Cahuita: Costa Rica’s Caribbean Getaway

Caribbean Beach, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Caribbean Beach, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The nighttime jungle cacophony blended with the sound of the Caribbean surf, forming an exotic symphony.  A full moon peeked through a gap in the clouds and the jungle went quiet for a moment.

Outside my room, the river estuary was home to howler monkeys, caiman, green iguanas, tree frogs, parakeets and macaws.  All these creatures were drawn by the river and secure on the edge of Cahuita National Park (Parque Nacional Cahuita) which was less than fifty meters from my hotel.

There are a handful of beach towns along the east coast of Costa RicaCahuita may be the most relaxing of these Caribbean getaways.

Ten miles south, Puerto Viejo has become a victim of its own success.  The popularity of Puerto Viejo has raised prices, and brought rapid development.

Cahuita, however, remains tranquil, unspoiled and uncrowded.  It’s also unique for its Afro-Caribbean Creole culture.  The town was founded by a group of fishermen from Jamaica who, by way of Panama, made annual turtle hunting trips to this coast.  One year they decided to stay.  Today most Cahuitans are black people who speak English with a Jamaican accent.  The cook pots in Cahuita’s kitchens bubble with Caribbean favorites like goat curry, chicken jerky, and lobster stew.  In the sand floored night clubs the soothing sounds of acoustic Reggae and Calypso reaffirm the town’s roots.

Cahuita’s name is from a word in the language of the Aboriginal Britri people.  Cawi means the sangrillo tree (a type of mahogany) that is abundant in the area.

With a population of around 4,000 the town has the amenities you need, but none of the urban aggravations.  There are a few small stores, restaurants, bars, and tour offices, plus hotels, rental cabins, and guesthouses.  Mostly there is the peace and quiet of being on the edge of the national park.

The 2,711 acre Cahuita National Park is Costa Rica’s only community-operated national park.  There was some conflict in 1970 when the government appropriated farmland to create the park and today the government talks of expanding and expropriating parts of the town.  Residents are united in opposing this plan.

Peck Ferguson owns Cabinas Riverside.  His great grandfather was one of Cahuita’s founders, and his grandfather Walter was “The King of Calypso”.

I watched as Peck tossed a mango towards the little river on his property.  A six foot caiman lunged out of the water, snapping up the fruit.

“They are like my pets,” he said, “But I don’t really trust them.  It’s the same with the park expansion, they always want more.”

The ranger’s post at the park entrance on the beach accepts entry payment by donation.  Most visitors pay 500 Colones (one dollar) to hang out for a few hours.

The white sandy beaches are the main attraction.  Though there is no huge surf, the waves are fine for boogie boarding or body-surfing.  The water often carries debris: sand, sticks and even coconuts washed down from the rivers.

The parks’ trails along the shore and inland take you into beautiful coastal jungle and swamp settings.  You can encounter a wide range of species such as howler monkeys, ibises, toucans, white-nosed coatis, raccoons, agoutis, and sloths.

The coral reef just offshore is habitat to hundreds of species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans.  There are 35 types of coral.  Tour operators or your hotel can arrange snorkel and scuba excursions. You can dive among urchins, sea fans, parrot fish, stingrays and masses of tiny colorful reef fish.

From March to October the park’s beaches are nesting grounds for hawksbill, loggerhead and giant leatherback sea turtles.  Park rangers guide night viewings of the turtle nesting.  At times there are dozens of turtles digging in the sand.

That’s about as busy as it gets in Cahuita.

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Andrew Kolasinski

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Andrew Kolasinski has published three travel guide books: Complete Vancouver Island Tourist Guide; Guide to Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of Peru; and The Best of Peru. He also publishes Island Angler (Guide to Fishing on Vancouver Island, Canada). When not fishing for salmon and trout, he travels the world and writes for websites, newspapers, and magazines.

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