Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 7: Taste Testing at Finca la Isla Botanical Garden

Destination: Puerto Viejo

We had breakfast this morning at Bread & Chocolate, another favorite breakfast spot in Puerto Viejo. Almost everything there is homemade, from the bread to the jelly, and my veggie sandwich -- avocado, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, bean sprouts and homemade mayonnaise on homemade rye bread -- should just be called "the best way to begin your day." After topping it off with a strong double espresso, I was ready to go.

Finca la Isla Botanical Garden is an example of permaculture, a word derived from "permanent agriculture". This movement encourages people to create self-sufficient gardens of symbiotic plant life. This particular garden was created in 1987, and its owners raise ornamental plants, pepper, tropical fruits and vegetables, spices and other edible plants.

We began our tour in the bromeliad garden, where hundreds of developing plants covered the tables and ground. Red bromeliads, carnivorous plants and cocoa trees lined the small enclosure. As our guide pointed out several species, he explained that Finca la Isla covers approximately 54 acres, though fewer than nine are open to the public.

I glanced up at the sky -- cloudy but not yet threatening rain -- as we walked out into the garden's open grounds. Old cocoa trees painted the landscape, and we learned that the land had once been an old cocoa plantation. In the 1960's, black pod disease -- an arboreal disease that attacks cocoa pods -- arrived to Costa Rica, and many cocoa farmers abandoned their crop for more profitable ones such as banana.

As we walked over rustic trails, we sniffed, tasted and admired several of the garden's more colorful and tasty offerings. Ginger, turmeric and Thai ginger were the day's first flavors, and I savored spicy root shavings as we walked. We stopped in front of an aromatic orchid plant, which our guide explained was the producer of the vanilla bean. When commercially grown, the plants must be hand pollinated, an expensive but worthwhile process.

Crouching down, we spotted the Talamanca dart frog, a poison frog that lives only in the Talamanca mountains. It was the first time I had seen one in the wild, and I was surprised to see that it was brown and camouflaged, unlike most of Costa Rica's showy dart frogs.

In fact, strawberry and blue jeans dart frogs were hopping all around the garden's grounds, intermixed with the occasional black and green dart frog. As a frog lover, I was delighted to match the colorful specimens to their loud forest song.

Moving forward, we approached the pepper plant. Small, green beads hung in fresh, aromatic bunches. To create black pepper, the seeds are removed from the plant while green, and then dried and peeled.

To cultivate white pepper, the seeds are allowed to dry while on the plant, where their skin falls off naturally. We bit into the fresh, green peppercorns, spitting out the seeds as soon as the spicy taste hit our pallets. It was delicious, and our guide smiled, sharing his recipe for green pepper beef.

The rest of our hike brought many other interesting sights, textures and smells: we tested out a rubber tree, where a quick ding yielded sap that dried into an incredible, stretchy rubber within minutes.

We sniffed a nutmeg fruit, where I learned that the spice mace is actually the fiber surrounding the nutmeg seed. We sampled a Gross Michelle banana, the species cultivated before Costa Rica's current favorite. And we scratched at a cola nut, an original ingredient in Coca Cola, and I realized that it did, indeed, smell very much like Coke.

Circling back around toward our car, we spotted many different poison dart frogs and even a juvenile bullfrog. Just as we got under shelter, the skies opened up and the day's heavy rains began. Before leaving, we sat for a while longer, watching as the colorful frogs enjoyed their afternoon's refreshing shower.

Day 7: Taste Testing at Finca la Isla Botanical Garden in Pictures