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This offbeat village (pop. 3,000), 45 kilometers south of Puerto Limón and one kilometer east of Highway 36, is an in-vogue destination for the young backpacking crowd and others for whom an escapist vacation means back to basics.
Cahuita is no more than two parallel dirt streets crossed by four rutted streets overgrown with grass, with ramshackle houses spread apart. The village is totally laid-back and not for those seeking luxuries.
What you get is golden- and black-sand beaches backed by coconut palms, an offshore coral reef (now severely depleted), and an immersion in Creole culture, including Rastafarians, with their dreadlocks and a lifestyle that revolves around reggae, Rasta, and—discreetly—reefer. Bob Marley is God in Cahuita.
Despite its fascinating charm, Cahuita struggles to overcome a lingering negative perception fed by high crime, drug use, and the surly attitude displayed by many local Afro-Caribbean males. The police force has been beefed up (there’s even a police checkpoint on the main road north of Cahuita; every vehicle is searched), but enforcement seems lax. Locals run a committee to police the community, keep the beaches clean, and generally foster improvements.
In 2006 the first shopping mall and bank arrived, and the main street is now paved, but Cahuita thus far seems immune to the boom in nearby Puerto Viejo and to the upscale boutique revolution sweeping the rest of the country.
North of Cahuita village is a black-sand beach, Playa Negra, which runs for several miles. Cahuita’s more famous beach, Playa Blanca, is a two-kilometer-long scimitar of golden sand that stretches south from the village along the shore of Cahuita National Park. Beware riptides!
A second pale-sand beach lies further along, beyond the rocky headland of Punta Cahuita; it is protected by an offshore coral reef and provides safer swimming in calmer waters. Theft is a problem on the beach; do not leave possessions unattended.
The Tree of Life Wildlife Rescue Center & Botanical Gardens (tel. 506/2755-0427, www.treeoflifecostarica.com, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Nov.–Apr. 15; 11 a.m. Tues.–Sun. July–Aug. for guided tour, $12 adults, $6 children), on Playa Negra, is a great place for a précis on some of the critters to look for in the wild. The monkeys, kinkajous, and peccaries were all rescued from injury or were illegal pets confiscated from their owners; many are nursed back to health for release to the wild. The center, which also has an iguana and turtle-breeding program, is set in 12 acres of lush gardens, arranged by well-signed groups such as bromeliads, heliconias, and palms.
Entertainment and Events
It’s not guaranteed to happen every year, but some years Cahuita hosts a five-day mini-Carnival in early December, when the calypso and reggae are cranked up and everyone lets their hair down.
Look out for Walter Ferguson, a national legend for his calypso. In July 2010 Cahuita initiated the Festival de la Cultura y el Ambiente Walter Ferguson (http://adic.soy.es/); it’s hoped to become an annual event.
There’s plenty of night action in Cahuita, though it’s an almost exclusively male affair (as far as locals go). The class act is Café Cocorico (50 meters north of the plaza, tel. 506/2755-0324, 7 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5 p.m.–midnight Wed.–Mon.), which shows free movies nightly while you sip killer cocktails.
Coco’s Bar (tel. 506/2755-0437) is the livelier spot. Formerly a laid-back reggae bar that drew dreadlocked Rastas (plus a few drug dealers and leeches hitting up the clientele for drinks), it has cleaned up its act and is now preferred by the Latin set for salsa.
Turística Cahuita (tel. 506/2755-0071, dltacb [at] racsa [dot] co [dot] cr), Cahuita Tours (tel. 506/2755-0000, www.cahuitatours.com), and Willie’s Tours (tel. 506/2755-0267, www.willies-costarica-tours.com), in the village center, offer a panoply of tours and activities, including snorkeling trips, bird-watching, fishing, dolphin-watching, horseback rides, and trips farther afield. Willie’s Tours (which is by far the best agency) even has a full-day tour to Bocas del Toro, in Panamá ($95).
Cabinas Brigitte (tel. 506/2755-0053) offers guided horseback rides.
Hotel National Park (tel. 506/2755-0244), in front of the Cahuita National Park entrance, specializes in snorkeling tours of the national-park reefs ($25 pp), as does Snorkeling House (tel. 506/2755-0248), with tours at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Cahuita’s Coral Reefs
Corals are soft-bodied animals that secrete calcium carbonate to form an external skeleton that is built upon and multiplied over thousands of generations to form fabulous and massive reef structures. The secret to coral growth is the symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae — zooxanthellae — that grow inside the cells of coral polyps and photosynthetically produce oxygen and nutrients, which are released as a kind of rent directly into the coral tissues.
Coral flourishes close to the surface in clear, well-circulated tropical seawater warmed to a temperature of between 21 and 27°C.
Twenty years ago, Cahuita had a superb fringing reef — an aquatic version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Today, much of it is dead following uplift during the 1991 earthquake and silt washing down from mainland rivers. Coral growth is hampered by freshwater runoff and by turbidity from land-generated sediments, which clog their pores so that zooxanthellae can no longer breathe.
Along almost the entire Talamanca coast and the interior, trees are being logged, exposing the topsoil to the gnawing effects of tropical rains. The rivers bring agricultural runoff, too — poisonous pesticides used in the banana plantations and fertilizers ideal for the proliferation of seabed grasses and algae that starve coral of vital oxygen. It is only a matter of time before the reef is completely gone.
Prospects for the reef at Gandoca-Manzanillo are equally grim.
Getting to Cahuita
Transportes Mepe (tel. 506/2257-8129) buses depart the Gran Caribe terminal in San José for Cahuita ($8) at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. daily. They continue to Puerto Viejo and Sixaola. Local buses depart Puerto Limón (tel. 506/2758-1572) from Avenida 4, Calles 3/4, hourly 5 a.m.–6 p.m. daily (1 hr, $1.25).
Buses depart Cahuita (from 50 meters southwest of Coco Bar) for San José at 7:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 4:30 p.m.; and for Limón hourly 6:30 a.m.–8 p.m. daily. The ticket office is open 7 a.m.–5 p.m. daily.
or a taxi, call 506/2755-0435, or contact Cabinas Palmas (tel. 506/2755-0046) or Cahuita Tours (tel. 506/2755-0000, www.cahuitatours.com).
Centro Turístico Brigitte rents bicycles ($6 daily).
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition