Parque Nacional Cahuita, small but perfectly formed

It is probably one of the smallest national parks I’ve ever visited but it has a level of biodiversity that would make many larger parks weep…and Parque Nacional Cahuita is only a short stroll from Cahuita village making it one of the most accessible.

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

The park is divided between the ocean, which contains one of costa Rica’s few remaining living reefs, and tropical forest lined with white sand beaches, which hosts a wide variety of birds, reptiles, insects, crustaceans and mammals. Thanks to a high and rough tide we didn’t go snorkelling on the reef, but we hired a local guide and spent four leisurely hours walking the well-marked trails in the park.

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crocodile, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crocodile, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguanas, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Acorn Woodpeker, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

I have never been so grateful to have a guide; within thirty minutes of entering the park we’d seen more biodiversity than we’d seen since being in the Amazon several months earlier: monkeys, sloths, agouti, snakes, crocodiles, birds and iguanas all made it onto our ‘spotted’ list. It costs US$20 for a guide, yet we met several people without guides who hadn’t seen a single animal.

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crab, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crab, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Perhaps the highlight of the visit, if it can be described as that, was spotting the small but deadly snake, the Yellow Eyelash Viper – if you get bitten you have 2 – 3 hours to get to medical assistance before death. We would never have spotted this colourful and deadly bundle of fun, which is all the more reason never to go into the jungle without a guide, but once spotted it is hard to look away.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

The park is also packed full of plants and insects. I saw a very pleased looking squirrel munching on a fresh almond plucked right off the tree. There are literally millions of leaf-cutter ants and, my old friends, mosquitoes. It was a brilliant experience, the park is free to enter (donations welcome) and you can use the beach and swim in the ocean after you’ve finished looking for wildlife.

Agouti, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Agouti, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

A taste of the Pura Vida, sampling the culture of Costa Rica

The phrase Pura Vida has been adopted wholesale in Costa Rica and you can see it spray-painted onto walls, adorning t-shirts and in advertising campaigns on TV. It literally means pure life, but could perhaps be more accurately translated as living the good life, something we thought we should investigate while in Costa Rica.

That said, our first experience of Costa Rica wasn’t exactly encouraging. Standing in a queue at Panamanian immigration at the Guabito border crossing we looked in slight disbelief at the rickety bridge over a wide river leading towards Costa Rica and had to double check that this was the official border crossing. Once across the bridge we queued again at Costa Rican immigration before being whisked off in a minibus towards Cahuita.

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

If you’re looking for a relaxed Caribbean village to spend a few days without purpose, Cahuita is the place for you. This is Afro-Caribbean Costa Rica, with wild beaches backed by tropical forest stretching for several kilometres, great snorkelling, a national park full of wildlife and Caribbean cooking to help wile away the time.

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The history of this part of Costa Rica isn’t without controversy. While slavery brought the first Afro-Caribbeans to Costa Rica, much larger numbers, particularly Jamaicans, came to work on the railway and banana plantations operated by the infamous United Fruit (banana plantations still cover the region today). These settlers had few rights, they weren’t allowed to become Costa Rican citizens, yet as outsiders their presence and cultural differences led to racial tensions.

This racism was given legal status by the Costa Rican government who introduced a form of apartheid preventing Afro-Caribbeans from leaving the Caribbean coastal area and settling elsewhere in Costa Rica. This situation ending in 1949, but the Caribbean region has historically been underdeveloped and more deprived than other areas of the country. Today the vast majority of black Costa Ricans still live in the Caribbean region.

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

If there is one positive to this discrimination it was that it allowed a strong cultural identity to develop without interference from outside. It is that unique Caribbean culture – the food, the language, religion and the music – that draws tourists to Cahuita today. Well, that and the lovely wild beaches and fascinating wildlife of Parque Nacional Cahuita located at the edge of the village.

The whole feel in Cahuita is relaxed, friendly and peaceful. We stayed in a cabana at the far end of Playa Negra, a wild black-sand beach stretching a couple of kilometres away from the village. Walking along the beach or dirt road day or night we’d be greeted by just about everyone we passed. How long it will be before tourism and development start to change this dynamic is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t feel like it is going to happen soon.

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica