Photograph by Margaret Durow / Trunk Archive

Black Americans’ Complicated Search for Paradise

words by jasmine hardy

photographs by ocean morisset

Many Black Americans are moving to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica for a life free from discrimination. But the steady influx of expats to the town is resulting in development and displacement, making Black expats’ search for sanctuary that much more complicated.

On my last day in Puerto Viejo, I rode my bike to Playa Negra beach, laid down in the charcoal sand, closed my eyes, and breathed. This had been my morning routine since I’d arrived in the small, remote beachtown on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast just a week prior. The air felt lighter here, rife with vitality. The locals’ zealous drumming and blasting of reggae music throughout town was challenged only by the roar of crashing waves from the ocean, and symphony of birds and insects in the rainforest. The fruit was sweeter here, the air cleaner, and the people friendlier. Everything I’d heard about this place was true: it was paradise.


This harmonious environment is what has prompted an influx of Black Americans to relocate to Puerto Viejo in the past few years, especially since 2020. The chaos that ensued in the U.S. following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests raised racial tensions and placed a spotlight on the omnipresent oppression of Black folks in the country. In fact, according to Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees, the systematic state treatment of Black people in the U.S. is so severe that if we were to seek asylum in another country, we would qualify


While Black Americans have never quite been considered refugees, our search for asylum outside U.S. borders is nothing new. Ongoing discrimination has led to waves of exoduses throughout generations. In the 1920s, creatives like Josephine Baker and Loïs Mailou Jones sought refuge in France; in the 1950s Maya Angelou and W.E.B. Dubois looked for freedom in Ghana. This migration is often referred to as “Blaxit,” which is essentially the uniquely Black American pursuit of a place safe enough to call home. 


This time around, many have set their sights on the jungles of Puerto Viejo. 


But, with the rapid global shift to remote working, more and more people in the Global North are choosing to move abroad—oftentimes at the expense of local communities. In fact, expats everywhere have begun to make their way to various destinations in the tropics, Puerto Viejo among them. Now, this botanical beachtown is slowly starting to lose its natural charm due to an increase in development, displacement, and destruction.


A hopeful community of Black Americans seemed to have finally found sanctuary in this tropical paradise—but at what cost?

Several types of colorful fruit are on display at a market in Puerto Viejo.

The Allure of Puerto Viejo

It’s easy to see why so many Black Americans are deciding to put down roots in Puerto Viejo. Costa Rica’s entire culture emphasizes peace over productivity, verbalized in their most common phrase, “pura vida,” which means “pure life” in Spanish. This mentality is fully embraced on the Caribbean side, compounded by the area’s Rastafarian culture, which is known for its dedication to tranquility. 


“What I love is the simple living,” says Shardae Leon, who originally hails from Houston, Texas. “I come from a big city where everything is go go go, work work work. Costa Rica in general is a lot slower… but Puerto is a different type of slow.” Here, everyone moves at their own pace, which Leon describes as “practic[ing] patience and flexibility.”


In the two years she’s been in Puerto Viejo, she’s also grown to cherish the sense of community. “You got the juice lady that rides around on the bicycle, you got the pati guy, you got someone who can help you with the garden… it’s very community-based,” she said. 


But, Leon’s favorite part about living in Puerto Viejo is how her Blackness doesn’t feel like a burden. “I just feel like I can be my natural Black self [in Puerto Viejo],” she said. “I can talk my AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and not be corrected or looked down upon. I feel more comfortable in my skin. I don’t feel like a threat.”

“I feel more comfortable in my skin. I don’t feel like a threat.”

Shardae Leon
Black American Expat

Feeling unwelcome in one’s own country is a common experience throughout Black American history. Having been stolen from our ancestral land and forced to settle in a place in which we have never been treated as though we belong, Black Americans have cultivated a complicated relationship to the concepts of land, home, and belonging. Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, Black clergyman Garrison Frazier referenced this yearning when he said that the deepest need Black folks had was “homes and the ground beneath them, to plant fruit trees; to be able to tell the children, these are yours.”


Black expat Ocean Morisset and his partner Kahlil, have begun planting those seeds in Puerto Viejo. “Part of a typical day revolves around working in our garden,” Morisset said. “We planted a bunch of fruit trees, and now that they’re growing, they need some tending to. Then the rest of [the day] is pura vida.”


Puerto Viejo’s Afro-Caribbean roots and community have helped cultivate a relatively racially harmonious atmosphere. But increasing gentrification in the area and consequently the displacement of locals is changing the town’s ethnic make-up. And while many locals believe Western tourism in general is to blame, some feel as though Black American expats are failing to recognize their own part in the unwelcome change.

Two children play on a beach in Puerto Viejo. One of the children is swinging from a home made swing that is attached to a tree branch above him.

A Changing Community Leads to Culture Clash

The history of Afro-Costa Ricans in Puerto Limón Province, where Puerto Viejo is located, shares similarities to that of Black Americans in the U.S. There were two waves of migration that led to the region’s mostly Black population—the first was during the transatlantic slave trade, where many enslaved Africans docked in Matina to work on cacao farms. The second wave came in the 19th century, when workers from surrounding Caribbean islands like Barbados and Jamaica were contracted to build a railroad from San Jose to Puerto Limón. 


By that time, small villages along the coast of Puerto Viejo had already been established by a group of Panamanian turtle fisherman, and the railroad workers decided to settle among them. They soon realized they were prohibited from venturing into other parts of the country due to “de facto discrimination,” causing the origins of this primarily Afro-Caribbean community. 


Despite attempts at “naturalization” after they’d been granted full citizenship in 1949, Puerto Viejo inhabitants insisted on maintaining their Caribbean roots and identities. And these “traditional ways of Afro people living” are just one of the reasons Kassandra Waite, a 24-year-old local, loves her hometown so much. But the recent boom in tourism is threatening to push her out, and in her eyes, is just “another way to colonize.”


“The prices are increasing and everything is getting more expensive,” she said. “So, if you ask me right now, I would prefer not to live here.” 


As for Black expats’ role in the rising cost of living, Waite says she can relate to the struggles of being Black and can therefore see why Puerto Viejo is such a draw. But, for her, it doesn’t negate the fact that Black Americans have also adopted what she describes as a colonial mindset, and will sometimes use their Blackness as an excuse to ignore their American privilege. “[Black expats] come here thinking it’s a nice place because of all the Black people, but they don’t connect with local Black people—they only mix with other expats,” she says. “People like my friends are making $4 an hour and they’re like, Oh this is paradise. It’s only paradise for them. They don’t realize people here are having a bad time.”

While our quest for a place to call home is legitimate, we can’t ignore the fact that the same global power dynamics and systems we’ve been exploited by exist in the places we’ve found refuge.

Most of the local population in Puerto Viejo work in the service industry, so the average monthly income is only $526, whereas the average monthly rent is now nearly $800. Housing prices may not seem like a lot for expats, explains Waite, but that’s because foreigners are able to keep their relatively higher paying, remote jobs while living here. Plus, many Black expats also have businesses that aim to attract more Black Americans to Puerto Viejo, according to Waite.


Of course, Europeans have been exhibiting this behavior for years and most businesses in Puerto Viejo are currently owned by wealthy whites, says Dr. Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, who is an Afro Costa Rican and Panamanian writer with extensive family history in Puerto Viejo. But she agrees that Black expats must be careful not to replicate these patterns of colonialism. “When you’re creating resources that only privilege or funnel in other Black expats, without asking for what the local community wants, it becomes a problem.”


There are many factors that go into the displacement and destruction of a community, and Black expats are hardly the primary reason behind a changing Puerto Viejo. It’s the increase in wealthier, Western expats in general that has attracted new smaller developments like Airbnb’s, cafes, and pricier housing, and it is also known and recognized by locals that large, foreign companies are the ones pushing for mega-development in the area, causing even more damage.

A red bike is parked outside a blue house in Puerto Viejo.

A Changing Landscape Threatens Biodiversity

Puerto Viejo has been able to evade large scale development for some time now. Its topography, climate, and dense foliage has historically made human development a difficult task. Plus, a maritime law meant to protect Indigenous reserves and forests has also kept major developers at bay.  The high population of Black people has also led to racist assumptions about the area when it comes to danger and crime, resulting in a community left alone for better or for worse.


But similar to other places in the tropics, the town’s magic was eventually uncovered, and the Costa Rican government is guilty of greenlighting its demise. In 2018, the Limon Province’s Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism proposed spending at least $40 million to build new residential areas and all-inclusive hotels, in an effort to turn the region into a “new Cancun.” And just a couple of months ago, a new coastal regulation plan was proposed that would allow “inconsiderate building along the coastline, massive deforestation, and loss of historical landscape” along with an inevitable increase in property taxes.


Not only would these large-scale developments significantly add to the displacement of residents, but it will also continue to displace wildlife and threaten the biodiversity Puerto Viejo is known for. “The environment is changing,” Waite said. “When I was a child you could find a lot of fruit trees around town or wetlands. I remember going to rivers and seeing a lot of streams, and now you don’t see that because of the pollution. The coastal forest is disappearing because everyone wants to build a house on the beach.”

A sloth hanging from a tree in Puerto Viejo turns its neck to look at the camera.

Waite believes that the government could do more to help, a sentiment that Encar Garcia, founder of the Puerto Viejo Jaguar Rescue Center, agrees with. “There’s no regulations or plans for the area from the government; everyone’s just building and building and building,” said Garcia. “There’s more power lines with no insulation, more cars on the road… this is a huge problem for the animals.”


While visiting Puerto Viejo, I came across a variety of animals including toucans, monkeys, sloths, and poison dart frogs. But according to Waite, the wildlife have been retreating deeper into the jungle, and Garcia says that each year, more animals are in need of rescuing. Usually, between 300 and 400 are rescued each year, but last year 966 animals were in need of aid due to the effects from development, such as electrocution or being hit by cars. Her rescue center is the only one in the vicinity and the increase in injured animals has become overwhelming for Garcia. “We don’t have enough resources,” she said. 


Garcia explained that just a day prior, 13 sea turtles had been harpooned by poachers who were in need of money, and were brought to the center for treatment. But there weren’t enough pools of water for the turtles due to a lack of facilities and climatic changes. Yet, despite these worsening struggles, the center has never received funding from the government. 


Still, Garcia believes all tourism and development doesn’t have to be bad. There’s a large eco-tourism presence, she says, where people who respect nature come to help with reforestation efforts and beach clean-ups. But she is fearful of the people who are negligent, as they have the power to undo any progress that is made. “My concern is how the things happening now will impact the present and future. It’s important to stop [the destruction] right now and start a new direction.”

Learning From The Past

Tourism has undoubtedly played a large role in the economic and social stability of Costa Rica as a whole. However, in Puerto Viejo, structural inequalities and little government protection makes it so that low-income locals are that much more vulnerable when outsiders come in.


It’s an unsettling and confusing concept for many, including myself. After all, land is a resource meant to be shared, not to be monopolized or fought over. But in the context of human history, the idea of moving freely throughout the world becomes much more nuanced—even more so for Black Americans, whose search for a land that feels like home goes deep. While our quest is legitimate, we can’t ignore the fact that the same global power dynamics and systems we’ve been exploited by exist in the places we’ve found refuge.  


These communities come with histories and cultures and while most are open for exploration, there’s a fine line between integrating and gentrifying. Regardless of background, it’s our responsibility as members of the ecosystem to challenge ourselves to use history as a guide, making sure to build a symbiotic relationship with new lands and their inhabitants, rather than an extractive one.

Cars drive on a road surrounded by tropical trees along the coast of a beach in Puerto Viejo.

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