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Sloth Gawking and Laid-Back Travel on Costa Rica’s Lesser Known Caribbean Side

Article Summary:

In Costa Rica, there’s only one place to get that laid-back, slow-down and watch the sloth-move-up-a-tree vacation; the Caribbean coast. While not many visitors to Costa Rica make their way down to this corner of the country, except for surfers, that has changed somewhat — in the past several years, a new crop of small hotels and upscale little restaurants, many owned by American or European ex-pats, has opened.

Photo Credit: Star-Telegram

Original Article Text From Star-Telegram:

Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast offers hidden gems

Driving through the languid Caribbean beach village of Puerto Viejo, on our way to the even smaller, even more laid-back speck called Punta Uva, we notice the traffic on the two-lane road has ground to a complete stop. Road construction? Fallen palm tree? A tourist on a clunky rental bicycle, tumped over in a ditch?

Cars, Jeeps and bikes inch slowly forward till we see the problem: a knot of tourists standing along the road, peering into the jungle, watching a sloth make its way back into a tree. As sloths do nothing quickly, this could take awhile.

Our 8-year-old sticks his head out the window of our rented SUV and gawks. My husband and I shrug. Well, it wasn’t like we had anywhere in particular to be. And isn’t this why we came here in the first place? We wanted the whole Costa Rican nature and eco-tourism experience — zip-lines, howler monkeys, jungle treks. But we wanted it with a side of beachy, mañana attitude.

In Costa Rica, there’s only one place to get that: the Caribbean coast.

The coast less traveled
For a long time, not many visitors to Costa Rica made their way down to this corner, except for surfers, drawn by the famous wave known as Salsa Brava that breaks just off the coast of Puerto Viejo.

That has changed somewhat — in the past several years, a new crop of small hotels and upscale little restaurants, many owned by American or European ex-pats, has opened.

Properties like the $250-a-night Le Cameleon, a luxury retreat where the mod rooms are done up all in white, and La Pecora Nera, a fine-dining escape where the Italian owner creates stellar meals that can easily run $150 for two with wine, have helped to expand the tourism market. Nearly 10 percent of Costa Rica’s annual visitors visit the Puerto Viejo/Playa Chiquita/Punta Uva beach corridor.

But that’s still fewer than 175,000 visitors a year, not nearly as many as the more developed Pacific coast gets. And somehow, the place has retained its surfer ethos. (One popular cantina is called Tasty Wave, and reggae music often spills from bars and shops onto the street.)

You don’t see sprawling, all-inclusive resorts, American-style chain restaurants, or duty-free shopping here. But you do get all the amenities that a certain segment of the traveling public expects: yoga classes, vegetarian restaurants, bike and scooter rentals, massage therapists, surf shops, friendly guesthouses and cottage rentals, coffee shops with free Wi-Fi, even a sweat lodge.

The lack of big business “keeps it personal, unique, individual and a bit funky,” says Poppy Williams, an American ex-pat who is co-owner of Jungle Love Cafe, a small, eclectic and, yes, slightly funky open-air restaurant where we enjoyed good pizza and margaritas one night. “It’s refreshing.”

Nature calls
The combination of still-small crowds but expanding services makes this a great place to kick back for a week or two and enjoy what most people come to Costa Rica for: the nature.

As middle-aged tourists with a kid in tow, and no desire to be within walking distance of the bars, we didn’t need to stay in the largest town, Puerto Viejo, which attracts a younger, more bohemian crowd and offers the most services. Instead, we based ourselves in one of its “bedroom communities” a few miles down the coast, the more family-oriented Punta Uva.

For about $100 a night in the summer, we got a two-bedroom beachside cottage with everything we needed: a kitchen to brew our own strong Costa Rican coffee, a couple of hammocks in the garden and our own private path to a practically private stretch of beach, a gently curved arc of golden sand fringed by tall coconut palms and colorful bromeliads.

From there, we were in a good position to explore. One day, we drove 10 miles down to Manzanillo, nearly to the border of Panama, with wide, deserted beaches, tucked inside a national jungle refuge.

Another day, we took a canopy tour — zipping from platform to platform, sometimes more than 100 feet over the floor of the jungle, once swinging from a rope, Tarzan-style, over a ravine.

On the third day, we visited the misleadingly named Jaguar Rescue Center, a wildlife rehabilitation center that opened a tiny zoo/museum to educate visitors about vanishing species.

Turns out, there are no jaguars here, as they are increasingly rare, endangered by poachers and development. But we end up not caring, charmed by the guides (mostly volunteers from all over the world) and the animals being rehabbed for release back into the wild, including sloths, snakes, lizards and an entire enclosure of baby howler monkeys, which when given the chance, climb happily onto visitors’ heads.

Every day, we spend hours on the beach. On days when the waves were higher than our heads, crashing onto the shore, we shared a boogie board we rented for $10 a day in town. On gentle days, we simply floated in the bathtub-warm green-blue water or camp out, reading, on the sand.

Unlike other tropical resorts we have visited, it felt like an entirely different place, exotic and still just a little bit wild.

The first night, at just about dusk, we were alarmed by a low, ominous roar that sounded like it was coming from right outside our bedroom window. We investigated, and finally found the source — five or six howler monkeys, perched about 30 feet up in the trees behind our cottage, doing what howler monkeys do. (We never saw them again, but we heard them daily.)

Toucans, lime-green tree frogs, lizards, iguanas, large and unusual bugs — it was like living in a zoo.

On the next-to-last day, bobbing mindlessly in the warm waves, my son and I noticed a group of people, backs to the ocean, peering and pointing into the trees. Since we had hardly seen more than 10 people at the same time on this beach, we thought it must be something interesting.

Paddling in, we saw the attraction — a mama sloth and her baby, in the trees, lazily eating leaves while people snapped pictures with cellphones.

I could have stayed for hours, watching the furry creatures, but my son lost interest in a couple of minutes. “It’s just a sloth, Mama,” he said, grabbing my hand and pulling me toward the water. “We see those every day.”

Well, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, he was kind of right.

Link to Original Article:

From Star-Telegram

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