The 75 kilometers of beaches from the Caribbean port of Limón southeast to Manzanillo are populated by guidebook entries – cabinas, wildlands, villages and, of course, restaurants.
Whether you strategically plan your eating or simply follow your eyes and nose, you should have no trouble finding a good representation of local and international delights, though some folks say “laid-back culture” is a euphemism for slow service. Here’s the breakdown from a recent Tico Times gastronomical expedition.
The mauve-colored Park Hotel is a distinguished place to gaze at Limón’s waterfront, and at a sculpture of what looks like a giant portion of soft-serve ice cream, over a plate of Caribbean-style corvina in mushroom sauce (¢3,960/$7.60), octopus in garlic (¢3,630/$7) or rice with jumbo shrimp (¢4,330/$8.30). As you contemplate the future of Limón port dockworkers or discern the meaning of the ice cream sculpture, you might munch on heart-of-palm salad, or move to the classic Costa Rican dessert, tres leches. The historic Park Hotel is at the east end of town, on the northern corner of the seaside park.
Down the street, to the south, open to the park’s small forest of white-based palm trees is a similarly priced venue, Brisas del Caribe. The restaurant feels casual, and is open to the walking boulevard that was packed a week ago with Carnival goers. A lobster goes for ¢5,500 ($10.60) here, and a seafood soup for ¢2,000 ($3.80).
Traveling south out of Limón toward the beach town of Puerto Viejo, you’ll find yourself quickly in the middle of nowhere. To the left, the sea gently laps at the beach; to the right are miles of banana plantations or forest. Most of the tourism starts about 45 kilometers down highway 36, in the town of Cahuita. The black road is narrow, flat and, as yet, pretty smooth.
Cahuita, a short jog off the main road, is “sort of a quieter version of Puerto Viejo; nice restaurants amid sort-of shanties,” one recent visitor said. One of the streets features concrete paving stones, but most are gravel.
Bursts of colorful signage spring from the ground at some of their crossings, directing tourists to any number of lodging places, eateries and facilitators of ocean sports.
“Natural” is a key word, but doesn’t necessarily mean more than “prepared with real food.” English is as common as Spanish, though some of it is enigmatic – for example, Natural Food Ingrid serves greasy Costa Rican lunches and displays this sign: “everything that makes here / all that you listen here / all that you see here / let it here that / that is of here.”
For the best Spanish food and coziest atmosphere in Cahuita, go to the last stand just west of the entrance to CahuitaNational Park, Hotel Kelly Creek. Through breezy windows in the small, wooden dining room, you’ll look on the pedestrian bridge over KellyCreek, and the sandy shores beyond it.
On your table you might see grilled red snapper (¢4,000-5,000/$7.70-9.60, depending on size), or a portion of the trademark Spanish meat and seafood delight, paella (¢5,500/$10.60 per person). A pitcher of sangria goes for ¢5,000 ($9.60).
New this year on the main street is the Coral Reef, a rock-front, wood-walled room below an Internet café and connected to a bar offering live calypso music thrice weekly.
The menu of seafood and Costa Rican dishes is priced from ¢2,530-7,700 ($4.90-14.80). Also new, around the corner, is the Mango Tango restaurant and pizzeria.
Farther up the street, Cha Cha Cha is an “international” spot for dinner; specials from Germany, Brazil, Russia, Thailand, Canada, Italy and parts of Africa go for ¢2,400-7000 ($4.60-13.50). The dessert menu features cheesecake with mora (blackberry), or, for a bit more mystery, the “black magic woman.”
The Caribbean standby is Miss Edith’s, on the west side of downtown Cahuita. Dishes such as rondón (a seafood soup made with coconut milk), fish with ginger, hot-jerked fish, coconut rice and beans, seafood pasta and shrimp range from ¢2,500-8,000 ($4.80-15.40).
In Puerto Viejo, eighteen fair-to-bumpy kilometers past Cahuita, every other building is a hotel, restaurant or both.With a near constant flow of reggae, some venues hang signs such as “the best magic brownies in town” and “please blow hits away.” The main road cuts right through town and is always within sight of the curved beaches.
Where to start… for breakfast, it’s hard to beat Bread and Chocolate, a center-of-town coffee shop that feels transplanted to the jungle from a mid-sized North American city, complete with hip music, faded sofa and chalkboard price lists. They specialize in –you guessed it. Almost everything is made on site, from bagels to the barbecue sauce over spicy potatoes to a vegan chocolate cake. ¢2,500 ($4.80) will buy a mediumsized breakfast with coffee.
Café Red Stripe is a tiny breakfast and lunch place with 14 flavors of smoothies, Nutella banana pancakes, falafel and a lending library. Most entrées are about ¢1,500-2,000 ($2.90-3.80).
Pan Pay has more space and a good selection of pastries and Spanish meats and cheeses. Breakfasts come with a baguette smeared with fresh tomato and olive oil (¢850-2,100/$1.60-4).
Soda Miss Sam might be Puerto Viejo’s best lunch value, serving casados from ¢800-1,100 ($1.50-2.10), and great fruit drinks.
Chile Rojo, one of a string of slightly fancier restaurants on the main strip, is a warm, vegetarian-friendly spot to eat Thai and Middle Eastern specialties: vegetarian samosas (¢1,400/$2.70), pita sandwich with tahini (¢1,800/$3.50), fish and coconut soup (¢2,400/$4.60), an excellent green curry (¢3,500/$6.70) and pan-seared tuna with ginger and black beans (¢4,000/$7.70).
Cocles to Manzanillo
The 14 kilometers from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo are defined by their beaches. Cocles is one of the first, and is home to the renowned La Pecora Nera restaurant and its recently opened sister trattoria Gatta Ci Cova (see separate story).
For a nice cup of tea while browsing a well-stocked, multilingual, air-conditioned bookstore, turn into the jungle at the sign for Echo Books.
On the way to Cocles, you might stop at Cafecito Kire, a German bakery and breakfast joint, for crepes (¢1,200-2,200/$2.30-4.20, depending on fillings), ice cream or a bowl of muesli (¢2,200/$4.20).
Continuing toward Playa Chiquita, you’ll find Miss Holly’s, a spacious, cute venue that looks a bit like a gingerbread house, and is open for breakfast and lunch every day except Tuesdays. Here, you can get gallo pinto, cinnamon rolls, bagels, tuna Niçoise, chicken salad or an Italian sandwich for about ¢2,800 ($5.40). Some people like the agua de sapo –a drink made with tapa dulce (brown sugar), ginger and lime – and some don’t.
At Punta Uva, Selvyn’s is an outdoor, shaded dining room that feels quieter than you’d expect for being right on the main road; hours seem hard to predict.
Manzanillo is the end of the road, and the main dining room in town is the two-story Restaurante Maxi. Soda Maxi is next door, offering basic casados, fajitas, scrambled eggs and omelets (¢1,000-3,500/$1.90-6.70).
Restaurante Maxi is a large, wooden restaurant with a direct view to the sea and the snorkelers trolling Manzanillo’s coral reef. If you have lots of money, or are traveling on a company tab,Maxi’s is a good place to use it up before heading home. Most seafood is priced by size and weight: shrimp, red snapper and lobster go for as little as ¢2,800 ($5.40) to as much as ¢20,100 ($38.70). Roly’s Special comes with shrimp, fish and lobster in a Caribbean sauce (¢15,400/$29.60) and the Dennis Mix is a platter of grilled meats and fish for four to six people (¢17,500/$33.70).