San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Caribbean Retains Laid-Back Culture, For Now

When snake lover William Ogen, originally from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, looked around Costa Rica for property to develop, he wandered away from the northwestern province of Guanacaste (too many Gringos) and southwestern Dominical area (too remote), settling on a 700-hectare chunk of the Caribbean Limón province, just off the main highway, about 30 kilometers from the sea.

Plenty of snakes here, and just enough Gringo appeal to promote his eco-development, Grand View Estates (“eco” for not cutting trees, and for keeping a 13:87 ratio of housing to woodlands). The first of 18 lots just sold, and the reptile house and adventure park are under construction.

“The Limón area gets a bad reputation by (North) Americans, many of (whom) have never even been there,” Grand View proclaims on its Web site. “For those of us who have discovered and enjoyed the area, we hope that this continues to be the trend. However…”

However, the Limón province, known for its bananas, laid-back culture and annual October Carnival, might be moving on the path to become Costa Rica’s next Gringolandia.

“Mike Cobb is coming,” Ogen said, referring to the $40 million, 1,200-hectare Grand Caribbean resort in the works just north of Limón city (TT, March 31). Sansa airline now offers San José-Limón flights, and Nature Air will do so starting in December (TT, June 23). The Port of Limón will once again receive more than 100 cruise ship visits this season.

Guanacaste-level tourism will hit the southern Caribbean within four years, said Katia Facey Wilson, owner of a tour agency that shares Grand View’s office building in Cimarrones, three-quarters of the way from San José to Limón.

Wilson’s company, Multiservicios Kathy Tours, is fitting out the brand-new office with a call center staffed by travel agents.

Tourism is the best way to bolster hard-tofind local employment, she said. Her agency coordinates tours with cruise ships, including visits to Grand View’s property and forthcoming adventure park.

Other Caribbean-side promoters say the region is still resistant to big-hotel, fancy-living development.

“Nothing’s changed,” said Tommy Thompson of his 10 years in Cahuita, 43 kilometers southeast of the port city of Limón, on the southern Caribbean coast. “You don’t get rich here.”

The 70-year-old California native and proprietor of Turística Cahuita went on to describe how he drove a truck here, felt his arthritis and high blood pressure disappear, lay on the beach for a year and ran a little tour business for the next nine.

Is Limón about to take off like Guanacaste? “I don’t know; I haven’t been to Guanacaste,”

Thompson said, standing behind albums of fading pictures and laminated price lists for waterfall hikes and fishing trips. “I don’t see no construction.”

Cahuita – also the name of the reef-side national park adjoining the village – is a dirt-street town with handpainted signs such as “Herbal Sauna Bath,” “LAUNDRY” and “Campin Here.”

Thompson did say Cahuita property values have tripled in 10 years, and that nearby Puerto Viejo, the hub of southern Caribbean tourism, is growing faster than Cahuita, both in crime and investment.

Besides higher prices, where there’s tourism, there are “thieves and crack-heads,” Thompson said, and recommended looking for property off the beaten path.

Eighteen kilometers farther southeast in Puerto Viejo, where everyone seems to own the same Bob Marley CD, tourism is the breath of life. While many Puerto Viejo tourists – and business owners – are foreigners, the tourism is of the “take a bus from San José” type, said 20-year resident Fabio Cárdenas, an artist originally from the capital area.

Local development is in cabins, gardens, small-scale tourism operations and hotels with 10 to 15 rooms, Cárdenas said.

“Those who were fishermen built little cabins; they use their boats for tourism now,” he said.

“Whatever budget you’re on, you can come here,” said Liam Monty, who co-publishes in English the monthly Tropical Tales newsletter, a 10-page advertiser and treasure house of “bizarre oddities” (such as important statistics on North American toilet injuries and the possible ways of making the first four moves in a chess game.) Tropical Tales is on its fifth, 4,000-copy issue distributed along the 32 kilometers between Cahuita and Manzanillo.

Standing one block off Puerto Viejo’s main street, Cárdenas and another pedestrian paused to watch a young woman rev a rental scooter as she haltingly propelled herself down the potholed gravel road.

Infrastructure has trouble keeping up with rising tourist populations, Cárdenas said, especially along the coast, with high water tables and inadequate sewer systems.

The roads are bad, especially between Puerto Viejo and the southern end-of-the-road beach village of Manzanillo, but they’re “fantastic” compared to previous editions, said Cárdenas, who now drives between Puerto Viejo and Limón in 45 minutes, half of what it used to take.

The Cahuita – Puerto Viejo – Punta Uva – Manzanillo beaches form the northeastern edge of a finger into Panama, and are all part of Costa Rica’s largest municipal extension, the canton of Talamanca, which is also one of the country’s poorest. It is home to 60% of Costa Rica’s indigenous population, according to the Public Health Ministry. The coastal part of Talamanca was a hotbed of cacao cultivation until about 20 years ago, when a fungus destroyed most cacao production in the region.

Most of the tourism happens within two kilometers of the ocean. So do most real estate transfers, said Manuel Pinto, owner of Caribe Sur, the area’s largest real estate office.

“We’re in the biggest growth phase the region’s ever experienced,” he said, classifying the growth as “healthy,” compared to the “crazy” development of Guanacaste.Here, he said, people buy properties to live in, rather than to sell quickly and get out – there’s less subdivision of lots and fewer big hotels. Still, Caribe Sur, three years ago the area’s only real estate broker, has doubled its listings in each of the last few years and now competes with three other agencies.

Caribbean land isn’t as cheap as is rumored, Pinto said; the day of the $50,000 beach lot is over, and there’s not really much space left. In the Cahuita to Manzanillo area, about 30% of the land is part of the heavily regulated Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, and 20% belongs to indigenous reserves, Pinto said, adding that he doesn’t see much possibility for enormous property developments in the far south Caribbean.

Meanwhile, above the Limón-area banana plantations, 120 kilometers northwest of Manzanillo’s coral reefs, amid grazing cattle and quiet hills, Ogen and company advertise a cluster of homes and swimming pools for foreign clients.

“If I were rich, I wouldn’t sell any of it,” Ogen said.

Back down in Cahuita, Thompson takes in some “liquid sunshine” – “I tell people they’re getting in the water anyway, what’s the difference if it’s raining…” – and speculates on the future of the beachside region.

“This is the forgotten coast,” he said.

With the tour business for sale, Thompson said he plans to retire to a place halfway between Limón and Cahuita, where the people are friendly and the property still reasonable.

In what might be the classic manifestation of the southern Caribbean lifestyle, Thompson’s plans are simple: sit back, drink beer and watch the ocean.


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