A chorus of howling half-human cries jolted us awake on the first morning of our little Caribbean vacation. It wasn’t the kind of wake-up call that we were expecting (we weren’t expecting one at all), and it took me a minute of fumbling in the pre-dawn darkness just to remember where I was.
And there it was again: a cacophony of bellowing, rasping roars that seemed to be coming from just outside the door of our bungalow.
Then it dawned on me: howler monkeys.
My husband and I were in Cahuita, a lazy, out-of-the-way beach town tucked down near the southern end of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. We’d driven from the capital, San José, the day before and settled into our jungle hideaway just before dark. We were expecting to have a good long sleep – not to be startled awake at 4:30 in the morning. But in Cahuita, as it turns out, that’s all part of the experience.
I admit that I had hesitated to add Cahuita to our itinerary in Costa Rica – but not because of the threat of howling monkeys. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to associate Caribbean vacations with cruise ships, midnight buffets and all-inclusive resorts. We’d come to Costa Rica to do outdoorsy adventure stuff – whitewater rafting, hiking up volcanoes, zip-lining through the cloud forest – not to lounge on a crowded beach sipping overpriced cocktails.
But Cahuita wouldn’t be like that, or so we’d been assured by a couple of friends who knew the area. In Cahuita, they’d said, we’d discover the Caribbean as it was meant to be.
And so we did – howler monkeys and all.
When we pulled into Cahuita on that first afternoon, it was immediately clear that this isn’t your typical tourist beach town. The place has an old-village feel, with ramshackle wooden buildings, gravel streets and kids tooling around on their bikes. We took a quick stroll through town to get our bearings and saw people sitting out on their front porches, having a drink and watching the world go by.
It might have been those front porches, but to me the place seemed to have strong overtones of the U.S. deep South – the Florida panhandle, or maybe the Georgia coast. That sort of connection would kind of make sense, given the region’s history. An Afro-Caribbean fisherman named William Smith was the first person to settle in Cahuita back in 1828. Other fishermen followed, and the area slowly developed into a fishing community with a strong Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Today, Spanish is spoken alongside an English-based patois, and salsa music mixes with reggae on the radio airwaves. Local restaurants serve such classic Costa Rican dishes as gallo pinto (rice and beans), but you can also find spicy jerk chicken and other Caribbean staples. Those same cultural influences are evident up and down Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast: Limón, Cahuita’s province, is the most culturally diverse region in the country.
We didn’t have too much time before dark, so on that first afternoon of our visit, we decided to head straight for the area’s star attraction: Cahuita National Park, whose main entrance lies at the far end of the village.
We checked in at the park gatehouse, a little wooden hut on the edge of a sandy beach, and set off down the 5-mile trail that winds along the park’s coast. We were walking in the shade of palms, strangler figs and mahogany trees, but we could still see glimpses, and sometimes full views, of the glittering ocean on our left.
Just 6.5 square miles covering both land and sea, plus another 86 square miles of marine area, Cahuita National Park is one of the smaller reserves in Costa Rica’s extensive network of protected areas. But the park, which was first brought under government protection in 1970, packs a lot into its modest acreage, encompassing tropical rain forest, mangrove swamps and the country’s largest coral reef. It’s home to monkeys, iguanas, toucans, herons, sea turtles and an impressive array of venomous snakes.
We didn’t manage to spot all that wildlife in our 90-minute stroll as the sun went down. But we did have a few sightings: a furry gray three-toed sloth taking a nap (a long one, we suspected) in the crook of a tree trunk; a heron standing watch over a little cove; and white-faced capuchin monkeys rustling in the canopy overhead. And then, just as we were about to leave the park, an agouti – a little rodent that looks like the confused, energetic offspring of a squirrel and a Chihuahua – skipped across the trail ahead of us.
Not a bad start for our first two hours, I thought.
We were up early the next morning, thanks to that ear-splitting monkey wake-up call. We decided to take full advantage of the long day and drive down to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a somewhat larger coastal town about 10 miles to the south.
While Cahuita is rustic and sleepy, Puerto Viejo is rustic and lively, a veritable little party town stretched out along the coast. With plenty of foreigners wandering around in their swimsuits and flip-flops, it had an unmistakable tourist vibe. But still, we saw no signs of chain hotels, and there weren’t any cruise ships lining the bay.
We wanted to rent a couple of bikes, which was easy enough to arrange at one of the half-dozen bike shops lining Puerto Viejo’s main street. The cost for a full-day rental: $5 apiece.
All geared up with our pastel-colored bikes, we headed south out of town, on the smooth, narrow road that parallels the coast. For the first mile or so, we passed clusters of guesthouses, gift shops and cafes. But then the buildings dwindled, and the jungle grew thicker on either side of the road. The late-morning sun was warm on our sweaty backs, and the air was heavy with humidity and the dense smells of forest and flowering trees.
We pedaled all the way to the end of the road, and we were so enamored of the journey that when the pavement turned into a sandy trail, we parked the bikes and started to walk. We’d reached the village of Manzanillo, a tiny outpost less than 10 miles from the border with Panama. But beyond Manzanillo, there’s no road to the border – only a faint trace of a footpath that snakes its way through the remote Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Reserve.
After locking our bikes to a tree, we set off on foot on the path along the coast, keeping our eyes peeled for toucans, kingfishers and other birds that we hadn’t yet managed to spot. But the walking didn’t last long: Within about 30 minutes, the path died out – or so it seemed to us – on a hidden little curve of sand that was empty except for a few crabs that quickly scurried into their holes. So we scrapped the idea of a walk, dropped our bags and went for a beautiful warm-water swim.
We took our time riding back to Puerto Viejo that afternoon and returned the bikes just as darkness began to fall. Hungry and thirsty after all that time in the sun, we grabbed a table at the Lazy Mon, a beachside bar with a distinctly reggae feel, and settled in for a couple of hours of plain old chilling out. We ordered mango margaritas – two for the price of one – and dove into a heaping plate of handmade tortilla chips and fresh guacamole. The band crooned “No Woman, No Cry” as the sea breeze rustled the palms overhead.
Did it feel like a Caribbean cliche? Oh, yes. In the very best way possible.
We had one final morning in Cahuita, and we wanted to use it well. So we signed up for that quintessential Caribbean activity, snorkeling, in Cahuita’s coral reefs.
Spread across about 1,500 acres, the coral reef in Cahuita National Park is the largest of its kind in Costa Rica. The reef was damaged in an earthquake that struck the area in 1991, but it has been recovering well, thanks in large part to the protection that the park affords.
Just past 8 in the morning, we piled into a little motorboat with two other couples and a local guide who introduced himself as Carlos. We set off across the bay, puttering along for about 15 minutes before Carlos stopped the boat and motioned for us all to heave ourselves over the side and into the water.
Carlos didn’t speak a lot of English, but he didn’t need any language skills for this kind of tour guiding. We just swam behind him as he flippered his way around the boat, diving down to point out the octopi, lobsters and sea urchins hiding in the clusters of coral below. At one point a stingray slid past us, its long tail swaying gently in the current.
I swam a little ways away from the group, lingering a bit and getting a closer look at the rounded mounds of brain coral and stately rows of Elkhorn coral that dotted the seafloor. The fish were as thick as they were full of color: multi-hued angelfish, neon-blue parrotfish, banana-yellow butterfly fish and dozens of other species.
But what really struck me was the quiet. As I floated around in that underwater world, the only sounds I could hear were the swish of the ocean in my ears and my own breath as it pushed its way to the surface.
© 2013, The Washington Post