Once an important banana port on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, Puerto Limon is better known as a good jumping-off point for visitors headed to Cahuita and Tortuguero national parks, or the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. The city is also sometimes called simply "Limon" by locals, although that is also the name of the province.
Puerto Limon, which is about 100 mi/160 km east of San Jose, is also a popular stop for cruise ships. Unfortunately, there really isn't much to see or do in Puerto Limon itself—unless you are there for the huge Columbus Day Carnival in October.
Major restoration projects continue in Puerto Limon to refurbish cultural buildings and improve infrastructure, including the Museo Regional de la Provincia de Puerto Limon, which used to reside in the colonial-era post office.
Bringing further recognition to this oft-forgotten city, the Transat Jacques Vabre sailboat race finished in Puerto Limon in 2009. Puerto Limon also hosted the XII Festival Internacional de las Artes in March 2010.
Puerto Limon occupies a small bay surrounded on the north and west sides by low hills. It is open to the south, and for many miles/kilometers beyond is a marshy, mangrove-lined coastal plain. A small, craggy island—Isla Uvita—sits in the bay.
In 1991, the shore upon which Puerto Limon sits was heaved upward as much as 6.5 ft/2 m in places by an earthquake, and the seafront boulevard (which once overlooked a small beach) today overlooks a high-and-dry coral reef. The rocky, indentured shoreline north of town is backed by thickly forested hills.
Two beaches—Playa Bonita and Playa Portete—draw locals on weekends. Playa Bonita is by far the prettiest. Tucked between forested headlands, it has a coral reef offshore, and the tubular waves that wash ashore draw surfers.
Limon Bay has a unique spot in Costa Rica's history. It was there that Christopher Columbus first stepped ashore on the region's Caribbean shores in 1502 during his fourth and last voyage to the New World. The Genoese explorer anchored off Isla Uvita and called the region La Huerta (The Garden). Spanish conquistadores soon decimated the local population (many native people were enslaved to work in gold mines elsewhere in Central America), although that part of the coast was never really settled to any degree.
Pirates were a constant scourge along the coast. Many operated as loggers and smugglers—they also introduced the first African slaves to the region—and allied with coastal natives against the Spanish. Cacao was introduced in the 17th century, and for the next two centuries was the region's major export.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Jamaican laborers were imported to work alongside Chinese indentured laborers building the Atlantic Railroad (completed in 1880), linking the then-minor port town of Puerto Limon to San Jose. Many stayed to infuse the coast with distinctive Caribbean island cultural traits. The railroad's developer, Minor Keith, negotiated a huge land grant as part of the railroad deal and introduced bananas to the Caribbean lowlands. The industry thrived until disease struck in the 1930s.
In 1979, the cacao industry was effectively destroyed by Monilia fungus. The desultory port town limped along and was dealt another blow in 1991 when a severe earthquake destroyed many buildings, including the city's major hotel. Since then, a remarkable recovery and development has taken place, assisted by a regional tourism boom and major investments in a cruise terminal.
Puerto Limon is a fairly tranquil city, notwithstanding its importance as the country's main trading port. The main highway into the city is chock-full of large container trucks heading to and from the docks, and extreme caution is required while driving the highway. Large container-storage farms dominate the scenery on the drive into this port city. The highway between San Jose and Limon washes out on occasion, so check conditions before taking to the road. The old highway through Turrialba is a scenic alternative.
The city itself, however, is relatively calm. Life centers around the Mercado Central, or Central Market (Avenidas 2/3 and Calles 3/4). Leafy Parque Vargas has a bust of Christopher Columbus and an interesting, albeit much aged, mural profiling the region's history. The town hall (on the park's north side), the recently restored Galeria Cristal and the Black Star Line are structures of note in the city. The colonial-era post office, home of the Museo Regional de la Provincia de Puerto Limon, is also being restored. It's best to take a city tour to soak up Limon's nostalgic feel. If you have time, Puerto Limon's real pleasure lies in wandering the back streets lined with colorful timber homes in typical Caribbean style.
Although a swinging nightlife is somewhat lacking in Puerto Limon itself—unless you happen to be in town for the city's huge Columbus Day Carnival celebration in October—action awaits to the south. The strong Caribbean influence and backpacker culture in Puerto Viejo, Cahuita and Manzanillo produces a fun nightlife scene that includes calypso music and dancing on the beach, fueled by exotic tropical drinks. There are also more upscale options starting to appear.
Puerto Limon has several excellent bargain restaurants, although gourmands should keep their expectations in check. The Mercado Central has snack counters where you can fill up on typical local dishes for less than 3,000 CRC.
Although good restaurants and swinging nightlife are somewhat lacking in Puerto Limon itself, action awaits to the south. Puerto Viejo, Cahuita and Manzanillo provide strong Caribbean influence and cuisine, as well as offer surfer and backpacker culture and fun nightlife. There are also more upscale options starting to appear.
The following is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 5,000 CRC; $$ = 5,000-10,000 CRC; $$$ = more than 10,000 CRC.
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