We woke up early last Friday to depart San Jose and got to the bus station around 5:45 am for our early trip to the Atlantic (Caribbean) Coast. Seven and a half hours later (thanks in large part to a long stretch of construction on the main 1-lane road through the mountains) we arrived in Puerto Viejo, a small town near the southern end of the east coast.
We didn’t technically make it all the way to the bus station. Upon arrival in town we were let off the bus at a random corner because the large coach bus was unable to make the turn as a result of a parked car too close to the corner. After the bus driver honked a few times, and a few people in a nearby corner store tried to move the SUV, everyone on board calmly got up and off the bus, like it was no big deal. Looking back this seems like a good example of how laid back this place is. Also, the fact that shirts and shoes are optional pretty much anywhere, people walking and biking share the road with cars, and everyone is super friendly whether you’re a local or not. But back to the bus. Getting off early worked out for us, as it kept us a few blocks closer to our home for the next 10 days. We booked a stay at the Cabinas Jacaranda, several blocks up from the main downtown area (except for the night where they were replacing the water main until 9PM). Sidenote: “Cabinas” seem to be relatively common here and are sort of a cross between a hotel and a hostel, where you have a private room with a bathroom but share a kitchen and other common spaces that are usually outdoors.
We spent the next few days exploring and walking around town. Per usual, a big part of this was trying the local cuisine. Just like in San Jose, the base of a typical dish is either gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed) or arroz y frijoles (white rice and beans, separate) with your choice of protein and usually a side salad and some form of plantains. Our primary (and favorite) choice of protein here is pollo caribeño, chicken in a caribbean sauce. Like any recipe the ingredients and flavor can vary from place to place; in this case, the sauce ranges from slightly sweet to spicy, but they are all fantastic. Unlike in San Jose, the rice here is usually cooked with coconut milk, which is excellent when mixed with the sauce. Over the next week, we had gallo pinto con pollo caribeño no less than four consecutive days at four different sodas and we enjoyed it each time.
Fresh tropical fruit is also readily available here (obviously), either at the supermercado or from street vendors throughout town, so we took this opportunity to get some fresh pineapple, mango, avocado, and a few others to keep in our room for breakfast. It goes without saying that it was all delicious, especially our favorite, mango. In addition to the great food we discovered in Puerto Viejo we also spent a lot of time walking the long expanse of coastline in either direction of town. There are pretty much endless beaches in both directions. In between more open spaces, the rainforest extends right up to the water, but there are trails that get you from one beach to the next. On several occasions we spent the majority of our time walking and didn’t even bother stopping to set up our towels.
Our first trip outside of town brought us to Parque National Cahuita, next to the town of Cahuita about a half hour drive north of Puerto Viejo, where we hoped to see as many different types of animals as possible. It did not disappoint. Though we passed on getting a tour guide (just outside the entrance there were plenty hawking their services), we had an incredible experience. The lush park is home to all sorts of animals including monkeys, sloths, lizards, raccoons, and birds. Perhaps less exciting but just as beautiful are the massive and numerous trees, some of which easily extend more than 100 feet above the forest floor.
We followed the main trail along the coast line basically staring up into the trees the entire time. Early in our hike we came across a group of monkeys enjoying lunch in the trees above, where they would work on the small golf ball sized fruits until they dropped them accidentally. Next we saw a nest (nest? sounds right) of raccoons playing amongst themselves atop a small tree. And all throughout we saw dozens of little lizards running for cover on the forest floor or the low laying greens.
The sloths, however, eluded us throughout the early part of our hike until we came across another pair of tourists with a guide. The guide was nice enough to offer up all of his tips for spotting the sleepy critters, and pointed us directly to a few far-off sloths. The first few we saw were pretty far away, mostly sleeping, and looked like little fluff balls high up in the trees, but we used his advice to find more later on in the hike. I saw one climbing just next to the path and he conveniently moved directly above the path for a private photo shoot.
After finding our first sloth on our own (we named him Buddy), it opened the floodgates for sloth sightings. The next day while sitting at a coffee shop for the morning around the corner form our cabina, we stumbled across a mother sloth with her baby resting atop her napping on the coffee shop fence. Just sitting there, minding their own business. Turns out this mother/child tandem frequents the coffee shop and neighboring properties (no more than a quarter acre in size). How cool!?
She, by the way, is a two-fingered sloth. Fun fact: The name for these animals incorrectly refer to sloths as two or three “toed” when in reality all sloths have three toes and it is actually their “fingers” that differentiate the species. The two-fingered sloth (above) has two fingers and a tan colored coat with a lighter caramel colored head, while the three-fingered sloth has three fingers and is gray (see Buddy). We learned this from our Jaguar Rescue Center tour guide (more on that next), who told us his group is actively working to formally change the name to reference fingers instead of toes. May seem lame for some, but super cool for us. Also cool; the Spanish word for sloth is “perezoso” which is currently our favorite Spanish word.
Our second trip outside of town was also animal centric, when we rented some beach cruiser bikes for the day and made the trip a few miles south to the Jaguar Rescue Center. The story of the rescue center is fascinating. Two Italian biologists were both in Puerto Viejo and met each other in town in 2001. Turns out they actually both worked at the Barcelona Zoo at the same time and had never met each other. Small world. Fast forward to 2005 when some locals came across an injured animal and brought it to the local “animal experts”. The animal in question was a wild cat, although incorrectly referred to as a Jaguar by the locals, and the name for the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.
Their goal is to release each and every animal they receive back into the wild (another fun fact, there are no zoos in Costa Rica). Our tour guide explained that nowadays they rarely have a wild cat in the center, which is good, as all six wild cat species to Costa Rica are endangered. Furthermore, besides their resident cat Diavolino (“Little Devil”), a margay who is too used to humans to release into the wild, the center has successfully released 12 cats back into the wild. More common visitors include sloths, monkeys, and birds. During our tour we saw all kinds of animals including the aforementioned margay, sloths, monkeys, macaws, a local species of wild pig, a white tailed deer, and even a boobie.
Our guide explained that many of the sloths and monkeys that arrive are babies who survived an accident with a power line that leaves them without a parent. Others are recovering from people who’ve illegally kept them as pets, as is the case monkey in the center photo (he was kept for 26 years inside someone’s home on a four-foot length of rope). The macaws shown at the right are a combination of these two cases, with the great green macaw coming in due to an injured wing resulting from a fall from his nest and the scarlet macaw being rescued from someone’s home. Other animals are rescued from the black market or being smuggled across the border.
Congrats on making it to the end of this long post. Emily and I love food, animals, and nature, so this place has been an incredible stop for us. Next up we’re heading inland to the mountains and spending a week in Monteverde. But first, a few more animals pictures if you’re not sick of them yet.