my host mom where I was going for the weekend she said it was beautiful and that the men there were especially guapo-handsome. (Although her children’s father wasn’t in the picture, he had clearly been black as the children were bi-racial.) I soon discovered that Puerto Viejo, along with other towns along the Caribbean coast, was home to the country’s largest black population (three percent of the population is black). In the late 19th century, immigrants from Jamaica came to Costa Rica to work on the construction of the country’s railroad. When the railroad was finished, a sizable number ended up staying, thus permanently creating una mezcla, a mix, of English speaking West Indies and Spanish speaking Central America.
Limon is the largest city on the Caribbean coast and a principal port city. Although its airport is operational today it was closed for a lengthy period of time including when I was living in Costa Rica. Consequently I took the bus from San Jose’s Coca Cola station, the round-trip ticket costing less than $5 USD. While San Jose and Puerto Viejo are only about 130 miles apart, because the roads are in such bad condition, the bus ride lasted 5 hours (this is how it is for most of Costa Rica unfortunately). The bus left about 4 PM and we didn’t arrive in Puerto Viejo until around 9 PM. The one saving grace of the bus not being air-conditioned was that I knew when we were getting close since I could hear the sound of the crashing waves in the distance.
Puerto Viejo is everything that the overdeveloped Pacific Coast is not-there are no massive high-rise, luxurious hotels, instead just eco-lodges and lodgings run by families. When I was there in 2005, only one road in the whole town was paved. (I’d be curious to return and see if this has changed any.) On more than one occasion I came across horses that were literally just “chilling” beach side. It’s always been a popular destination for surfers who come here to ride the world-famous Salsa Brava wave. But today it’s also visited by backpackers traveling throughout Central America and those wishing to get away from the chain-store style tourism and find a more authentic experience.
The two times I visited Puerto Viejo I often heard more West Indies English being spoken than Spanish. There was also a stand selling various Bob Marley memorabilia, not to mention numerous individuals, presumably locals, who could have placed first in a Marley look alike contest. The food was delicious, some of the best I had during my three months in Costa Rica. It was in Puerto Viejo at local sodas (the Costa Rican version of a diner) that I tried such delicious fare as paty (meat-filled turnovers) and rondon, a spicy coconut-milk stew made with fish. I also had my first ever patacones, twice-fried plantains, that I had to be educated about but have been addicted to ever since.
The beaches in Puerto Viejo were amazing, complete with white sand and turquoise seas, what the Caribbean is so famous for. On my first visit there, my friends and I rented bikes and went to nearby Punta Uva, which they said was even more spectacular. While my bike got a flat tire on the return ride to Puerto Viejo, thus requiring me to walk the bike for six miles, it was still a decidedly fun time.
While I wouldn’t recommend skipping out on sites like Manuel Antonio National Park or seeing Arenal volcano for Puerto Viejo, if you’re not pressed for time and don’t mind a somewhat long bus ride and the smell of an illegal substance (well, illegal in some countries) wafting through the air, you’re in for a treat. All of Costa Rica is incredible but being in a Central American nation where it feels like you’re in the West Indies instead is almost surreal.