My first time back in Costa Rica, I sat down with my fairer skinned family members from Costa Rica and asked them all about this beautiful country. I asked them where the best beaches were, where the most exotic wild animals lived, and of course where I could find the best hikes. As they explained to an eager 20 year old adventurer the history and geography of Costa Rica, I followed their stories with my finger on a map. Instantly I was taken to the paradise beaches of Guanacaste in the Northwest. I imagined the lush rainforests surrounding Arenal, filled with species I had only ever seen on National Geographic. I envisioned the tourist frequented cabins and lodges to the Southwest in Manuel Antonio surrounded by Nature. And of course, the national treasure of coffee fields spread throughout the eight coffee growing regions of Costa Rica. As my finger traced the destinations on my small map of Costa Rica, I noticed that no one was mentioning anything about a small section of land to the East. My curiosity took charge and the question was delivered. “What about this Limón?” I asked. “Oh, even we don’t go there, its just too dangerous,” they replied. In fact, everyone said that.

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I decided to see for myself, just how dangerous Limón really was. With a population of 60,000 people, 14,000 of which are black (the largest percentage in Costa Rica), the first thing I noticed upon arrival was the amount of racial diversity compared to San Jose. I mean, it would be hard for anyone who has spent anytime anywhere else in Costa Rica (no matter how progressive they claim to be) to not quickly realize the difference in racial diversity. San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, boasts a population of just over 330,000 people, but only 3% of that population, just shy of 10,000 people, are black. Fortunately enough, Costa Rica is not (currently of course) a backwards country plagued with racial tension, in your face racial discrimination, and burdening stereotypes. Compared to other Latin American countries (especially Panama), Costa Rica is one of the least diverse countries; however, Costa Ricans still have a wide mix of Amerindian, European, and African ancestry, and in the last century a growing Asian population. 

American servicemembers deploy to Costa Rica

So why then, and more importantly how, did all of Costa Rica’s black population end up in Limón?

The first Africans arrived to Costa Rica with the Spaniards via the early slave trade. (I’m about to go on a crazy tangent so hold on) In fact, on his fourth and final voyage in March of 1502, Christopher Columbus, onboard Capitana, was under orders by the Spanish King to sail past Hispaniola, and instead search for a passage to the Indian Ocean. Amidst the search for a way West past Central America, a rather violent storm forced Columbus and his crew to drop anchor off the coast of Cariay, what is now Limón. Impressed by the gold and jewels that the native Bribri adorned themselves with, he sent word back to Spain that he had found an untapped, limitless amount of treasure. In 1506 King Ferdinand ordered a voyage to Costa Rica in order to colonize this “Rich Coast.” The attempt was an absolute disaster. Exotic predators, native tribe defenses, and unbearable jungles significantly delayed colonization.

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It wasn’t until 1561, over 50 years of relentless attempts to colonize this wild land, that the “Rich Coast” fell under Spanish hand and the town of Cartago was established. Due to the previously mentioned fierce resistance to colonization by the native tribes, large plantations were never able to take hold and run successfully. This, along with fewer immediate cash crops like neighbors in what is now Panama and Nicaragua, led to less investment in Costa Rica from the crown, resulting in fewer slaves shipped to Costa Rica.

However, today’s black Costa Ricans are not descended from the few slaves brought by the early Spanish settlers. These Spanish colonization/slave trade descendants were nearly completely assimilated by the end of the colonial era. Their roots, remnants of their culture and facial features, are still strongest in Guanacaste where black slaves would work on colonial haciendas.

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Most of today’s blacks in Costa Rica are descendants of Jamaican recruited immigrants Towards the late 1800s, coffee became the main export of Costa Rica. In order to be taken to Europe, the crops had to travel down through South America due to in-traversable jungles, which significantly increased the cost of export. In order to overcome this unnecessary journey South, a railway and the port of Limón were constructed in 1871. Due to the the lack of available local labor, workers were imported from China, Italy, and the Caribbean. In 1872, the first boat from Jamaica arrived at the port of Limón with 123 workers. Over the next year, Limón saw an increase of over 1,000 Jamaican workers in the port. Many expected to work, save enough money, and return to Jamaica, since they wanted nothing more to live apart from the Latinos, whose “language, religion, hygiene, and easygoing work habits they despised.”

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In the early 1900s, work was much more scarce in Central Costa Rica than it was on the East coast, due largely to the United Fruit Company. Many highlanders (central Costa Ricans who were of European descent) went to work in Puerto Limón in search of higher wages. This immediate clash of West-Indians and Latin Americans caused significant racial tension. Ticos resented the blacks, believing that they “monopolized the high paid technical and clerical jobs just because they spoke English.”

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In 1930, the United Fruit Company abandoned its Caribbean plantations and transferred its operations to the Pacific coast. It offered to resettle its workers there, but President Ricardo Jimenez, in a 1934 decree, forbade the company to transfer “colored” employees, arguing that it would “upset the country’s racial balance and could cause a civil commotion.”

Interestingly enough, the first generation of Antillean blacks born in Costa Rica, were not recognized as British subjects and Costa Rica denied them citizenship, leaving them with no country of citizenship. Forbidden to own land, they often lost their subsistence farms to Ticos with bogus documents in Spanish, a language they could not read. Finally in 1948, following the civil war, President Pepe Figueres decreed that anyone born in Costa Rica had all the rights of Citizenship. (What. A. Ride)

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The vestiges of Jamaican immigrants can still clearly be seen today in Limón, with most of its residents, of black and white descent, speaking perfect Spanish, Limón creole, and English. Most restaurants that I visited played nothing but reggae music and have an Irie vibe to them. Unfortunately, due to the removal of major investments in the area in the last century, mainly the United Fruit Company, Limón has seen in increase in crime with poverty and unemployment on the rise. However, this increase in crime is no greater than that of San Jose. Any smart traveler, who does not flaunt money, stay out late, or go looking for trouble will have a great time enjoying the amazing beaches, wildlife, and caribbean food that Limón has to offer.

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Just South of Limón lies the beautiful Cahuita National Park. You can walk or run down the shoreline, and if you get there early enough, won’t find another soul. If you have a car, you can drive further south and find beaches such as Playa Negra, Punta Uva, and Playa Grande.

 

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Sloth Sanctuary

Just North of Cahuita lies a sloth sanctuary. Its rather difficult to miss as there is a Giant Sloth Crossing sign in front. Once you pull into the parking lot, a Giant prehistoric sloth that is said to have weighed over 4 tons welcomes you in. At the sanctuary, they take in sloths, injured from electrocution, predators, or car accidents and are rehabilitated back to health. Tour guide is super knowledgable and I realized sloths can actually move pretty fast, not that fast, but faster than I had imagined. Did you know sloths are great swimmers? I most certainly did not.

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We had a moment

 

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