First stop in the scouting trip: Puerto Viejo, in the caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Of the four destinations shorlisted, this is the one for which we have more doubts. On the positive side, Puerto Viejo is surrounded by a national park (Cahuita) and a protected area (Gandoca-Manzanillo); has access to one of the best preserved coral reefs in Costa Rica (Cahuita extends to a marine protected area); there are opportunities for surf and diving and most importantly, hosts one of our preferred volunteer organizations – the Jaguar Rescue Center. On the negative side, Puerto Viejo has one of the highest crime rates in Costa Rica. This is a very important deterrent for us. So, with all these considerations in mind, I headed towards Puerto Viejo for a couple of nights.
Road from San José to Puerto Viejo
The trip lasts approximately 5 hours. It goes through the mountains and with many zig-zags. The road in generally in very good shape. The first part over the mountains has been recently asphalted and has two lanes until Limón.
The second part, from Limón to Puerto Viejo has only one line and it is usually heavily trafficked. Between Limón and Puerto Viejo, one can see many plantations of Pineapple and Bananas (monoculture) and an astonishing amount of containers to transport the fruits abroad.
Puerto viejo first impressions
The town is basically a myriad of small hotels at both sides of the main road. There are no big buildings and generally the town gives a very relaxing atmosphere. Most of the people (and definitively most tourists) use the bike as the main means of transportation.
There are small stalls here and there, selling fresh fruits (mangoes, pineapple, papaya). There are also small restaurants or sodas selling typical Caribbean food like empanadas, Rice&beans (rice with beans and coconut milk); fried platain or fish -Snapper..
In the photo: Manzanas de agua- red fruit, perfumed and very tasty. Apparently helps regulating sugar in blood.
Cocles beach in front of the jaguar rescue center is considered dangerous since it has a very strong current. It is usually used by surfers. Punta Uva- which can be reached by bike is easier for swimming.
There are two large supermarkets in the area. Megasuper and a newer one, el Negro. The supermarket is well assorted and has a good variety of products, as can be seen in the photos.
Pet shops & vets
At the entrance of Puerto viejo (coming from Cahuita) there is a pet shop- Central de Mascotas. There is also a vet which is recommended for small things, including the health certificate that they need to return to Europe, this vet is fine. I have been told that for acute things, it is best to send the animal to San Jose.
The Jaguar Rescue Center
The JRC is a wildlife rescue center organization with a clear mission to rehabilitate and RELEASE the animals. The survival rate of the Jaguar Center is quite high, as well as the release rate. Annualy the have around 590 animals in the center, with new animals entering almost on a daily basis (just seven the day before we met).
The story of the JRC is very touching. The Founder is is a biologist specialized in primates. She came to CR and felt in love with the country and decided to stay. She started helping some injured animals and soon enough people were dropping more and more injured animals at her entrance. So the Jaguar Center Started. Today employs about 25 people and has 25 additional volunteers.
Visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center
My first day in Puerto Viejo I was woken up by a group of howling monkeys. It was 5 am!. Since I stayed in the Jaguar Inn, at 6:30 am I was having breakfast with the volunteers who start working at 7:30, learning about their experience at JRC. My plan was to take part of the tour to visit the center and take the opportunity to talk with the people running the JRC about the volunteer program.
The tour was truly memorable and absolutely worth it. It is very popular too and queues form well before the start of the tour. We started the tour with the white face (capuchin) monkeys.
Our guide explained to us the procedure that they follow to reinsert the animals in the wild and the different between the white-face monkey (who are released in a island in Tortuguero) and the Howler monkeys. Howler monkeys, are more gentle and easier to reinsert in the wild (at least compared with the other primates). When they come as babies, they stay in the center until they are 1 year old and after that and for 3 more years they go with their caretakers to the forest to start interacting with other monkeys until one day, they go with their own group.
Volunteers work at the JRC
During the tour I could see the different tasks of the volunteers – from cleaning, to feeding the animals, acting as “mums” for the baby monkeys, or supervising the animals in their enclosure or in the open while wandering around the center.
I was told by the manager that the volunteers change tasks three times per day, among other thing sto avoid boredom. For example, one of the tasks was to supervise an ant-eater while he was outside ;-).
Volunteers at the JRC are asked to make a 350 US$ donation to the center independently of the length of the volunteer work. The donation includes all meals and accommodation for the last week in la Ceiba, where animals are released. Considering the large amount of animals that the center takes care of, the fact that the donation includes one week meals and accomodation and that the contribution is independent of the lenght of the volunteer work, it seems not only reasonable but to some extent low.
Accomodation for volunteers
The JRC has 4-people rooms at the premises where volunteers can stay at a fee (Jaguar Inn). The rooms are spacious and well taken care of. Volunteers have also access to a large communal kitchen and sofas in a lush garden beside the JRC. Staying in the Jaguar Inn is not the only option. Volunteers can live outside the premises.
Accomodation in Puerto Viejo
Most people publish their houses to rent in two Facebook websites [something like Puerto Viejo properties or Puerto Viejo rents]. There are many appartments furnished. The price of a 2-bedroom house is about 600-700 US$ and for that price it should include water, electricity and internet. There is also a facebook group called PuertoViejo Dogs (or similar) where one can find info on people that have travelled from and to Europe with their dogs (apparently many volunteers go back to Europe with a Tico dog).
Exploring the surropundings: from Cocles to Punta Uva
I rented a bike for – 5 US$/day at the convenience store beside the JRC. After the tour I took the bike and went to Punta Uva, who everyone recommends for swimming. It took about 15 minutes by bike from the rescue center at a veeeery calm path. Punta Uva is about 6 km from Cocles. There seems to be a dive center and one can also rent kayaks. The beach is postal-like. Small waves and plenty of shadow and trees where to hang a hammock
The road to Punta Uva is full with little restaurants by the road and close to the beach: Italian, Spanish, Argentinan…you name it.
The not so nice note is the amount of rubbish that accumulates on the sides of the road…
From Playa Cocles to Puerto Viejo by bike
Playa Cocles extends for several kilometers and it is a hub for surfing. There are many warnings that there are strong undercurrents. This streatch of beach seems to be far less quiet than the place where the JRC is located, judging by the amount of people on the street and the bars/restaurants that started to open for the night shift.
Tremors and weather
Last night in Puerto Viejo: I woke up in the middle of the night because there was a slight tremor. Yep, I thought. We need to get use to the Earth trembling in this part of the world.
I recalled what a friend told me about what to do with tremors and Earthquakes: if possible, go out to a place where there are no trees or possibilities of falling objects (a patio or a square) for example. If going out is not an option (because one is in a flat, for example) go to the bathroom – the bathroom is the most secure place in the house. If the bathroom is too far away, then under any door frame.
Last note – about the weather in Puerto Viejo, I have been told that the beginning of the year is generally rainy and that the best months to be in the Caribbean are September, October, November and December (at the end of the year). Hurricane season from august onwards though. In contrast with other parts of Costa Rica when it rains only in the afternoon, rain in the Caribbean can come at any time of the day. In february, when I was there, temperatures were very mild: about 25-28 during day time and around 21 at night.
Final reflections: Pros and Cons of Puerto Viejo
The visit to Puerto Viejo changed my perspective on the place and my initial reservations. We could definitively live there and we would absolutely enjoy working as volunteers in the Jaguar. It is a “well-oiled” center, VERY well organized and it is very clear from the conversations around dinner that volunteers are happy and enjoy every moment being there. Most of the volunteers extend their initial stay for several weeks and some of them end up working at the center at the end. Puerto Viejo seems to be a laid back, relaxed town. The fact that one can get around with a bike is a plus for us. And having access to small restaurants doesnt sound so bad either. Good surfing, good diving and national parks close by add to the plus list.
On the negative side, the crime rate is high and safety seems to be an issue and will require to keep an extra eye on valuables at all times and be careful whith where to go and when…as in many places around the world. The amount of rubbish on the street falls also on the negative side, but the cons are compensated by far by the pros.
All in all, it is definitively a place for us.