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CARIBBEAN COAST

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North and east of the mountainous backbone of Costa Rica is the triangle-shaped Caribbean coastal region, a vast area of dense tropical forest. No time of year, no remote corner of the Atlantic slope is ever dry. Clouds blow in from the sea throughout the year. Those that don’t drench the area directly shed their water against the central mountains, from where it flows back to the Caribbean in numerous rivers, and often overflows onto the low-lying, poorly drained land. Rainfall at Limón, in the center of the coastal strip, reaches 150 inches in many years, and near the Nicaraguan border, approaches 200 inches.

The trip to Limón is an interesting descent from highlands to jungle through varied zones of vegetation. The Caribbean coastline is one nearly continuous sweep of white beach, most of it deserted. Wildlife treasures abound, including green turtles in their protected nesting area at Tortuguero. Fishing, especially for tarpon, is world-class. The blacks who form a large part of the lowland population are a fascinating culture, quite different from other Costa Ricans. And also, there is nothing menacing in those parts of the Caribbean lowlands where the visitor is likely to tread.

Limón, Costa Rica’s main Caribbean port, opened to banana traffic in 1880, but its place in national history is more venerable. Christopher Columbus landed offshore, at Uvita Island, in 1502. The first Spanish attempts at settlement were made in the area. Intermittently through the colonial period, encounters with the British and Dutch, both commercial and bellicose, took place at Portete, just a few kilometers to the north.

The port city of Limón that grew with the railway was as much a part of the British West Indies as of Costa Rica. Blacks from Jamaica and other islands constituted most of the population, and English was the only language that mattered in business. Immigrant workers kept their British passports, sent their children to school in English, read Jamaican newspapers, and went to the movies to see British films. Limón and the banana lands were separated from Costa Rica not only by language and culture, but also by a law that forbade blacks from crossing the Central Valley or overnighting there.

Limón today is a mixed Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean city, but more and more, the Hispanic predominates. The local Creole patois, permeated with Spanish words, is the language of the older generation. Blacks are discouraged from using what Hispanic Costa Ricans consider "bad" English, though many can still speak a rather elegant and formal Caribbean dialect. English has no official status, and is studied only in secondary school.

Compared to the towns of the Central Valley, Limón is shabby. Compared to other ports on this coast -Belize City, Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, La Ceiba in Honduras- Limón is pristine with its paved streets, functioning sewers, a clean market. Of teeming tropical ports, it is a good choice for the outsider to sample. But if people-watching in a throbbing, hot town is not your cup of tea, move on to the beaches and parks to the north or south.

The favorite place for sitting down in Limón is Vargas Park, a square of jungle at Avenida 2 and Calle 1, facing the sea. Giant hardwoods struggle against the odds with strangler figs, huge palms shoot toward the sky, vines and bromeliads compete for space and moisture, birds dart and flit through the tangle.

Across from the park is Limón’s perfect tropical-port city hall with its cream-colored stucco, open arcades and breezeways, balconies, and louvered windows. Limón’s older architecture is well suited to the climate. Thick walls moderate the extremes of temperature, concrete overhangs block the sun and keep people dry when it rains, as it does drenchingly often.

The market, on Avenida 2 between Calles 3 and 4, is ever lively, set back in a large building in its own little park. Stop in and admire the papaya and passionfruit, as well as the more mundane but no less impressive one-pound carrots. The streets around the market are Limón’s social center, where purveyors of food and games of chance set up shop during the Columbus Day celebrations and for the month preceding Christmas. The Columbus Day "carnival" season features floats, street bands, dancing and masquerades, and everything else that one expects to find in the islands at Mardi Gras.

Limón is located on a rocky point, and is one of the few places along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast without a beach. There’s a government-sponsored pool in town, but most visitors will prefer the nearby beaches.

Cahuita National Park has beaches as beautiful as any on the Caribbean. Just offshore is a living coral reef, the most accessible in Costa Rica, where brightly colored fish feed and breed. In the marshes and forests of the park, animal and bird life are abundant.

The coral reef, which consists of the remains of small animals called polyps, lies up to half a kilometer from shore, and from one to seven meters under the surface. With diving equipment, you can see the formations -brain, elkhorn, star and dozens of other corals- as well as the fish, sponges, crabs and snails that are attracted to feed and live on the reef. At two points on the reef’s western side, cannonballs, anchors, cannon and bricks have been found, giving evidence that a Spanish galleon (or more than one) sank in these waters.

In the reef-protected shallows of Cahuita, sargasso and other grasses flourish, along with conch and ghost crabs. Dead trunks of trees lie just under the water, penetrated by seawood borers, the termites of the sea.

Beyond the reef at the south end of the park, Cahuita’s lovely beach, beaten by huge waves, backed by coconut palms, is a nesting site for green, Hawksbill and leatherback turtles. The gentle sweep of the bay is quite unusual on this coast. In some sections, little pools form at low tide temporarily isolating fish.

Inland, Cahuita’s protected area includes areas of marsh. The Perezoso (Sloth) River that flows to the sea in the park is dark brown in color, said to be an effect of the high tannin concentration, which also reputedly keeps a cap on the local mosquito population. The forests are alive with howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, three-toed sloths, anteaters, and collared peccaries. Raccoons and coatis are often seen along the nature trail, which penetrates the damp world of ferns and bromeliads and huge jungle trees.

The town of Cahuita, 45 kilometers from Limón, at the northern end of the park, has sandy streets, widely separated houses, a friendly assortment of people, and a range of hotels and eating places.

The southern entrance to the park is about six kilometers farther on, at Puerto Vargas (Vargas Harbor), which is a bay, not a village. Here the park administration, nature trail and camping facilities are located. There are no banks, no car-rental agencies, no fishing lodges (as yet), no significant action.

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