Costa Rica 2021 – Cahuita

We had enjoyed our time in San José, but we were here for the animals, would Cahuita deliver the experiences we were after? A 4 or 5 hour bus trip, passing more banana farms than I had ever seen before, I mean there were miles and miles of them, and we arrived in Cahuita.

By far the worst part of our travels is moving on day. We are always excited by the prospect of visiting another place we hadn’t previously been to, but the excitement is balanced by the thought of packing up, again, because it really isn’t easy, and then having to carry our huge backpacks as well as a couple of fairly heavily laden rucksacks.

We left Cahuita bus station and referred to Google Maps to find our way to the hotel. We were very pleased that in Costa Rica our phones worked once again. Off we set, 700 metres to go. We can do this! 100 metres later and Google tells us 800 metres to go, we had headed off in the wrong direction. Again! Google doesn’t seem to cater for walkers anywhere near as well as it does for drivers, and it’s all too common for us to walk 100 metres in the wrong direction before turning round and eventually going the right way. This is annoying in any circumstances, when you’re fully loaded with heavy weights it’s downright upsetting. We started off again, and as soon as we did the heavens opened and we both got a good soaking.

Dripping wet through, struggling with the backpacks, we didn’t make it to the accommodation in one go. Just as the rain was at its heaviest we passed an open bar called El Purgatorio.

Guess where we went? We had some very welcome shelter, and an even more welcome beer. We settled up our tab and were severely overcharged, my fault for not asking the price first. Reluctantly we paid. We went on to spend quite a long time in Cahuita, spending literally thousands of Colónes there. (there are around 850 Colons to the Pound, so everything costs thousands) Not one further Colón was spent in El Purgatorio. It would appear that many others shared our view, as the bar/restaurant was empty day and night whilst the neighbouring restaurant was permanently full. Strange that!

The bill was paid and we continued on to Cabinas Surf Side. We laughed at the advertising board boasting that this hotel had hot water. An English hotel may highlight a 4-poster bed, or perhaps air-conditioning, but no, this one had hot water. Without too much further delay we were settling into our home for the next week. Very basic accommodation featuring a double-bed, a single bed, a fan, a TV and a bathroom. There was also a shared kitchen so we had access to a fridge and water boiling facilities (a bloody big pan) For around £20 a night we couldn’t expect too much more.

In the garden of where we were staying I saw a most beautiful orange hummingbird, and on another occasion just outside we had a very close up view of a toucan – the type with the huge beak, although both views were too fleeting to be captured on camera. We had seen several beautiful Blue Morpho butterflies, but always they were too elusive for the camera. Previous guests at our accommodation had reported seeing toucans and sloths in the garden too.

We were eager to see animals, so the next day we spoke to Esme on reception and she called a local guide whose real name was Rodolfo, but who was known locally to just about everyone as Awful. He was with us within 15 minutes, the price was agreed and we headed off for a first visit to Cahuita National Park, about a 5-10 minute walk away. It cost $20 each but compared to other local options this was way cheaper than we had been offered.

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park was established in 1970 and is known not only for its wildlife but for protected coral reefs close to the shore which span 60 acres. The forest itself covers 2,732 acres and there are two entrances; once in Cahuita and one approximately 4km down the road closer to Playa Vargas. From Cahuita the entry criteria involves signing in a book and giving a voluntary donation. There is a mandatory $10 US fee for entrance nearer Playa Vargas. We signed in with our guide, gave a contribition and excitedly entered the park.

Visiting Costa Rica, for us, was all about the nature, the animals, but specifically the sloth. Would we get to see one? Within 2 minutes of entering Cahuita National Park we had our answer, and we saw this fella, a three toed sloth!

A mere two minutes later we saw a two toed sloth. Interestingly, both types of sloth have 3 toes, the difference is actually in their upper limbs, one has two fingers (claws) the other, three. We were in sloth heaven!

Awful was a fantastic guide, we walked about 4 kilometres from the park entrance to Punta Cahuita on a very hot, bright sunny day, taking a few hours to do so as we kept stopping to look for more creatures. With our guides help we must have seen around 40 animals, including both types of sloth, frogs, raccoons, capuchin (white faced) monkeys, iguanas, jesus christ lizards, various birds, and river turtles.

Punta Cahuita is visible from the park entrance as the far tip of a beach that sweeps around the corner to the left. The walking trail follows the curve round and you are never far from the sea. The trail is mostly flat which was great for Carol and only one section was muddy which was easily dodged. A few tree roots were in the way but besides that it was an easy walk.

Costa Rica had been very high up on my wish list for a couple of years, and I started falling in love with the country on our first day in San Jose. Our first experience in Cahuita just cemented those feelings. What a place! Lovely, friendly people, and beautiful animals pretty much everywhere you looked.

Armed with the knowledge gained from our first trip to the national park, we visited again, this time on our own. As useful as having a guide was, we just couldn’t afford to pay one every day. This time it was a much cooler, duller and damper day, and I don’t know if it was the weather conditions or not having a guide that meant that on this occasion we saw hardly anything. We were turned back also by a ranger because the trail was closing despite the fact it was only 2pm.

Our 3rd visit two days later was much more of a success! It was a sunny day and we got see (and hear) our first Howler Monkeys and we saw iguanas close up and with one large one walking in front of us! We also saw the capuchin monkeys and some lizards, a basilisk lizard and various other wildlife.

We did well without a guide however the one thing we didn’t spot was a sloth much to Carol’s disappointment. This was quickly remedied however when we had a drink at the restaurant at the exit after our walk and one was climbing on the tree right outside! The thing with wildlife is they are not aware of any park boundaries, they literally go where they want, in or out of the park. By now we had seen at least 3 sloths just doing their thing in the local village.

Night Trek

Whilst in San Jose we met Álvaro and Esadora from Chile who highly recommended a tour guide in Cahuita named Ludrick from Green Cahuita, we contacted him and arranged for him to be our guide on a night trek through the foothills of some local mountains. We set out looking for frogs, spiders and snakes. We never saw any snakes, but boy did we get a bonus on that trip! A mummy sloth carrying her baby, just causally traversing the village via the (hopefully insulated) electricity wires. It was a little disconcerting that the guides were wearing wellington boots (in case of stepping on a snake) and we weren’t so we were very careful to step where they did. It was a great trip and highly recommended. Ludrick turned out to be extremely friendly and helpful, and actually became the architect of our later trip to Tortuguro, more of that later.

Beaches

There are two main beaches around Cahuita; Playa Blanca, a white sandy beach found within the National Park and Playa Negra with dark volcanic sand found outside the park in the North West area of Cahuita. Playa Blanca was popular with locals and tourist alike because of the white sand; although there were warnings about swimming in rough conditions. We walked on the beach looking for wildlife and also following the trail further on to Punta Cahuita but didn’t swim here. A river which had signs warning of crocodiles was just by the main part of the beach but we didn’t see any there.

Playa Negra is a popular swimming spot for locals and families especially at the weekends. There are a couple of beach bars here including Calypso and Reggae Bar and these often feature live music. The beach itself even at busier times is never overcrowded and you can find a nice little space on your own. We spent an afternoon here jumping in the waves which was good fun but our highlight and what kept us coming back was the easily spottable sloth we affectionately called Sammy. We visited this beach 3 days in a row and Sammy was still in the same spot and often would put on a little show of wandering from branch to branch and eating. Whether he is always there we don’t know but he was a happy little fella and provided us with our best sloth picture yet (hint: he was past the sign stating no cars on the beach, in the trees above the bench near the swing).

Out and About in Cahuita

Cahuita is a small beach town with a really chilled out vibe; there are couple of small supermarkets to buy your essentials, a pharmacy and ATM at the bus station and several smaller shops and restaurants. During out first visit we discovered on our second to last day that there was a cute little breakfast restaurant tucked away on the corner! Mi Nonna’s is a great place to grab a nice breakfast at a reasonable cost, take away coffees and also the best bread we had had in a long time (we have really struggled with bread which is really sweet and that doesn’t go well with marmite!). Expect a lovely warm welcome here.

Another place we visited frequently and was open from 5.30 am was Soda Kawe. They served traditional Costa Rican breakfasts with gallo pinto (rice and beans) and continental or American style choices as well. Especially if you are doing an early morning tour this is a great option and is popular with both locals and tourists.

We also found the best food of our entire trip to date in Cahuita, a small Italian restaurant called Cocorico where one worker, Maikey, worked his socks off. On our first visit, one of many, we waited over an hour for our food to arrive, but it was so good it was worth the wait. We went there several night afterwards for the duration of our stay in Cahuita.

Our thoughts on Cahuita

We had a great time in Cahuita, absolutely loved the animals, and the people were great too. We met Conor and Ericka, they had travelled on the same bus as us from San Jose, then checked into the same accommodation. Or at least they tried to, some mix-up with hotels.com meant they had to find somewhere else to stay, which luckily they managed to without too much further trouble. Then we bumped into them in Cahuita’s main street (it’s a very small town, so the chances of seeing people you’ve met previously are quite high) a lengthy chat in the street ensued, followed by a suggestion we go for a drink, which was an absolute pleasure. We have since met up with them again in Puerto Viejo and are still keeping in touch with them even though we have gone in separate directions.

Whilst Sammy gazing on Playa Negra we met Kevin who was out on his morning run, and we struck up a conversation about the sloths. We exchanged numbers and via Whatsapp kept in touch and later went out for a drink together with his wife Bo. At Kevin’s choice of bar I had the most disgusting looking mojito I had ever seen, but luckily it was far from the worst tasting. We had a great night with them both and promised to keep in touch..

A Return Visit!

Carol had gone an hour or two (ok maybe a week…) without seeing her favourite sloth Sammy, star of our featured image for this blog, and was missing him badly. We headed back to Cahuita for a weekend and straight down to Playa Negra to see if we could find him. He was a very active sloth, twice we saw him move from one tree to another, stopping for snacks on the way, but find him we did, much to Carol’s delight.

Snorkelling the Reef

During our first week in Cahuita the sea was unfortunately too rough to snorkel which was a huge disappointment. When we came back again as luck would have it the swell died down and we were able to go on a last minute boat trip!

The start was a little scary. Having been taken out by boat several hundred metres off shore , the boat captain told us he had just had a phone call and 3 more snorkeller’s wanted to join us. Was it OK if he left us in the water, went to collect the others and came back for us in 15-20 minutes?

To be honest we were much further out than we usually swim. We were left with many instructions “swim in that direction” “do not swim over there” “if you find yourselves drifting that way, come back and head over there” but once we put our faces underwater and saw the beautiful coral gardens and colourful fish we were fine, and we had by now assessed that if we had to swim back to shore we’d probably be able to quite easily.

The boat did come back for us along with 3 new people. Soon one of them spotted a ray, and they did share their find with us but by the time we got to the spot it had swum off.

We enjoyed spotting our Caribbean favourites such as the Blue Tang, the Sergeant Major fish and the Lionfish, and we added a new one to our list, the Puffer Fish.

We got back in the boat, and the captain moved us only about another 100 metres or so, but here the underwater scenery was completely different. A sandy bottom, and only a few large corals around. Here we saw huge shoals of two different kinds of fish, and one of them was quite large. It’s always amazing to see the large shoals, where you can swim right through the middle of them and not one will touch you. They must have some kind of sensor and they always manage to move out of your path.

The highlight of the swim came when Carol had about a metre and a half long nurse shark swim past her, before taking refuge under a rock. We signalled to the other snorkeller’s to come take a look, and the shark dutifully stayed where she was and allowed everyone to come and take a good look. If we didn’t know any better, we would have thought the shark was afraid of us! Unfortunately we are still lacking an underwater camera since ours went for a swim in Dominica so we haven’t got any of the amazing footage.

If you swim in waters where sharks are known to be, it pays to have a little knowledge of them. Off the top of my head there are over 300 species of sharks, and only a very small number of them have ever been known toattack humans. I guess we’re just not that tasty. The number one predator that people know about is the Great White Shark, and they are very fussy about the temperature of water they swim in, and the Caribbean, generally speaking, is a little too warm for them, so not much probability of meeting one here.

Returning to Cahuita also gave us a further opportunity to meet up again with Kevin and Bo and meet their daughter Sophia, spending time at their cabin, swimming pool, and beautiful gardens where we were able to see some toucans. It was a very nice day spent with them, and we went out again together that evening and had a great night with some live music. Our return visit didn’t disappoint – we still loved Cahuita but are worried we may have seen the best first; surely nowhere else could offer the same wildlife and chilled out vibes?? …. We shall see!!

Nigel & Carol x

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