The Old Port: A low season snapshot of Puerto Viejo and the southern Caribbean
They say Puerto Viejo is a party town. Surfers lazily flip flop around the old port toward the infamous waves of Salsa Brava, take a siesta, and come out once more to party through the evening and into the morning. Bob Marley’s greatest hits can be heard throughout the day and into the night, whether you’re at an expat-run bar or a family-owned restaurant just off the main strip. Beach bikes ply the narrow roads as travelers and locals alike navigate from the black sands of Playa Negra to the more popular Playa Cocles. Short jaunts north and south along the coast offer impressive Cahuita National Park and the more remote Playa Manzanillo. In the end, Puerto Viejo surpasses expectations, defies rumors, and demands a return.
Diving off the bone
At the edge of the main strip, the crashing waves to our backs, my wife Melanie and I began a short march south to the Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge. Sidewalks quickly disappeared as we passed a few restaurants, shops, and a grocery store. Soon we were in the residential part of town, walking past the school and soccer field where a pickup game among a few local kids was underway. The hike up the gravel road to Cashew Hill, our suitcase in my arms for an extended bicep curl, was my workout for the day.
The effort is worth it. I can say without hesitation that this was one of the nicest lodgings in which I’ve ever stayed. This place was designed in a way that feels like nature could easily reclaim it if not for the care of manager Andrew Denley. Unsurprisingly, it is a lot of work to maintain the perfectly manicured gravel paths that criss-cross between shrubs, flowers, and fruits as if in a mini-greenhouse of sorts. Not to mention caring for the cabins themselves seems to be an ordeal in of itself. Luckily Andrew has Edwin on hand to assist, a Tico always with a broad smile whose family is in San José, but longs to move to Puerto Viejo.
After admiring our ocean view from our pleasantly perched location, hunger called us to town. We quickly stumbled upon Soda Guetto Girl One Love, a basic-looking wooden shack with Caribbean character. Clearly this was a family business as a baby was sleeping in a crib next to an empty dining table in the middle of the establishment. No menu, only Bob Marley jammin’ and casados.
Costa Rica, for some reason, doesn’t seem to have the greatest food reputation. Tico cuisine often elicits a “meh” from foodies. I find this unfair. That said, I feel like we have been raving about each casado as our best casado in Costa Rica, one right after the other since moving here four months ago. The casado con pollo at Soda Guetto Girl was no different, with the chicken not just falling off the bone, but damn near diving into my mouth. The salsa caribeña did things to my palette I had not experienced since my first helping of salsa Lizano. Thankfully salsa caribeña would make several additional appearances throughout the trip. It was always best at the family-run joints.
Original impressions conjured up a rather sleepy town with little to do outside of grabbing a tasty casado and hitting the waves. To the contrary, even a slow Tuesday night yielded surprises around every corner. Vacationers and locals alike were trotting around, enjoying the warm sea air hours after the sun had set. An intense ping pong match was underway at Lazy Mon between two men who seemed to be treating their little competition no differently than an olympian would with a medal on the line. Makeshift stands and shops were aplenty with various inexpensive beachy merchandise. There was a distinctly Jamaican vibe.
The Jamaican culture clash comes from the Costa Rican Caribbean’s history with cheap labor. With the constant drum of reggae and prevalence of English, one might wonder if this is more Jamaica than Costa Rica. After all, this area was historically English with Puerto Viejo known as “The Old Harbor,” Cahuita as “Bluff,” and Bri Bri “Fields.” This changed when Spanish was institutionalized by the central government. Though it’s easy to be reminded that this indeed is Costa Rica by the prevalence of sodas and casados.
Sitting on the beachside patio of Lazy Mon, enjoying a cool Imperial, it was easy to imagine the other side of Puerto Viejo, the “party town” we had read about. You could see a hint of it in the few bars blaring club beats for an audience of solely employees. Thankfully for our preferences, crowds were modest and the vibe followed as such. We went to sleep pleased with our destination.
It bears repeating that Cashew Hill is a sight in of itself. We took our time the next morning to further explore the property, following the pebble trails into the surrounding flora and variety of Bribri-fashioned stone statues. Pineapple, star fruit, mango, lime, and banana trees could also be found along with the occasional sloth sighting.
“Being here is just about relaxing,” Andrew told us during our morning walk.
On cue, a light rain started that necessitated us putting this relaxation business to the test.
Eventually we meandered back into town for yet another casado con pollo to fuel our mile-hike to Playa Cocles. Walking out of town, Puerto Viejo turns into the more secluded beach town we had previously found in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, with just one unmarked road tracing the coast and the occasional hostel or restaurant along the way. It’s all very subtle with nature as the focal point.
We later learned from Andrew that Costa Rica has a maritime law explicitly to protect their coastline from development. Few exceptions are made, which is why you’ll rarely find a restaurant or hotel right on the beach. Though in April 2012, some local residents and business were informed that the government would be evicting and demolishing their properties due to violations of said law. The feeling was that you’re never sure what the government is going to do or why. Rumors abounded that the government was giving into so-called foreign-financed “Mega Marinas.” Almost two years later, ground had not been broken and the Costa Rican legislature approved a law to allow the residents to stay put.
There is certainly little development surrounding Playa Cocles — a modest slice of sand full of sunbathers and surfers. The waves were perfect for surfers, but the undertow proved too strong for my toddler-esque swimming skills.
Our beach needs fulfilled, we headed back to Cashew Hill for a sunset yoga session with Sean Panora, a college lacrosse buddy of Andrew’s who followed the road to Central America after feeling burned out by corporate America. Sean helps out around Cashew Hill and serves as the on-call yoga instructor. He also has the distinction of training with Costa Rica’s national lacrosse team.
Oh yeah, Costa Rica has a national lacrosse team.
Sean, with a bit of a professional background back home, was even invited to join and play for the Ticos in Denver for this year’s World Cup of lacrosse.
“I almost said yes for the story,” he told us over drinks at Cashew Hill. “Gringo who doesn’t speak Spanish on the Costa Rican national lacrosse team. Would’ve been funny.”
Parque Nacional Cahuita
Thursday morning was somehow even lazier than the morning prior. We lingered on our first-floor patio, drinking coffee, eating breakfast, doing a bit of work, and simply enjoying the light breeze off the Caribbean Sea. Hours later we headed out for a bit of sloth sighting around the property before heading down into town for lunch at Soda Shekiná.
The staff invited me into the kitchen to meet the chef and see how patacones are made — a delicious Latin snack where one essentially fries and salts smashed plantains. Add a some refried black beans and queso, and you have yourself a new Super Bowl snack.
From there we moved onto Gecko Trail Adventures to meet with Nina Neidhart, a Swiss expat who was in the process of becoming an official Tica when we started sharing emails. Nina found us a guide for some hiking around nearby Cahuita National Park.
Just outside the heart of Cahuita, a sleepy Caribbean town about a half-hour north of Puerto Viejo, sits the humble entrance to the national park alongside the coast. We paid our suggested donation of one or two bucks, then followed the sandy beach trail through the quiet jungle with our eagle-eyed guide. Thanks to his assistance, we saw troupes of white-faced monkeys prancing about from tree to tree like ballet dancers on the jungle vines. It seemed choreographed and not just a mindless way for them to spend the afternoon.
We also saw numerous lizards, spiders, crabs, snakes, and everyone’s favorite, sloths. Though I have to be honest about the sloths. Our patient guide would continuously point to the sky, spotting them like a bloodhound in search of a shot duck. My vision not being what NASA would require, it all eventually looked like a tree bark-colored blur. At least Melanie was able to see. However, my enjoyment came from planning my future trail runs around this wonderful sendero. Flat with the feeling of being completely alone, this is where you want to run and never look back. Though for us, we did have to look back when a park guard informed us the park was closing.
I guess we’ll have to come back.
Perfect weather is never a guarantee along the Costa Rica coastline, despite what the postcards may suggest. Luckily, the fantasy was a reality on our final day in Puerto Viejo. Doubly lucky was that we were with a couple of locals who knew where to go to best take advantage of the perfectly blue sky. Otherwise we might have ended up wandering around Playa Cocles again or frolicking in the blacks sands of Playa Negra right off Puerto Viejo’s main strip. Both perfectly suitable options, but they simply cannot compare to Manzanillo.
Sean drove. Eventually the road turned into beach trail similar to Cahuita’s. Every time I thought we had arrived to Manzanillo, Sean continued navigating the narrow road until we found a small, makeshift parking lot along the coast. An older gentleman working as both parking attendant and vendor served us a couple of pipas — coconut water — sliced open with his machete. Sipping our coconuts, we continued marching south along the beach trail into the coastal jungle.
The trek is wonderful. You find the kind of secluded beaches where nary a dozen people roam. Melanie and I hung back to admire the view from a piece of land that juts out just right to offer an incredible 180-degree view of the southern Caribbean coastline. A pavillion is stationed on standby for picnickers, but we continued south to catch up with Andrew and Sean who were already hitting the waves by the time we arrived to our piece of Manzanillo.
This, followed shortly thereafter by eggs, potatoes, chicken sausage, and french pressed coffee at Bread and Chocolate, perfectly capped our visit to Puerto Viejo. This rustic little beach town gave us precisely what coastal travelers are looking for when they come to Costa Rica — a piece of natural serenity not too far from jungles teeming with wildlife.
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