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.
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.
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 section 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.