While the heaviest rains of the season fall on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, keeping crowds small, prices low, and adventurous tourists a bit damp, the Caribbean Coast is gearing up for the biggest party in Costa Rica: Carnival. Thousands show up to the gritty port city of Puerto Limón to partake in a week of live music, dancing, beauty contests, cultural events, and much, much more.
The Caribbean side of the country is quite different from the rest of Costa Rica. The massive Talamanca mountain range traps moist weather, making the region rainier year-round (and therefore a great place to visit during rainy season, since you’ll need an umbrella no matter when you stop by). The crystal-clear Caribbean waters offer excellent snorkeling and diving, and while the Pacific gets the press, there’s great surfing, particularly around the party town of Puerto Viejo.
Perhaps the most notable difference, however, is the culture. While the Pacific population is of largely Spanish descent, the East Coast is home to English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans, whose ancestors came from Jamaica to work on the transcontinental railroad built in the 1870s. Most of these families, subject to an apartheid-like system until the 1948 revolution, and racism for decades after, remained on the Caribbean. The result is a unique, reggae-tinged culture known for its outstanding cuisine, fabulous parties, and a fascinating history chronicled in Paula Palmer’s What Happen: A Folk-History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast.
Costa Rica’s Carnival coincides with Día de la Raza, or Columbus Day. In 1503, Columbus stopped at Isla Uvita, a small island visible from Puerto Limón’s sultry Central Park—filled with sloths—about 3km (1.8mi) offshore. There, the aging navigator, who had been presented piles of gold by the region’s indigenous inhabitants, gave this land the exotic and evocative name “Costa Rica,” for which the tourism industry has since been grateful.
Though the big events take place on October 12, travelers can expect festivities to run from October 4th to the 14th, and beyond. Most Puerto Limón hotels have probably been booked for months, and most aren’t really designed with foreign tourists in mind. However, Puerto Limón is only an hour from the touristy towns of Cahuita, with a more mellow vibe, and larger, more festive Puerto Viejo. Heck, it’s only two hours by bus from San José, less if you book a flight with SANSA’s new air service.