Calmer & cooler: The slothful joys of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast

Melissa Allison

The Seattle Times

Published: Saturday, Dec. 3 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

La Paz Waterfall surrounded by the rain forest of Costa Rica.

Melissa Allison, MCT

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is known for reggae music, Jamaican food and an edgy vibe that occasionally spills over into violence.

To us, it sounded like an adventure to spice things up after a week on the more popular Pacific coast of this Central American country.

In small towns a couple hours south of Puerto Limon, where Columbus docked for 17 days in 1502, my husband, David, and I found reggae music blasting out of bars and the best food we had tasted anywhere in the country.

But edginess? Not at all.

If anything, the Caribbean was a calmer, cooler version of Costa Rica's Pacific side — and with a lot fewer people.

Aside from a raccoon that kept getting too close — and who nipped another hiker's finger while trying to grab her daypack — the Caribbean coast was all about being happy and

lazy.

"Do you see this smile? Everyone here has it, and it's real!" enthused Pierre St-Jacques, a transplant from Quebec, Canada, who, with his wife, Marise Vincent, runs the Blue Conga Hotel in Puerto Viejo.

When we arrived a few hours before check-in, Marise recommended we borrow the hotel's bicycles for a 15-minute ride to the Jaguar Rescue Center.

Ahhh.

The slowness of the bicycles, the coolness of the air — and the slothfulness of the sloths at the Jaguar Rescue Center. We had found our coast.

The Jaguar Rescue Center has no jaguars now, but was named after a baby jaguar that it tried unsuccessfully to rescue in 2007. Run by a European couple who started by collecting snakes, it quickly became a popular place to drop off all sorts of sick and injured animals.

Snakes have never been a favorite for us, and we were kind of over monkeys by the time we got there. Cute as they are, monkeys can be like hungry raccoons — aggressive.

On our first afternoon in a little rental cabin on Costa Rica's Pacific coast a week earlier, a capuchin monkey had raided our kitchen for a banana. Mostly, it was hilarious — until it brought friends, and they bared their teeth at us. No, the sloths were our thing.

Called "osos perezosos" in Spanish, which means "lazy bears," they have soulful eyes peering out of pointy faces and an owl-like ability to rotate their heads to see tourists cooing all around them.

A volunteer named Drew Domkus explained the difference between two- and three-toed sloths, which goes beyond their number of digits. Three-toed sloths sport dark eye masks. Two-toed sloths are browner and move more quickly, which is not to say fast. They can reach the speed of a briskly walking human if really motivated.

Mostly, though, all sloths creep along at a sub-leisurely pace, moving even their arms and heads so slowly that they appear sick or drugged or both. Then they sleep for hours from all the exertion.

Although their ancestors used to be quite large, sloths these days are the size of small dogs. They are in the same order of animals as anteaters and have surprisingly soft fur, as we learned when Drew let us touch them.

Sloth fur only appears wiry and coarse — an off-putting quality they enhance in the wild by harboring moss and insects, so they look as unappetizing as slow-moving compost heaps. (The rescue sloths were clean.)

For the rest of the week, we craned our necks at every lump of brown in a tree in what turned out be a vain attempt to spot a sloth in the wild.

We searched for them at Cahuita National Park, a 2,600-acre gem that juts into the ocean by the small town of Cahuita. There were capuchin monkeys in the trees, big silvery spiders in the bushes and — one hiker assured us — a yellow eyelash viper nestled near the path. But no sloths.

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