Costa Rica is one of the most incredible countries that I have ever visited, and the number one factor in what makes it so incredible is its biodiversity. Ecotourism is a BIG DEAL around these parts; when it became clear that Costa Rica was suffering so greatly from the effects of deforestation in order to make way for farmland, the government realised it had to turn things around, and began actively seeking solutions to the problem. Currently, 26% of the country is National Park or wildlife reserve land, and this is one of the main draws for the visitors. Especially visitors like ME! For three months our ship docked in Puerto Limón, a city located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and when researching places to go near Puerto Limón, we discovered that Cahuita National Park wasn’t too far away. Cahuita was declared a National Park in the seventies, partly to protect the rainforest, but also the beaches and coral reefs in the area, and therefore it’s home to one of the least developed beaches in Costa Rica, perfect for snorkelling and also for turtles to come and hang out. Yes, turtles!! Obviously we had to go and explore.
The hippy town of Cahuita
Our lovely taxi driver pal picked us up from the port early in the morning, and from there we headed onwards towards Cahuita, past cashews and palm trees draped with vines and sloths, and shipping containers filled with bananas and other crops about to be sent across the Atlantic to Europe. Pretty crazy when you think that your fruit could be far better-travelled than you, don’t you think?
Eventually we arrived at the little town of Cahuita, just on the outskirts of the park. This is one hippy hippy town, pals. Tie-dye and seashell necklaces are totes acceptable fashions here, and dirt roads connect tiny colourful buildings with corrugated roofs. The atmosphere of the whole place is so chilled that everyone might as well be laying down, and in contrast to my first visit to the nearby city of Limón, I felt completely safe and welcome by the locals. It’s a right beaut I tell ya!
Upon realising that we were suffering from a strong sense of starvation, we headed to a restaurant, led by our awesome taxi driver, who was just about the cheeriest and warmest person I’d ever met. What a GEM. And guys, let me tell you this for certain- if you’re in Central or South America and ceviche is on the menu, you should definitely get it. The ceviche I tasted at this place was the best I had ever had, without a shadow of a doubt.
Cahuita’s Earthquakey Past
The restaurant was right on the beach, and although at first glance it was a classic Caribbean yellow sand and palm trees situation, upon closer inspection there was something a bit out of the ordinary about the place. The part of the beach that was closest to the restaurant seemed to be made of some bizarre stone formation dotted with the odd seaweedy growth- not sand at all. Our taxi driver explained that actually it wasn’t stone; it was dead coral. A massive shelf of dead coral.
In 1991, Costa Rica was hit by a rather aggressive earthquake- in fact it was the strongest earthquake to hit the country EVER, and was felt as far away as Panama. Forty seven people were killed, roads and buildings were destroyed, and in the tsunamis that it caused exposed coral reefs permanently to the outside elements. As you might imagine, coral doesn’t do well out of water; so up and down the entire coast of the Limón Province, beds of dead coral line the beaches. Walking across the stony strip of what was once full of life is quite a strange experience, and a bit of a stark reminder of the power of nature.
After some light coral-inspecting, we continued onwards up the beach to the entrance of the National Park- a little wooden hut that everyone has to pass through in a Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe fashion, emerging out from the other end of the hut to a sandy pathway leading off into the trees. A small collection of local boys were gathered around the base of one tree just at the moment we entered, shaking its lower branches and pointing upwards at a mysterious object overhead. I squinted upwards, trying to make out what they were all shouting at. A sloth, maybe? We’d spotted loads and loads of sloths in our time in Costa Rica; it’s not uncommon to see them on trees at the side of the road as you drive by, so surely there’d be loads inside a National Park. The boys continued shaking the lower branches, but apparently whatever they were shouting at was too high up or too sleepy to take much notice of them.
And I’m rather glad that it was so intent on ignoring the lads, as it became clear after further squinting that the creature was a gargantuan snake wrapped in coils around a skinny branch right at the top. I’m no snake expert, but given the size and colour of it, I’m pretty sure that that bad boy was a boa constrictor; Cahuita is home to a number of varieties of snakes, poisonous but pretty fellows, and larger more docile but equally as deadly like my new treetop friend.
The time constraints of working on a cruise ship mean that its highly unlikely that you’ll ever have a full day to explore anywhere, so we only actually had three or four hours at Cahuita; however, the amount of wildlife we spotted was INSANE, you guys! A chain of leaf-cutter ants marched across the forest floor, carrying hefty slices of leaves and twig with a strong sense of purpose. Good lads. I’ve never seen ants so ginormous before.
A crab scuttled across the pathway in a conical shell speckled with green, and whilst bending down to watch it scuttle, there was a sudden crash in the bushes. My first instinct was that it was probably some kind of jaguar, as it sounded big enough. (Honestly, I have no idea about the residential status of jaguars in Costa Rica, so who knows whether that would have actually been possible?) We crept closer to the thick foliage bordering the pathway, and discovered a large and suspicious-looking iguana staring back at us from the shadows, like an extra from Jurassic Park. It was kind of creepy.
A family of raccoons were playing further up near the beach, sloths slept far off in the trees up above in just about every area that we walked through, and a monkey clambered stealthily across the branches towards us. A note on the monkeys and raccoons- these guys are very used to people, and are well aware that people carry some very interesting things. Carrying food into the park with you is definitely not advised, and apparently the monkeys are also quite keen on iPhones, so beware!
And the most beautiful thing of all…
The most amazing thing of all was when we spotted a tiny hummingbird nesting at elbow-height in a bush. What an absolute beauty. I’ve seen hummingbirds before, but always at a distance as they flirt around collecting nectar; this was on a whole other level of birdwatching, you guys. It was like I’d found the golden snitch, for goodness sake, and I felt so lucky to be witnessing something like that. We tried not to get too close, but every now and again she got up and had a little fly around, wings whirring whilst her three miniature eggs sat inside the eggcup nest.
Walking back along the sandy beach, we didn’t spot any turtles, alas. But I was well and truly overwhelmed by what we had managed to see in such a short space of time. Cahuita is a beautiful and downright exquisite place, and 100% worth a visit whether your time there is short or long; for me, Costa Rica definitely lived up to the hype.
- We entered the park at Kelly Creek station, which is a great place to start hiking through the forest.
- The number of people snorkelling is limited in order to protect the reefs that remain; if you want to snorkel in the area you can therefore only do so with a certified guide.
- This is the only national park in Costa Rica which doesn’t have an official entry place. A suggested donation of $5 is requested, although obviously you’re free to put in whatever you fancy, pals.