People often say that monkeys imitate humans, but in the history of chocolate production, it may be more apt to say that humans imitate monkeys; humans first noticed cacao beans because monkeys would suck on them and then spit them on the ground. This is only a fraction of the education and information available at TirimbinaRainforestCenter near La Virgen de Sarapiquí, in northern Costa Rica.
Protecting 345 hectares of mid-elevation forest with nine kilometers of trails, the internationally recognized, nonprofit center is situated within rain forest and river environments.
Several interesting educational tours are offered for tourists visiting for the day or staying overnight at the center’s Tirimbina Lodge.
Eco-tours include bird, frog, bat and nightlife tours, in addition to the popular chocolate tour, in which employees demonstrate the entire process of making chocolate and allow visitors to taste different kinds of the sweet treat.
The path to the chocolate station crosses over two suspension bridges, one swaying high above a wide river and the other winding through the treetops, bringing tourists even closer to the monkeys scurrying among the branches, where bats cling to the dark undersides of trees and lethargic sloths can be spotted by fortunate visitors.
The chocolate-making station demonstrates all the steps involved in producing chocolate, starting with a tour of the cacao tree plantation and including a lesson on the history and evolution of the cacao bean and how it became as popular as it is today.
Chocolate expert Wendy Morera explains why Christopher Columbus disliked chocolate upon his arrival in the New World, while offering guests a taste.
“Because there was no sugar, the taste was very bitter, and Columbus felt it had no value,” Morera says, as her audience purses their lips upon tasting the liquid chocolate. “(The Spaniards) also didn’t like the look or the name of cacao, because it made them think of human waste.” (Caca is Spanish for “poop.”) Morera goes on to explain that with the arrival of sugar years later, the perception of chocolate changed. Eventually, it became such a prestigious beverage that some European kings had cups made of solid gold only for drinking chocolate, and would consume it as many as 13 times per day, she says. This explanation is accompanied by the tasting of various delicious chocolates, and Morera also distributes some cacao beans for the visitors to take home.
Tirimbina provides educational tourism on several levels through single- or multi-day eco-education programs serving students, teachers and professors, researchers, tourists or special interest groups. According to tour guide Willy Aguilar, the number of national and international school groups Tirimbina receives is growing steadily.
Aguilar has worked at Tirimbina for four years and says he still loves seeing the reactions of the different tour groups. As polite and friendly as he is knowledgeable, Aguilar could easily write a book with the wealth of information he provides visitors. His ability to spot and name the animals in the forest comes in handy when some visitors might not differentiate the tail of a monkey from a hanging branch.
Tirimbina’s educational programs are catered to the needs of different groups, ranging from elementary school children to scientists. Researchers and higher-education students can pursue extensive research projects on the property, either under selfdirection or with the guidance of Tirimbina’s naturalists.
The center also runs a free program for local children, offering transportation, lunch, educational materials and educators for a whole day. In 2007, more than 32 local schools participated in environmental education programs at Tirimbina, and enrollment continues to climb each year. During these visits, children learn about conservation, management of natural resources and the fragile ecosystem.
For guests staying overnight, Tirimbina Lodge offers 15 comfortable rooms situated near the SarapiquíRiver and offering one double or two single beds, air-conditioning, private bathrooms with hot water, phone and wireless Internet. The center also has a souvenir store offering assorted gifts and organic chocolate bars made locally by the Asociación de Mujeres Amazilia del Caribe, a group of women from the Caribbean-slope community of Pueblo Nuevo de Guácimo.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Tirimbina RainforestCenter’s main entrance is 1.6 km north of the town of La Virgen de Sarapiquí.
Tour costs are $19 for the Rainforest Nightwalk, Bat Program and Frog Tour, $20 for the Chocolate Tour and $24 for the Bird-Watching Tour. Special rates are offered for children, students and groups.
Rates at Tirimbina Lodge are $69 per night, single or double, including taxes and breakfast, plus $15 for each additional guest. For groups who wish to stay for longer periods, the Tirimbina field station costs $20 per person, per night, or $45 including breakfast, lunch, dinner and tours.
For information, call 2761-1579 or 2761-0055, or visit www.tirimbina.org.