Originally Featured in Travel Culture Magazine, November 5, 2012

Something seems wrong. It’s dark and the bed is swaying from side to side. I think I may be dreaming, but as my eyes adjust and focus on the silky, pink mosquito net draped over the bed, I remember, I’m in Costa Rica. I soon realize that the gentle rocking is from an early morning earthquake, an occasional occurrence here. The subtle motion stops but already has stirred my wife, Jenn, and a family of howler monkeys outside. The monkeys’ deep bellows echo from the trees and are answered by another group in the distance. Their conversation, loud at first, fades to a soft snore that puts me back to sleep. 

I doze for another hour then finally succumb to the chorus of lively birds and streams of sunlight seeping into our rustic cabin. It’s apparent that nature is in control. Grabbing my camera, I sneak down the ladder from the loft, being careful not to wake Jenn. Our tiny, A-frame bungalow at BluSpirit in Cahuita sits just steps from a rocky beach. As the sun rises in streaks of brilliant orange, I watch a slender fishing boat cut through the turquoise Caribbean Sea; palm trees lean in around me as waves lap the shore.

 

Fishing boat in Cahuita, Costa Rica

 

Beautiful, exotic settings like this can be found in many parts of the world. But it is the people—the Ticos—that make Costa Rica so special.

As we stroll through town along a dusty dirt road, we pass the friendly faces of locals, expats, and like-minded tourists. Everyone seems to be happy, and it’s contagious. I ask a man on the corner, his bicycle leaning against a barbed-wire fence, where we can get a good breakfast. The man has the distinct look of someone from Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, with his dark skin and dreadlocks poking out from a stylish cap. His loosely buttoned shirt flutters in the breeze against his dusty jeans.

Thinking for a moment, the man says, “Café del Parquecito.”

Dreadlocks aren’t common in other parts of Costa Rica, but they have a strong presence here. Afro-Caribbean decedents from islands like Jamaica and Barbados make up much of the population along the Caribbean coast. In the late 1800s, families were brought to this region to work on banana plantations and to build a railroad connecting the Caribbean ports to the Central Valley. Many of those families eventually purchased their own land, living alongside the already-present Spanish and indigenous decedents. The result is an eclectic culture with a laid-back island vibe that is totally unique to this part of the country.

“El café está muy rico,” the man adds with a nod, directing us up a side street.

At the tin-roofed, open-air restaurant, we sit down at a wooden table. A middle aged Tica presents us with menus. Unlike the man, she lacks a Rastafarian style and instead has the look of most Ticas across the country. Her soft, brown skin has a hint of makeup, and her dark hair is pulled tightly back into a high ponytail. Although short, she stands tall. She has the pride of her family’s restaurant written on her face.

“Buenos días,” she says pleasantly. 

We exchange good mornings and order a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto (black beans and rice with eggs) along with two cups of coffee. In the back, an old man whistles while he pours the cups. As he approaches our table, his arms quiver from the weight of the mugs and he walks with tired legs. Without spilling a drop, he gently sets down the coffee, and pauses. His determined, wrinkly face abruptly gives way to a broad smile. Shuffling back to the kitchen, his spirited whistle returns. Without a word we feel welcome.

After breakfast, we head to Parque Nacional Cahuita, just steps from the center of town. Besides the people, Costa Rica’s natural environment is by far its best attraction. After paying a small donation to enter, we walk along a flat trail that parallels the beach. Tangles of sea grape, almond trees, and dense, raw jungle surround us. Bird calls ring out as we follow a giant blue morpho butterfly down a footbridge.

Footbridge at Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica

Our hike brings us past a lagoon, out to a sharp point, and to another beautiful shoreline on the opposite side. Exotic wildlife abounds: two- and three-toed sloths, whip-tailed lizards, Halloween crabs, a family of raccoons, as well as troops of white-faced and howler monkeys. Traveling through a low swampy area, we also see one of Costa Rica’s deadliest snakes, the eyelash pit viper. The snake is bright yellow but acts as if it is camouflaged, wrapped around a low branch. We don’t feel threatened by any of these wild creatures, and they seem to stay a safe distance from the well-trodden trail.

Eyelash Pit Viper at Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica

Fulfilled by a full day of hiking and wildlife sightings, we trek back to town to relax before dinner. The pace of Costa Rica seems to mimic our afternoon of hammock lounging and taking dips in the warm ocean—relaxed and unrushed. But soon it’s time to eat, and we follow the smell of Jamaican-style barbeque and the sound of calypso music resonating down the beach.

Chao’s Paradise restaurant is already buzzing with excitement when we arrive at dusk. It’s as if the town has been saving up its energy all day. Droves of locals and tourists are lined up for heaping plates of succulent barbecued pork or chicken with rice and beans. The flavors, like the people, are different from the rest of Costa Rica. Influenced by the Caribbean islands, the rice has a hint of coconut milk, and the sauce, a subtle but addictive spice.

We have been in Cahuita for only a few days, but are already starting to recognize some familiar faces. Fellow tourists, lots of locals, and even shop owners from town fill the seats. The friendliness seems even more contagious. Strangers are talking like old pals and good friends are sharing animated stories. Before long, the outdoor seating is full, and people begin to stand in the voids, bobbing and dancing to the beats of bongos and guitar. Everyone mingles, dances, and drinks to create a vibe that can only be described as a Caribbean fiesta.

The next morning, our heads still spinning from strong cocktails, we pack our bags and get ready for the long bus trip to our next adventure. Walking through town toward the bus station, we notice that Cahuita has transformed back into the relaxed, sleepy village that had greeted us on arrival. The upbeat calypso music is gone, the singing silenced, and the hearty scent of Caribbean spices replaced by a salty ocean breeze.

Along the rocky dirt road, a few locals cruise by on bicycles, weaving from side to side. Shop owners open their doors, sweep their entrances, and arrange their brightly colored souvenirs. Children dressed in uniforms carry schoolbooks by their side. We reach the center of town and something stops us: a whistle—the old man’s whistle. It echoes from the kitchen, cutting through clanking plates and dishes. The song is beautiful, lively, and smooth. Jenn smiles, and I look at my watch. Maybe we have time for just one more cup?