The Strangest Welcome to Costa Rica: Puerto Limón

Puerto Limón is atmospherically a strange kind of a place. The first time our ship docked there, the sky was grey and heavy with rain clouds that weren’t quite ready to burst but had surely been on the brink of eruption for hours, and despite the greyness of the sky, the air was sticky and clung to your skin like nobody’s business. It was all rather full on I tell ya. We didn’t have a lot of time that day to explore, so had to make 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.

The city is located on the Eastern coast of Costa Rica, (which itself occupies the middle of the thread of land connecting North and South America, in case your geography needs some brushing up), and is the capital of the country’s Limón Province. The amazing thing about this part of the world 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 who arrived from the Caribbean Islands, Italy, and China in the late 19th century to work on a railroad connecting the city 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 and therefore heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions in comparison to the rest of the country.

Although I was there because of my work, there’s still something very bizarre about entering a developing country on a cruise ship, and it’s something I’m not all together comfortable with. 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, gated away from the locals with flashy terminals and discount diamond shops; the main trade of this place has always been bananas and cashew nuts, not 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 instead took a right and crossed the cracked road into a damp and dark looking park filled with tall, skinny palm trees that stood like skeletal soldiers evenly spaced out and completely, eerily still as 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, fingers crossed losing the Lone Ranger with the watchful eyes in the process.

The centre of the city is full of noise, and people, and more noise. Loud music is pumped out from shop doorways selling discount T-shirts and electrical goods, and 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! 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, interspersed with offerings of cheap plastic Barbie dolls, SIM cards or 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.

Over the coming months we gradually got to know the city 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 of the place. 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 was 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 coastline 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 Cristina met us back at the port after we got back from Cahuita (a National Park not far away from the port), 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! Cristina cried out ‘may the lord bless your lives with happiness!!’ And off we went back to the boat. I was pretty sad to go.

Puerto Limón 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.

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