What you need to know about the South Caribbean of Costa Rica

What you need to know about the South Caribbean of Costa Rica

“Limón has its own identity,” said Markus Brown, whose family has lived in Punta Uva, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, for more than a century, “and we have to maintain the cultural aspects that make it different from the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”

The Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica has its border with Panama in the southeast, and with Nicaragua in the northwest. The little beach town called Old Habour (Wolaba in patois) or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is located in the Province of Limon and is just 1 hour from the border to Panama, nestled between the Caribbean sea and the jungles of Cahuita National Park and Gandoca-Manzanillo reserve.

 

south caribbean
Aerial view of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Limon province. Photo: RISE Puerto Viejo

 

The South Caribbean is a very special place with its own peculiarities: you’ll find not only different foods but different languages (English and Mekatelyu), different music (Reggae and Calypso),  different architecture (Victorian and Caribbean mix), and different customs.

 

 

1. Caribbean weather is never the same

Costa Ricans like to talk about the “Caribbean Summer”, which is due to the unique microclimate on the South Caribbean Coast. To say it very generally, in the Caribbean the weather is hot and humid all year round, in contrast to a very defined rainy, and dry season over on the Pacific Coast.

 

south caribbean
A stormy morning in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

 

The weather changes much more on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. You can wake up with amazing sunshine and just when you get ready for a beach day it starts pouring down within a few minutes. You never know when to expect a tropical rain shower here. The good news is that even the rain is warm. This is also why the Caribbean Coast always looks so green and brilliant.

 

2. Rice & beans, Rondon, Patty… Taste the Caribbean flavors!

If you are looking for fast food chains and industrialized food, you will not find any of those here. Instead, delicious and traditional Afro-Caribbean cuisine dominates the town. There are lots of different restaurants that offer fusion Caribbean food mixed with flavors from all over the world that were brought here thanks to the multicultural population of this beach town.

 

south caribbean food rice and beans
Traditional Rice n’ Beans. Photo: Visitcostarica.com

 

No matter whether you are looking for Italian, Mexican, middle eastern, or vegan food, there is definitely something for all tastes. There are still a lot of family-owned restaurants that have been offering their traditional cuisine for years and most of them are located just next to the Caribbean sea or nestled in the jungle.

 

3. Pura Vida!  – enjoy life to the fullest

“Pura Vida” can be literally translated as ‘pure life’, but it means so much more than that here in Costa Rica. Pura Vida can be used to say hello, goodbye, thank you, everything is cool, and much more.

 

Photo: RISE Puerto Viejo

 

The Caribbean Coast is marked by a variety of nice, empty beaches, reggae music, and easygoing people that live the  “Pura Vida” life to the fullest. You won’t find any rude or stressed out people here as the local Caribbean energy helps everyone to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures that life brings us day by day. Once you arrive in the Caribbean you will get infected with this lifestyle and never want to leave!

 

Signs at Puerto Viejo’s bus station. Photo: @jus_schmidlin

4. Beaches, beaches, and more beaches

Throughout the region, you can explore an incredible variety of different beaches, all fringed by vibrant jungle. From rough surf beaches like Cocles Beach to beautiful little coral bays in Chiquita Beach and volcanic black sand at the Black Beach right at the entrance of Puerto Viejo. There is a little bit of everything and you will always find a spot where you are totally on your own, only surrounded by palms, sand, and jungle.

 

south caribbean costa rica
Aerial view of Cocles Beach and Island. Photo: RISE Puerto Viejo

 

Another peculiarity of Puerto Viejo is that there are no big hotel resorts or chains here – only small accommodations that try to retain harmony with nature. This is why Puerto Viejo is not very developed or commercialized and keeps its charm of a little beach town and the community wants to keep it that way.

 

south caribbean costa rica caribeando
Photo: @caribeandocr

5. Nature and wildlife

It is not only beaches and good food that the Caribbean Coast is famous for, but also its abundance of wildlife and gorgeous nature. The location of Puerto Viejo, between the protected areas of Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge and Cahuita National Park, offers a home for a diversity of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and marine creatures.

 

red aye tree frog south caribbean costa rica
Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas)

 

Dolphins and sea turtles swim in the oceans, and you can find huge areas of pure jungle with trees that are over 100 years old, bustling with sloths, monkeys, wild cats, and other wildlife. But animals do not only live deep in the jungle, you can also find them in urban areas and it is not surprising that a sloth or a toucan might visit you in your hotel or while having dinner in a restaurant. Do not be frightened, just keep your distance and they will peacefully make their way through to the next tree. 

 

sloth at restaurant caribbean costa rica
Sloth at Cariblue Restaurant. Photo: Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort

Read More: The Urban Sloth Project 

6. The sounds of the Caribbean

Puerto Viejo is a Reggae Town where descendants brought their culture and music over from Jamaica more than a hundred years ago. If you go to a local bar you will likely hear reggae and dancehall music playing, as well as dem bow.

 

 

The neighboring town of Cahuita is also the national cradle of Calypso: a famous Afro-Caribbean music genre that originated in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago in the 19th century. Cahuita is home to the legendary calypso singer-songwriter Walter Ferguson.

 

 

7. A melting pot of cultures

There is a fantastic variety of different cultures co-living in this small town. Indigenous communities like Bribri and Cabecar were the earliest in settling down several centuries ago, mainly living in their territories along the watercourses. Later in the 19th century, the afro descent population settled along the coast founding the town of Old Harbour (Puerto Viejo). In those days most people spoke English or Mekatelyu and only later converted to speaking Spanish.

 

A Bribri family working with cacao. Photo: Life, Culture & Travel Costa Rica

 

Nowadays the Caribbean Coast is still the most bi-lingual region of Costa Rica, with Costa Rican influence from other parts of the country growing, and arrivals of people from several countries of Latin America, Europe, and North America adding to the cultural mix.

Today it is estimated that over 40 different nationalities from all over the world live together in harmony in this little beach town! Just waiting in line at the bank or supermarket, you can often hear conversations in Bribri, Patois, English, Spanish, German, Dutch, French, or Chinese!

 

afro caribbean woman
Photo: Life Culture Travel Costa Rica

 

Due to this cultural mix, the tolerance in the South Caribbean is very high and it is one of the main reasons why the South Caribbean is also a popular chosen destination for people of the LBGTQ+ community.

“We came from Jamaica” – says Edwin Patterson, a local resident in the South Caribbean. “120 years ago my family arrived here, so we were foreigners once as well. Most of the people that live here are foreign. There’s nothing richer than cultural diversity. You can see it in Nature: You have guavas, cas, mango, and coconut trees. Without them, you don’t have the ingredients, the spark. All of us will be monotonous. Of all those cultures who came, we learned from them, and they learned from us.”

 

 

-Sloth Friendly Network Team

 

How to be a responsible traveler?

How to be a responsible traveler?

Responsible travel is not only caring about nature and the ecosystem, it is about being socially and culturally aware, understanding and respecting different cultures, customs, and traditions. It is about always trying to have a positive impact and minimize the negative impact as much as possible.

While the meanings of these terms sound similar to sustainable tourism, here it is the traveler who takes the initiative to be responsible.

1. Respect the culture and customs

We must keep in mind that the world is a diverse place and it is very important to respect the local customs, dress appropriately, and maybe even take some time to learn some of the local language (even if it is just ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’).

responsible travel indigenous man bribri costa rica
Bri bri man /Photo: Life, Culture & Travel Costa Rica

South Caribbean tip: There are different institutions that offer Spanish lessons as well as Caribbean cooking classes. Learning how to cook traditional coconut-based plates is a perfect activity for rainy days!

 

2. Buy local items

When you’re abroad, consider where you want to spend your money when it comes to meals, snacks, souvenirs, clothing, etc. One of the best ways to make a positive impact on the lives of the residents and local communities in the country you’re visiting is to purchase products that are locally grown/made. You are not only helping someone to create a better life for themselves or their family, but you will also have a much more authentic travel experience and will get to know their culture and traditions.

 

Bribri handcrafts

South Caribbean tip: Handicraft items are sold at the artisan feria located in downtown Puerto Viejo. If you take a tour to an indigenous Bribri or Cabecar Reserve, you can get original and beautiful handcrafts while helping the community.

 

3. Volunteering is great, but do some research first

Offering your time as a volunteer or donating money to good causes are great ways to be a responsible traveler. There are plenty of different ways to help, depending on your preferences and skills you can help kids to learn another language or sports, or help injured or rescued wildlife, but you must do a bit of research before engaging in these activities, to make sure the organization is real and does not make any profit or take away jobs from locals.

 

 

South Caribbean tip: If volunteering with an institution is a commitment that takes too much time, you can always spend an afternoon picking up litter from the beach! Every week different local groups organize trash campaigns you can join spontaneously! 

 

4. Watch your waste

In some countries, we might find a different education level involving recycling or minimizing waste. But it is even more important that we as travelers do some simple things to manage our waste, and ensure doing our best to be responsible.

Pack reusable bags or your backpack and say no to plastic bags from shops, eat and drink in the cafe rather than taking away your food and drinks (or use a KeepCup), do not use straws, and try to use natural products.

 

5. Leave no trace

You shouldn’t leave any footprint in the natural environment – whether you’re exploring the backcountry, a rainforest, or a city. This also includes respect for wildlife – don’t deface property, walk on the signed paths, don’t take any seashells or other natural plants or artifacts.

 

 

South Caribbean tip: It is important to know that in Costa Rica it is illegal to remove natural items, especially in protected areas like Cahuita National Park. Avoid a nasty moment at the airport!

 

6. Minimize your carbon footprint

We all know that when we travel we often have to use a plane to get somewhere, but you can lower the environmental impact of your travels at the destination itself. Use public transport instead of taxis. If it is short distances you can also walk or rent a bike, you can explore the area even better and it is good for your budget and your health too. 

 

 

South Caribbean tip: We highly recommend renting a bike and moving around the different beaches. We promise you the landscape is gorgeous and the road is flat all the way. Even if you’re not used to riding bikes, it won’t be difficult at all!

 

7. Choose sustainable tour operators

Choose a company that respects the environment and wildlife, and works with the community, to provide jobs to the local people or provide extra training for their staff. Some companies or tour operators donate a part of their money to NGOs, or pay their staff a bit more money than usual.

 

responsible tourism
Life Culture Travel is a local tour opertaor run by an indigenous woman. Don’t miss their indigenous territories tour!

 

South Caribbean tip: Check our certified ‘Sloth Friendly Network (SFN)’ businesses here.

8. Respect the wildlife

Don’t participate in any tours that promote cruelty towards animals with direct hands-on contact, (dolphin shows, riding elephants, cub petting). Wildlife tourism is big business and unfortunately, money comes before the well-being of the animals. If you are really interested in visiting a place that gives animals home or protects them, make sure you contact them and have a look if they are a registered organization and if they are transparent.

 

 

Regarding wildlife in their natural habitat, remember that it is illegal to feed wild animals, bait them with food or touch them. Always keep a safe distance, not only because you respect the animal but also because it is safer for you!

South Caribbean tip: Keep an eye out for monkeys or raccoons approaching you asking for food. They can get quite aggressive and will even steal your food or other belongings. 

9. Sustainable accommodations

Opt for guesthouses, ecolodges, or other small accommodations that have been approved by reputed establishments and choose those rather than massive resorts. There are a lot of accommodations that are built in harmony with nature.

 

This is a lovely and sustainable cabin in the middle of the Jungle. Photo: Colina Secreta – Glamping & Villas

Make sure that they hire local people and treat them well, that they follow sustainable practices like recycling waste, water conservation, reusing towels, and using ecological soaps/shampoos.

South Caribbean tip: Check our Sloth Friendly Network listed certified accommodations here.

 

10. Combat overtourism

Overtourism is just that – too many tourists. Streets are overcrowded, local sites are packed, fragile natural sites are degraded, high rent prices push out locals, and traffic is gridlocked. There are unfortunately a huge amount of destinations that can’t keep up with the crowds visiting and their locals are getting fed up because these destinations have been focusing on growth rather than taking care of the negative impacts.

 

responsible travel south caribbean costa rica
A solitary beach, South Caribbean, Costa Rica. Photo: Life, Culture & Travel

 

The options to combat overtourism are visiting cities, countries, or sights that are less known and famous, or visiting places outside of peak season, so there will be fewer tourists around.

South Caribbean tip: Luckily, the South Caribbean is not affected by overtourism yet, you can enjoy absolutely empty beaches from March to June, and from September to November. Also, during these months it rains very little and the ocean is usually flat, Caribbean postcard-like. Double win! 

 

11. Don’t bargain so hard

Bargaining is a part of the culture in some regions, but we have to think of the bigger picture. Sometimes tourist pricing can seem unfair, but in reality, if you’re only being charged $1 or $2 more than a local would be, think about how far that extra bit of cash could go for the person you are dealing with. Just pay the money and leave the exchange with both parties having a smile on their face.

-Sloth Friendly Network Team

The community of Puerto Viejo came together to stop habitat loss

The community of Puerto Viejo came together to stop habitat loss

Over the last few weekends of December 2021, we and our sloth guardians in Puerto Viejo witnessed deforestation occurring in the Maritime-Terrestrial Zone (MTZ) of the South Caribbean – specifically between Selina Hostel and the Cocles viewpoint.

This spot may sound familiar, as it is the home of one of our Urban Sloths Luna and her big baby Sol. The MTZ is a 200m strip of public land along the coastline that is strictly regulated by the government; building, exploiting flora and fauna (which is what was occurring here), entrances from the road, etc, is only possible with the correct permits, which are very difficult to obtain. 

 

baby sloth luna sol

 

  • Read More: The Urban Sloth Project

 

This destruction began slowly on Saturday 11th December 2021 which rang alarm bells; as we all know, most government employees do not work on the weekends. There was no official government body to oversee the ‘pruning’ of low growing vegetation and undergrowth, as well as the felling of some healthy trees.

 

deforestation

 

We thought that was the end of it, as the undergrowth is cut back periodically for security purposes along the beach path. 

The situation becomes worse

However, on Saturday 18th December 2021, the South Caribbean community awoke to a greatly concerning scene. The destruction had intensified, now with more chainsaws to cut more healthy trees and driven hydraulic machinery to level the ground and fill it with gravel. 

 

deforestation

 

The community came together in outrage, including many influential members of the community, and reported these works to the authorities, specifically to the Public Force and SINAC. Hours later, SINAC responded, went to the site, and put a stop to the work when they found flagrant dismissal of MTZ regulations. 

 

 

A formal report was drawn up and sent to the Bribrí Prosecutor’s Office for alleged violations of various environmental and land-use legislation in Costa Rica.

These actions caused a serious environmental impact in that area, which is considered a Natural Heritage of the State and part of the MTZ.

 

deforestation

A gloomy picture

On 20th December 2021, SloCo staff visited the site to assess the extent of the damage. We found 15 sloths of both families crammed into the few remaining trees, all demonstrating abnormal behaviors. 

 

 

The sloths were very active. Multiple sloths were coming to the ground to fruitlessly search for another appropriate tree and attempting to cross the busy road because all tree connections were lost. 

 

A SINAC officer helping one of the sloths

 

Sloths are creatures of habit and these guys had just had their entire home destroyed – they were in great distress. We spotted Luna among them, sharing a guarumo tree with other sloths.

 

Luna
En esta imagen se puede aprecira sutilmente la antena del collar de Luna.

Development without destruction

We understand that in some cases certain types of public works may be necessary; however, all these must be carried out in strict adherence to the law, having carried out the associated environmental impact studies, and above all with an entire and great understanding of the ecosystem being interfered with.

In the last two years, we have seen a huge increase in construction in the South Caribbean, which is rapidly eliminating the coastal and inland ecosystems of Talamanca.

Unfortunately, the lack of intelligent planning and environmental awareness results in excessive systemic pressure on flora and fauna. These species will sadly pay the ultimate price for human intervention and destruction. 

 

The meaning of volunteering. Tracking Diaries #2

The meaning of Volunteering. Tracking Diaries #2

I cling to a chain-link fence, the strap of the radio receiver clenched between my teeth as I climb sideways over an open ditch. It is clear from the smell that the local neighborhood has not gotten on board with the whole septic system plan.

“After we get around the sewage pipe, make a jump for the mud bank. You have boots, right? I think it’s only about ankle-deep,” Sarah tells me as she maneuvers around the chest-height pipe. “But watch out for the live electrical wire. And the bees.”

I grunt acknowledgment, trying not to breathe through my nose, and failing. I am well aware that if I drop this radio reviver, I have to go into the ditch after it, and I am also well aware that it is more valuable than I am.

I am not getting paid enough for this.

This is an easy calculation to make, as I am not getting paid at all.

The word “volunteer” first enters the English language around the year 1330; at the time it translated more like “puppet” or “mind-slave”. I muse on the appropriateness of that—surely you have to be a bit funny in the head to do this job.

The job today is to find a sloth by the name of Baguette, who is neighbor to the elusive Croissant. She’s a big, beautiful three-fingered Bradypus variegatus with a preference for large trees and advanced stealth technology, vs. our knee-high rubber boots, two large radio receivers, and the most advanced prefrontal cortexes in the mammal kingdom.

So far Baguette is winning.

Winning what, though, is hard to say. She isn’t getting paid for this either. We use words for sloths like “economy of motion” or “energy budget” because we humans are obsessed with the cost of things. There is an unceasing cash register in the back of our heads, always running, always tallying up the bill: How much for this? How much for that? Will I make rent this month, can I afford cheese? Hurry, hurry, hurry, time is money!

There is something counter-intuitive about the serenity of sloths; the way they sail through the canopy as if they have all the time in the world as if the forest is full of abundance. As if these scurrying, stressing humans below them are really being very silly.

It’s a helpful perspective to contemplate as I lift my eyes from the mud underfoot and look up into the ancient behemoth that is Baguette’s current home: emerald leaves and little yellow flowers, jeweled hummingbirds, crimson and black tanagers, draping lianas and velvet mosses. There is a majesty to trees that connects the earth below to the heavens above. Baguette’s home is a view worth the hike, and a good reminder that the most valuable things in the world don’t come with a price tag.

“Volunteer” from the Latin “voluntas”, meaning will, desire, choice, or wish. It’s a very appropriate word after all because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

Sloths and Palm Oil: how can you help?

The world is waking up to the palm oil crisis that has driven orangutans to the brink of extinction, but is boycotting palm oil really the answer? Unfortunately no, but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless.

Last week the UK supermarket chain Iceland shone the international spotlight on palm oil after its controversial Christmas TV advert was banned from British television. The advert, which depicts an orangutan hiding in a child’s bedroom after loggers destroyed his rainforest home, has now been watched over 30 million times online making it one of the most successful Christmas adverts ever created. Similar to the anti-plastic movement that is sweeping across the world, this advert has stimulated an uproar against the palm oil industry. While it has been overwhelmingly successful at raising awareness of a very important issue, fears are growing as increasing numbers of people are demanding a boycott on palm oil. This is dangerous.

POSCO-Daewoos-palm-oil-concession-in-Papua-Indonesia
Palm oil is used in approximately 50% of everything that we buy, ranging from food and shoes to cosmetics and cleaning products. It is everywhere and the demand is huge. Consequently, palm oil plantations are responsible for the majority of Malaysian and Indonesian deforestation, with a football pitch-sized area of forest being cleared every 25 seconds in Indonesia alone! However this is not just an issue affecting Asia. Palm oil plantations are also springing up in place of the sloths rainforest habitat in South and Central America, further adding to the ecosystem destruction occurring due to crops such as soy, bananas and animal agriculture.

download
Boycotting palm oil, however, doesn’t mean that manufactures will simply remove oil from their products all together. It simply means that they will be forced to replace it with a different kind of vegetable oil. Unfortunately, palm oil is already the worlds most productive oil crop. All alternative oils such as soybean and rapeseed require up to 10 times more land to produce the same amount of product – increasing demand on these crops would be even worse. In addition, boycotting palm oil will drive the price down, consequently increasing the demand for use in biofuel and livestock feed, particularly in countries such as China and India.

980x
So what can we do?
Thankfully the answer applies to all aspects of consumerism, and will have benefits for species and habitats globally (including sloths!): sustainable shopping. Think carefully about the products that you buy because as the consumer, you have the power. Only choose products from manufacturers and retailers who use ingredients from sustainable, certified, legal and deforestation-free sources. They exist, you just have to know which ones to look for! We know this sounds like a lot of hard work – who has time to read every label and search online for every product that you want to buy? But the good news is you don’t have to! There is a wonderful (and free!) bar-code scanning app called Giki that will do all of the hard work for you. Just scan the product that you want to buy and it will tell you all of the information you could ever want to know about that product. Whether it’s local pollution, global climate change, conservation, animal welfare or health, it will give you everything that you need to make an informed decision! Thankfully, using this app will also help you to avoid fruit and produce that is contributing to the sloth deformity epidemic in Costa Rica by way of rampant pesticide usage and forest fragmentation. It’s a win for everybody!