By: Erin Raub
Travel back in time to pre-Columbian Costa Rica: when people lived off the land, when dense forest stretched for as far as the eye could see, and when houses were constructed of cane and had thatched roofing. Welcome to the world of the Bribri and Cabécar peoples, two of Costa Rica's proud indigenous communities who still observe many of their ancestors' great traditions.
In contrast to the neighboring countries of Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica has a very small indigenous influence, accounting for only 1.7% of the nation's total population. In colonial times, the indigenous tribes of the southern Caribbean had little contact with the Spanish, and their seclusion continued after Costa Rica earned its independence in 1821. In 1977, the Indigenous Act guaranteed their rights, granting Costa Rica's native groups exclusive land rights and sovereignty over their own communities.
Today, the Bribri and Cabécar communities dominate the Puerto Viejo and Cahuita area, and most of the region's indigenous live in the Bribri Indigenous Reserve, the Talamanca-Cabécar Indigenous Reserve, and the Kèköldi Indigenous Reserve, which is home to an offshoot of the Bribri people. With an estimated population of 10,000-35,000, the Bribri are Costa Rica's largest indigenous group, while the Cabécar are considered the most insular.
A trip to any one of the southern Caribbean's three reserves offers insight into customary ways of life, as visitors are invited to tour the communities, talk with their residents, hike through virgin forests, and discover the myriad uses of medicinal plants. Guided tours to the Bribri Reserve often include a hike to the spectacular Volio Waterfall, while the Kèköldi Indigenous Reserve features an important conservation effort dedicated to the preservation of the green iguana.
Whether you have an insatiable sweet tooth or an appetite for culture, the southern Caribbean's chocolate tours are right up your alley. Cacao holds a special and sacred significance for Costa Rica's southern indigenous groups, and chocolate tours introduce guests to the cocoa bean's history and its links to the nation's native cultures. You'll follow the journey of this sweet fruit as it makes its transformation from tiny seedling to the world's most beloved dessert – taste-testing required!
Most chocolate tours around Puerto Viejo and Cahuita focus on the Bribri tribe, the closest and most accessible indigenous culture in the region. The Bribri traditionally used cacao in three ways: to purify, to heal and to drink. Today, the sacred bean is reserved mostly for its medicinal uses and luscious flavor. The plant's healing properties are many, and the Bribri are experts at extracting every possible use, such as preparing a cocoa-cinnamon concoction to treat fevers or massaging cocoa butter into dry or irritated skin.
If you come for the treats, then the highlight of any chocolate tour will be sampling various homemade chocolate preparations and creating your very own bar of chocolate. You'll start by grinding raw, dried cocoa beans into a coarse powder, similar in texture to coffee grounds. Add water or milk, sugar and your choice of additive – choose from coconut, cinnamon, vanilla extract, hot pepper and many more. Form the thick paste into a bar, and then sample your creation. Voilà, you've become a chocolate artisan!
There are three main chocolate tour destinations in the Puerto Viejo and Cahuita areas:
Bribri Indigenous Reserve: This 5-6 hour tour takes you into the heart of Bribri territory. Begin your day with a visit to a traditional home, then transition into a medicinal plant tour, a waterfall hike, and a delicious, mostly organic lunch. You'll save the best for last – dessert at the renowned Chocolate House, the home and workplace of a Bribri cacao expert. (Bribri. Tours via local travel companies.)
Cacao Trails: This private park is home to an old cocoa plantation, beautiful canals and an Indigenous Museum. A chocolate tour blends local cacao history with a visit to a reproduction teepee known as a Ú SULE, which is home to regional artifacts and interesting exhibits. A small cocoa mill remains on the property, and provides all the tools necessary to create your dream bar of chocolate. (Puerto Viejo. Telephone: 2756-8186)
Chocorart: Owned by a Swiss couple, this organic chocolate farm utilizes the traditions and methods of the ancient Mayans. Here you'll discover how cacao is planted, cultivated, harvested and processed into the sweet treat we know as chocolate. The tour ends with a sampling of the plantation's organic desserts, which incorporate exotic flavors like ginger, hot pepper and local nuts. (Puerto Viejo. Telephone: 2750-0075)