A person could visit the city of Limón on the Caribbean Coast 364 days of the year and leave with the impression that the Limonese carry around with them an inherent sadness. The city looks like it is all work and no play from November through September. There are few smiles shared by strangers on the street.
It is because the Limonese are a private people. In their past they have been used (think early railroad work camps), shunned (Limoneses were not allowed to travel past Turrialba until after 1949) and 22 years ago an earthquake dislodged the foundation of prosperity and stunted the cities growth. In every generation there has been a need for young people to re-build the efforts of their grandparents. In Costa Rica, outside of the province the city has a reputation of crime and darkness.
Then for two weeks after Oct. 12th, the Day of Cultures or Columbus Day as it is known in other countries, there is the Carnaval, a two-week celebration of culture and passion. The original carnaval made its debut in 1949 and was orchestrated by a Limonese community leader known as Mr. King. The parade was designed to celebrate the new Constitution that was enacted by Jose Figueres, a three-time president who gave the Jamaican immigrants of Limón citizen status and allowed women to vote. Figueres also abolished the Costa Rica army the same year.
The main event, the Grand Carnaval is actually just a huge parade that mixes local marching bands, sexy dance troupes and palm leaf decorated semi-trucks carrying floats through the streets. A beauty competition at the beginning of the two week festivities births a carnival queen who this year was romantically displayed as Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” with the Latin touch of half dressed male dancers to titillate the crowd. This year’s parade also included a section of carburetor toys such as choppers, 4-wheelers and a dune buggy.
Anything goes as long as it is loud, funky or sexy.
The crowd left very little room for the parade to pass. People in equally colorful clothing pushed closer and closer to the action. The crowd at Carnaval is one of the most diverse that can be found in Latin America. Black, White, Red and Yellow or Afro-Caribbean, tourists, Indians and Chinese made up the stunning kaleidoscope of people that lined the streets.
Most people brought coolers full of their own refreshments and used them as a comfy place to sit for the 2 hours of waiting past the 1 p.m. planned start time. The bars along the parade route were selling beers for a meager 1,000 colons. Street meat smoke added to the dancer’s mystique and if a family member forgot a hat, chair, toy or cotton candy there was always a vendor nearby to make a sale.
Once the streets are cleaned Limón will probably go quietly back underground to plan for its future. A future which includes an investment of $400 million to expand the main highway, route 32, a new refinery and $948 million in Moin’s newly designed shipping port. Will this be the catalyst for making the streets come alive the other days of the year? The answer will surely be found in next year’s Carnaval.