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Cahuita: A Tale of Two Meccas

Cahuita might be described as a town blessed with two Meccas. It can be seen as a Mecca of Costa Rican wildlife with a hearty serving of fine dining; in addition, it can be considered a Mecca of superb cuisine with an ever-present sideshow of wild creatures.

Photo by Jack Donnelly

Cahuita is a small town, population around 8,300, on the Caribbean coast. It lies just off the main road between Puerto Limón and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Its history is heavily involved with oil and banana companies, but today it thrives primarily on tourism—mostly Europeans.

Apart from the center of town—a crossroads by the central park—two important points of reference are the black beach and the white beach. Black and white refer to the color of the sand, not the people. The white beach has extremely strong and dangerous currents—pretty place, but don’t even think about getting in the water. I swim at the black beach and I have never had a problem, although there are signs warning of strong currents.

Photo by Jack Donnelly

The crown jewel of Cahuita wildlife is the Cahuita National Park, Parque Nacional Cahuita. You can access the park right in town from the white beach—walking trails only. The main entrance is just off the highway heading toward Puerto Viejo. In addition to the walking trails there are beaches and a boardwalk that lets you hike through the thick swampy forest for about 2 km. Howler monkeys can often be seen from the road lounging about high in the trees during the heat of the day.

Another must-see is the Sloth Sanctuary—a few miles up the main road heading toward Limón. You can get up close and personal with the resident sloths, two-toed and three-toed, who are unable to return to the wild due to their injuries. The lecture on sloths, in English and Spanish, is extremely informative. Subsequently, visitors can opt for a one-hour canoe tour of the estuary at the rear of the sanctuary—birds, monkeys, crocodiles, etc.
I would not discount the wildlife to be seen and photographed in hotel gardens—iguanas, birds, sloths, agoutis, frogs, etc. There are a number of nature tours offered by guides and commercial tour companies. The Tree of Life, a wildlife rescue center, is located up the road from the black beach.

Photo by Jack Donnelly

A lesser-known attraction is the wonderful cuisine—in my opinion, the best in Costa Rica. This may be due to the longstanding European influence. In fact, some of the restaurants are owned by Europeans. Of the ten best meals I’ve had in Costa Rica, at least six of them were in tiny Cahuita.

Another culinary attraction is the Afro-Caribbean food. Cahuita is widely considered to be the premier locality in Costa Rica to enjoy this style of cooking.

It is also a center of Afro-Caribbean culture. There are festivals and concerts featuring reggae and calypso music. Walter Ferguson, often called the calypso king, still lives in the center of Cahuita. He was recently awarded the Costa Rican National Prize for Intangible Culture (Premio de Cultura Inmaterial Emilia Prieto Tugores). In Costa Rica Afro-Caribbeans (or Afro-Antilleans) are commonly called afrodecendientes (Afro-decendents).

Photo by Jack Donnelly

Cahuita is a place of many small hotels, some of them very modest and others rather posh. In addition to English, German and French are spoken at many of these establishments.
The next time your body is crying out for the beach, give the Pacific beaches a rest and think about Cahuita on the Caribbean.