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Limón, Costa Rica: Expat Potential and Caribbean Flair

The region of Limón, Costa Rica has largely been untouched by the growth in other parts of the country. Often considered Costa Rica’s last frontier, this Caribbean location promises new opportunities for both expats and investors while still retaining the sense of being off the beaten path.

Limon, Costa Rica

Limon, Costa Rica

Limón is unique throughout Costa Rica in that it may be the most culturally diverse location in the country. Combined with untouched natural beauty and diverse ecosystems, living in Limón is truly a chance to experience life “off the grid.”

Limón’s History and the African Connection

Very little is known about the pre-Colombian history of Limón province. There is archeological evidence that tribal groups from Brazil and Ecuador visited the region and lived a hunter-gatherer existence. In the southern part of the province, the indigenous Bribri people lived in and around what is known today as Puerto Viejo. Their descendants still are a majority in the area.

In 1502, during his fourth and final voyage, Columbus anchored off of present day Puerto Limón at Ilsa Uvita. It is ironic that this area, although discovered first, remained largely unexplored until Spanish settlers began to build there in the 19th century.

The Afro-Caribbean migration

At the beginning of the 19th century, Afro-Caribbean groups from Bocás del Toro (present day Panama), San Andrés (now Colombia), and Nicaragua followed the turtle migration in order to hunt the creatures. As time passed, permanent settlements were established and blended with the indigenous tribes creating the unique Afro-Carib-Costa Rican culture that marks Limón today.

The long arm of United Fruit and development comes to Limón

The town of Puerto Limón was founded in 1854 and, in 1870, the Costa Rican government decided to build a railroad to Limón from San José. After three years, the project stalled due to problems with logistics and money.

Enter Minor Keith who, with the encouragement of Bernardo Soto, Public Works Minister, renegotiated the loans and completed the construction in 1884. In order to offset losses due to low passenger fares, Keith loaded the empty cars with bananas for shipment to the U.S. Ultimately, this would lead to Keith establishing the powerful and influential United Fruit Company.

The Caribbean Coast: a land apart

Even though some development had arrived in Limón, there was a deep divide between the central government in San José and the Afro-Caribbean population. It was not until 1948 that residents of the province, called limonenses, could freely travel without permission from the government.

Infrastructure improvements have been much slower in the region than other parts of Costa Rica. There is only one road, route 32, that runs to Limón from San José and electricity did not arrive until 1976.

The Attractions of the Caribbean Coast

One of the special features of Puerto Limón and the surrounding region are the many unique sights and activities available to visitors. A new awareness of the natural wonders, aquatic adventures, a vibrant cultural mix, and laid-back lifestyle have created an increase in tourist activity since the late 1970s.

The beauty and mystery of nature

The Limón province is home to many natural wonders.  Tortuguero (literally land of turtles) features the Tortuguero National Park. The navigable canals here have given the area its nickname of “Amazon of Costa Rica.”

The beaches in and around Tortuguero are the nesting grounds for four of the eight types of green sea turtles in the world. During breeding seasons (March through October and February through July), visitors can observe these ancient creatures coming ashore to lay their eggs.

The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge has become a favorite location for those wanting to experience a jungle rainforest and its inhabitants. Located three miles south of Puerto Viejo, in the southern part of the province, this 23,348-acre refuge also features one of the two coral reefs in Costa Rica.

Limón, Costa Rica

Three Fingered Sloth

The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, located in Penshurst, 30 km from Limón, is truly a one of a kind experience. With over a hundred two- and three-fingered sloths in residence, the Sanctuary gives visitors a chance to interact with these mysterious creatures in a way not found elsewhere.

Fun on and under the ocean

The fishing off the coast of Tortugero has become known as some of the best sport fishing in Central America. Known as one of the world’s premier tarpon spots, the Caribbean coast has become one of the most popular year-round fisheries in the region.

For scuba and snorkeling enthusiast,s the two ranges of coral reefs provide a chance to explore one of the rarest ecosystems in the world. Located at Cahuita National Park and Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, exploring these unique living environments is an opportunity not to be missed.

For surfers, Puerto Viejo offers a special treat. Known locally as “Salsa Brava” this powerful wave that can reach 40 feet in height can challenge even the most skilled wave riders.

The cultural experience

Being able to immerse yourself in the food and celebrations of the Caribbean, blended with an almost bohemian-like outlook, can give visitors a whole new slant on the concept of “pura vida.” The slower, more casual pace is far less touristy and more attuned to the idea of living for the moment.

Three of the villages in the region – Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Cahuita – offer a true slice of Caribbean culture. Exciting and exotic Caribbean food, reggae music, and a general party atmosphere make it difficult to remember that you are still on land and not on an island.

Puerto Limón has became famous for its fall celebration, known as Carnaval. Started in 1949 by a community leader, Alfred Henry Josiah Smith (known as Mister King), this festival starts on October 12th and runs for about a week (including two weekends).

Originally designed to commemorate Columbus’ anchoring there in 1502, Carnaval has evolved into a weeklong party with food, dancing, live music, and a concert by a major artist from the Caribbean or Latin America.

Living and Investing in Limón Costa Rica’s Carribean Coast

As a major port city Limón, Costa Rica, is a natural hub for commercial investment. Largely overlooked until recently, the port area promises to expand in the hopes of attracting more commercial operations and ventures.

A significant attraction to expats is the remoteness of the area and lack of the “tourist vibe.”  Finding lots to develop is far easier than in other parts of Costa Rica. Rustic housing (for those so inclined) also is more affordable.

The cost of living is generally lower than on the Pacific Coast. The exception to this would be for higher-end items such as appliances, electronics, and vehicles.

If you are looking to truly immerse yourself in the Afro-Carib-Costa Rican culture, Limón is the place for you. The smaller neighborhoods and villages in the region have maintained their uniquely Caribbean flair and atmosphere, and living there is the best way to experience it.

Investment plans for the future, public and private

The Limón province promises to make up for lost time as investors from both the public and private sectors are realizing the potential that exists in the region. In addition to the continued growth and commitment to the tourist industry, residential and commercial projects are also planned.

The Agency for the Development of Limon is made up of private commercial interests, banks, universities, and governmental agencies all working in concert to improve Limón and the surrounding area. One major project, the Moin Container Terminal, is scheduled to begin construction sometime in 2014 and open for operations in 2016.

A new resort project, Grand Caribbean, is repurposing a canal dug by the United Fruit Company in the 1950s for construction of a marina and residential lots. As other real estate investors see the improvement in infrastructure and the commitment by the government to developing Limón, Costa Rica, the potential return on investment can be expected to increase exponentially.

The challenges of moving to the Caribbean side

One of the major features of Limón, Costa Rica is also one of its major drawbacks. There are limited resources in the area and fewer amenities than in the more developed regions of the country.

Medical care for the entire province is provided by a single hospital. Hospital Dr. Tony Fascio Castro is located in Puerto Limón and is responsible for a direct population of nearly a quarter-million people.

Infrastructure has lagged behind the rest of Costa Rica. As a result, getting basic amenities such as electricity and water could be problematic depending on location.

Language outside of the major population areas, such as Puerto Viejo and Puerto Limón, may be a barrier to some. Not only is Spanish a principal language, there’s also a local dialect, Limonese Creole (Mekatelyu), a blending of English, Spanish, and Caribbean tongues.

Finally, the expat community, although growing, is still quite small compared to other regions. If having fellow expats in close proximity is a requirement, the Limón region may not be your best option.

Traveling to Limón Can Be an Adventure in Itself

There are a couple of options for those seeking to explore Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. The remoteness and isolation that makes the region attractive also can make getting there a challenge.

The Limón International Airport was reopened for international travel in 2006 after being restricted to domestic travel for 20 years. At present the domestic carriers, Sansa Air and Nature Air, offer private charter flights from San Jose to Limón.

Both Sansa Air and Nature Air offer regularly scheduled flights to Tortuguero in the northern part of the region. From there, travelers can take the “water taxi” for the four-hour boat ride to the port at Moin, one of the two major ports in Limón. Alternatively, arrangements can be made with taxi drivers to make the drive to Limon.

The long and winding road

For most visitors to Limón and the surrounding region, driving is the travel method of choice. There are two routes from San Jose that lead to Limón; both routes ultimately merge onto the single road, route 32, that leads to the Caribbean coast.

The four-hour drive on this two lane road can be both scenic and difficult. Accidents, slow traffic, and even landslides can test both the patience and endurance of many drivers.

Two of the less stressful and more economical options are the public bus system and private shuttle service. Letting someone else do the driving can free your attention and allow enjoyment of the adventure ahead.

A truly less traveled path

An unusual option to making the journey from San Jose to Puerto Viejo – in the southern part of the Limón region – is by raft. Rafting down the scenic Pacuare River, adventurers are transported back to an earlier time. Though the entire trip is not by raft (shuttles are also used), this option provides a one-of-a-kind experience.

Limón’s Promise and Potential

Unspoiled and undeveloped, Limón and the Caribbean zone promise to be both the newest tourist mecca in Costa Rica and a unique expat and investor destination. Visitors and residents alike can look forward to “Pura Vida” with a dash of Caribbean spice in the days ahead.

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