Melting pots are good for the soul – and the one gurgling away in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is very good indeed.
By the time you get here, you’re practically in Panama – but this dusty, ramshackle beach town on Costa Rica’s south-east coast feels more African Caribbean than Central America, with, crucially, a hint of the indigenous Bribri tribe.
The Bribris are a spiritual people. For them, the cacao tree used to be a woman. Sibu (God) turned her into a cacao tree, which means the branches are never used as firewood and only women are allowed to prepare and serve the sacred cacao drink.
Perhaps it’s the Bribri influence that helps draw such a diverse crowd to this glorious spot. Add to this the wildlife, the lively and affordable bars, restaurants and the mix of chic designer shops – plus the artists, spiritual healers, backpackers and hippies, who might have been interested in Ibiza 20 years ago but got priced out.
Puerto Viejo was where Jamaicans settled when they came to Costa Rica in the early 1900s to build the railways – or, rather, it was where they were told to settle in amongst the mosquitos and with no fresh water.
Mark Palmer travels to Puerto Viejo (above), a beach town on Costa Rica’s south-east coast
But they made it their own, introducing crops such as cacao, extracting lumber and developing various British customs, including cricket, May Pole dancing and an interest in Shakespeare.
Then, the area’s fame grew as surfers flocked in search of the famous 24ft wave known as ‘La Salsa Brava’, which crashes ashore between December and March and again in June and July.
The whole place suffered terribly during the pandemic when the country’s famous motto, ‘pura vida’ (pure life) was replaced with ‘quedate en casa’ (stay at home). But Puerto Viejo has bounced back.
Rainforest hideaway: Mark stays at Hotel Aguas Claras (pictured), which has access to Playa Chiquita beach
Inspiring: Above, beach signs show Costa Rica’s ‘pura vida’ motto
We are billeted a few miles south of town in Hotel Aguas Claras, where various cabanas on stilts have been built in a rainforest that backs onto Playa Chiquita, a beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach that makes me think this is what Barbados might have once been like.
Our raised bungalow has its own porch with an outside kitchen, from where we sit and listen to howler monkeys, well, howling, and macaws screeching.
Talking of macaws, we are alerted to the Ara Manzanillo project close to the hotel.
This is where, some 35 years ago, a couple set up a non-governmental refuge centre for these magnificent birds which have been in decline in Costa Rica.
But so far, nearly 100 great greens have been returned to the wild at this conservation centre, reached via a near vertical track deep into the rainforest.
We spend a couple of hours here and are shown around by an American volunteer graduate student, whose love for macaws is truly inspiring.
Our visit coincides with feeding time and so we see and hear the birds in all their glory. Pura vida indeed.
Hotel Aguas Claras features various cabanas on stilts, built in a rainforest that backs onto Playa Chiquita (pictured), which Mark describes as ‘a beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach’
Mark reveals that Puerto Viejo was where Jamaicans settled when they came to Costa Rica in the early 1900s to build the railways
Back at the hotel, there’s a pool and slinky bar, where we meet a Dutch couple who enthuse about the Parque Nacional Cahuita. So, off we go early the next morning.
It’s one of Costa Rica’s smallest national parks, about 20 minutes north of Puerto Viejo, off the road towards Limon, which has an airport for connections to and from the capital San Jose.
Cahuita itself is a charming village, much quieter than Puerto Viejo and offering plenty of cheap accommodation.
You enter the park via a footbridge at Kelly Creek. We had planned to leave the car in the village but an enterprising boy aged about 12 persuades us to park in a restaurant car park where, he says, he will ‘look after it’.
We hardly think this necessary because wherever we go in Costa Rica we feel safe – but are happy to give him the equivalent of £3 for his troubles. This produces a wonderful, toothy smile and when he discovers we are from the UK he looks as if he has seen Martians.
From Kelly Creek we amble south into the park, with the sea on our left and, beyond, an important coral reef 500 yards off-shore.
During his trip, Mark visits a refugee centre for macaws (pictured)
We spot a couple of racoons on manoeuvres, some monkeys but, sadly, no kingfishers.
At one point there is a commotion at the base of a huge tree. We know from other parts of the country that this could only be the sighting of a sloth and, yes, indeed, there it is high on a branch doing nothing. Sloths have a reputation way above what they merit. From ground level, this one looks like a big, abandoned birds’ nest.
From time to time, we cool off in the sea and enjoy watching families having picnics on the beach, knowing that they have made an effort to get there on foot, as absolutely no cars are allowed in the park.
We are particularly taken by the sight of a middle-aged woman sitting on a tree stump. Standing behind her is a young, local man whose job, it seems, is to rub oil all over the woman’s skin – and I mean all over.
To borrow, loosely, from Charles Lamb’s quote, she seems ‘contented but wishing for more’.
That evening, as dusk falls, I slip out of our cabana for a final swim. I have the beach to myself apart from a common black hawk that circles above, as if putting on an aeronautical show entirely for my benefit.
I am now the contented one and could not hope for anything more.