Tag Archive for history

Total Destruction to Tourist Mecca: Limón

Rio Estrella

Rio Estrella

On April 22, 1991, at about 3PM—three years before my first trip to Grape Point*— a 7.7 magnitude quake that killed 65 people and injured hundreds of others, tore through Limón province. 22 seconds of shaking knocked out bridges, buckled steel girders like toothpicks, destroyed roads, split pavement open like melons, and twisted railroad tracks into spaghetti. It razed thousands of houses and businesses alike. It would take Limón province years to recover.

Years later my friend Miss Olga told me about that grim day. She said she crawled out of her house on hands and knees for safety. Instead, the earth opened up like a gaping maw and then closed again right in front of her. She escaped injury, but a neighbor lady broke her arm and had to be medevacked. She was transported to the Rio Banano, lifted over the river by crane, and then air-lifted to Limón.

Any tourists on the southern Caribbean coast were cut off. Eventually they were evacuated by small air transport, and food drops were instituted for those who stayed behind.

International Rescue Corps Workers

International Rescue Corps Workers

By the time I arrived in ’94, temporary bridges had been erected but the roads were still in total disarray. The train tracks, once Limón’s only connection with the Central Valley, lay wasted and made rail travel impossible. It has yet to be rebuilt.

It was dark by the time we left Limón. I thought we would be another half hour to our destination. That is what the distance indicated, anyway—55 kilometers, or about 35 miles and how long could that possibly take?

We began running into cavernous holes in the road, so many potholes it was hard to know where the pavement ended and the chuckholes began. They were deep and oncoming cars simply disappeared into them. Their lights vanished only to re-emerge on our side of the road. everyone picked their way through the gaping craters. Whenever we met other cars, we stayed our course rather than move over. Sometimes there would be three cars abreast as we navigated the obstacle course. But you could not drive any faster than about five miles an hour. No one was going to get in a wreck. The road was the wreck!

We struggled on through the night. Over four hours later we came to a little town of Old Harbour, or Puerto Viejo. I couldn’t see anything but little white lights twinkling like jewelry in the jungle night. After we passed through town, headed for Grape Point, we slowed as the road got worse, though I hadn’t thought that possible.

typical bridge of the day

Typical bridge of the day

The one-lane mud track was as red and slick as potting clay, and the truck sashayed back and forth as we crept forward. We stopped for any oncoming traffic, moving off the road to allow them to pass, but careful not to get too far out of the ruts and end up mired in the ooze. The bridges we crossed that night were nothing more than planks laid down over enormous logs. At one point A. got out and replaced the dislodged decking before we could cross.

Out the truck windows dense green foliage crowded the road on either side; occasionally a branch would slap the side of the truck. I heard insect sounds: cheeps, shrill police whistles, clicks, and a bug so alien I knew I’d landed in a truly foreign world. It was a high-pitched metallic and penetrating sound that punctured the night like a submarine’s sonic echo. PING! It left a faint echo in its wake. PING!

Those bugs still catch my ear at night, but so much has changed since that first trip.

It took Limón and Talamanca years to recover from that earthquake. In the late ‘90s an Italian firm contracted with Costa Rica to replace all of Limón’s sewer system, sidewalks, and gutters. They also created a new esplanade in the center of town where these days tourists, debarked from the frequent cruise ships, meander and shop for curiosities.

The many bridges between Limón and Puerto Viejo were slowly replaced or repaired, and the road was eventually repaved, although the area around the Bananito River took them years to control. For a long time that train bridgesection of road was often washed out–closed–causing a long detour through the banana plantation country, over railroad bridges, and fording small streams.

Now a trip from our house to Limón takes about an hour, and to Old Harbour, fifteen minutes- tops. The slippery clay road from Port to Manzanillo was paved in 2001.

There are more tourists here now, more expats living along these shores, more drugs, more crime, and yet…. there are conveniences that come with progress. Our old Jeep would certainly be dead by now had the roads not been improved, and fresh veggies arrive from the Central Valley three times a week. But… I’ll write more about food next time.

 

Here is a YouTube video showing the extensive damage of the Limón Earthquake.

And, if you have about 25 minutes and want to know what it was like to ride the train from Limón to San José, you can watch this YouTube video.

* A. Had been coming to Costa Rica since the late 80s, but my first trip to Grape Point was in 1994.

Talamanca, Maps, and Why Everything Here Has at Least Two Names

Courtesy Moon Travel

Courtesy Moon Travel

As long ago as the 1700s, fisherman plied the southern Caribbean waters because of the abundance of turtles that came every year to lay their eggs. These fisherman took the meat and sold the valuable shells. These would later be transformed into European hair brushes, combs, spectacle frames, guitar picks, and countless other items made from what we called “tortoiseshell.” tortoise shell

Sea turtles were hunted until near extinction, but, happily, they are making a slow comeback due to conservation and volunteer efforts. My old friend, John John, was a “turtle striker” in his youth, and he told me in order to land the monsters, he had to swamp his boat, lowering the gunnels into the sea, float the turtle inside, then bail the boat to raise it once again.

turtle conserveMany of those fishermen originated from the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, but paddled as far north as Bluefields, Nicaragua, when the turtle season was on— March through September.

They were Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous men , and they built provisional camps along this southern Caribbean coast line; they planted coconuts, yucca, yam, and other crops that would help them survive during the season.

Then, in 1828 one of these seasonal fishermen decided to settle permanently. William Smith, along with his family, settled at one of the camps located just north of the current town of Cahuita. I don’t imagine they had much when they first came. Perhaps their rudimentary huts looked something like this. leaf hut

Other settlers followed: the Hudsons, who settled just north of William Smith; The Dixon family, who settled south of Cahuita; the Sheperds, in Puerto Vargas; Ezequiel Hudson and Celvinas Caldwell, both of whom chose to live at Monkey Point; Horacio MacNish, north of Old Harbour, and Peter Hansel, in Manzanillo. Many came with families, but others formed connections with indigenous people of Talamanca. Thus began an interracial population that is characteristic of this region. In fact, it’s fair to say that this coastline has the most diverse population of any part of Costa Rica.

Beach Grape

These original settlers often settled next to small streams and creeks and those landmarks still bear their names. These pioneers also christened areas along the coastline with names like Little Bay; Hone Creek, whose name comes for the plentiful palm of the same name; Grape Point, where beach grape is plentiful; Manchineel, named after a huge tree of the same name that died back in the 1940s. Some of the names originate from the indigenous people. For example, Cahuita ( “where the Sangrillos grow”) ,and some are leftovers from another time: Old Harbour, from the pirate days and the likes of Horatio Nelson and John Davis.

Tourists who come to this area today are often confused because there are two and sometimes three names for locations along this coastline: Spanish, English, and the indigenous names given by the various ethnic groups in the area.

The original settlers were native English speakers, and in the map you can see the names of the landmarks as I knew them when my husband and I arrived in the late 1980s. As the area has gained notoriety, and Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans from the Central Valley have begun moving to the area, the names have changed to Spanish. But I like the old names, the Afro-Caribbean names.The REAL names.

And here is a recent tourist map. ¡Que diferencia!

Puerto-Viejo-to-Manzanillo-Map