Exploring the wilder side of Costa Rica

PUERTO VIEJO, Costa Rica — 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 Limón, 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.

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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 who 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.

“Do you see this smile? Everyone here has it, and it’s real!” enthused Pierre St-Jacques, a transplant from Québec, Canada, who, with his wife, Marise Vincent, runs the Blue Conga Hotel in Puerto Viejo.

When we arrived a few hours before check-in, Marise recommended we borrow the hotel’s bicycles for a 15-minute ride to the Jaguar Rescue Center.


The slowness of the bicycles, the coolness of the air — and the slothfulness of the sloths at the Jaguar Rescue Center. We had found our coast.

The Jaguar Rescue Center 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.

Snakes have never been a favorite for us, and we were kind of over monkeys by the time we got there. Cute as they are, monkeys can be like hungry raccoons — aggressive.

On our first afternoon in a little rental cabin on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast a week earlier, a capuchin monkey had raided our kitchen for a banana. Mostly, it was hilarious — until it brought friends, and they bared their teeth at us. No, the sloths were our thing.

Called “osos perezosos” in Spanish, which means “lazy bears,” they have soulful eyes peering out of pointy faces and an owl-like ability to rotate their heads to see tourists cooing all around them.

A volunteer named Drew Domkus explained the difference between two- and three-toed sloths, which goes beyond their number of digits. Three-toed sloths sport dark eye masks. Two-toed sloths are browner and move more quickly, which is not to say fast. They can reach the speed of a briskly walking human if really motivated.

Mostly, though, all sloths creep along at a sub-leisurely pace, moving even their arms and heads so slowly that they appear sick or drugged or both. Then they sleep for hours from all the exertion.

Although their ancestors used to be quite large, sloths these days are the size of small dogs. They are in the same order of animals as anteaters and have surprisingly soft fur, as we learned when Drew let us touch them.

Sloth fur only appears wiry and coarse — an off-putting quality they enhance in the wild by harboring moss and insects, so they look as unappetizing as slow-moving compost heaps. (The rescue sloths were clean.)

For the rest of the week, we craned our necks at every lump of brown in a tree in what turned out 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 by 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.

We even looked for sloths at breakfast, but instead were shown — by one of Costa Rica’s many warm and welcoming locals — fresh nutmeg and a brilliant green frog with spots. The frog was covered in a hallucinogenic slime, he told us by twirling a finger near his ear and saying “loco.”

So, 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 were not allowed to touch the sloths, which made sense after we heard about the illnesses humans have brought them in the past.

Instead, 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.

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 — specifically, a New Yorker named Minor Keith — laid a railroad track through the jungles and swamps along the east side.

At first, it was supposed to be a trade route for coffee exports. When that did not pay well enough, Keith turned to bananas and eventually merged his company with a West Indies firm to create United Fruit Co.

Many of Costa Rica’s railroad and fruit workers came from Jamaica, and huge numbers died from malaria. Their descendants and other black Costa Ricans were not allowed to work or travel freely outside the province of Limón, on the Caribbean side, until 1949.

Most of Costa Rica’s black population still lives on that side of the country, which continues to be poorer and more susceptible to crime. 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 menaces anywhere in Costa Rica as we explored the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; the downtown of San José, the capital; and rode on public long-distance buses.

Costa Ricans — who call themselves “Ticos” — are warm and open, making more sustained eye contact than you get from strangers in Seattle. 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.”

The ferries run along the Pacific coast, which is much more popular with tourists than the Caribbean — partly because it does not have a reputation for crime, and partly because it is dry in the winter, when the Caribbean side gets rain almost daily.

We spent several days in Montezuma, at the southern tip of the massive Nicoya Peninsula on Costa Rica’s Pacific side.

Montezuma is a relatively isolated burg of 250 souls during the rainy season, which runs from May until November. But come December, the population explodes as foreign and Costa Rican tourists flock there to walk the beaches, swim beneath waterfalls and practice yoga in lush settings.

We rented a small house two miles from town, perched on a cliff above the ocean. The reward for braving the steep, potholed road was the view from the house. A thick emerald carpet of trees and ferns plunged down the hillside to a sliver of beach and boulders. Pelicans, hawks and fork-tailed frigate birds wheeled and soared below us. That’s where we got to know monkeys, too — the feistiness of the capuchin banana thieves that invaded our house as well as the low-pitched moans every morning and evening from howler monkeys that we rarely saw.

Yet lovely as it was, Montezuma could not rival the sloths and low-key vibe of Costa Rica’s Caribbean side.

Seattle Times researcher David Turim (my husband) contributed greatly to this report.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com