Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor in Costa Rica in 1502 at Isla Uvita, just off the coast of Puerto Limón. The Atlantic coast, however, was left largely unexplored by Spanish settlers until the 19th century. In 1867, construction began on an ambitious railroad connecting the highlands to the sea. Limón was chosen as the site of a major port, which would facilitate exports of the coffee from the Central Valley.
The railroad project changed Costa Rica in dramatic ways. The freed Jamaican slaves that provided cheap labor for the railroad construction settled on the coast, introducing the English language and Caribbean culture to the previously homogeneous population. The bananas that were planted alongside the tracks as a cheap food source for the workers became the country’s number-one export. And the American-owned United Fruit, which controlled the booming business, made Costa Rica a part of its banana empire.
In 1913 a banana blight shut down many Caribbean fincas, and much of the banana production moved to the Pacific coast. Afro-Caribbean workers, however, were restricted by visa regulations to Limón Province, so they were forbidden from following the employment opportunities. Stranded in the least-developed part of the country, many turned to subsistence farming, fishing or working on cocoa plantations. Others organized and staged bloody strikes against United Fruit.
In 1948 Limón provided key support to José Figueres during the 40-day civil war. In 1949 the new president enacted a constitution that finally granted blacks the right to work and travel freely throughout Costa Rica.