Muy tranquilo: Costa Rica’s Caribbean side |

Muy tranquilo: Costa Rica’s Caribbean side

Todd Hartley and Cindy Hirschfeld

The storm had raged for two days straight, shrouding the mountains of central Costa Rica in a thick veil of clouds and threatening to wash away the already marginally maintained roads around Fortuna, the tourist-fueled town at the base of Volcan Arenal. Worse still, the rain and clouds were obscuring all views of the still-active volcano that my girlfriend, Cindy, and I had come to see, putting a literal damper on what had been up to that point a fantastic vacation. After a soak in the highly touted Tabacon hot springs even failed to lift our spirits, we needed a beach – fast. We’d already done a good job of covering Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, from rain-forest trekking in Corcovado National Park to surfing lessons in Tamarindo, so we decided our next destination should be the Caribbean region.Mind you, we didn’t arrive at this decision lightly. There seems no end to horror stories about the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Somebody always knows a friend of a friend who was assaulted at gunpoint and had their belongings stolen, and he’ll be quick to dissuade you if you mention you might like to go there.

Assaulted at gunpoint? That seems a little exaggerated. OK, I admit I had some misgivings about visiting the area, based on a few cautionary comments I’d received. “Sketchy” is how an Aspen friend described Costa Rica’s lesser-visited coast. I took sketchy to mean crime-riddled and tawdry, a place where you’d spend more time looking over your shoulder than enjoying the sights. But what ultimately swayed us to ink in the Caribbean on our itinerary was the glowing description of Cahuita, a still-sleepy beachside village, by a Dutch couple we’d met. Plus, Todd had spent a month in Costa Rica nine years ago, without visiting the Caribbean, and I didn’t want him to have to retrace all his old steps. So Cindy and I threw caution to the wind and drove our economy-grade rental Mazda down from the mountains. We arrived in Limon, the region’s main (and only) city, as the sun was setting and were pleased to discover that the road headed south near the outskirts of town, sparing us a glimpse of the port city’s supposedly seedy downtown core.

Whereas the road into Limon was clogged with delivery trucks and lined with railroad sidings and truck depots, the road out of town was refreshingly uncrowded and bordered by verdant jungle. I began thinking maybe the unseemly descriptions I’d heard about the Caribbean were overblown.Let me interrupt here to comment on that “refreshingly uncrowded” road. Free from traffic, yes, but Costa Ricans tend to treat their roadsides as a sort of front porch, sitting on the shoulder and chatting or walking along in small groups. And there are dogs everywhere, mutts of every shape, size and color who, when not looking for handouts, often snooze unconcernedly at the side of the road. Todd, never renowned for his patience, sped down the coastal road at a rapid clip. Meanwhile I, muscles tensed and wishing the passenger side had one of those driver’s-ed-instructor brakes, tried to persuade him to leave the American rush behind, that we were now on Tico (i.e., native Costa Rican) time. I’m still thankful we didn’t: a) run over anyone or thing other than suicidal crabs that crossed the road right in front of us; or b) have a tire blow out courtesy of one of the monster potholes.