David is a regular Costa Rica Living Group contributor. He and his wife, Charlotte, recently spent a month on the wild side. Yesterday, he wrote to the group about it. Since my family has not been, I was captivated by his story. Can’t wait to go – as soon as the play is over…. After you read this, you will want to come too…
Charlotte and I went to the Caribbean coast and spent a month in Puerto Viejo, and this is my trip report. First a bit of background for those of you who do not know us. We moved to CR in July 2006, and are renting in the country just east of Santo Domingo de Heredia. Our motive for renting first is to take our measure of the country and many of its locations before buying anywhere. We have been pretty sure all along that we are more mountain people than ocean people, but wanted to give the Caribbean a chance. This is particularly so since Charlotte’s Heredia allergist advised her that her allergies would do better with the ocean breezes. So off we went to PV. We have already spent a little bit of time on the Pacific coast, and know that it is just not our cup of tea. What follows is a disorganized jumble of impressions and experiences and thoughts.
Puerto Viejo claims to have residents from 49 countries, and that is part of what intrigues me. Such diversity! We met folks from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico. I saw a guy in the internet cafe reading a web page in Finnish, and I saw automobile license plates from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. That is a bunch less than 49, but I was not even trying. Oh, and I have heard French being spoken on the street. The local population is a delightful mix of blacks speaking Jamaican English, Hispanic Costa Ricans speaking Spanish, and indigenous speaking BriBri. How fun.
When I spoke to people in English, about 90% responded in English and 10% said "No hablo ingles". When I spoke to people in Spanish, 100% of the locals responded in Spanish, but many of the non-CostaRicans did not have Spanish. If a gringo wants to live in Costa Rica without speaking Spanish or needing it, I recommend the Caribbean coast. Interestingly, the widespread use of English seems only about 10 km deep. When you drive 20 km inland to the town of Bribri, there is almost no English. I needed Spanish there with the veterinarian (who is from Mexico).
After we had been there about a week, I realized that I had said "The ocean is having a particularly gorgeous day today" every day. So I started saying "The ocean is having a typically gorgeous day". Couple that with the intensity of the greenery everywhere, including many beautiful spots where there is almost no beach and the jungle goes right down to the water’s edge, and you have a really beautiful place. The jungle trail through Cahuita National Park is great, as is the trail at the end of the road in Manzanillo.
The roads are just appalling, and I assume that this represents a decision by the central government to not invest in Limon Province. There are bad roads all over CR, or at least all the places I have been, but the road from Cahuita through PV and on to Manzanillo is just horrid. Horrid here means that it will beat the stuffing out of your car and you but it is driveable with 2-wheel-drive. On the positive side we just look at it as slowing us down enough to see more and Costa Rica always has more to see. In the few days we have been back in Heredia Province, I have marvelled at how good the roads are here. Sometimes here we go several car lengths between potholes!
I do not have temperature data, but the Caribbean felt to us 5 to 10 degrees cooler than the Pacific. Still warmer and more humid than the Central Valley, but fairly pleasant most of the time. It rained for at least an hour or two most days, and that always cools the place off.
The expat community there seems more close knit than I am used to, and we were aware that we met more people in one month than we have met in 5 months living in the Valley. It is hard for me to know exactly how to interpret that, but it felt great. CRL members Barry Stevens and Judy Gill and Colin Brownlee and their families were particularly gracious to us.
We did some snooping around the real estate market, and there is a bunch of stuff available. Beach view places are scarce and expensive. Jungle places within earshot of the ocean are affordable. Jungle places further in are plentiful, but sometimes a bit primitive. One place we looked at was 45 acres for $95,000 US, beautiful mountains and valleys, but one would have to pay to have road cut and electricity strung. The people who live there now live without electricity and indoor plumbing, walk an hour from the paved road to their homes, and use horses when they need to carry something heavy home. The existing trail is not good enough for a motor vehicle.
There is a surprising number of truly fine restaurants, and that is a delight. The people who say that if you want fine dining you should go back to the U.S. have not been to the Caribbean. There are also some very elegant hotels and lodges. At the same time, there is more visible poverty than other places in CR I have seen, and I find myself wondering if there is a way for the influx of tourist money to lift those near the bottom. I want to believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, but in this case some conscious planning may be required to ensure that.
Ultimately, it seems to me, the biggest difference between the Caribbean and the Valley is not weather or terrain, it is culture. In the Valley I find Hispanic Catholic culture filtered through the Costa Rican experience, and when most folks refer to "the Costa Rican experience" they mean the CR experience away from Limon Province. The culture of Limon Province is just different. Neither better nor worse, but definitely different. We met a 92 year old black man who left Costa Rica in 1941 to fight with the U.S. and Britain and Canada in World War II, and then returned after the war. When you recall that before 1948 blacks were not allowed to travel outside Limon Province, you can understand this man’s pride at being part of English-speaking culture.
In my reading of CRL posts through the years, I have seen many suggestions that Caribbean crime is worse than elsewhere in CR. That was not our experience. Yes, there is crime, and we know a horrible story of a good man’s dogs being poisoned by thieves. But the Caribbean has so many fewer bars on windows that it is hard to believe there is more crime there than here is the Valley.
So, you might ask, after all this did we decide to move there and buy real estate? The jury is still out. Charlotte is going to do the wait-a-month test. Meaning she will be observant over the next 4 weeks of what she misses about the Caribbean and what she loves here. If we end up buying in one mountain region or another it will not be because of anything bad about the Caribbean. It will simply reflect our love of the mountains and their terrain and climate. We heartily recommend the Caribbean to anyone who really wants to get away with not learning Spanish, who thrives on cultural mix, who loves good eats, who delights at the sight, sound, and smell of the ocean and the animals, and who can live happily with really bad roads.
Here are some things that we think could easily be missed and were jewels for our stay:
1) Pizzeria Rusticone: We rate it the best pizza in PV. It is off the main road and hardly anyone is ever there. We did see a few take-outs while we had the best 4 cheese pizza of our trip. (My pizza-junkie wife had us eating pizza at 4 other restaurants).
2) The canopy trip in Hone Creek with 26 stations. Wowser! Far more stations then the more expensive places near Manzanillo.
3) Charlotte’s favorite upscale restaurant was Shawandna’s. Mine was La Pecora Nera.
4) Hot Rocks was so much better than we had anticipated. Try the hamburger, pepperoni pizza and nacho’s. All are yummy.
5) The road trip to Sixaola we think gets a bad rap. It was beautiful and we felt the energy of many years ago when stopping to photograph the Banana Plantation housing. The road from Bribri to Sixaola is oddly wonderful, first-world quality with a few washed patches of 100 metres or less.
6) Also when on the Sixola road look for a big yellow tire and turn down that road. It will eventually connect you to the ocean and this road will truly lift your spirits. It is dirt and gravel, but we did it easily in our 2-wheel-drive car.
7) If you go to the town of Bribri, go through town and turn left down a dirt road, you quickly come to the Sixaola River in a spot several kilometres upstream from the town of Sixaola. The little dirt road runs along the river for several kilometres, and I found it just beautiful. You have a lovely view of the Sixaola River Valley with Costa Rican mountains on one side and Panamanian mountains on the other. And it is fun to look across the river and know that is Panama on the other side.
We truly found the Caribbean refreshing…hum…when will that airport be built and that lovely modern hospital….two things that make the Valley appealing… It has only been three days since we left PV…the vibrance…the buzz of life all around…yet at the same time the laid back take a seista anytime feel…one could have a right fine life in the Caribbean.