The slothful joys of Costa Rica's coast

Before the roads improved, daredevil surfers used to

Before the roads improved, daredevil surfers used to travel for days to reach big waves on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. These surfers are headed for relatively mild surf in Cahuita, on the country's Caribbean side. (Credit: Melissa Allison/Seattle Times/MCT)

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is known for reggae music, Jamaican food and an edgy vibe that occasionally spills over into violence.

To us, it sounded like an adventure to spice things up after a week on the more popular Pacific coast of this Central American country.

In small towns a couple hours south of Puerto Limon, where Columbus docked for 17 days in 1502, my husband, David, and I found reggae music blasting out of bars and the best food we had tasted anywhere in the country.

But edginess? Not at all.

If anything, the Caribbean was a calmer, cooler version of Costa Rica's Pacific side -- and with a lot fewer people.

Aside from a raccoon that kept getting too close -- and who nipped another hiker's finger while trying to grab her daypack -- the Caribbean coast was all about being happy and lazy.


ABOUT THE AREA

The Caribbean side of Costa Rica has a sad history for a country that is among Latin America's most peaceful and democratic.

Although Columbus landed on the Caribbean coast in 1502, the Spaniards developed mainly Costa Rica's Pacific side and central valley. It was not until the late 1800s that anyone laid a railroad track through the jungles and swamps along the east side.

The area was rebuilding its reputation after murders in 2000 of two American teenagers in Cahuita when, last fall, a Californian tourist was murdered on a beach near Puerto Viejo.

Yet we never sensed menace anywhere in Costa Rica as we explored the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; the downtown of San Jose, the capital; and rode on public long-distance buses.

The Costa Ricans -- who call themselves "Ticos" -- were warm and open. They helped us overcome our lack of Spanish, using pantomime and patience to help us figure out everything from menus to bus schedules.

A word about schedules in Costa Rica: Breathe. We found conflicting departure times for buses, and one ferry schedule for tourists said it was "not yet confirmed, but probably it will be like this."


SEEING THE SIGHTS

While tourists flock to the Pacific side of the country for gorgeous resorts and eco-adventures such as zip-lining and white-water rafting -- the vibe on the Caribbean coast is much more laid back. There are several wildlife refuges and nature lodges.

We took a leisurely bicycle ride to the Jaguar Rescue Center. It has no jaguars now, but was named after a baby jaguar that it tried unsuccessfully to rescue in 2007. Run by a European couple who started by collecting snakes, it quickly became a popular place to drop off all sorts of sick and injured animals.

The sloths were our thing. They have soulful eyes peering out of pointy faces and an owllike ability to rotate their heads to see tourists cooing all around them. They creep along at a leisurely pace, but can reach the speed of a briskly walking human if motivated. They have surprisingly soft fur, as we learned when we were invited to touch them at the rescue center.

For the rest of the week, we craned our necks at every lump of brown in a tree in what turned out to be a vain attempt to spot a sloth in the wild.

We searched for them at Cahuita National Park, a 2,600-acre gem that juts into the ocean near the small town of Cahuita. There were capuchin monkeys in the trees, big silvery spiders in the bushes and -- one hiker assured us -- a yellow eyelash viper nestled near the path. But no sloths.

On our last day in Cahuita, we canceled a morning snorkeling trip because of rain and rough seas and opted instead for a sure bet: Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary.

Although people travel from all over the world to visit that particular sanctuary, we did not expect it to trump our love-at-first-sight sloth experience at the Jaguar Rescue Center. Somehow, it was better. We took a canoe trip through the sanctuary's outdoor refuge, where a guide pointed out several sloths in the wild -- including a mother hanging high above our heads, teaching her baby to find leaves.

It was a sweet ending to our Caribbean stay, which had been far more laid back than the guidebooks indicated, based on the region's distant and recent past.


IF YOU GO


WHEN TO GO

It rains almost daily all year round on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, but there is less rain in February, March, September and October on the southern Caribbean coast. The rain can be refreshing, given the high humidity and temperatures that climb into the 80s year-round.


GETTING AROUND

Puerto Viejo and Cahuita on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast are a four-hour bus ride from San Jose. Public bus schedules can be ambiguous and subject to change, but inn and hotel staff are almost universally helpful in figuring them out. Rental cars are affordable, but make sure the car insurance you typically use for travel will be valid in Costa Rica.


LODGING

We stayed at two places on the Caribbean coast: the Blue Conga Hotel in Puerto Viejo ($65 a night, including breakfast, bluecongacr.com) and Playa Negra Guesthouse in Cahuita ($70 with a pool but no breakfast, playanegra.cr).

Less-expensive places are available in the heart of Cahuita, such as the lovely Kelly Creek Hotel ($55, hotelkellycreek.com) and the clean but spare Hotel Belle Fleur in Cahuita (negotiate as low as $25, no website).

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