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The Culture and History of the Puerto Viejo Area

Until fairly recently it was hard to get to the Talamanca coast. Distance from San Jose and the difficulties of travel by narrow-gauge train and canoe kept coastal villagers isolated from national commerce until the late 1970's. Because the people were isolated from the Costa Rican mainstream, they maintained cultures and customs that are unique in Costa Rica. Forests and beaches largely escaped the early scars of development.

By 1979 a road connected the villages to Limon. Electricity brought lights and refrigeration to Puerto Viejo in 1986 and to Manzanillo in 1988. Now, you can drive to Puerto Viejo in a little over 3 hours - 4 to 4.5 hours by bus - to enjoy its cultures, wildlife, forests and the Caribbean sea. Private phones were installed in 1996 and broadband internet became available in 2006.

The earliest peoples of Talamanca of whom we are aware were the Bribri and Cabecar Indians who lived in the interior, mostly along watercourses. Later, Afro-Caribbean people settled along the coast, founding the villages of Old Harbour (Puerto Viejo), Grape Point (Punta Uva), Manchineel (Manzanillo), and Monkey Point. English was the principal language in those days, and despite a campaign to convert everything to Spanish, to the point of changing town names, English is still widely used. Coastal Talamanca is the most bi-lingual region of Costa Rica.

For generations the Blacks and Indians lived in harmony, trading with each other, living successfully off the land. These people have accumulated an incredible amount of knowledge of the forest and sea. Many indigenous people continue to live in thatch roofed houses built entirely of forest products.

Later, Afro-Carribeans introduced cash crops such as cacao, began extracting lumber, often hiring Indians to work in these enterprises. Perhaps 30 years ago Spanish speaking laborers arrived from the central valley of Costa Rica. Latin Costa Rican influence has grown increasingly, an influx of North Americans and Europeans has added to the cultural mix. Many find this atmosphere fascinating and stimulating.

The Bribri and Cabecar:

The indigenous people of Talamanca are part of the Amazon basin cultural grouping. The Bribri and Cabecar, living near developed areas, wear western clothes, participate in the modern economy and political life. Spanish language predominates, but many use the Indian languages, and it is not uncommon to hear an Indian speaking in Caribbean English. Many Traditional customs and beliefs are retained.
The Indigenous people live in three Indian reserves. Both the Talamanca-Bribri Reserve and the Talamanca-Cabecar Reserve cover large areas of the interior Talamanca mountains. A smaller reserve, Kekoldi, is located just inland from Puerto Veijo.

African-Caribbean People:

English speaking Afro-Caribbean people settled the Talamanca coast beginning in the mid-1800's. In General they came from Jamaica, often via Panama. They brought with them knowledge about farming and fishing, culinary arts, and some beliefs about life, death, and nature that can be traced back to their African origins. They also brought British colonial customs adopted during generations of slavery and labor in the Caribbean islands. Maypole dances, cricket, and even Shakespeare were practiced in their coastal villages.

Caribbean farmers planted the coastline with coconuts, and developed interior farms of root crops, breadfruit, citrus, and more. They brought with them akee and cola nut, two tree crops native to Africa and important to their culture. Cacao, coconuts, turtle shells, etc. became cash crops and facilitated local development. Commerce and cultural ties were linked to the Caribbean islands. Magazines, bibles and the teachers to instruct people in their use came from Jamaica.

Interesting cuisine using local, fresh ingredients has been an important Afro-Caribbean contribution. Spicy jerk chicken, fish are favorites along with patacones (plaintain banana french fried style), and coconut rice and beans. Spicy patti (meat pie) are commonly offered on the street. Music is a very important part of this culture and small acoustic bands can often be seen playing at local restaurants.

Further reading

Two excellent books are available for further reading: What Happen is a folk-history, told by the people of Costa Rica's Talamanca Coast themselves. The funny, poignant tales of early settlers and their decsendants are woven together with dreams and legends and solid historical facts by Paula Palmer to create an unforgettable read.

Available at ATEC in downtown Puerto Viejo or online here.

Taking Care of Sibo's Gifts, subtitled An Environmental Treatise from Costa Rica's KekoLdi Indigenous Reserve, looks at problems, environmental protection, beliefs and aspirations on the reserve. By Paula Palmer, Juanita Sanchez, Gloria Mayorga, $12 - shipping included inside U.S. Book available from Paula Palmer. Email paula(at) for information.

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This page last modified 18 Jan, 2016

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