The idea was to build a railroad across the steaming jungles of Costa Rica linking the country’s inland capital at San Jose to its main eastern port at Limon. The 95-mile-long project was aimed at making it quicker to carry coffee – Costa Rica’s principal export – from the plantations to the port vs. the decades-old system of moving the goods by ox carts plodding over horrid dirt roads.
Work on the railroad, originally expected to take five or so years, got underway in 1869. The first train rolled out 21 years later.
Some were surprised the project actually got finished, given all this: inept planning, contractor bankruptcies, financing frauds, rampant bribery, bureaucratic fumbling and political shenanigans, along with natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rainstorms, mudslides, floods, bridge collapses and road washouts. What’s more, there was a chronic shortage of workers willing to brave the dysentery, malaria, yellow fever and poisonous snakes of the country’s sweltering jungles and swamps.
“Ticos” (local Costa Ricans) typically wanted nothing to do with the project. As a chronicler of the railroad put it, they knew signing up to work in the jungle was “practically a guarantee of sickness if not death.” So the railroad’s builders had to import workers, mainly from Asia and Europe.
They died by the thousands. The builders, mostly Americans, next turned to making deals with New Orleans politicians to sign up what turned out to be criminals and other low-lifes. In 1873, some 500 scofflaws were shipped to Costa Rica to work on the railroad. Only 25 made it back alive.
Finally, after similar disasters with shiploads of Chinese, Italian and Belgian workers, the builders hit paydirt: on Jamaica, where they found a plentiful supply of jungle-savvy laborers.
Fast-forward to 1890, and the end of construction. A hefty number of the Jamaicans opt to stay in Costa Rica. Many set up fishing communities on the Caribbean coast along a 55-mile-long strip running south of Limon down to the Panama border.
Their descendants are still there. Look around, and you’ll see them selling mangoes, casabas, pineapples, watermelons and fresh veggies at thatched-roof roadside stands subbing for supermarkets. You’ll hear people speaking in the Afro-Caribbean-English patois of the old-time West Indies (here, with a bit of Spanish tossed in). And just about everywhere, from bars to barbershops, you’ll hear vintage Jamaican calypso tunes wafting through the air.
Listen close, and you’ll also hear songs expressing the composers’ pride in being Costa Ricans and of their calypsonian heritage. A popular group from Limon called “The Lobster Band,” for instance, belts out: Let go me hand, let go me hand, I am a true born Costa Ree-can... Anywhere I go, they love me play calypso.
Along the way down the coast are towns such as Bolivia, San Clemente and Puerto Vargas, where tourists might half expect to find Harry Belafonte sitting on a dock in striped, clamdigger pants, happy to see daylight after a long night of cutting banana stalks.
Keep going, and you’ll come across some of the country’s top national parks, eco-resorts and communities of expats, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, rubbing elbows with surfers speaking everything from French to Finnish.
At the lower end of the strip, just north of the border, you’re welcome to sample some red-hot Jamaican “jerk” dishes at Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo among a half-dozen spots plentifully inhabited by dreadlocked Rastafarians. Around there, Belafonte shares the stage with Jamaican superstar Bob Marley, as does calypso with that island’s reggae, ska, rocksteady and nyabinghi music.
No wonder the Costa Rican coast is known as “Little Jamaica.”
Postscript: By the time the railroad belched its first puff of steam, bananas – initially planted along both sides of the tracks to provide a cheap source of food for the workers – were challenging coffee for Costa Rica’s most profitable export. What’s more, the banana-growing experience in Costa Rica ended up sparking “banana republics” in vast territories of Central and South America and the West Indies.
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