San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What Happened in Limón These Past 50 Years?

My family and I lived in the Caribbean port city of Limón from 1958 to 1959, renting one of the Bananera Zone houses from Mr.Kelly, the manager. Our daughter attended their school.

On a return visit in 1987 we saw with horror that the entire Bananera Zone had disappeared. How did this happen? Hurricane Irene in September 1971? When did United Fruit Company leave Limón?

Also, I heard about the earthquake of April 1991. How much of Limón was destroyed? Were there fatalities? Any information you could provide would be gratefully appreciated.

Judson Hughes

Dallas, Texas

Whew! That’s a long time period to cover. Here’s our history primer: The United Fruit Company ceased to exist under that name in 1970, becoming eventually, via a succession of mergers and acquisitions, Chiquita Brands International in 1984, with headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The company traces its roots to financiers Henry Meiggs and Minor Keith, late-19th century founders of Costa Rica’s Atlantic Railroad, according to the reference book “Historical Dictionary of Costa Rica” (Theodore Creedman, 1991). Keith planted bananas along the railroad right-of-way to generate income. To generations of Costa Ricans, United Fruit was simply the “Bananera,” a shortened version of the name of its subsidiary here, the Compañía Bananera Atlántica, Ltda. (“Atlantic Banana Company, Ltd.” or COBAL in today’s lexicon).

No other name was necessary.

United Fruit may be gone, but COBAL still operates here as a division of Chiquita.

The company manages 20 plantations near Limón and the Caribbean-slope communities of Siquirres and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, spokeswoman Irene Sandoval told The Tico Times. It also operates Mundimar, a large banana purée plant near Guápiles. The company is one of the country’s largest employers, directly providing jobs for 6,000 people, a number that doesn’t include those working on farms with which Chiquita independently contracts.

What of the distinctive stilt houses you recall in Limón?

“None of us remembers that era,” Sandoval said. She suspected that the age of the structures and maintenance problems, rather than any natural disaster, may have been a reason for their demolishment. Scores of family-owned bananera houses, sold at low prices to their owners by the company at various points in the 20th century, can still be seen in use around Siquirres and Sarapiquí, however.

Hurricane Irene caused minimal damage to Costa Rica in September 1971, but inflicted more pain farther north in Nicaragua. Far worse hurricanes have battered Costa Rica, namely Cesar (TT, Aug. 2, 1996) and Mitch (TT, Oct. 30, 1998), though, paradoxically, the Caribbean coast was spared the worst of the damage.

A 7.2-magnitude earthquake, with an epicenter in Pandora, 32 kilometers (19 miles) south of Limón, struck on April 22, 1991, leaving 58 dead in Costa Rica and 29 in neighboring Panama. Thousands were left homeless and damage was estimated at $500 million (TT, April 26, 1991).

If it has been 20 years since you visited, you’d be surprised at Limón today, especially in its newest incarnation as a port of call for several cruise lines. The small airport south of town now welcomes domestic flights too. Up and down the coast, previously little-known hamlets such as Tortuguero, Parismina, Barra del Colorado, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo host tourists in an industry fueled by improved transportation links, telephones and, now, the Internet (even high-speed in some places). Tourism on the Caribbean coast doesn’t generate the mega-numbers seen on the Pacific side, but it remains quite attractive with something for every budget.


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