Before crossing the border into Costa Rica we had heard mixed reviews about our first stop in Puerto Viejo, a Caribbean beach town about an hour north of the border. As it turns out Puerto Viejo ended up being one of our favorite stops in Panama and Costa Rica. We highly suggest it to anyone looking for a good mix of some time at the beach, wildlife viewing, and some great rice and beans (made with coconut milk....mmmmm soooo good)!
As an interesting aside, we later learned why the Puerto Veijo area has the Caribbean vibe while on a walking tour around San Jose. After the city of San Jose was established the Spanish wanted to build a railway to link it to the Caribbean for easier export back to Spain. They began construction by forcing the indigenous people to perform the work, but later decided to "import" laborers because the indigenous did not have the greatest work ethic. They brought in slaves from China to finish the railway, but their workforce soon started to decline as the Chinese were perishing from the local diseases they were not accustomed to. The Spanish then decided to bring in slaves from Jamaica and with them they were able to finally complete the railway after 19 years of construction. Unfortunately for the Jamaican's they were not allowed to return home and they were also not allowed to stay in San Jose after their work was complete. So they settled as close as they could to home along the Caribbean coast. When the Spanish brought in the Chinese and Jamaican slaves, they melded with the indigenous culture to create the Costa Rican culture of today. This melding of the cultures is evident in their traditional dish (casado) which is rice, beans, salad, and plantains served with a side of coffee. The rice was brought over be the Chinese, the beans and plantains were from the indigenous peoples, and the coffee was brought over by the Jamaicans. Coffee also later became Costa Rica's number one export and the driver of their ecomony for many years.
As an added bonus to visiting Puerto Viejo you can also check out Cahuita National Park which is only a 30 minute bus ride from town. Cahuita is a terrestrial and marine national park that offers stunning beaches that are also good for swimming, wildlife viewing trails, and snorkeling (with a guide). Our first day in Puerto Viejo we spent at Cahuita, followed by our second day. This park had so much to offer we just could not do it all in one day!
These little monkeys are known for stealing backpacks and food from people's hands! This is a result from people feeding them. After all they are really cute--until they take your camera. We luckily didn't have any problems with these little guys.
On our first day in Cahuita we decided to explore the trail that meanders through the park along the coastline, hoping for bountiful sloths and monkey sightings! And about 50 feet from the start of the trail we saw our first sloth for the day high up in the tree canopy.
Here is a sloth spotting tip for you. Don't look up. Sounds counter intuitive right? Instead just look for a group of people squinting and pointing up at the tree canopy because unless your a naturalist guide you have about a 0.62% chance of spotting one yourself. We have spent 6 weeks in search of sloths and have only spotted one on our own and it was kind of a gimme because he fell from a tree about three feet off the road we were walking down! Don't worry though sloths are designed (they have 46 ribs) to take a fall with grace because falling from trees occasionally is part of their normal lives. Not long after the fall we saw the little guy again dangling from a branch a few feet off of the ground.
The trail through Cahuita is an easy walk all you have to look out for are roots and the animals. We were only able to walk about half of the trail because we got a late start to our day due to some bus schedule confusion. However, getting turned around half way ended up not being a bad thing for us because it encouraged us to check out the point of the beach a bit Not long after putting our feet in the bath temperature water, a local pointed out a sloth to us. This sloth was not in the tree tops it was only about 8 feet off the ground lounging in a tree hanging right over the beach!!! Here we are almost face to face with this lethargic and elusive shaggy animal after searching high and high for him (or her...not sure how to tell). The sloth did not move an inch for the ten minutes or so we stared, all the while wanting to give it a hug. We actually began to think that maybe this was too good to be true; and maybe the locals put a stuffed animal on the limb just to mess with the tourists. Was this the Pinocchio of sloths or is he a real sloth? We were honestly and truly uncertain with how still it was was until we returned the next day to Cahuita for our snorkeling adventure. At lunch we ironically were taken to this exact same spot and there he was. The sloth was still in the exact same spot as the day before and had not moved a single inch! At this point we were more convinced that it was a fake and did not want to hype it up just to give the locals a laugh later.
It was not until another boat pulled up about 10 minutes later and tied their line to the same branch that the Pinocchio sloth turned into a real boy when it actually moved its head in wonder of what had just shook his tree branch. Immediately, we were again enthralled as he stared in curious annoyance with eyes that asked "Why would you shake my tree branch Mister?"
If you are looking for a beautiful beach to visit for the day this is a great option and there are also some picnic areas set up along the beach. We visited on a weekend and every picnic area was taken so it can be a popular place, but there is plenty of beach for everybody.
If you want to walk the whole trail at Cahuita it is recommended to get an early start as they begin turning people back in the early afternoon at the trail midpoint. Still, with walking only half of the trail we saw tons of wildlife and decided to come back the next day to snorkel and explore the marine part of the park as we heard it was some of the best in Costa Rica.
Now I must admit after snorkeling in Hawaii on our honeymoon we are quite spoiled and have high expectations. This was actually the second time we tried snorkeling during our 6 weeks in Central America with the first time being in Bocas del Toro. We are not saying that Bocas does not have good snorkeling, we just did not have a good experience. Partly due to weather and we also attempted it ourselves in a location suggested by others. That being said we did really enjoy the snorkeling at Cahuita and saw a lot of different and colorful fish and even a nurse shark!
The coral reef was not as vibrant as we saw in Hawaii and looked to us like it was struggling a bit. We read up on the coral reef and learned that parts of it were damaged from an earthquake in the early 2000's when some sections were raised in elevation by up to 10 feet. A nearby river also conveys additional issues created by logging and farming upstream by introducing sediment and nutrient laden water. This creates turbidity (cloudiness) in the water and/or phosphorus blooms, both of which block out the sunlight which is essential for the corals growth. We also learned while snorkeling in Hawaii that if you touch a coral reef you can kill an entire colony which takes several years, even a decade or more to grow. After learning this we are now extremely careful when snorkeling so as not to touch any by accident, but unfortunately not everyone has had this lesson and we even saw a lady in our group swim backwards right into some coral. We are sharing this in the hope of informing people so they know how to safely enjoy and preserve these natural resources.