The Costa Rica cruise port of Puerto Limón is atmospherically a strange kind of place. We visited Limón once every two weeks as part of our Caribbean cruise itinerary, and though my first impression was odd, I grew to appreciate the city.
The first time our ship docked in Puerto Limón, the sky was grey and heavy with rain clouds. These foreboding clouds weren’t quite ready to burst but had surely been on the brink of eruption for hours; and the air was sticky and clung to your skin like clingfilm. It was all rather full on I tell ya. We didn’t have a lot of time that day to explore, so we made do with stomping the city streets as best as we could, attempting to get a feel for Costa Rica without ever straying too far from the port, for fear of not making it back in time for work.
What is Limón known for?
Puerto Limón is located on the Eastern coast of Costa Rica, and is the capital of Limón Province. The amazing thing about this city in particular is the fact that it’s so diverse; a big portion of Limón’s population is descended from African slaves (brought over by the Spanish when they were on their mission to conquer the world back in the day), and also from workers from the Caribbean Islands, Italy, and China, who arrived in the late 19th century to work on a railroad connecting the Limón to San José.
Right up until 1948 the Costa Rican government refused to recognise Afro-Caribbeans as citizens and so they weren’t allowed to travel anywhere outside of the area, resulting in a city that is still home to the majority of the Afro-Costa Rican population. Therefore this area is heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions in comparison to the rest of the country.
Outside the port of Limón – Vargas Park
Although I was there because of my work, there’s still something about entering a developing country on a cruise ship that makes me feel rather awkward. But unlike a lot of other ports we docked at during our time in the Caribbean, the local government has made no effort to create a glossy welcome for cruise passengers. Other Caribbean ports are gated away from the locals with flashy terminals and discount diamond shops. But the main industry of Puerto Limón has always been shipping bananas and cashew nuts to the rest of the world, not welcoming camera-wielding Europeans wanting to take selfies with sloths.
And that, pals, is something I truly appreciate.
After leaving the gates of the cruise terminal where the majority of the passengers dispersed into taxis and buses to do something touristy, we took a right and crossed the cracked road into Vargas Park. It was kind of dark and damp looking on that particular day. Tall, skinny palm trees stood like skeletal soldiers evenly spaced out and completely, eerily still- there wasn’t even the slightest whisper of a breeze in the air. A local Lone Ranger followed us from a distance in the murky shadows, cutting smoothly from tree to tree, suddenly getting far closer and keeping a particularly watchful eye on my pal’s phone when he took it out to take a photo.
A bandstand loomed ahead of us, appearing a bit more like a jungley haunted house, with vines trailing across it and cracks in the paintwork; that particular structure was very Jumanji-like to be honest. We reached the sea where the grey waves were crashing against another dilapidated concrete structure streaked with damp, perched at the edge of the land. After speculating about what could possibly be inside the pitch black doorway, we decided maybe it would be best to head for somewhere with a few more people around. We kept our fingers crossed that we’d lose the Lone Ranger with the watchful eyes in the process.
The city centre
The centre of Puerto Limón is full of noise, and people, and more noise. Loud music is pumped out from shop doorways selling discount T-shirts and electrical goods. People shout across the street to one another, seemingly most of the time not on their way somewhere; just hanging out having a good old fashioned yell. I was glad to step into a doorway where a man was calmly splashing paints onto a canvas, slightly out of the cacophony for a second until I realised I couldn’t possibly shelter there for the entire rest of my time in the city. I had to keep moving, guys!
Related: The Tortuguero Canals, Costa Rica
A covered market sprawled outwards at the end of one street, filled with stalls selling piles and piles of fruits that I’ve never seen before, in a rainbow of colours but still looking grimy in the sweaty air. And the fruit stalls were interspersed with offerings of cheap plastic Barbie dolls, SIM cards and jewellery. Most people eyed us with either suspicion or indifference until we spoke a few words of Spanish and we’d spy an odd twinkle of the eyes.
Puerto Limón is a city that grows on you
Over the coming months we gradually got to know Puerto Limón and some of the locals better, and this is what made my feelings towards the place warm a little after a mildly unsettling first exploration. Aside from the fact that I ate some of the most delicious fruit I’ve ever tasted here, on a sunny day the whole vibe was far less creepy and far more fun fun fun, which helped a lot.
We made friends with possibly one of the friendliest ladies I’ve ever met; granted she worked in the tourist industry so perhaps it was part of her job to be super-friendly to everyone. But after that one first day of general suspicion from the locals, every person I ever met in Costa Rica appeared to be genuinely excited to be alive and full of absolute JOY.
JOY, I TELL YOU! What a place.
She explained that the slightly dilapidated appearance of the city is partly down to an earthquake in 1991 which destroyed whole sections of the area and changed the nature as well as the buildings. Coral reefs were suddenly drained of seawater, and now there are beaches up and down the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica which are made solely of dead reefs, brown and twisted but still weirdly beautiful even on the grey days.
On our last day in Puerto Limón, our pal met us back at the port after we got back from Cahuita (a National Park), with her two daughters. We’d been singing ABBA songs the whole way back in harmony, because the jolly taxi driver claimed to be a massive ABBA fan. Me and my pal Marc were being classic camera-wielding tourists that day and the two young lasses were very much up for a photo-shoot. More specifically a photo shoot that they directed and photographed, starring me and my pals. Well, what a time to be alive!
Although I was mildly concerned about the welfare of our cameras, those two were so full of excitement and big demands that I could hardly say no, and they pulled and pushed us around the street instructing us on how to pose for a good twenty minutes before it was time to say goodbye once and for all. Alas! I was pretty sad to leave this happy place behind.
The best excursions from Puerto Limón
There are SO MANY amazing things to do outside of Puerto Limón, all of which centre around the wildlife and incredible nature of Costa Rica. The city is really close to Tortuguero National Park, where you can explore the rainforest via the canals. The park is packed full of animals, and we were lucky enough to see howler monkeys, sloths and toucans amongst many other.
Cahuita National Park is also not far away. We took a taxi to the town of Cahuita, and entered the park there. This is also home to an awesome beach.
The closest beach to Puerto Limón is Playa Bonita. You’ll still have to get a taxi there; it’s definitely not within walking distance to the port. But if you don’t fancy travelling far this is a great option.
We also went zip-lining through the Costa Rican rainforest, and visited a nearby sloth sanctuary. If there’s one thing that I can’t stress enough- if someone on the street offers you a sloth to hold, do not do it! If you want to see sloths in Costa Rica, go to a sloth sanctuary instead.
This little Costa Rica cruise port is a strange, strange place, and although there’s so much to do in the local area, I still think if you can venture into the city it’s worth it, however unsafe you might feel at first. This place is full of good people, good food, and downright wonderful times.