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Originally published Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Laid-back life awaits on the far side of Costa Rica

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is the wilder side of the country, where small beach communities offer both funky charm and luxury inns.

New York Times

If You Go

Costa Rica

Getting there

There are puddle-jumper flights from San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, to Puerto Limón, but it's easier to rent a car (four-wheel drive recommended) and take the four-hour trip by road.

Daily shuttle buses run by companies such as Interbus or Gray Line also make the trip. Expect to pay about $35 per person each way; there sometimes is an additional $10 charge for luggage. (U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica.)

Where to stay

The luxurious Le Cameleon hotel (between Puerto Viejo and Cocles Beach) has 23 rooms. Rates start at $200 a night, including breakfast. www.lecameleonhotel.com

When it opened about a decade ago, Shawandha Lodge was the first upscale hotel to open near Puerto Viejo. Larger bungalows are a good deal at $110 a night, including breakfast. www.shawandhalodge.com

Casa Viva Beach Houses offers the privacy of a one- or two-bedroom bungalow on the beach (at Punta Uva) as well as the guidance of a knowledgeable hostess. A one-bedroom house starts at $100 a day. www.puntauva.net

Guides

Florentino Grenald (506-8841-2732) gives lively and informative tours of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. A four-hour tour is $35 per person.

Wildland Adventures (www.wildland.com) recently started a nine-day Undiscovered Caribbean Costa Rica Adventure trip, starting at $2,625 per person. It was named one of the "25 Best New Trips for 2010" by National Geographic Adventure magazine.

More information

Costa Rica Tourist Board: www.visitcostarica.com

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Some vacation destinations attract tourists. Others attract disciples. The surfer town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and the tiny beach communities southeast of it, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, are of the latter variety.

This wild, often overlooked coastal stretch, an 11-mile-long necklace of small sandy coves located in southern Limon province, may be in one of Costa Rica's poorest areas, but it's also one of the most diverse, populated by a blend of Costa Ricans, English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans, indigenous Cabecar and Bribri Indians, and plenty of expatriates, from French fashion designers to old German hippies.

Drive south beyond Puerto Viejo, a tiny grid of streets lined with scrappy surf bars and cafes with names like Peace & Love and EZ Times, and you'll find pristine beaches where palm trees bend and sway over the water's edge. Reggae music emanates from cheerful pastel-painted shacks that line a rutted, mostly dirt road. An old-growth forest, often just yards from the shore, is alive with sloths, toucans and monkeys.

For soul-searching world travelers who tend to plant roots and stay, it's this laid-back, untamed vibe that has made the Caribbean-side strip, between Puerto Viejo and the equally tiny town of Manzanillo, an attractive alternative to Costa Rica's more touristy Pacific Coast.

"Coming here is about living with nature," said Nicolas Buffile, a French expatriate who owns the Shawandha Lodge, a chic "neo-primitive-style" property. "We're not like the Pacific side, where everything is air-conditioned and tamed." His daughter Paola, who manages Residencia Las Casas, a luxurious holiday rental in the area, added: "People who go to the Pacific side don't want their life to change. The people that come here want to change their life."

Surfing devotees

Even the local surfers tend to be particularly fanatical about the area — and, more specifically, the famous wave known as Salsa Brava (Wild Sauce), which breaks a few hundred yards from Puerto Viejo's shore. When this Hawaiian-style barrel swells, it's considered the most powerful wave in Costa Rica. It's also an appropriate analogy for the surrounding area: beautiful and wild. The surfers who ride it tend to be hard-core adrenaline addicts.

Needless to say, neither Salsa Brava nor Puerto Viejo is for the traveler who likes to be pampered. In fact, for years, careful travelers and tour operators avoided the region thanks to its reputation as a frenetic, rough-and-tumble kind of place. While petty theft is still an issue, a boom of new restaurants and hotels catering to a more sophisticated traveler has softened the edges. And some upscale tour operators, such as Seattle-based Wildland Adventures, have decided that the Caribbean Costa Rican coast is now safe enough to begin tours in the area.

The Costa Rican government is also investing in the region. Over the next few years about $80 million has been allotted for development in the province, focused on Puerto Limon, its shabby main port town, about 35 miles northwest of Puerto Viejo. And attention is already turning to the town. Last year it served as the finish line for the Transat Jacques Vabre yacht race; this year four cruise lines — Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, Holland America and Carnival Cruises — added Limon as a port of call.

An example of this new luxury is Le Cameleon, the area's first luxury boutique hotel located just south of Puerto Viejo, which was inaugurated a year ago by the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias. The property has 23 all-white rooms spread out among three two-story glass and wood buildings that embrace a palm-lined pool. Although the complex is designed to blend into the landscape, its Miami-style design sticks out like an Armani-clad banker among barefoot bohemians.

More characteristic to the scene is Jungle Love, an intimate open-air restaurant owned by two American expatriates, Yamu Myles and Poppy Williams. Situated behind some thick foliage across the road from Playa Chiquita, at night it gives off a cozy glow. The soundtrack tends toward soul and funk tunes, while the menu offers healthy comfort food like tuna in a tamarindo sauce with wasabi and brown rice.

Myles, who hails from Oakland, Calif., was once a successful DJ. Now he's the chef at Jungle Love. "There's a spark to this place," he said. "I loved it the moment I got here. I always say, 'Get in where you fit in.' "

Wildlife refuge

Farther south down the coast in Manzanillo, the tree trunks are painted with Rasta colors, and many of the residents still fish for a living. The undeniable heart of the town is Maxi's, a slapped together, locally owned two-story bar and restaurant that looks over the waves and serves as a meeting place for locals and tourists.

The town also serves as an entry point to the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, more than 12,000 acres of jungle, beaches and coral reefs. Florentino Grenald, a charismatic local guide better known as Tino, offers a four-hour hike into the refuge.

Keeping up a lively and informative dialogue, Grenald points out so-called Velcro plants (after their ability to stick to passers-by) and bullet ants; tracks red-eyed tree frogs; and calls out to the howler monkeys that scramble in the trees overhead.

He stopped in front of a slender gray tree covered with multiple small growths. He touched the tree and suddenly the bumps came alive. Small gray cicada-like insects flew into the air and hovered; they had long, feathery white tails, like tiny boas. Much like the evolving Puerto Viejo, their presence seemed both transcendental and a little fierce.

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