Limón, Costa Rica

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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History of Coffee in Costa Rica (コーヒーの歴史)

You can’t talk about the history of Costa Rica without mentioning coffee. In fact, if it wasn’t for coffee, Costa Rica may have suffered the same fate as The Mosquito Kingdom, a place you’ve never even heard about! Fortunately, Costa Rica possessed all of the natural ingredients for producing the savory bean we know and love today.

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As with just about any “first” in history, there is still much debate about how the first coffee bean arrived in Costa Rica. Some say that the first seeds were brought from Jamaica by a sea captain under orders of the Costa Rican governor. Others, insist the bean emigrated from Panama or Cuba at the end of the 18th century. Still others argue that the bean was transported directly from Ethiopia in 1779, the theory of which I am personally least convinced. You can be the judge of which story seems most probable. Regardless, it is well known that in the beginning of the 19th Century, the Costa Rican government saw the potential value that the coffee bean had and highly encouraged its production.

After Costa Rica’s (read: Central America) independence from Spain, the government began offering plots of land to anyone that was willing to grow and harvest the plant. With fertile volcanic soil, favorable temperatures year round, a varying elevations, the crop grew quite easily in the country. By the end of 1821, there were over 17,000 coffee plants in the nation, producing a crop that, for the most part, was still not being exported. In 1825, in an effort to promote growth in coffee production, the government exempted coffee harvesters from paying a tithe. Four years later, coffee became the leading crop in production, easily surpassing cacao, tobacco, and sugar.

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By 1832, Costa Rica finally began “exporting” coffee. The bean was sent to Chile, where it was rebagged and renamed “Café Chile del Paraiso” and then sent to Europe. After learning of “Cafe Chile del Paraiso’s” coffee bean’s true origin, an Englishman by the name of William Lacheur arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica to negotiate the purchase  of Costa Rican coffee beans. Don Santiago Fernandez Hidalgo, the owner of the farm prospective exporting farm, was suspicious of this Englishman and his “promise to return with silver” in exchange for his coffee beans. In 1843 he allowed Mr. Lacheur to take over 5,000 sacks of coffee and set sail for England under the watchful eyes of a Costa Rican trade specialist. Six months later, both men returned, paid the coffee growers in pounds in sterling and fully loaded another two ships for export. England had acquired a taste for Costa Rican coffee and a new market had been discovered.

Cultivation of coffee in the early 1800s had transformed Costa Rica from a remote, struggling country to a leading exporter, allowing a stable middle class and a wealthy coffee oligarchy to form. By 1850, coffee comprised over 90% of Costa Rica’s exports. The coffee industry transformed the economy and modernized the country. The revenue generated funded the first railroads connecting the capital to the Atlantic coast in 1890. In 1897 it funded the building of The National Theater in San Jose (modeled after a Paris Opera House). Thanks to the revenue brought in from coffee, Costa Rica was one of the first cities in the world to have an electric lighting system in 1884.

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The National Theater located in Downtown San Jose

After World War 2, the demands for Costa Rican coffee was steadily increasing and productivity was falling short. The Typica and Bourbon varieties of low productivity, were replaced with small caturra and catui varieties. This led to an increase from just over 10,000 coffee plants per hectare to an average of over 30,000 plants per hectare. By the late 1980s, coffee production had increased from 158,000 tons to 168,000 tons.

Today, coffee is the third largest export in the country, behind Medical Equipment and tropical fruit. It accounts for 3% of exports at an export value of $308 Million. The top importers of Costa Rican coffee are the US (52%, $161M), Belgium (14%,$44.2M), Germany (4.1%, $12.5M), Italy (3.6%, $11.2M), and Australia (3.5%, $10.7M). Japan is 10th on the list at 1.8%, $5.63M. Still, with so much revenue generated from coffee exports, Costa Rica provides less than 1% of the world’s coffee production! However, the per capita consumption of coffee in Costa Rica is the highest of all coffee producing countries in the world.

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If you find yourself in Costa Rica and would like to learn more about Costa Rican coffee, there are plenty of coffee farm tours available throughout the 8 coffee producing regions (Central Valley, Tres Rios, Tarrazu, West Valley, Guanacaste, Turrialba, Brunca, and Orosi). Or you could take a coffee tour at Britt Coffee in Heredia, a quick 20 to 30 minute drive from San Jose, depending on traffic. If neither of those sound interesting to you, then head over to Barrio Escalante and check out some of the new, up and coming 3rd wave café’s that have coffee from all over Costa Rica in different plant varieties, washes, and roasts. The coolest part about Barrio Esclante is you can still see some coffee plants on the sides of buildings and restaurants, remnants of the first coffee farms in Costa Rica.

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Me (probably) looking for coffee in Manuel Antonio (2014)

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Sources:

Wikipedia

ICAFE

Roblesabana Cofffee

Me

Street Directory