Probably the most laid-back six day period of my life. Ever.
There… I said it. And the more I think about it, the less debatable that statement becomes.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as relaxed anywhere around the world, as I did during my time in Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Trying to think about what I actually accomplished becomes irrelevant after a while because when I was there, nothing actually mattered. If anywhere typified the Costa Rican spirit of “Pura Vida”, for me, this was it. Pure Life at its essence.
I’m lying on a tropical beach by myself in the hot sun. The only sounds that I hear are the crash of the waves as they roll in and meet the humming of the dense rainforest behind me. Deciding that its time to cool down with a swim, I dive into the warm ocean before surfacing and looking up and down the coastline.
The beaches are deserted either side for a good four or five kilometres and the only signs of civilization I see are a couple of surfers carving up waves on the horizon – where the sea seems to be engulfing a rocky, overgrown headland. Tall coconut palms grow at 60 degree angles to the shoreline which is busy with a few brightly coloured crabs – and I guess I’m happy to share it.
Playa Grande – Manzanillo.
Found in the Caribbean province of Limon, barely two hours north of the Panama border and about 4 hours east of the capital, San Jose, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (its full title) is a small town that straddles the best of both worlds. While the town of 2000 people has small supermarkets, a couple of bars, rustic cafes and clothing stores all dedicated to tourists, its beauty lies in the fact that it links two roads – one from the north and one from the south – that run parallel to miles of beaches and tropical rainforest on either side. Its down these “jungle tracks” that you can find some incredible, unique mixes of man and nature. And escape the world for a while. People forget that you are quite literally in the rainforest and that it rains a lot, especially in the morning. But don’t let that discourage you.
Tucked away in the south-east corner of Costa Rica and surrounded by endless swathes of banana plantations, this is the most ethnically diverse region in the country. Modern Costa Rican culture blends with other influences seamlessly. A large Afro-Caribbean population of Jamaican descent (workers from a century ago) gives everything a “Rastafied” tinge. The country’s largest concentration of Indigenous tribes is found here too. Throw in a healthy dose of North American and European expats and you have a vibrant Caribbean community like no other.
A casual game of football on the beach in town.
I had plenty of momentary realisations over those few days and every one of them came back to the same thought – Why am I so completely relaxed?
No crowds or traffic. Beaches. Bicycles. Surfing. Fresh, healthy food. Reggae music everywhere. Dense tropical rainforest. The list goes on. But here are six of my top experiences in and around Puerto Viejo:
WINNING A CRAB RACE:
For anybody in search of an authentic backpacker experience in Puerto Viejo, Rockin J’s is the be all and end all. Costa Rica’s first ever Hammock Hostel, is an eclectic mix of mosaic tiles, thumping riddims and all round good vibes. For $7 a night, you get not only a hammock and a locker, but “guaranteed good vibes” from this rustic, sprawling, beachside institution.
The dreamscape-like Rockin J’s Hammock Hostel.
It was here one evening that history was made – I can officially claim to have won a bet on a crab race in Costa Rica, a feat that few can match I’m quite sure. The staff rustled up 6 local crabs, drew numbers on them, placed them on one side of a rectangular box and rounded up inquisitive patrons for a crab race. Soon a crowd of about 30 had gathered with a few thousand Colones (CR currency) changing hands as the bookkeeper struggled to keep up. Number Zero was never in doubt. Sure, most of the crabs got their momentum from frustrated gamblers banging the table – at one point even flipping a competitor upside down – but at the end of it, myself and a new amigo, as well as Crab Zero had cleaned up, and tequila shots were bought with the winnings.
Taking bets and getting the competitors lined up for the start.
Victory – a couple thousand Colones, one US dollar and some Good Karma 🙂
CYCLING DOWN THE COAST TO MANZANILLO:
Bicycles rent for around $6 a day, which in my opinion is pretty darn good for that much freedom. The road heading south from Puerto Viejo effectively finishes in a dead end at the town of Manzanillo – but only after 13kms. I spent a couple of days exploring this winding rainforest road and passing all of its hidden gems – quaint Caribbean restaurants, luxury eco lodges, smoothie bars, a bookshop and yoga retreats. These places sneak up on you from out of the dense jungle as you round a corner and this gives them even more charm. I pulled over one day and for 75 cents, purchased a banana and refreshing coconut from a shrewd young entrepreneur. Fresh and healthy. The roads are flat and largely deserted except for other cyclists, the occasional fruit truck and the occasional escaped goat. One of the best cycles I’ve ever done – made all the more memorable by the endless rainforest that envelops you on either side.
My scrupulous coconut dealer.
Escape factor = 10.
HAVING BREAKFAST AT A SODA IN TOWN:
On a Tuesday morning, I find myself overlooking the ocean with steaming cup of Costa Rica’s smoothest coffee. The morning rains have left puddles everywhere as locals go about their day. An old Jamaican man cycles past at a snail’s pace, yelling out “Patties, patties patties!” before repeating every ten seconds thereafter. I’m at Soda Las Carnitas, one of many local eateries offering the traditional Tico breakfast – gallo pinto. I go for the standard rice and black beans with sausage, eggs, grilled plantains, watermelon and loads of hot sauce – the huge meal comes to $4 and there are several great local places that serve food like this. Latin jazz and love ballads emanate from the kitchen as the mamicita in the front signs along. Ambitious stray dogs and tourists alike trot past, but life doesn’t move much faster than this at this time of morning.
45 seconds later and it was all gone…
Rush hour down Puerto Viejo’s main street.
LAZING AROUND TROPICAL BEACHES:
Finding a secluded beach, like I described before, is easy just outside of Puerto Viejo. While cycling, I instinctively followed a couple of random paths that lead down to the beachfront. Several times I found beautiful, secluded panorama’s where fallen coconut palms lay crisscrossed on beautiful white sand as monstrous barrel waves rolled in. From hidden stretches of coastline to more popular ones, I’d like to think that there is a beach for everyone here. Busier beaches are popular with tourists and you can often find Rasta’s cooking and selling mouthwatering jerk chicken from open wood fires. Other locals are offering surf lessons. One word comes to mind when I think of these beaches – tranquility. Costa Rica’s most dangerous and arguably most rewarding wave for surfers, Salsa Brava, is also nearby, along with many other reef breaks and never ending sets of monsters. A word of caution though – these waves are not to be taken lightly and only experienced surfers should attempt them!
My head is pounding and near vision is blurry. All I can hear is the heavy thud of the baseline in Bob Marley’s Jamming that permeates the walls of my skull and dorm room. Am I still dreaming? Sitting up and accepting the hangover, I remember that I’d booked a canopy tour this morning and go off to get organized.
Two hours and only $25 later and my hangover is gone – I’m attached to a zip line and soaring a hundred metres above a river between trees that are over 800 years old. Monkeys and toucans hop around nearby as a group of 8 of us manages to conquer 21 different lines. Flying above and at times through the canopy of a tropical rainforest is something I’ll never forget. Hooked in by my waist, I’m flying over a sea of green, feeling pretty boss-like. The initial adrenaline rush turns into a soothing feeling as I let gravity and man’s ingenuity carry me from tree to tree. This is living.
Getting ready to fly.
SWINGING IN HAMMOCKS:
Going to Puerto Viejo and not spending at least 3 hours a day in a hammock, is like going to Berlin and not seeing the Wall or going to Italy and not trying pasta. Sacrilegious, in my honest opinion. By my calculations, there is at least one hammock per person, maybe two, in the area and with these in such high supply, it is quite frankly rude not to use them. Hammocks are everywhere here – in bars, on beachfronts, in the rainforest and at hostels. Reading, listening to music, sleeping or just relaxing with a rum and coconut water are all activities enhanced by being in a hammock and it was only a matter of time before I found myself becoming addicted to the gentle rocking of these great inventions. Perfectly suited to the environment, I could not have imagined my time here, without them.
The trees grow these colours naturally I’ve been told.
On my last night, I had a brief conversation that really summed up my whole time and the entire vibe of Puerto Viejo quite beautifully. It went something like this:
Random guy – “Did you hear? There’s a reggae night going on at this place in town later”
Adam – “Um, isn’t that like every night at every single place around here?
Random guy – “ Oh… Yeah I guess so… Pura Vida dude”