A World Apart

by Graceann Barrett

Most famous for being home of Christopher Columbus’s first stop in the Americas in 1492 onto the small Uvita Island just off the coast, the Caribbean province of Limón, Costa Rica has a rich history and unique cultural mix.

While its turtle-breeding national park of Tortuguero in the north and laid back beach town of Puerto Viejo in the south are two of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations, the capital city of Puerto Limón houses more native-born Ticos to this province, and sees markedly less tourism.

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With stunning sunrises visible from any point along the coast, awe-inspiring moonrises that glisten across the surface of the dark, evening water, and even, at certain points of the year, breathtaking sunsets that defy geographical logic, Limón is like a secret paradise that only the locals will every truly understand.

With its east-coast beaches, typical food, and distinct ethnic makeup, most people in Costa Rica will say that the province of Limón is a completely different world than the rest of this Central American country.

Much like the rest of Costa Rica, the beaches of Limón are stunning.  With trees racing up to the edge of the sands, some even dangling above the clear, Caribbean water, the landscape of the Limón beaches, however, is very different than the rest of the country.

In Puerto Limón, the province’s capital city, most of the coast is covered with coral that surfaced after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake tore up the roads and beaches in 1991.  It does have a small beach just outside the center called Playa Bonita.  Although the weekends find Playa Bonita jammed packed with locals blasting radios, drinking beer, and playing soccer, through the week you can enjoy a silent, solitary beach day.

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Locals and visitors alike, however, will admit that the popular beach towns to the south of the capital are home to the more quintessential Caribbean beaches.

Very different from Puerto Limón, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo have distinct charms that call to different types of travelers.  Cahuita’s two main beaches are locally reffered to as “Black Beach,” and “White Beach,” a reference to their strikingly different sand colors within a short walk from one another.

White Beach is a national park and has a two-hour long nature walk where you are almost guaranteed to see sloths, raccoons, or monkeys, and stretches along a jutting strip of land deep into the Caribbean Sea.

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Both Cahuita beaches have a small town of one or two bars and restaurants, a more local vibe, and the best Caribbean food in all of Limón.  Puerto Viejo, on the other hand, is packed tightly with party bars, souvenir shops, restaurants specializing in worldly cuisines, and more foreigners living on extended tourist visas then her laid-back neighbor of Cahuita.

In these towns, the populations of foreigners and locals mix into an indistinct mass of partiers and beach bums, unlike the capital city a couple of hours further north.

In the capital of Puerto Limón, the cultural mix that distinguishes the province from the rest of Costa Rica is much more clearly marked.  The predominant Jamaican culture in Limón originates from the import of laborers brought over during the construction of the railroad line in the 1860s that connected San Jose to Limón for the transport of coffee.

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Besides the indigenous groups, the Jamaican laborers, speaking Creole English, were among the first people who settled into the province.  Between them and the transnational banana plantations that drove the economy up until the early 20th century, the English language, not Spanish, dominated the budding village.  In the 1900s, large numbers of Chinese made their home in Limón.

Descendants of these original immigrants describing the ancestors’ desire to come to Limón as their own type of “American dream,” seeing opportunities as business owners in Limón that they would otherwise never have had in China.

Of course, Limón also has the more traditional Costa Rican Tico, but unlike their non-Limónense brethren, they regard their home province in a much different way.  While the reputation of Limón intimidates most Costa Ricans who live outside of it, the Ticos born and raised in Limón could not imagine living anywhere else.

Unfazed by local drug violence and convinced that the national capital of San Jose is a far more dangerous place to live, Limónense Ticos defend their province with pride, accept its cultural diversity, and claim that those who talk poorly of their beloved home have just never been here.

While outside of Limón the generally homogenous Costa Rican culture may lead to stereotypes and racism regarding Limón’s cultural mix, Limónenses that regard themselves as belonging to this same homogenous group coexist with Limón’s other cultures in relative harmony.

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In addition to making this province’s demographically distinct from the rest of the country, Limón’s cultural combination has also led to some of Costa Rica’s best and most culturally unique foods.  Plantinta, derived from the Creole English phrase meaning “plantain tart” is a desert-type flour pastry filled with a red mash of sweet plantains and is commonly accompanied with an afternoon coffee.

For meat-eaters wanting a cafecito, Pati is a type of Hot Pocket-like corn flour pastry of ground beef and spices.  Making use of the abundance of coconuts in Limón, Rondon is a creamy soup with a savory coconut broth and huge chunks of fresh fish and vegetables.

The most famous Caribbean dish in Limón is “Rice and Beans,” pronounced with a Jamaican accent and nothing like the basic staple dish that makes up most of the Costa Rican diets.  This full meal typically includes a “gallo pinto” style mix of seasoned white rice and black beans and usually chicken or fish smothered in a coconut-based Caribbean sauce.

These typical dishes, as well as some of the best Chinese food in Costa Rica, help contribute to Limón’s reputation as a world apart from the other six Costa Rican provinces.

With its distinct foods, cultural combinations and beachfront landscapes, Limón can often feel like its own unique and exotic country.  Limón’s celebrations are brightly colored and carry banners in English, Spanish and Chinese.  Its music is relaxed like its beach environment, from reggae to calypso and the merengue-style soca.

The unique dishes of Limón represent some of the best food in Costa Rica, and are something that every tourist to the country should make the journey to taste for themselves.  Of course, Limón does have its dangers, predominantly a underground drug culture that leads to violence in broad daylight, and any visitor to this province, whether it be the capital city or the relaxed Puerto Viejo, should protect their personal belongings and be aware of their surroundings.

However, the incredible cultural offerings easily overshadow Limón’s darker side.  Make friends with the locals, enjoy the food, and keep your nose out of trouble and a visit to Limón can be one of the most unique cultural experiences of your Costa Rican visit.