By Susan Mahr

January 7, 2018

It rained on and off all night long, with the soft pitter-patter of raindrops on the foliage outside mixing with the whirring, trilling and buzzing of insects, chattering of geckos, and clicking and plinking of frogs for a lovely background serenade that was only occasionally disrupted by noisy trucks on the nearby highway. By morning, the birds had taken over the chorus with a mixture of whoops, whistles, and songs. Since breakfast wasn’t until 8:00, there was plenty of time for an early morning walk around the property or just to lie in bed longer.

We gathered in the upstairs dining area for breakfast – a buffet with lots of fresh fruit, milk oatmeal, gallo pinto, ham, fried eggs, breads, juice and coffee – around 8:00. After breakfast we watched the parade of birds coming to the fruit feeder outside one end of the dining area: clay-colored robins, lots of blue-grey tanagers, palm tanagers, black male and brown-green female Passerini’s tanager, great kiskadee, crimson-collared tanager, black-cheeked woodpecker, oropendolas, buff-throated saltator, shining and red-legged honeycreepers, northern oriole and more.

We met near the dining area at 9:15 to slowly walk to the van, with Margherita pointing out some of the native trees, including wild guava, the tall jobo tree (Spondia mombin) with tiny leaves that had a toucan and some oropendolas in it, cecropia, sotacaballo (Zygia longifolia) with its red new leaves, tree ferns and Pentclethra macroloba with its distinctive pinnate leaves and large, woody seed pods that explode open when mature, and gumbo lindo (Bursera simaruba) with its peeling red bark.

We got to the van at 9:30 and before loading up, looked at a large male iguana up high in a tree. We barely left the Lodge when we stopped on the road to look at a tree filled with oropendola nests. We drove under completely cloudy skies for about 20 minutes, slowing frequently to look at a planting of teak, some papaya trees, cattle in fields, a water apple tree (Syzygium malaccense), coconut palms, mango, and other plants along the road. We turned off the main road to jostle along a pot-holed road between pastures and small houses with chickens, dogs and ornamental plants in their yards. We slowed to look at sealing wax palms with their distinctive bright red stems, a broad-leaved beach almond tree (the fruit is a favorite of scarlet macaws on the Pacific coast, Terminalia catappa), pink-bracted buddha’s lamp (Mussaenda phillipica), and the introduced terrestrial bamboo orchid (Arundia graminifolia). Edgar got out to pick one of the small green fruits of the native guava tree to show us (it will get softer and more yellow when mature); we drove by a living fence of Erythrina and some yellow cassia (Cassia fistula) and a soccer field with some boys listening to their coach before practice. We bounced along the muddy road with depressions filled with water and soon were driving past pineapple fields interspersed with pasture and houses to arrive at reception of Organic Pineapple right at 10:00. What used to be Finca Corsicana was bought out by Dole a few years ago, and most of their production went back to conventional production, but this small remnant is still certified organic (but struggling to make it economically as it is much more costly to grow organically).

We were greeted by guide Michael when we got to the reception area, and after a few minutes walked out in back to look at the black pepper plants (Piper nigrum) growing on cut-off Erythrina trees. We learned about how the plants grow, when the fruits are harvested and how they are processed differently to end up as white or black pepper. There were also a couple of small cacao trees, and a number of other edible plants around the buildings, including an ackee tree (Blighia sapida), the national tree of Jamaica.

We returned to the building and loaded into a trailer fitted with cushioned bench seats and a canvas roof, pulled by a tractor with driver Rolando, to go out on the road we’d come in on to get to the muddy red roads through the fields to see the plants growing and learn about harvesting and how to pick a good pineapple. We learned that pineapple is native to Mato Grosso, Brazil, but the types they grow here were developed in Hawaii. This organic plantation only produces 50,000 fruit per week (compared with larger operations which can harvest that many on a daily basis). About 35% of the fruits are rejected, not because they are bad quality (only 2-3%) but because of their appearance (crown is tilted, fruit is not symmetrical, etc.) and those are just sold for domestic consumption. We went first to a first-year field, where we saw young pineapples and learned how ethylene is used to induce fruiting for dependable and uniform ripening. The plants were starting to show the central inflorescence, and he picked one to show the group the small purple flowers emerging from the dense, conical inflorescence.  He also split the base of one plant longitudinally to show how the central portion was beginning to elongate inside.

Then it was on to a section where the fruit was close to ready for picking and we got out to walk on the fairly dry dyke to look at the plants up close and taste the juicy fruit. This was also an opportunity for a group photo and to view the really deep plastic-lined (to prevent erosion) drainage ditches (up to 40” deep, depending on location) that keeps the pineapple plants from drowning when it rains a lot. While we were there Michael gave us tips for selecting a ripe pineapple: nice green top, large eyes and a golden color to the bottom of the fruit. We moved on to another area – stopping en route to view a laughing falcon perched in a tree on the edge of the fields – and then headed back along the road to reception to enjoy a refreshing non-alcoholic piña colada, pineapple cake, pineapple empanadas and pineapple marmalade with crackers out on the patio.

From there we drove a short distance to the local restaurant Rancho Magallanes where we were seated at a long wooden table in the open air place, with a view of the Rio Sarapiqui beyond. It was Sunday with an important soccer game being broadcast, so there were lots of locals there eating and watching the big screen TVs. After ordering Margherita passed around the leaves and fragrant flowers from a nearby ylang-ylang tree (Cananga odorata) which is used as a perfume. We tried patacones (double fried plantains) with refried black beans as an appetizer before our meals of arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) or camarones (shrimp) served with a little salad and some french fries, and a piece of criole limon (a local type of lime). Some people had mixed fruit juice, too. The meals were large and filling, so most people could only eat about half of the delicious rice mixture. A female summer tanager lurked around the restaurant, looking like it wanted to steal some food – and when Nancy threw a bit of plantain on the ground it dashed in and zoomed off with the tidbit. A bright-rumped attila also came and posed for us while we sat around while people were drinking coffee.

As soon as people finished their coffee, we had to leave to get to our next appointment at La Tirimbina Rainforest Reserve, a private nature reserve formerly operated by the Milwaukee Public Museum. It had just started raining lightly as we got into the van. We drove past lots of pineapple fields interspersed with pastures under leaden skies, and by the time we got to our destination about 10 minutes later it wasn’t raining. Since we were 20 minutes late for our 1:30 appointment we didn’t linger along the path to the reception area lined with various plants including a really tallPseudobombax dropping its huge white, shaving-brush-type flowers on the ground below. We met our guide Hillary who gave us a short introduction to the reserve, then led us down the trail to the suspension bridge over the Sarapiqui River. Single file we all traipsed across the swaying structure, stopping to look at the river below (which was much higher than normal and running very fast) and a male iguana lounging on one tree top across from us. Most of the group headed straight for the other end, not stopping to see a two-toed sloth up in a tree (but Hillary said we could see it on the way back).

When we got to the other side of the long bridge we continued along the trail following the river upstream, walking through the beautiful primary forest on a concrete and boardwalk path. We stopped to look at a few plants along the way, including hot lips (Psychotria sp.) in bloom, and a young eyelash viper perched on a leaf. Hillary told us about the native nutmeg tree (Virola guatemalensis) with its large buttressed trunk, the picked a fern to make a pale “tattoo” in a fern shape on someone’s arm – the thick spores making leaving a fern pattern on the skin. A little further on we heard a slaty tailed trogon calling, then spotted the bird nearby. Everyone stopped to watch the male bird swoop from its perch to pluck a large fruit off a plant in flight and swoop back up to near where it had been, then gulp the fruit down in one swallow. It did that twice before flying off to another perch we couldn’t see.

When we got to the demonstration pavilion we walked out into nearby rainforest where there are a number of remnant trees from a former cacao plantation. Hillary told us about the trees, the growing conditions cacao requires (which restricts it to limited areas of the tropics),  and showed us the very tiny flowers that emerge directly from the trunk and large branches (cauliflory, an adaptation that allows the tree to better support the very heavy fruits than if they were produced on the branch ends). We were slightly distracted by some howler monkeys moving through the trees in the distance as we learned about how the plants are grown IN the rainforest, rather than in place of it like many tropical crops, so cacao production actually conserves native habitat and promotes biodiversity.  As we walked to another area along the trail, we took a wide berth around a small fer de lance, the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica, curled up at the edge of the path. Then Juan brought us a mature pod, and Nancy got to crack open the thick shell by knocking it repeatedly on a hard tree stump. It broke open nicely to reveal the numerous seeds surrounded by viscous white pulp. Everyone got to taste the sweet white part covering the seeds, spitting out the whole seed without chewing it (too bitter).  We walked a little further on the trail to go under a tent to learn about the process of fermenting and drying seeds on a big tray. The seeds are fermented with naturally-occurring yeasts and fungi for four or five days to kill the embryo, then they are spread out to dry in the sun (or in mechanized dryers in commercial production). We were each given a mostly dry seed to try to peel and eat the interior.  As we continued our walk on the trail Hillary told us about the fungal disease that decimated the cacao industry in Central America, pointing out the black infected pods on the nearby trees. The fruit-infecting fungus Moniliophthora roreri has seriously affected commercial production because fungicides aren’t practical to control it and there are no resistant cultivars yet. Because of this most of the world’s commercial chocolate is now supplied by several African countries and Malaysia.

From there we went inside the covered pavilion to sit down on the 2 rows of wooden benches to learn about cacao and chocolate. We learned why the Spaniards were not interested in the chocolate drink called chocolatl (in Aztec) or cacagua (in Mayan) (partly because it was too hot and spicy as it was prepared with no sugar and lots of chile pepper and black pepper, and partly for cultural reasons), and how it is transformed into chocolate. To make the seeds palatable they are roasted (here in a skillet over the fire) for about 25-30 minutes over low heat. The cooked beans now taste like chocolate, and we got to taste them, peeling the toasted seeds to get to the interior that easily crumbles into small pieces called cocoa nibs. Juan demonstrated how the peeled, roasted seeds were traditionally ground on a metate (a stone mortar with a smooth depression or bowl worn into the upper surface) made of volcanic rock and then invited people up to take a short turn pushing a heavy rock around on the cacao nibs in the metate, grinding them into very coarse pieces. Then he added sugar and cinnamon and scooped the mixture into a metal grinder. Hillary turned the crank for a while as finely ground cacao spilled out the bottom into a bowl, then Juan took over to finish the task. We were each given a spoonful of the crumbly mixture to press together in our hand to make a paste or cake – and then sample it.

Then he demonstrated how chocolate drink would traditionally be prepared from the ground cacao and water by pouring the hot liquid from gourd to gourd from a height in order to introduce air into it. While he did that, Hillary showed how they could also use a hand mixer, rubbing the stick with little prongs on the end vigorously between the palms to whirl the liquid and create a froth. Juan then ladled up the finished product into small decorative clay cups for everyone to taste. They suggested trying it plain first, then adding vanilla for a few sips, and then adding your choice of additional ingredients: red chile powder, ground nutmeg, ground black pepper, or corn starch to thicken it. As we were doing this an agouti (a large, brown rodent) walked by in the clearing beyond the pavilion.

Next the presentation focused on making chocolate from the ground cacao, with Hillary telling the group about how cacao can be processed in different ways. Next we were given samples of the conched liquid chocolate put onto a spoon for tasting – now distracted by howler monkeys moving around in the trees above – and then small pieces of milk and dark chocolate to compare the different end products.

As we headed back down the trail through the rainforest we encountered a tinamou, a heavy, chicken-sized ground nesting bird common in this area. We only stopped a few times to look at a few things briefly on the way back, and were pleased to see some bits of blue in the sky up ahead. Crossing the suspension bridge, a pair of red-lored parrots flew overhead as we stopped to view the iguana again. There was a small chestnut-sided warbler, a migratory species that will return to North America when winter ends up there, flitting in the trees not too far from the sloth, which was now an inert mass of fur up in a distant tree. We continued on back across the bridge, and sat for a while in the shelter on the other side as Margherita told us about the inga tree, and showed us one of the large leaves with distinctive flanges along the central rachis of the compound leaf that looks nothing like the typical legume leaf in the subfamily Mimosoideae. Finally we headed back to reception where we sat around for a little while as dusk arrived, then walked back along the concrete path to where Edgar was waiting in the van in the gravel parking lot.

It was starting to get dark when we departed a little before 5:30, got back to the hotel about 10 minutes later with time to relax until dinner at 7:00. After the dinner of rice, white beans, meatballs in tomato sauce, pan-fried fish, and mixed carrots, chayote and red peppers, plus salad and pineapple upside-down cake for dessert, Bev and Joanne headed off to their rooms, while the rest of us went on an informal night walk. It started out slow, with just a couple of different types of katydids, but soon we found a red-eyed leaf frog, then an anole, and a couple crickets. We continued slowly walking toward the road, inspecting the foliage as we went and finding lots more katydids and crickets, and a very long, thin snake (maybe a blunt-headed tree snake). We saw a very cryptic green walking stick and another type of frog. Kathy headed back as when we got to the gate and crossed the road to check out the garden on the other side. We saw another anole, a lot of large brown and tan orthopterans with extremely long antennae, and a couple more frogs. By 9:15 we weren’t finding much more, so said goodnight to Margherita whose room was over on this side of the road, and Susan and Nancy returned to the Lodge for the night in the mild night air. Once again the insects and frogs serenaded us to sleep – along with the dull roar of the river rushing by – this time without the sound of rain added in.

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