On a map of Central America, Costa Rica resembles a fat crocodile stomping its way from Nicaragua to South America. Its backbone rises some 12,000 feet and its belly splashes in two oceans: the Pacific to the west, the Atlantic to the east.
The place where my husband and I settled, Grape Point (Punta Uva), is on the southern Atlantic coast just before Costa Rica bumps into Panama. The area is all dense lowland jungle that hugs a Caribbean coastline of curvy white-sand beaches. Tall coconut palms lean out over blue tropical waters the temperature of desire itself. A few kilometers inland the Talamanca Mountains swoop upward to touch the sky. It is an area rich in diversity and culture.
When I first arrived on this Caribbean coast in 1992, it was what travel magazines (ironically) call “undiscovered.” They still call it that, although, as you will find from my writings, a lot has changed. But to understand how much it has changed, you have to understand how remote this place once was.
Native ethnic groups originally inhabited the area, the Cabecar, Brii-Bri, and Kekoldi. Afro-Caribbean blacks from Jamaica, by way of Panama, also moved up and down the coastline hunting seasonal turtle, lobster, and fish. Then, in the early 19th century, a few blacks settled permanently. These small enclaves eventually became Old Harbour (Puerto Viejo), Little Bay (Playa Chiquita), Grape Point (Punta Uva), Manchineel (Manzanillo), and Monkey Point (Punta Mona).
Until the 1949, and the formation of Costa Rica’s Constitution, blacks were forbidden by law to travel farther inland than Guapiles, and they were prohibited from owning (or titling) land. They lived a world apart, creating a life out of hard work. They planted coconuts along the coast, harvested and dried them into kernels used for making coconut oil. Other sustainable crops included breadfruit, citrus, plantains, ackee and cacao.
It was the cacao that became their cash crop. For over one hundred years they sold their chocolate to buyers from around the globe. At night and on special occasions they played calypso music, drank local rum called Guaro, and shared their Jamaican food, jerk chicken or fish, rondon, and always rice and beans made with coconut milk.
In those days the only way to the Caribbean from the capital, San José, was by train to Limón. The railway was built by an American businessman, Minor Keith, in trade for thousands of hectares of land. He started growing bananas on enormous plantations and formed Standard Fruit, making Costa Rica the original Banana Republic.
From Limón, people either went by boat launch to these remote communities strung along the southern Caribbean, or they took a plantation train to Penshurt, and from there set out on foot or by horse. When the government completed the Braulio Carrillo highway (1979) from San José to Limón, the road also extended to Puerto Viejo, finally giving residents access.
Electricity did not arrive in Puerto Viejo until 1986 and Manzanillo in 1988. Phone lines arrived several years later. All services were spotty for years with outages often lasting over a week. The government paved the road from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo in 2001.The Internet is only recent development.
About the same time the road from San Jose came to this area, a devastating mold blight—moniliasis (frosty pod rot)—hit their cacao trees. With their crops decimated, many of the blacks left seeking work, some to the Untied States, some to the Central Valley. The people who remained sold off the land. As more than one local has told me, “Ya nuh see it? that monilia, she don’t come… uno nuh have that lan.”
My husband and I have lived here for over 25 years. We’ve made many friends among the locals and try to live a life respectful of their way here. This is becoming increasingly difficult as tourism escalates as tourism will. But there are two sides to every conundrum; the very same tourism that threatens to dilute their culture and way of life, is the very same thing that provides a decent wage in an area that was almost destroyed by moniliasis.
This blog includes my experiences, reflections, general mouthing off, and an occasional angry rant; the good, the bad, and the ugly. It also has posts on writing, book reviews, and an occasional poem; it is diverse, like the area where I live.
Oh, yes, The Free Zone refers to the area between the Panama border at Sixaola and the first police checkpoint at Cahuita (Tuba Creek). I hope you enjoy my posts. Please feel free to leave a comment or a suggestion of things you’d like to hear about.