Then it dawned on me: howler monkeys.
Details: Cahuita, Costa Rica
My husband and I were in Cahuita, a lazy, out-of-the-way beach town tucked down near the southern end of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. We’d driven from the capital, San Jose, the day before and settled into our jungle hideaway just before dark. We were expecting to have a good long sleep — not to be startled awake at 4:30 in the morning. But in Cahuita, as it turns out, that’s all part of the experience.
I admit that I had hesitated to add Cahuita to our itinerary in Costa Rica — but not because of the threat of howling monkeys. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to associate Caribbean vacations with cruise ships, midnight buffets and all-inclusive resorts. We’d come to Costa Rica to do outdoorsy adventure stuff — whitewater rafting, hiking up volcanoes, zip-lining through the cloud forest — not to lounge on a crowded beach sipping overpriced cocktails.
But Cahuita wouldn’t be like that, or so we’d been assured by a couple of friends who knew the area. In Cahuita, they’d said, we’d discover the Caribbean as it was meant to be.
And so we did — howler monkeys and all.
A deep South feel
When we pulled into Cahuita on that first afternoon, it was immediately clear that this isn’t your typical tourist beach town. The place has an old-village feel, with ramshackle wooden buildings, gravel streets and kids tooling around on their bikes. We took a quick stroll through town to get our bearings and saw people sitting out on their front porches, having a drink and watching the world go by.
It might have been those front porches, but to me the place seemed to have strong overtones of the deep South — the Florida panhandle, or maybe the Georgia coast. That sort of connection would kind of make sense, given the region’s history. An Afro-Caribbean fisherman named William Smith was the first person to settle in Cahuita back in 1828. Other fishermen followed, and the area slowly developed into a fishing community with a strong Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Today, Spanish is spoken alongside an English-based patois, and salsa music mixes with reggae on the radio airwaves. Local restaurants serve such classic Costa Rican dishes as gallo pinto (rice and beans), but you can also find spicy jerk chicken and other Caribbean staples. Those same cultural influences are evident up and down Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast: Limon, Cahuita’s province, is the most culturally diverse region in the country.
We didn’t have too much time before dark, so on that first afternoon of our visit, we decided to head straight for the area’s star attraction: Cahuita National Park, whose main entrance lies at the far end of the village.