Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 4: Tirimbina Chocolate Tour and Bat Program

Destination: Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui

As I drove to Tirimbina Rainforest Center for an 8 a.m. chocolate tour, I could think of few better ways to start the day. I was about to discover the secrets behind one of the world's most tantalizing treats -- a food rich in both flavor in history.

Tirimbina, which protects more than 890 acres of rainforest, offers a variety of tours as well as research opportunities, internships and workshops. The nonprofit center has been declared a national wildlife refuge and promotes sustainable ecotourism with its educational tours and programs.

The Chocolate Tour is one of the center's newest and most popular tours. It reveals the natural history of this ancient food and the entire chocolate-making process, from harvest to the ultimate tasting of cocoa and organic chocolate in its purest form. We first explored a former cacao plantation, where we tasted the sweet pulp of the fleshy cacao fruit.

Using some of the same tools as the Maya and Aztecs, workers fermented the cacao beans, dried and roasted them, and then crushed them into a fine cocoa powder. Sugar, cinnamon and chili pepper were added to create a savory hot cocoa blend. We then sampled dark and milk chocolate, the delectable flavors unlike any store-bought variety.

That evening I returned for Tirimbina's evening bat program, which began with a 30-minute presentation on general bat information. I learned that these highly evolved creatures, which account for more than 50% of Costa Rica's total mammal population, play an important role as pollinators in the ecosystem. Many plants depend completely on bats for seed dispersal.

Costa Rica has more than 100 species of bats, and 70 of those species can be found at Tirimbina Rainforest Center. While some bats eat insects or feast on blood, most species feed primarily on fruit, pollen and nectar.

With the aid of humane nets, the staff had captured a large and very aggressive false vampire bat, along with a more docile common tent-making bat. Wearing thick leather gloves, our guide gently held each flying mammal so that we could closely observe their wings and odd little faces. The false vampire bat, with its menacing teeth, was a rare find, and we were all grateful to learn about these remarkable animals.

This was my last evening at Selva Verde Lodge, and I spent the afternoon exploring its lush botanical gardens and self-guided trails. Everywhere I looked, I saw vibrant green and black poison dart frogs.

I came to differentiate their call from that of the strawberry dart frog, and soon became an expert in finding their hideouts. While a guide is always helpful in spotting elusive animals, the wildlife at Selva Verde Lodge was so prolific (snakes, frogs, monkeys and toucans) that even amateurs can feel like professional biologists in a primeval world.

Day 4: Tirimbina Chocolate Tour and Bat Program in Pictures

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