Costa Rica Landscape
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Puerto Limon Overview
If there was ever a country created for eco-tourism, it is Costa Rica.
Effectively a biological corridor between North and South America and with its neo-tropical climate and rainforests acting as a sort of biosphere, it now has one of the greatest biological diversities in the world. Nearly a quarter of its landmass is designated as national parks and it houses 8,000 species of plants, 859 species of birds, 10% of the world's butterflies and as many snakes as you could shake a stick at.
Costa Rica has also -- rare for the region -- been a peaceful, democratic country for a century or more. Abolishing all its armed services in 1949 to spend the money on improving social, medical and educational facilities has helped in this and also won it Nobel Peace prizes, not to mention UN-underpinned eternal neutrality from 1983.
It is not crime-free, though, so it still pays to take care in its towns and streets. However, it is one of the most relaxed and welcoming places to visit in Central America, and Puerto Limon is well-located for its best eco-tourist attractions.
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Other Panama Canal & Central America Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Aruba • Belize City • Cartagena (Colombia) • Colon (Cristobal) • Curacao • Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo • Manzanillo • Puerto Limon • Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera)
The official language is Spanish but many Costa Ricans know some English, and those working at tourist sites usually speak it well.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Costa Rican currency is based on the Colon but US dollars are widely accepted, while credit cards are taken in the larger shops and most hotels and restaurants. There are no ATMs in the cruise terminal but there are several international banks in the town of Limon -- the closest to the port is just 400 yards away, across the road from Parque (Park) Vargas: Banco de Costa (9 a.m. - 3 p.m.).
A bag or two of its super-strength coffee would be the obvious suggestion but this is one place where memories -- of the rich diversity of plant, bird, marine, and wildlife -- will be the best souvenirs of all.
Where You're Docked
In the busy cargo port of Limon, where tour coaches jockey for position with fleets of lorries bringing continuous loads of Costa Rica's major export: bananas.
A temporary open-air welcome stand, with a list of taxi fares and other
tourist information, is set up right by the pier where your ship is docked. Another 100 yards on there is a small group of individually-covered craft and souvenir market stalls right outside a distinctive green terminal building. Walk through this -- past a bizarrely-sited beauty salon with its own pedicurist and chiropractor working in full view -- and out the back door, and you'll find yourself in Limon straightaway.
If you have time between tours, Limon is worth an hour or two. There are
some interesting shops and a good museum (Etnohistorico -- open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. - noon and 1 p.m. - 4 p.m.) right next to the post office on the same road as the bank and park, Avenida 2-Miguel Velasquez, but about a 10-minute walk to the left of the terminal.
There are buses from Limon to places like Cahuita ($1 each-way), Moin (50 cents) and even to the capital San Jose, more than 100 miles away. These leave from the bus terminal, which is a five-minute walk further down Avenida 2 from the museum.
If your ship is in for the usual 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. day, taking the bus to San Jose is not a sensible option. The journey takes three hours each way, which leaves little time there, and traffic jams could delay you and cause you to miss the ship. Even the one-hour Cahuita journey is a risk as the buses only run every two or three hours. The same applies if you hire a car from the desk in the terminal -- the roads are just not that good in Costa Rica and traffic delays are a constant problem.
More reliable (because you don't have to wait for one) and still a relatively cheap method of transport are the red taxis which can be hired at the dockside or by the terminal -- although a trip to San Jose, which has little more than a decent museum, pretty cathedral and lively central market to recommend it, is still probably not worth the hassle and expense.
Although the taxi fares are posted (for example, $20 to Cahuita), these are all negotiable. Their drivers' English is patchy so, if you are looking for a guide as well as a driver, check this first.
It is definitely worth taking the short (three-mile) trip to Moin where you can hire a boat along the Tortuguero Canals. There is an entrance fee and extra charge for a guide as well as the boat hire for independent visitors but, on this critic's recent trip there, passengers paid $50 for return taxis and boat trip for two compared with the approximately $92.50 per person cost of the ship's tour (which does include a buffet meal).
There is also a desk for local tour operators (Caribe Tico, Blue Limbo, Mambo Tours) within the terminal. They offer alternatives to the ship's tours to the Cahuita Coastal National Park, Tortuguero Canals, Rain Forest Aerial Tram as well as a two-hour Limon tour and an eight-hour trip to San Jose. There is also a range of more active trips, including horse-riding, watersports, and canopy tours.
Watch Out For
The rain. Sometimes we forget the connection between the rain forest and
rain -- you really can't have the former without the latter. Over the year, parts of Costa Rica have as much as 26 feet of rain which is why seasons are described as "rainy" and "not so rainy" on its Pacific coast and "rainy" and "rainier" on its Caribbean side. Chances are you will see some liquid sunshine during your stay -- if you don't want to get your hair wet, pack a hat.
The Tortuguero Canals, a national park created in 1975
to protect the spawning areas of the green turtle (Tortuguero) and the region's rich flora and fauna stretching from Moin to the Colorado River near the border with Nicaragua. On a slow-moving boat trip along the canals (some natural, some manmade), you will see sloths hanging upside down from the overhanging trees, many different types of bird including toucans and probably monkeys and crocodiles, too. Unforgettable.
Worth the trip to Limon alone -- the Aerial Tram ride at Rain Forest, a 1,000-acre nature reserve next to the Braulio Carrillo National Park. This is one of two such centers run by a private foundation (the other is of a smaller scale and nearer the Pacific Coast). Towers, which were inserted into the jungle from the air by helicopters to minimize their impact on the site, support cables along which converted ski-lift gondolas carry six people (five passengers plus one of the center's excellent English-speaking guides). These are well spaced out and travel silently at just over one mile per hour so you can soak up the atmosphere and the unique experience of being up among the treetops of a rain forest.
This is not a zoo or Disney experience so don't expect to see animals --
nobody feeds the monkeys so you'll be very lucky to see any -- but you will see birds and hundreds of butterflies, and learn fascinating facts about this living, breathing forest. This trip will be a ship's tour but it is possible to do it independently. It's a two-hour journey and entrance costs about $50 -- you will, though, find that tour groups are given precedence for gondola places.
You've also got to see Cahuita National Park, which is another nature reserve but with the added bonus of beaches and coral reefs for swimming and snorkeling.
Best ship-sponsored shore excursions:
A jungle river eco-adventure in the Tortuguero Canal area
Helicopter ride over the Panama Canal
An ongoing influx of other nationalities -- from Jamaican to Chinese -- has created a variety of influences on the dishes served in Costa Rican
restaurants. Look out for Food Soda (small restaurants) serving favorite local meals of casado (rice, beans, stewed beef, fried plantain, salad and
cabbage); Gallo Pinto (pre-cooked and seasoned rice and beans with eggs, sour cream and a soft corn tortilla); Sopa negra (black beans and poached egg); and picadillo (meat and vegetable stew). Other, more international-style restaurants (often in hotels) in Limon and nearby Moin serve good seafood among other more recognizable dishes.
Been There, Done That
If you've tried and enjoyed the aerial tram in the rain forest, chances are you'll love the Canopy Tour -- although this is definitely not for the
faint of heart. Based on some NASA technology, this involves traveling Tarzan-style (except in slow motion) through the rainforest canopy on a series of horizontal traverse cables.
Introduced in Costa Rica by the Original Canopy Tour company
(www.canopytour.com) in 1997, this is now spreading to other Caribbean and Central American countries as well as to different parts of Costa Rica. The nearest site to
Limon is Pacuare, between the coast and the central mountain range (Talamanca). Tours can be booked from the Limon cruise terminal.
Just as spending time on the beach is really a waste at this destination (although there are some good ones around) so is shopping, especially as
there is not a lot to buy. The best option is to look out for locally-made ceramics, wood carvings and figures or any other items sold where at least some of the money will go to the charities and foundations set up to preserve the environment in the places you will be visiting.
Highly recommended: Veragua Rainforest Park
Staying in Touch
There are telephones, with staff to help you use them, in the terminal.
Calls to North America start from 50 cents a minute. If these phones are busy -- and they are popular with ships' crew -- there is a shop opposite the back door of the terminal offering a similar service. There is also Internet access in the terminal, operated by International Telecommunication Center (ICE). Thirty minutes will cost you $2.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitcostarica.com
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