Cacao Trails: A Walk Through the Natural History of the Caribbean
When Wolfgang Bissinger decided to devote himself to a project that was from his heart, he didn’t know how all encompassing the task would be. After purchasing 10 hectares of land abutting Cahuita National Park on the southern Caribbean coast, he began the formidable task of nurturing his vision into reality. Two years and $330,000 later, in December, Cacao Trails opened to the public. It is still a well kept secret, and the trails meandering through the vast property are tranquil and serene, unencumbered by the hordes of tourists clogging other, more well-known attractions.
On the eight hectares comprising the public tour, Bissinger has planted and cultivated more than 350 varieties of local plant life.
This is a one-stop learning experience where the rich and interesting plant and wildlife of the area is available for viewing and education purposes. Many of the plants are marked with their common and botanical names so that wanderers can take their time enjoying the ambience while learning.
“What this is, more than anything,” says Jean Guirein, general manager of the site, “is an educational experience – to teach people about the everyday foods they eat and the history of the plants.”
Most people don’t know that the word “banana” comes from the Arabic word for “finger,” for instance, or that vanilla is the only edible orchid, or that iguanas drop 50-150 eggs at a time, or that the male howler monkey may kill babies of other males if given the chance. These facts and more are abundant at Cacao Trails, and the enthusiastic guides who among them speak five languages love to bring alive the mysteries and history of the region.
The trail begins with a stroll through the front garden, where common bushes and flowers sit prettily, offsetting two lagoons stocked with crocodiles and their food, a tropical fish called tilapia. The first animal display sits behind protected meshwork containing varieties of poultry, such as Japanese hens. This short walk is just an appetizer of what is to come.
The property is divided into several sections. The first garden, a special favorite of Bissinger’s, is the Orchid Garden. More than two dozen varieties of the bromeliads are on display here and, with luck, one of the orchids will be in bloom, a rare and delicate flower that normally lasts no more than a week.
A section for medicinal and herbal plants has also been cultivated. Costa Rica, particularly the Caribbean coast, has a dizzying variety of medicinal plants that many locals still use to heal ailments. Knowing how to recognize the plants and their uses is a valuable introduction to life in the tropics. Markers telling the story of the plants and their benefits make this portion of the garden a definite winner.
Plants are not the only focus of Cacao Trails. A serpentarium housing several local varieties of snakes is included on the tour.
Here visitors can see boa constrictors, the dreaded fer-de-lance and the deadly yellow eyelash viper, as well as innocuous varieties such as the frog snake. Miniature frogs, found in all parts of this lush jungle countryside, are also on display, their neon-colored skin advertising their toxicity.
Two areas of Cacao Trails form perhaps the most unique parts of the attraction. One is the small outdoor Indian History Museum, holding remarkable pottery pieces, some of which were excavated from the Talamanca Mountains, where human inhabitants have lived for thousands of years. These same mountains hid a complete cacao-drying machine that Bissinger brought down, cleaned and polished, and is now on display at the Cacao Museum, the second area providing a unique look at the anthropology of the region.
Cacao, its history, culture and taste, is the raison d’être of the development. Until the 1970s, when monilia pod rot, a fungal disease, brought an end to the thriving cacao industry on the Caribbean coast, cacao had been the region’s main crop and source of income for 100 years.
“Now local people don’t realize it was a complete culture, and know little about it,” says Bissinger, who hopes to provide a place to educate area residents as well as tourists.
To this end, he has invited area schools to bring classes to the property for day trips.
“In the end, this is all for the kids,” says Bissinger, who has organized a one-week boot program for school holidays and is planning a tent camp by the river for overnight stays, as well as children’s classes on the natural history of the region.
The property used to be a cacao farm, and it is a delightful surprise to taste a piece of the delicious chocolate served after each meal. As part of the tour, visitors can see how cacao is processed to produce pure ground chocolate (see box).
There is also a banana plantation, a heliconia garden, an organic farm and a remarkable collection of indigenous but rare trees, such as cotton and teak.
And if all this isn’t enough, a canoe tour along the Río Carbón is also offered. This river, named after the chunks of charcoal that dot its sandy bottom,meanders through Cahuita National Park amidst quiet, uninhabited byways all the way to the Caribbean Sea, where it merges with the deserted beaches unreachable except by foot or boat.
Canoeing quietly down the silent curves of the river is a rare pleasure. Water birds such as egrets, herons and ibis abound.
Freshwater shrimp can be seen jumping up out of the way of the many fish that ply the waters, such as sardines, tarpon, river bass, roncador, guapote and guabina. Monkeys, caimans, coatis, iguanas, pacas, porcupines and sloths live along these banks and can be seen at various times.
Back at the main area, a refreshing, kidney-shaped swimming pool is available for all guests to relax and enjoy. From the sun warmed waters, a view of the tree-lined hills across the way soothes and beckons.
The open-air rancho is also an inviting way to relax and get fortified, before, during or after the tour. This spacious, palm thatched structure can seat up to 200 guests.
Banana stands hang invitingly around the restaurant, and the huge kitchen area gleams in front of the buffet. Breakfast and lunch are available, as well as a refreshing variety of natural drinks.
The lovely tile work in the bathrooms is worth a peek.
“This is the first thing we built,” says Bissinger, who believes clean, spacious facilities are a must. The cool, shady interior of the rancho also houses an inviting boutique, stocked with local crafts, artifacts and souvenirs.
The extensive grounds that form Cacao Trails have been cultivated into an impressive collection of flora and fauna that will only get better with time.
“On a scale of one to 100,” Bissinger says, “we are only a five.”
There is still much to be done and more exciting projects to come. Under construction are a farmhouse to display the farm life of long ago, and a viewing stand to observe the private wildlife sanctuary. Bungalows for overnight guests are also in progress.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of this new project is the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff, who go out of their way to provide quality service and friendly smiles.
Cacao Trails is on the main highway, 10 kilometers south of Cahuita. A tour of the grounds is $20; a guide is $5 extra. A complete day tour, including a canoe trip down the river, a meal and a guide is $47. Area residents who want unlimited access to the grounds and services can purchase memberships in the Pavo Real Club. For more information, call 756-8186.
Chocolate à la Cacao Trails
1/2 kilo pure, ground cacao powder*
225 grams tapa dulce (brown-sugar loaves)
1/2 container (26 oz.) caramelized condensed milk
1/2 can (85 g) evaporated milk
1 small bag peanuts, if desired
Mix together by hand and press into cookie sheet. Keep in fridge and serve cold.
Allow cacao fruit seeds to ferment in a covered box for 4-5 days, turning them twice a day. Then put them in the sun to dry for another 4-5 days. Roast them until the fruit seeds turn black. Remove the shell. Grind the inner cacao seed.
–Recipe by Alexandra Pérez
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