The moment the bus wheezed to a stop and the sound of waves crashing on the beach became clear, I knew that this could the perfect rest stop for a few days. Someone started some gentle reggae up and an elderly man sauntered gently across the dirt road. He was the fastest moving thing in sight.
We had arrived in Manzanillio, the end of the line on the Carribean coast . About 15km away lay the steaming Central American jungles of Panama. But here it felt extremely Caribbean, right down to the lazy-sounding English-Creole mix many of the people here spoke. Maxine’s, the two story bar we had stopped in front of, was the centre of social life here in the village, and the only place open after dark.
We found our way there on the first night, perching on a table overlooking the beaten earth centre of Manzanillo. The dining area was open to the tropical night and the crickets and cicada kept up a tropical buzz in counterpoint to the lilting rhythms of the Caribbean music drifting sluggishly out of the speakers.
We joined the few locals and tourists in holding icy bottles of Imperial beer, sipping superbly mixed (and damn strong) margaritas, and consuming plates of fresh grilled Red snapper and pork ribs. The food was well seasoned (not always the case in Costa Rica) and while simple, was delicious. The portions were huge, but no one minded us sharing.
We stayed in a small place with two lovely cabinas. The space under the awnings was left open (although screened – this is an area with one or two biting insects, no malaria though). Which meant that mornings were early as the macaws and other loud chatty birds started up with the monkey cries at dawn. The owner, a small Austrian with a slightly fixed grin, was friendly, even if he found the rain a little much saying – with a grin – the night before we left, “you go from rain here, to rain on Pacific? It is shit, yes?” If he thought the nightly thunderstorms were bad, he should’ve tried Tortuguero.
There isn’t a huge amount to do around the village other than sit on the beach or go for a hike into the national park next door. But isn’t that the point of staying in a place like Manzanillo? If you want backpacker bars and yoga retreats, then Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a few kilometres up the coast is a better bet. But it sure ain’t as relaxing.
We satisfied ourselves with a day of lazing on the beach and venturing a little way into the national park. Despite days of tropical sunshine, the nightly thunderstorms meant that much of the trail was ankle deep in clinging mud. And we were on a relaxing holiday, not a trekking trip, so we didn’t get more than three or four kilometres down the trail.
We still found a totally empty yellow sand beach that was so stereotypically Caribbean in appearance it was hard to believe we hadn’t wandered on to a stage set. A small crescent of golden sand fringed with coconut palms and backed with lush jungle. Turquoise waves crashing in under a deep blue sky. And just a few feathery clouds. It was like sitting inside a postcard.
Picture (postcard) perfect, and not a foot print in sight
We did take one day out to head to Puerto Viejo, but it wasn’t for the bars, or the yoga retreats, or even for the long beach and impressive waves. Instead we made our way a few kilometres out of town to the Jaguar Animal Sanctuary. I wasn’t sure whether we would find a broken down old zoo or an Eco friendly animal paradise. Happily it turned out to be much closer to the latter.
Unlike so many sanctuaries, this lived up to its name. Many of the animals were free to come and go as they pleased, including a very chatty toucan, some deer and several monkeys. Many were temporary visitors, injured and in recovery. The only issue seemed to be that several regulars didn’t want to go. The team there had released one wild cat three times and every time he had found his way back. With the food and accommodation offer I guess that seemed like a feline no-brainer. Anyone with cats will know exactly what I mean.
We also met a toucan with a broken beak, had playtime with some young monkeys, stared in fascination at the red eyes of a tree frog, and got to coo at baby sloths, slow moving, clumsy and rivalling kittens in cuteness. It is well worth the 45 minute walk out of town, and taxi drivers know where it is. On the way back into town we stopped at Mrs Brown’s, another good Caribbean restaurant. We were the only people there but it didn’t stop them rustling up some excellent coconut chicken curry and plantain fritters.
One of the cute sloths
The only way to get to Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo is through Puerto Limon, a port town of rotting wood and concrete that was last buzzing back in the days of United Fruit and the banana republics. Now it’s definitely on its uppers. There are some posh villas, but they huddle behind steel bars and razor wire on the very outskirts. In town there are a lot of people just hanging around on crumbling corners and staring. There is an atmosphere of aggression and while not actively scary, this was not a town I fancied staying on for more time than necessary. All that said, there is no need to stay and it’s fine to come through on your way to somewhere a little more laid back.
And Manzanillo is worth the trip. It may seem like a hassle to get there, but once there you can just lie back and be ensconced by long lazy days and warm nights. You can get out of bed in the morning, open the door and find a humming bird darting in and out of pendulous blooms. You can order huevos rancheros in a small cafe, look up and see a sloth and baby clinging to the tree above you looking down with some curiosity.
We took the water taxi from Tortuguero to Moin (the port part of Puerto Limon) and then got a taxi into Limon from there for another $20 (it’s a 7-8km trip). Unless you have arranged transport to pick you up from the dock, you are at the mercy of the taxi drivers there.
You can also get a direct bus to Manzanillo from San Jose, although double check which terminal you need to get it from. We thought we would end up in the Terminal Caribe when we came back, but in fact were dropped in the Terminal Norte.
We stayed at Cabinas Yamann in Manzanillo for $50 a night. They were spacious, clean and you had access to a kitchen where the owner put fresh coffee on every morning.
We ate breakfast next door at Soda and dinner at Maxine’s in the centre of town. Most places are cash only, but Maxine’s takes cards.
There is no ATM in Manzanillo it was the only place on our trip where this was the case) so make sure you have enough cash. If you get stuck, there is an ATM in Puerto Viejo, so make sure you have enough for a bus fare there at least.