Geographically, Costa Rica is a Central American country bordered by Panama to the South, Nicaragua to the North, the Pacific Ocean to the West, and the Caribbean Sea to the East. Yet, culturally, Costa Rica seems more like an island. Bounded by two countries and two seas –the diversity of peoples and cultures offers an interesting twist on our usual perceptions of an island.
To the casual visitor the capital city of San José, located in the Central Valley, appears as a congested cityscape of rundown houses, Spanish architecture, and outdated commercial buildings. However, beyond this mishmash of urban sprawl, lies a diverse country rich with bubbling volcanoes, lush rain forests, exotic wildlife, and two very different coastal cultures.
On the Pacific side, the ocean offers dramatic views of rugged shoreline, crashing waves, seaside villages, expat conclaves, and endless sunshine. As a tourist destination, the Pacific coast is easily accessible from the Central Valley and provides world class surfing, dramatic ocean views and endless opportunities for fishing, swimming, golfing, yachting, horseback riding and just relaxing on the beach.
The Caribbean coast, on the other hand, consists of the province of Limón, the country’s most culturally diverse region that embraces its West Indian heritage. Although known primarily for its vast pineapple and banana plantations, the region also contains lush rainforests, and some of Costa Rica’s finest beaches. For example, Punta Uva, Playa Chiquita and Manzanillo, are popular destinations on the Caribbean Coast and they’re seldom if ever crowded.
The relative unspoiled nature of the eastern coast of Costa Rica is due to its long wet rainy season which lasts most of the year. The region is also geographically isolated and accessible by irregular charter flights, seasonal cruise ships, or a three hour drive over the mountainous Cordillero Central –part of the Central Volcanic Conservation Area. Thus, tourism caters primarily to local residents and Costa Ricans looking to escape from the congestion of San José, or to Eco-tourists biking along the coastal highway.
Unlike other areas in Costa Rica, many residents of Limón trace their roots to Italian, Jamaican and Chinese laborers who worked on a late nineteenth-century railroad project that connected San José to Puerto Limón. Until 1948, the Costa Rican government did not recognize these Afro-Caribbean people as citizens and restricted their movement outside Limón province.
As a result of this “travel ban”, the Afro-Caribbean population became firmly established in the region, which influenced their decision to not move even after it was legally permitted. Several languages (Spanish, Limón Creole) are spoken, and due to their cultural ties to the Caribbean islands, dishes like rice and beans are ubiquitous throughout the province, along with reggae, calypso, and soca music.
Today, Limón is a bustling port town marked by thousands of shipping containers labeled “Dole”, “Del Monte”, and “Chiquita”; huge trucks seem to be everywhere –both on and off the road. However, once outside the town, an intrepid tourist can drive down highway 32 and enjoy a break at the Sloth Sanctuary, before continuing down the coast and stopping for a cold beer and fresh seafood at the many restaurants and kiosks.