After a month in Panama, we were excited to get to Costa Rica, the land of plentiful wildlife, tropical fruits, beautiful beaches, and “pure vida” or “pure life” – which from what I can tell is the Costa Rican equivalent of “Aloha.” A couple from Spain with a little girl Coco’s age that we had met in Bocas del Toro recommended we check out Cahuita – just an hour over the border – as it was beautiful and quiet; great for families. Someone else later told us it might be “too quiet” and we should stay in Puerto Viejo instead. So we decided to have lunch in Puerto Viejo after crossing the border to feel it out, then head to Cahuita.
Crossing the Border
Much to my dismay, our first impression of Costa Rica left us feeling very negative. It turned out to be our most unpleasant border crossing to date. The immigration agents at the office at Sixaola were either having a horrible day and taking it out on everyone, or they are just plain rude. They had turned back a single mother traveling with two small children and told her to go back to Panama because she had “talked back” to one of the agents. Not sure what happened there, but we decided to be on our best behavior. However, we couldn’t resist trying to get to the front of the line with our two toddlers in true latino fashion as we knew the kids were going to start climbing the walls if they had to wait behind the 100 or so people who had just gotten off a tour bus ahead of us. Oddly, we were told that the children and I could bypass the line, but not Tomas. “Priority is only for the children and one parent, not both” they said. This awoke the dormant lawyer genes in my husband and he proceeded to present such a tenacious argument disputing the logic of this that they just waved us all through in exasperation. (That’s my man!) Glad they didn’t send us back to Panama! To add drama to our day, a minor earthquake rocked the building and we were told to evacuate, but decided against it as nobody else seemed to want to lose their place in line either.
Once our entrance was granted, we hit the road and our anger quickly subsided. Life was lush and vivid all around us we wound through the jungle that seemed to want to take back it’s land that the road had stolen. So dense was the foliage that we quickly realized the road wasn’t just for cars – people, bicycles, moms with strollers, dogs, chickens – everything used the narrow two-lane asphalt island to get from place to place.
Our stop in Puerto Viejo was pleasant – we had lunch at an Argentine restaurant and met the cook, who happened to be from Missoula, Montana. After chatting a bit with some locals about possible accommodations, we decided to keep going to Cahuita in search of cheaper rates and less of a party atmosphere.
Exploring the Pueblo of Cahuita
Cahuita is a small pueblo that sits at the entrance to one of the national treasures of Costa Rica – Cahuita National Park. The almost 3,000 acre reserve is home to an amazing number of native creatures such as sloths, monkeys, badgers, raccoons, toucans, and snakes, as well as surrounds a protected area of coral reefs and turtle breeding grounds. As we rolled into town with full bellies and plenty of daylight to kill, we decided to stop in nearly every “cabina” in town to compare rates and amenities. Nobody could beat Cabinas Palmer’s offer of $20 for a room with a shared kitchen and free coffee! It was an added bonus that the owner’s love children, and were constantly playing with and giving treats to our little ones. Extra points too for being right across the street from the main plaza and playground!
Our first day in Cahuita was spent relaxing, bird-watching in the hotel gardens, going grocery shopping, and meeting the locals at the playground. One thing to note: The restaurants are expensive (we couldn’t seem to get lunch for less than $30 USD – and we always eat at cheap places!) and the supermarkets are overpriced and sparsely stocked, so try to buy your groceries before you come. We were directed to a grocery store called Pali, a 9 kilometer drive south – which the locals said is the cheapest option in the area. The next day, we drove north to Playa Negra, a black sand beach with warm super-fine sand that feels like sun kissed powdered sugar. When we returned we had the amazing opportunity to meet the hotel’s resident sloth who lives in the trees above the courtyard and makes regular appearances climbing around on the eaves. I can’t express the joy I felt as this silliest-looking of all creatures passed within arms length as we giggled and shot photo after photo. I just couldn’t understand the owner’s attitude though as they wrinkled their noses and retreated in disgust.
Our favorite routine over the week that we stayed was taking our little ones to the playground which is located in the town’s main square. When the sun starts to set around 4:30 it becomes the meeting place for everyone from locals to tourists. The town is so small that you’ll run into just about everyone as the kids run wild and you relax to the sound of live bands playing in the two bars across the street. On Sunday night we were even treated to free drumming concert after sunset, which Coco and Eva got to boogie down to. One thing to note though: if you are a male and you walk through that plaza in the early evening or nighttime, someone will approach you to offer you drugs. Nothing to worry about as far as safety, it’s just the locals trying to make some money and they have obviously found a market! This never happened to me, but it consistently happened to Tomas.
A word of warning: if you want to wash your clothes in town, don’t go to “Big Mike J’s” place. We were charged $7 USD for a medium-sized load! Our hotel didn’t offer laundry service, so it might be worth it to look for one that does. We decided to reuse clothes as much as possible and save our laundry up until we reached San Jose hoping for a better price.
Cahuita National Park
Exploring Cahuita National Park was definitely the highlight of our stay. With our little ones in tow, we knew we would only be able to hike a small fraction of the length of the coastal trail, but we hoped we would get lucky and see some wildlife. It wasn’t long before we noticed movement in the brush and a pair of curious raccoons emerged. We thought it was pretty cool, and we followed them a bit taking photos, until we opened a pack of crackers for the kids and they rushed over right into our faces begging for food. My motherly fight instinct kicked in and we shooed these now potentially deadly sharp-toothed rodents away from our vulnerable babes and rushed down the trail to lose them. Phew, that was close!
Hiking in the jungle is generally not my cup of tea – especially after our 6-hour muddy trek in Mocoa, Colombia in which we attempted but failed to reach the End of the World Waterfall (we only got to the beginning of the end). But this trail was a pleasure. It winds along the coast just inside the treeline so there is plenty of shade and no mud – only nice compact sand. The ocean breezes keep you cool, and if you ever get too sweaty you can just take a dip in the lovely turquoise waters and keep going.
After ten minutes or so of craning our necks looking for arboreal creatures that weren’t presenting themselves to us, we caught up with a group of tourists being led by a
strange man guide who had the amazing ability to reproduce the sound of the Howler monkey’s call. Like a Costa Rican Crocodile Dundee, he stood belting out his strange guttural call in an attempt to arouse a sleeping lone Howler monkey on a nearby branch. He informed us that they live in large family groups, so they rest of the clan should be nearby. By clapping his hands loudly and making his call, he was hoping to instigate the alpha male’s protective instincts so he would come out of his hiding place. Amazingly, his calls were answered and we listened in awe and fear to the sound of an angry Howler monkey male echo throughout the treetops. Being the protective mama-bear that I am, I asked him if this species of monkey was aggressive or was known to attack people. “No, they just get close and act aggressive – break branches and jump around. The worst thing they might do is try to pee on you. Have you ever seen that? It’s amazing.” Um, no…. I haven’t (let’s go Tomas).
Our idyllic afternoon came to an abrupt end with the inevitable complaining and whining from the kids – pick me up, my feet hurt, I’m hungry, etc. As they did have a point, we headed back towards the entrance and were treated to a visit by a White-headed Capuchin, a highly venomous yellow Eyelash Viper, and a non-venemous but ominous-looking Golden Orb Weaver. In total, we spent only two hours in Cahuita National Park, and walked only 1.5 out of the 9 total kilometers of the trail. With small children, you could definitely cover more ground if you brought a hardy off-road stroller as the trail is flat enough to accommodate one. The great news is that even if your hike is cut short for whatever reason, you can come back the next day or as many times as you want because entrance to the park is free (donations accepted).
Helpful Tips for Visiting La Cahuita National Park:
Enter through the entrance at the town of La Cahuita, it’s FREE, while the other entrance will cost you $10 USD per person
Stay on the trail – venomous snakes are plentiful
Don’t feed the raccoons: it will only encourage them to hassle picnickers
Bring a picnic lunch, there are plenty of picnic tables dotted along the trail
Bring your bathing suit and a towel so you can take a dip in the ocean if you get too hot
Don’t forget mosquito repellent!
Flip flops are fine; the trail is flat and well-maintained
Binoculars are a must for spotting wildlife in the trees
If you have small children, the trail is stroller-friendly