This offbeat village (pop. 3,000), 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Puerto Limón and one kilometer (0.6 miles) east of Highway 36, is an in-vogue destination for backpackers and escapist vacationers who like things simple. Cahuita is no more than two parallel dirt streets crossed by four rutted streets overgrown with grass, with ramshackle houses spread apart. The village is totally laid-back and not for those seeking luxuries.

What you get instead are golden- and black-sand beaches backed by coconut palms, an offshore coral reef (now severely depleted), and an immersion in Creole culture, including Rastafarians, with their dreadlocks and a lifestyle that revolves around reggae, Rasta, and—discreetly—reefer. Bob Marley is God in Cahuita.

Beach at Cahuita National Park. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Beach at Cahuita National Park. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Bob Marley is God in Cahuita.Despite its fascinating charm, Cahuita struggles to overcome a lingering negative perception fed by high crime, drug use, and the surly attitude displayed by many local Afro-Caribbean males. The police force has been beefed up (there’s even a police checkpoint on the main road north of Cahuita; every vehicle is searched), but enforcement seems lax. Locals run a committee to police the community, keep the beaches clean, and generally foster improvements.

It now has a shopping mall and a bank, and the main street is paved, but otherwise Cahuita seems immune to the boom in nearby Puerto Viejo and to the upscale boutique revolution sweeping the rest of the country.

North of Cahuita village is a black-sand beach, Playa Negra, which runs for several miles. Playa Blanca (White Beach) is a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) scimitar of golden sand that stretches south from the village along the shore of the national park. Beware of riptides. A second pale-sand beach lies farther along, beyond the rocky headland of Punta Cahuita; it is protected by an offshore coral reef and provides safer swimming in calmer waters. Theft is a problem on the beach; do not leave your possessions unattended.

The Tree of Life Wildlife Rescue Center & Botanical Gardens (tel. 506/2755-0014, 9am-3pm Tues.-Sun. Nov.-Apr. 20, $12; guided tour only 11am Tues.-Sun. July-Aug., $15), on Playa Negra, is a great place for a précis on some of the critters to look for in the wild. The monkeys, kinkajous, and peccaries were all rescued from injury or were illegal pets confiscated from their owners; many are nursed back to health for release to the wild. The center, which also has iguana- and turtle-breeding programs, is set in five hectares (12 acres) of lush gardens, arranged in well-signed groups such as bromeliads, heliconias, and palms.

Things to Do

Look out for live performances by Walter Ferguson, a local and national legend for his calypso; in July 2010 Cahuita initiated the annual Festival de la Cultura y el Ambiente Walter Ferguson.

There’s plenty of night action in Cahuita, although it’s an almost exclusively male affair (as far as locals go). The class act is Café Cocorico (50 meters/165 feet north of the plaza, tel. 506/2755-0324, 7am-2pm and 5pm-midnight Wed.-Mon.), which shows free movies nightly while you sip killer cocktails.

Coco’s Bar (tel. 506/2755-0437, noon-11pm daily) is the livelier spot and is now preferred by the Latin set for salsa, soca, and reggae. Coco’s goes head-to-head with Ricky’s Bar (tel. 506/2755-0305), across the street; it hosts live calypso on Wednesday and Saturday.

Cahuita Tours (tel. 506/2755-0101) and Willie’s Tours (tel. 506/2755-1024), in the village center, offer a panoply of tours and activities, including snorkeling trips, bird-watching, fishing, dolphin-watching, horseback rides, and trips farther afield. Willie’s Tours (by far the best agency) even has a full-day tour to Bocas del Toro in Panamá ($95).

Centro Turístico Brigitte (tel. 506/2755-0053) offers guided horseback rides. Snorkeling House (tel. 506/8361-1924) specializes in snorkeling tours ($25 pp), offered at 9am and 1pm daily.

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.