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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

We even looked for sloths at breakfast, but instead were shown — by one of Costa Rica's many warm and welcoming locals — fresh nutmeg and a brilliant green frog with spots. The frog was covered in a hallucinogenic slime, he told us by twirling a finger near his ear and saying "loco."

So, on our last day in Cahuita, we canceled a morning snorkeling trip because of rain and rough seas and opted instead for a sure bet: Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary.

Although people travel from all over the world to visit that particular sanctuary, we did not expect it to trump our love-at-first-sight sloth experience at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

Somehow, it was better.

We were not allowed to touch the sloths, which made sense after we heard about the illnesses humans have brought them in the past.

Instead, we took a canoe trip through the sanctuary's outdoor refuge, where a guide pointed out several sloths in the wild — including a mother hanging high above our heads, teaching her baby to find leaves.

It was a sweet ending to our Caribbean stay, which had been far more laid back than the guidebooks indicated, based on the region's distant and recent past.

The Caribbean side of Costa Rica has a sad history for a country that is among Latin America's most peaceful and democratic.

Although Columbus landed on the Caribbean coast in 1502, the Spaniards developed mainly Costa Rica's Pacific side and central valley. It was not until the late 1800s that anyone — specifically, a New Yorker named Minor Keith — laid a railroad track through the jungles and swamps along the east side.

At first, it was supposed to be a trade route for coffee exports. When that did not pay well enough, Keith turned to bananas and eventually merged his company with a West Indies firm to create United Fruit Co.

Many of Costa Rica's railroad and fruit workers came from Jamaica, and huge numbers died from malaria. Their descendants and other black Costa Ricans were not allowed to work or travel freely outside the province of Limon, on the Caribbean side, until 1949.

Most of Costa Rica's black population still lives on that side of the country, which continues to be poorer and more susceptible to crime. The area was rebuilding its reputation after murders in 2000 of two American teenagers in Cahuita when, last fall, a California tourist was murdered on a beach near Puerto Viejo.

Yet we never sensed menaces anywhere in Costa Rica as we explored the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; the downtown of San Jose, the capital; and rode on public long-distance buses.

Costa Ricans — who call themselves "Ticos" — are warm and open, making more sustained eye contact than you get from strangers in a large American city. They helped us overcome our lack of Spanish, using pantomime and patience to help us figure out everything from menus to bus schedules.

A word about schedules in Costa Rica: Breathe. We found conflicting departure times for buses, and one ferry schedule for tourists said it was "not yet confirmed but probably it will be like this."

The ferries run along the Pacific coast, which is much more popular with tourists than the Caribbean — partly because it does not have a reputation for crime, and partly because it is dry in the winter, when the Caribbean side gets rain almost daily.

We spent several days in Montezuma, at the southern tip of the massive Nicoya Peninsula on Costa Rica's Pacific side.

Montezuma is a relatively isolated burg of 250 souls during the rainy season, which runs from May until November. But come December, the population explodes as foreign and Costa Rican tourists flock there to walk the beaches, swim beneath waterfalls and practice yoga in lush settings.