Visitors coming to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica instantly see the ethnic differences in the area. The strong Afro-Caribbean influence in the Limón province adds a rich cultural heritage to life in the region. Food, music, dress and language are distinct, as are hairstyles.
The Rastafarian dreadlock is well represented in the coastal towns dotting the Caribbean coast. Originally, dreadlocks were part of the philosophy of Rastafarianism encouraging pride in black history and eschewing the trappings of white men, which meant, for one thing, combs. Kinky locks were left to grow where they would and formed plaits of varied shape and design.
Yellowman, a famous dreadlocked Rasta from Jamaica, was an albino musician whose lock of yellow matting stood straight out from his forehead, giving him his striking trademark.
Area entrepreneur Eddie Brown, owner of Cabinas Irie at Punta Cocles, on the southern Caribbean coast, equates dreadlocks with the qualities of purity at the heart of Rastafarianism.
“No drink, no cigarettes, no red meat,” he says.
Brown’s head of well-cared-for and impressive locks exemplify, as do the pristine grounds of his establishment, this vision of purity.
“Live well and live what you say” is his motto, although he admits it’s not always easy to achieve.
Purists make a distinction between the true Rastafarian who follows the philosophical principles brought into mainstream consciousness by legendary musician Bob Marley, and “dreads” who wear the hairstyle but don’t follow the religious credo. In this sense, some say there are very few true Rastafarians in the area.
In fact, dreadlocks have become more of a fashion statement than a political one, and those cultivating the look often prefer the locks to be uniform in size and shape, which means taking the time to form each dreadlock manually.
Celia Lewis, owner of Celia’s Hair Braiding at Punta Cocles, has been in business for 18 years doing hair extensions, braiding, cornrows and dreadlocks. When asked how dreadlocks are created, she says: “I have a man comes in every four days. I twist the new growth and add beeswax to each strand. He’s been coming in for a month and now it’s starting to get there.”
Anna Lupion, a tourist from Spain, has been growing her blond dreadlocks for two years without using wax. When asked why she chose this hairstyle, she smiles and answers, “I want to be black. I can’t do anything about my skin, but I can with my hair.”
Braided hair extensions are a common hairstyle for black women in the region. This style, as any tourist wanting the funky look knows, requires a great deal of patience. It normally takes about four hours to complete a full head of hair in braid colors ranging from blond, mauve and streaked to black.
Lewis admits that curly hair is much easier to work with than straight, but that with three inches of natural hair, she can work braids in for anyone. This style lasts about two months, at which point the extensions are thrown away.
Another variation is to braid one’s own hair, not in the two plaits common in other parts of the world, but into many long strands, using elastic and colorful beads at the end to keep the braids from unwinding.These normally last about three weeks and are a favorite with young children and tourists.
Cornrows are an interesting, if less common, style, providing a design tight to the scalp. More popular with men, they can be done in straight rows, as the name suggests, or in jagged or circular designs, as is now popular. In this case, braiding incorporates adjacent hair into the braid while moving along the row. Cornrows last only about two weeks, as the hair tends to get frizzy, but has the advantage of taking less than an hour to do.
When I mentioned to Lewis that some of my tourist friends felt too old to get hair extensions, she was adamant in explaining, “This is for all ages. I have children come in at 4-5 years and go up to any age.”
My friends blanch at the idea that they might be “trying to look young,” but here in the Caribbean, self-expression seems to allow for all variations.
The Caribbean in Heredia
For those who cannot get to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica but would like to sample some of its flavors, the Central Valley city of Heredia, north of San José, offers other options. Heredia has an Afro-Caribbean community large enough to justify a range of Caribbean-style services, including hair salons and restaurants.
• Lion Zion (237-2050), next to Bomba Casaque, open noon-6 p.m. every day
• Caribbean Beauty (560-0721), 250 meters south of the Palacio de los Deportes, open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday to Saturday
• Rinconcito Caribeño Don Albert (237-4916), 350 meters north of Hipermás, open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. every day
• Delicias Caribeñas de Mami (262-0359), 50 meters south of the Cruz Roja (Red Cross), open 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, and 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Sunday