Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
Puerto Viejo is a small town located on Costa Rica’s Talamanca coast, near the Caribbean Sea. The recommendation to visit came from a former coworker, who said that the scenery and atmosphere reminded her of her family’s home in Sierra Leone. The earliest inhabitants of this coastal town were the Bribri and Cabecar Native Americans. I was fortunate enough to visit a family of the descendants of the Bribri and Cabecar tribes during my stay. A woman showed me how they make chocolate from the cacao fruit, and the process of it becoming a chocolate bar. Black fishermen and farmers from neighboring Nicaragua and Panama began to settle the coast in the early 18th century. As a result, in a relatively remote area, a culture blossomed between those of African descent and the indigenous peoples. These two groups have lived together, traded with one another, and learned from each other.
During my time in Costa Rica, I was about a 4.5 hour bus ride from the capital San Jose from Puerto Viejo. As we got closer, acres upon acres of banana plantations lining both sides of the highway became visible, with blue bags covering the fruit for protection from insects and other pesticides. The importance of the banana in Costa Rica and the presence of the United Fruit Company in the country is an interesting and complex history. I would not do it justice by trying to sum it up in this piece, but I would be remiss to not mention it at all as a possible research point for any reader who may come across this. Whereas San Jose embodied more of the hustle and bustle you might expect of a capital city, Puerto Viejo is more secluded and relaxing, I immediately felt right at home. Much of the cuisine is Afro-Caribbean influenced, thanks to Jamaican migrants who came to the area in the late 19th century to work on the aforementioned banana plantations and railroad projects. I have to say the best dish I tasted was the rondon stew, a coconut milk based mixture filled with whatever could be “run down” that day as it was explained to me, in this case there was fish, yuca, carrots, yams and various spices. In any given restaurant or shop some nice reggae tunes could be heard playing, which added to the very laid back atmosphere. The beach nearest to my hotel was called playa negra which gets its name from the distinctive iron-laden black sand.
The most rewarding experience for me was a walk tour through the Manzanillo jungle with my guide Ricky. Before we began, he asked where I had come from and I told him the United States.
He let me know as Afro peoples (as he would refer to us throughout our walk) no matter where in the world we come from we have a common source, and it is important we share and learn from our collective experiences.
Ricky was an older Rasta man, originally from Jamaica and his extensive knowledge of the land was very impressive. He had the eyes of a hawk, I was amazed at how easily he could point out an iguana in the towering trees from a far distance. We encountered a fairly large banana spider, resting on its web. Not knowing any better I assumed it was venomous, but Ricky gently lifted the spider and allowed it to crawl along his face to demonstrate how harmless it was. Then I felt comfortable enough to allow the spider to examine my own hands. At one point later on in our journey I heard a thundering roar that sent vibrations throughout the jungle. What I thought must surely be a large cat was actually a howler monkey, likely responding to the aroma of a couple of small dogs that were following us as Ricky said. Seemingly at every stop or turn he was pointing out a different plant or tree and it’s medicinal/hygienic use for the local people. To think that this vast understanding of nature has been utilized for survival for generations really put everything into proper perspective and my guide left me with a few words to remember He said that.
“As Afro people, we are a people of nature. If you open your heart to it, respect it and hold it close to you, nature will provide all that you need.”
There are no shortage of activities to do or things to see in Puerto Viejo. It’s very scenic, serene, and it felt as much like “home” as anywhere I had ever been. It is much more than nice beaches. There is a rich culture that I hope will be preserved and that others will seek to explore in a manner that is enriching for them and for the local people. My last day in town I picked up What Happen: A Folk-History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast from a small shop. I highly recommend this book for more information about the history of the people of the coast.
Photo Credit: Andre Little
Andre Little is a graduate of North Carolina Central University – holding a degree in computer information systems but forever a student of history. Currently writing first book for contribution to the field of African Diaspora studies.