After breakfast, we left Turtle Beach Lodge by boat. We still had two hours of “route” to travel through the canals, lagoons and rivers of Tortuguero, surrounded by a dark and enchanting jungle. It goes without saying that we saw animals, especially birds including anhingas, snowy egrets, great egrets, American stilts and much more.
At the end of Canal Negro, where the water is particularly shallow, we ran into trouble. The two boats ahead of us were stuck in the mud and had to pole themselves through. Well, maybec they’d cleared a passage for us, but no, we also got stuck! One of the travelers suggested that draws straws to see who would be thrown overboard to lighten the boat, but finally our captain, Augusto, managed to get us unstuck with a pole of his own, so no one ended up in the water!
We landed at Caño Blanco where our driver, Jorge, and our bus were waiting for us, so we got started fairly quickly. We stopped in a banana plantation to see how bananas are harvested and shipped. We found that clusters of green bananas are cut and attached single file to a cord with twenty others, then pulled to the packing plant by an employee called a mule. Apparently that is very hard on the back! At the packing plant, other employees cut the bunches into the bunches of 5 to 6 bananas we find in stores back home. Any bunches with less than perfect fruit are immediately discarded onto a separate belt from where they are dumped straight into a truck: they’ll be used for prepared foods, animal fodder and other uses. Top quality bunches continue on: they are placed in a large basin of water to clean them and remove any unwanted pests, then they float on to the next step. Here packers gently place them in boxes that will shipped to Moín, a nearby port, then loaded onto ships. These boxes will spend two weeks boat before arriving in North Americans stores during which time they ripen fully.
After this, I led the group to the banana plantation itself and stopped the group in front of a fruiting banana (Musa x paradisiaca). I explained that the banana is not a tree but a herb. Its trunk (in fact, a “pseudostem”) is not made of wood, but instead of leaf bases wrapped tightly together. The mother plant produces a single huge cluster of bananas weighing 30-50 kg (65-110 pounds). Female flowers are borne in rows starting at the top of the cluster and are easily recognized because there is an ovary already shaped like small banana at their base. Female flowers are “parthenogenic”, that is they produce fruit without pollination and even contains no viable seed. Thus, the banana workers suppress the male flowers before they even form. They would normally form at the lower end of the cluster, but are of absolutely no use and leaving them on the plant to grow would simply sap its energy. After the single cluster is harvested, the mother plant dies and is replaced by one of her babies.
After the banana tour, we took a gravel road then asphalt road (at last!) to the main highway, #132, but we quickly bifurcated towards Sarapiqui, again on a secondary but at least paved road.
Just before entering the village itself, we stopped at Palmito Luz Maria, a heart of palm farm. Here we first enjoyed a delicious meal of palm heart in the farm’s small restaurant : the drink, the salad, the main meal (lasagna) and even the desserts (pancakes and cakes) were all made from fresh palm hearts! Delicious! All around the restaurant were peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), the main palm used for palm heart in Costa Rica. The fruit, by the way, sort of orange balls, are also edible and are called palm peaches, although they look nothing and taste nothing like peaches. To make heart of palm, a young peach palm is cut and its centre is extracted, thus giving the “heart”. Luz Maria, the farm’s owner, gave us an excellent demonstration of how this is done.
Afterwards we crossed the town of Sarapiqui and stopped at Finca Corsicana, a huge pineapple farm. The pineapple (Ananas comosus), of the Bromeliaceae family, is an herb that grows on the ground. To traveil around the pineapple plantation, we climbed onto a special cart pulled by a tractor. Michael served as a guide and answered our questions about the pineapple production. He was actually very, very funny and we laughed a lot. They treat the entire field with ethylene so that all the pineapples mature at once. By carefully treating fields at chosen dates, they can have fresh pineapples to ship all year long. After that, Michael gave us a tour of the packing plant, then we took us to a restaurant where we had truly fresh pineapple to eat and were able to sip on a piña colada in a hollowed-out pineapple! Very nice!
Leaving the farm, we stopped to photograph howler monkeys, then a sloth, then another sloth: we really seemed to be in sloth country!
At dusk, we went to Tirimbina Biological Reserve where the host, Willy, explained the process of making chocolate, starting with the tree (Theobroma cacao) and its large fruits. Then, in a small room with numerous benches, he showed us all stages of its chocolate making… and at every stage, there was something to smell or taste. To our surprise, we discovered that the flesh around the seeds is delicious. They then dry the seeds, let them ferment, roast them and and grind them into a thick paste chocolate liquor (but it is not alcoholic). From this paste, you can make either a delicious drink or, after heating the liquor and adding a few ingredients, chocolate. Delicious in all its stages and forms!
All that was left to do now was to go to our hotel, Hotel El Bambu in Saraqui, to check in and for dinner. I must confess I went straight to bed after eating: it had been a long day!