The cloud-covered mountains of the Cordillera de Talamanca and the volcanic peaks of the Cordillera Central effectively split Costa Rica down its spine, creating a very real division between the ‘Caribbean side’ and the rest of Costa Rica.
Over here, the jungle meets the sea in a smooth arc of sandy beaches that stretch – nearly uninterrupted – from the Nicaraguan border to the Panamanian border. More than a quarter of this coast is protected, including the country’s last living coral reefs. And the lack of a dry season results in river-crossed wetlands in the north and lush rain forest in the south.
The difference between the Caribbean and the Pacific is not only geographic. Even more noteworthy is the cultural distinction: this is ‘Carib, ’ and not only in name. Descended from Jamaican and Barbadian immigrants who came to work in the banana industry, more than one-third of the population has Afro-Caribbean roots. Spicy seafood, calypso music and colorful carnivals are reminiscent of Jamaica, mon, as is the local patois.
The Afro-Caribbean clan joined the original inhabitants of the Talamanca region – the KéköLdi, Bribrí and Cabécar indigenous peoples – intermingling and intermixing. Successive waves of immigrants came from Panama, China, Nicaragua and, most recently, Europe and North America, resulting in Costa Rica’s most ethnically diverse region.
One resident compares it to the local specialty stew, rondón, which is made by mixing together whatever the cook can ‘run down.’ As the individual ingredients are stirred together, they contribute their own flavors and absorb each others’, with a richly layered and tantalizingly spicy outcome.