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Day 4: Three of Puerto Viejo's Best Sights

Destination: Puerto Viejo, Cahuita

Waking to cloudy skies but no rain, I wearily pulled myself out of bed. Three days of rainy weather had taken their toll on my spirits, and I felt thankful that all of our activities had been land-based. Today offered more fun: Vincent and I were to take the 3-in-1 Puerto Viejo tour, a comprehensive tour featuring culture (Bribri chocolate tour), ecotourism (Sloth Sanctuary) and conservation (Cahuita National Park).

Our ride arrived a 9 a.m. sharp. We met Paola, our guide, and proceeded to the Chocolate House. Though this would be our second visit, I was excited to purchase more chocolate (yum!) and learn a bit more about the chocolate-making process. Happily, Dona Petronela remembered us and decided to give us a personal tour of her home. We walked around her numerous fire pits, snacked on fresh chestnuts and munched on raw cocoa beans.

Paola explained that the Bribri used cocoa in three ways: as purification, as a medicine and as a drink. We had already learned about cocoa's purifying and medicinal properties, and now Paola explained a bit about its roll as a sacred drink.

In the past, only priests and shamans could drink the cocoa mixture, which was made with ground cocoa bean, chili pepper, vanilla and cinnamon (no sugar). These religious leaders used cocoa as a vehicle for spiritual experiences, but on special, usually religious occasions, everyone could enjoy it.

After finishing up at the Chocolate House, we got back in the car and drove northeast to Aviarios del Caribe, Costa Rica's only sloth sanctuary. The organization began its work in 1992, when they rescued Buttercup, a three-toed sloth. Since then, the sanctuary, run by an American family, has rescued and rehabilitated more than 30 two and three-toed sloths.

Though they may similar, two-toed sloths are as related to three-toed sloths as they are to anteaters and armadillos. In other words, armadillos, anteaters, two-toed sloths and three-toed sloths all belong to the same order, but all belong to different families.

Between 20 million and 8,000 years ago, the modern sloth's ancestor, the giant ground sloth, roamed the earth. These elephant-sized sloths were one of the largest animals on the planet, weighing approximately five tons (10,000 pounds) each. Today's sloths, on the other hand, are much smaller, typically weighing 7-20 pounds each.

We began our tour with a quick video and then visited six of the sanctuary's adult sloths. Our guide explained that adult sloths are not very social animals, and that we could approach them, but should not pet or touch them. Nonetheless, the sloths were very sweet and inquisitive, climbing toward us for close-up interaction.

After spending too few moments with the furry creatures -- I could easily spend hours watching their leisurely movements -- we moved on to visit with the sloth babies. Sitting in open carriers on tables, baby two- and three-toed sloths cuddled each other and their human companions, munching on proffered snacks and playing with tickling fingers.

We all played with the tiny babies while learning about the sanctuary's rehabilitation efforts -- when baby sloths are found abandoned in the wild, they are virtually without natural defenses. For example, if their mothers do not teach them what to eat (many plants are poisonous to sloths), they will eat anything and sicken or die. The sanctuary strives to rescue defenseless babies and to teach them how to survive on their own.

Unfortunately, the grumpy sky had opened with a torrential downpour, and we could not go on the sanctuary's canoe trip. Instead, we hopped in the car and drove to Cahuita National Park. Unlike other national parks, Cahuita is partially administered by its neighboring town and partly by the national government.

Almost as soon as we stepped onto the path, we spotted a 3-toed sloth carrying a baby on her stomach. Continuing on, Paola pointed out a sea almond tree; boiling their leaves into a tea is said to help with rashes. Because of all the rain, the park's sandy path was covered in fallen branches and trees. Armies of leaf-cutter ants trooped along the ground, carrying leaf cuttings to their subterranean nest. Paola told us that leaf-cutter nests are full of formic acid, which doubles as an excellent natural mosquito repellent.

Moving on, Paola pointed out a gigantic termite nest that measured at least 18 inches in width. Scratching it open with a stick, she told us that survivalists rely on termites for four things: to eat as a good source of protein, to burn the nest as a natural mosquito repellent, to burn the nest to clean an infection from swamp bacteria and to use the nest as fish bait. To prove her first point, Paola grabbed a few termites, popped them in her mouth and declared that they tasted like ginger. Offering us a taste, Vincent and I did the (previously) unthinkable: we each ate a termite. That's right, I ate a termite. And it did, indeed, taste like just like ginger.

A A troop of howler monkeys was making a fuss off in the distance. Howler monkeys howl for three reasons: to know where other groups are, when it's raining, and when they hope to scare predators away. When they feel threatened and a predator doesn't respond to their howls, howler monkeys generally respond by first throwing nuts, then urinating and finally by throwing their own feces. Paola explained to us that, in order to stop howler monkeys from throwing feces, pick up a dropping in a leaf and show it to them -- they are apparently very hygienic monkeys, and the thought of their own feces is revolting to them.

After we completed our Cahuita National Park hike, we stopped for a filling and delicious lunch: coconut chicken, Caribbean rice and beans, sweet plantains and a natural watermelon drink. An hour later, we were back in Puerto Viejo, watching the surfers ride gargantuan waves on a choppy sea.

Day 4: Three of Puerto Viejo's Best Sights in Pictures