Costa Rica's Caribbean vibe

PUERTO VIEJO, Costa Rica -- Rain-forest zip-lining. White-water rafting. Sea kayaking. Surfing, hiking and snorkeling.

The lengthy list of outdoor activities posted at Banana Azul, a beachside lodge just outside this Caribbean coastal town, would please even the most jaded adventure traveler.

But Melani Gordon, 31, an Internet marketing entrepreneur from San Diego, is ready for a break.

"It's hammock time," she says, grabbing paperbacks and heading toward the palm trees beside a nearly deserted Playa Negra.

Indeed, chilling out — albeit amid crashing surf and seaside jungles rife with noisy howler monkeys — remains the primary draw for visitors to the reggae-infused towns that line Costa Rica's southeastern shore. Long a stop on the Central American surfer circuit, Puerto Viejo, along with smaller beach towns Cahuita and Manzanillo, has always attracted the international backpacking set. But now an increase in midrange lodging and restaurants, coupled with continued interest in the country's adventure and eco-tourism offerings, are luring a more varied crowd.

That's evident at places such as Banana Azul, a whimsically designed open-air hotel that's almost always full, even in the October off season. (Unlike the Pacific side, which can get record rains in the fall, the Caribbean generally stays dry — big storms this week being an exception.) Most guidebook authors agree that the best Italian food in the country is served at La Pecora Nera (The Black Sheep), a restaurant opened by an Italian expatriate down the bumpy coastal road in Cocles. And in a nod to those who seek relaxation at the hands of others, the first Western-style spa — Pure Jungle Spa, offering products made with indigenous cacao and coconut — opened at La Costa de Papito bungalow hotel in 2005.

Still, a trip here feels like a well-kept secret: Of the 1.8 million visitors who come to Costa Rica each year, only 282,000 visit the Caribbean side. While Pacific Coast provinces such as Guanacaste are flush with condo towers, gated communities and luxury resorts, the black and golden-sand beaches stretching south of Limón on the Caribbean side remain virtually development free. Prices reflect the difference: Restaurant meals are $10-$20 a person, and even the more upscale hotels run $50 to $90 a night.

And that's just fine with most people who already live here. In Puerto Viejo, developers tabled a proposal for a luxury marina after residents and conservation groups claimed the project would erode the town's laid-back dynamic and nearby coral reefs. Likewise, locals have mixed feelings about plans to pave the pothole-ridden dirt roads leading into Puerto Viejo.

"It's inevitable, the development, but it will be slower here, hopefully," says Kevin Reilly, property manager of Global Creek, one of several yoga retreats built amid the jungle.

Isolation has pluses, minuses

The area's relative isolation has its drawbacks — for one, a reputation within the country for crime. In the capital, San José, taxi drivers warn tourists off visiting the Caribbean coast — before conceding they have never come to the area themselves.

The perception stems mostly from economics. The Limón province, which stretches from Nicaraguan jungle in the north to Panama's Bocos del Toro archipelago in the south, is Costa Rica's poorest region. The area is also the most racially diverse, populated by descendents of late-19th-century Jamaican immigrants who lend the towns a rasta vibe, as well as indigenous tribes who still lack electricity in their hillside villages.

Colin Brownlee, a Canadian expatriate who owns Banana Azul with his Costa Rican partner, Roberto Ureña, says that although crime does occur in the area, tourists who take typical third-world travel precautions face little risk — and reap the reward of uncrowded beaches and abundant wildlife sightings in two national parks at Cahuita and Manzanillo.

"The Disney set won't come here," he says, noting that most hotels along the Caribbean coast lack amenities such as air conditioning, pools or golf courses. "It's not for everyone."

For some, that's part of the appeal. "I didn't want to go where everyone else was going," says Charlie Kitchell of Manchester, N.H. "You got to have a little adventure in you. You can't be concerned about perfection."

Kitchell, 49, found adventure by rafting through the Class III, IV and V rapids of the Pacuare River and careering across a zip-line nearly 500 feet above the jungle floor. Like many Americans, he's partially searching for the retirement Holy Grail: a beachside retreat that won't break the bank.

"I need somewhere to thaw out," says Kitchell, a landscape company owner who brought a copy of Moon's Living Abroad in Costa Rica on the trip. "Someplace with good food, good people. And if I meet a señorita, hey, all the better."

'Added years to my life'

Other Americans come for more humanitarian reasons. Claire Trimer, a forensic scientist from Newport News, Va., visited Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Rescue Center on a day trip when her cruise ship stopped in Limón. She found the peaceful nature of the slow-moving creatures, continually at risk from destruction of their jungle habitat, inspiring.

"It was like someone hit me between the eyes with a hammer," she says. "I thought I had to do something."

So when the opportunity arose, Trimer sold her house and moved to Puerto Viejo to work with the sloths full time. "I'm convinced I've added years to my life coming down here," she says, stroking an baby sloth. "These guys are my new passion."

A few miles away in Cahuita, sloths share the trees with howler monkeys, whose haunting barks serve as wake-up calls for active travelers who come here for surfing, fishing and snorkeling at Cahuita National Park. Centered primarily on a single street, Cahuita's Caribbean heritage can be seen in the dreadlocked populace and the buildings painted reggae green, yellow, red and black — and sniffed through the aromas of coconut-infused rondon (soup) and jerk chicken.

A walk through Cahuita National Park is like taking a trip through a natural pharmacy, as guides point out herbal remedies for coughs, colds and stomach troubles. Both here and in the lush Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge down the coast, visitors are warned against touching the trees, to avoid poison dart frogs and eyelash vipers. Leafcutter ants march across the jungle floor, building colonies that rival nearby basketball-sized termite nests. A river otter peeks around a tree before scurrying into the water.

Such natural attractions were entertainment enough for Melani Gordon and her husband, Jeff, 28, who came to Banana Azul with Melani's parents, Vicki and Randy Broman. The family had traveled to Costa Rica's Pacific side before, but found themselves more entranced with the Caribbean, visiting a native Bri Bri village, hiking through the parks and enjoying cheap seafood at Puerto Viejo's restaurants.

"My dad said this is like Hawaii was 30 years ago," Melani says. "My mom wants to move here."

Says Jeff, downing an Imperial beer in the warm, humid air: "There are times you don't need an infinity pool or swim-up bar."