Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 9: Exploring Manzanillo & Cahuita

Destination: Manzanillo, Cahuita

After yesterday's vaguely blue skies, I had high hopes for today's activity -- a horseback ride along Playa Negra, Cahuita's black sand beach. We woke up early, found our next hotel and then settled down for breakfast; Vincent gobbled down some rice and beans while I enjoyed a banana pancake.

The skies opened up during our breakfast hour, and torrential rain poured from the sky. Visibility was almost nil, and we worried that horseback riding would not be part of the day's activities. We waited another hour, but the rain continued to descend in thick sheets. I made a quick phone call to Brigitte, the horse tour's co-owner and manager, to cancel our reservation -- if the weather cleared up soon, she'd take us out in the afternoon.

The weather was in no mood to cooperate however, and it continued to rain throughout the day. Taking advantage of the break from our regularly scheduled activities, Vincent and I decided to explore the towns of Cahuita and Manzanillo.

Manzanillo is situated south of Puerto Viejo, and so we elected to drive there first. Typically, the 15-mile trip takes almost an hour, since the area's roads vary between well-paved, potholed, dirt and dirt-with-potholes. Looking on the bright side however, slow driving makes for excellent scenic opportunities.

The ocean bordered our left, with very few buildings in sight -- per Costa Rican law, the first 150 feet of ocean front land belongs to the government, and an additional chunk, about 600 feet, is under public jurisdiction, to be regulated as the government deems necessary. With nothing but palm trees to block our view, we watched waves crash over the occasional surfer willing to brave the waters.

Manzanillo struck me as a perfect, tiny Caribbean village. Caribbean-style homes -- single-level, brightly painted, with bamboo and reed embellishments and often raised on stilts -- lined the street. In fact, Manzanillo was essentially a one-road town, with life revolving around the ocean. Fishing boats and picnic tables lined the beach, small restaurants, which surely served fish fresh off the boats, dotted the roadside, and only the occasional pedestrian strolled down the road. In the best sense of the words, Manzanillo is a lazy, relaxed and traditional town.

Jumping back in the car, we returned to Cahuita, a town with which we were much more familiar. Originally settled in the 19th century by English-speaking turtle hunters from Panama and Nicaragua, the town was developed as a provisional and temporary home. The settlement was located at Punta Cahuita, which is today part of Cahuita National Park. Its name is a compound of cawi, meaning "sangrillo tree" and ta, meaning "point". Together, they mean "point where the sangrillo trees grow."

The current town, just a mile north of its original location, was built almost 100 years later. After Cahuita's citizens proffered then-President Alfredo Gonzalez Flores vital aid during a shipwreck, he gifted them with their own land. Cahuita became an official settlement in 1915 but, surprisingly, was only granted town status in 2005.

Cahuita is a larger and more energetic town than Manzanillo, mostly because of its larger population. Fishermen can always be found on the beaches, men on horseback ride through the streets, and children can be heard playing and laughing from sunrise until sunset.

The town is also more modern -- in addition to plenty of restaurants and bars, you can find an ATM, pharmacy and plenty of other conveniences. However, Cahuita retains much of its traditional charm, and off the main roads, the Costa Rican-Caribbean lifestyle rules -- almost every home has a few chickens in the yard, many families speak Patois (a Jamaican Creole with English and African roots) first and Spanish second, coconut is a main ingredient in most meals, and life revolves around the sea.

After our self-guided tour, we headed back to our rooms for a bit of reading and relaxation before dinner. Tonight we would eat rondon, and we were both excited. Taken from the words "run down," rondon is a typical Jamaican meal that was brought to Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. The dish involves throwing every available ingredient -- typically fish, shellfish, plantains, yams, onions and Panamanian hot pepper -- into a simmering pot of coconut milk. The resulting dish is legendary and delicious, but those who want to sample the spicy delicacy must order a day in advance.

Settling in to our seats, we smiled at the hot rondon set before us. Delicious mackerel, green plantains, potatoes and carrots were swimming in a rich, brown, slightly spicy coconut sauce. We dug into the whole fish and barely spoke as we devoured our typical meal. Every bite was a taste of the Caribbean, and we both agreed that it had been the perfect goodbye meal to Puerto Viejo and Cahuita.

Day 9: Exploring Manzanillo & Cahuita in Pictures