In the shadow of chaotic San José and the jam-packed resorts of the Pacific coast, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (not to be confused with Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí in Costa Rica’s northern lowlands)—seems all but forgotten. A picturesque, sand-swept playground, it may not have the cachet of the trendiest tourist meccas, but few places in Costa Rica yield as much quiet charm as this Southern Caribbean enclave.
Situated 125 miles east of the capital near the country’s border with Panama, Puerto Viejo has emerged as a hot spot for sun-seeking globe-trotters. Long a getaway for in-the-know Costa Ricans seeking a break from their busy lives, this laid-back coastal town boasts Edenlike beaches, an active surfing scene, vibrant nightlife that sways more than it pulses (to reggae, salsa, hip-hop and rock), good food (fusion that blends Mexican, Italian and Chinese influences), and everyday hospitality. Its ramshackle sprawl of colorful low-slung buildings and spindly grid of unpaved back roads just add to the precious landscape.
Originally called Old Harbor by English speaking Afro-Caribbean settlers, Puerto Viejo’s first inhabitants were the indigenous tribes of the Talamanca mountain region, who were later joined by banana plantation slaves and workers on the United Fruit Company’s infamous railroad. Together they have produced a rich history and traditional customs that define Puerto Viejo.
Unfortunately, it probably won’t be too long before gentrification changes things forever. Already the Italians, Argentineans, Germans and French have snapped up prime real estate for a song (before Americans and Canadians caught on). The Costa Rican government has begun injecting its most poverty-stricken region with funding that is changing Puerto Viejo’s face and infrastructure. The ongoing amenity upgrades and facelifts will undoubtedly dim the color of the Rasta flags and some of the most enviable aspects of la pura vida will undoubtedly fade with them.