After yet another long bus ride, 7 hours, we arrived in a sandy village called Puerto Viejo on the south – east coast corner of the Costa Rican. Felt good to be back in the warm Caribbean sun, clear blue waters and feeling “ire”. As in all Central American countries, the Caribbean feels very different from the rest of the country and in this case, specifically very different than the Pacific coast. (Compared to San Jose, we weren’t even on the same planet.)
We checked into Rocking Jays, just outside of town, a hostel described in the Lonely Planet guide as “ghetto-cool” and promised popularity along the backpacker trail. Upon entering, I knew we felt right at home, like in a mini-burning man wonderland, in anticipation of new adventures.
Available for habitation: a cool public hammock to sleep in, a plot of dirt to pitch your tent, a bed in one of the many dorm rooms or a private room with a loft, constructed out of plywood and mosaic tiles. We opted for the later, treating ourselves in ghetto- luxury for the week ahead.
The wall of all of the structures throughout the hostel were painted in bright psychedelic murals depicting underwater dreamscapes, frolicking mermaids mingling with Rastas smoking large water pipes. The central gathering point in the hostel consisted of long rows of communal tables, adorned with random images from magazines, found photos and other travel memorabilia shellacked into a 70’s decoupage visual feast. The place has an eclectic vibe indeed and we were grateful to have found our little burning man sanctuary on the Caribbean.
Our week at Rocking J’s was like a lovely dream, a groovy relaxing journey, no pressures, no rules. This week was about people, both Miro and I interacting and observing, receding into the background comfortably at times, other times we were organizers of great community interactions. Balance on the Caribbean in play.
During this week we’ve met many other travelers, people from around the world, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Barbados, the States, Spain, Germany and Belgium, which formed a cozy community of travelers, sharing many tales from the road and much alcohol to liven the storytelling.
Miro and I spent our time playing foosball, swimming in the ocean, strolling along the black sandy beaches, swinging in the comfy hammocks, playing music and singing, riding bikes on the dusty paths, swinging in the surrounding trees, playing cards, dice and pool. One day, we even rented kayaks and explored several vein-like rivers that flowed directly into the ocean.
Another day, we rode our bikes for the five miles each way to the idyllic beach point, called Punta Uva, only to return back to Rocking J’s with a flat tire. At night, we celebrated life around the bon fires, drinking tequila and beer and partaking in many deep conversations.
The guests at Rocking J’s were both young and old, veteran travelers and green newbies, but no matter their status, there was an unmistakable contagious sense of community.
During this week, we met many interesting people. Among them were a were a couple of social anthropologists from Canada who had taken up residence in Puerto Viejo for the last year and hung out socially at Rocking J’s. They were living in Puerto Viejo conducting field work for their dissertation, not interfering with the community at large, simply observing .
Our little oasis at Rocking J’s was on the outskirts of the main town and as I discovered, we were in fact shielded from some of the dark realities of this Caribbean paradise. My new friends, shared with me the topic of their research and I was equally fascinated. Unbeknownst to me, Puerto Viejo is renown for the seedy side of life, including drugs, crime and prostitution. The anthropologists were in fact only interested in studying just the later, prostitution and it’s particulars unique to this city. To be precise, the social behavior of male prostitutes, as was the focus of their study. The male prostitutes of Costa Rica’s Caribbean had an international reputation that drew western women from around the globe, who simply wanted to “get their groove on”. (Stella-style) And of course, these women were willing to pay for it. Sex tourism, huh? Wow, I’ve got a lot to learn.
Inspired by my anthropologists friends, I too decided to take the role as an observer, a role that comes naturally to me through my years of market research and brand development for many major companies. I am an observer of the human condition and have experience in neutrality. So, on the occasions when Miro and I bicycled into town, I would notice how the beautiful the African – Caribbean men gathered together, hung out, flirted and teased the passerby’s. I was never close enough to actually interact, but I did keep a watchful eye.
Much to my dismay, I did not see “business-like” interaction between the men and any tourist women during my brief visits in town. I did however, find myself imaging what an interaction between them would look like. I was fascinated and I hold no judgment for the situation, as I found myself very curious. I have been to the red-light district in Amsterdam and the sexuality there was much more blatant and out in the open. There, the women stand in their windows coaxing would-be clients to come inside. And a different approach, women would sit passively in their window boudoirs seducing on-lookers through a voyeuristic fantasy. Either way, the seduction was blatant and the intent was out in the open. I understand those dynamics at least. These dynamics, I did not.
I allowed my curiosity to explore (in my head only). I saw potential scenes play out, as I too, was being voyeuristic, only my role was not as defined. I felt protected from the seedy reality since there I was, with Miro, but I had the freedom to watch and imagine. I imagined myself, (a 40 something American woman) approaching one of these men. I wondered what I would say? I wondered what questions I would ask, I wondered if we’d negotiate price, I wondered if we’d talk about places to go. I was more interested in the fantasy of the initial interaction than any fantasy playing out in a sexual nature. The intrigue to me, was the human interaction, how a man and woman in this situation negotiate, what the verbal engagement looks like, what the eyes say. Human interaction is my passion, but this situation is beyond my scope of experience, and I have to admit I was fascinated all the same.
As the week progressed, I was more aware, more alert and my observation skills were more acute when Miro and I rode our bikes through town. As my awareness expanded, I began to see more things that supported what I had heard about the seedy underbelly of Puerto Viejo. Besides the particular corner where the beautiful men hung out along the beach, presumably the hustler corner, I also saw other groups hang out. One area, there was a constant smell of burning pot in the air.
“Wanna buy some ganja? Wanna buy some ganja? Wanna buy some ganja?” Yep, that gave it away. Harmless in my opinion, but blatant, nonetheless
The other warning we received at the Rocking J’s was never to walk down the road to town at night. If we did, always go in groups, but even groups of tourists were targets to many petty robberies. The more I spoke with the locals, this did indeed reveal as true, there was a definite crime element here, no different than the streets of downtown LA, where we come from. However, there was a distinct difference between the pretty local boys who wore their looks as a badge of honor and the rougher looking drug dealers hanging on the edge of the shore with inventory to push.
C’est la vie and in my opinion there is room in the enormous world for all realities. I choose to focus on the ones that bring peace and harmony into my life, and that’s where I’ll put my attention, with the exception of my occasional fantasies of walking on dark side. But this is human too.
Puerto Viejo is place of many paradoxes. Is it Paradise? Well, it is as close as we have come this far. It’s all in the perspective, I believe.
Here’s a little history on Puerto Viejo, excerpted from here:
It has only been in the last 15 years that Puerto Viejo has truly become a Costa Rican tourist destination. The reason is simple: it has only been in the last 20 years that you could drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo. Prior to the construction of the highway from San Jose to Limon Province, you had to fly into the area, which turned a lot of tourists off from the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
Puerto Viejo itself has, unlike its even more laid back northern neighbor Cahuita, become a popular destination for the “alternative” backpacking surfing crowd. It has also become a haven for tourists looking for a more laid back and traditional Costa Rican holiday, off of the beaten track. Environmentalism is starting to be evident in the area, as ecologically friendly small hotels pop up in the area. However, the town itself remains lost in time, reminiscent of a 1970s era small town on the road to nowhere.
Given the south Caribbean’s roots in the 19th century and early 20th century coffee trade, English (or a localized version of English) is more widely spoken here than other areas of Costa Rica. Also, Europeans enjoy vacationing in the south Caribbean, so you will find yourself meeting tourists from not only Canada and the United States, but also Germany, England, France, Belgium and other areas of Europe. Asian tourists do not seem to have discovered the area yet.