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Exploring Canals and Cocoa

Destination: Puerto Viejo, Cahuita

Vincent and I headed out for an early breakfast at Peace & Love, one of Puerto Viejo's most highly recommended breakfast spots. I ordered a huge bowl of fruit, granola and yogurt, while Vincent opted for a typical gallo pinto, or rice and beans. After breakfast we set off for Cacao Trails, one of the area's most popular cocoa tours. Arriving at our destination, we wound through a small botanical garden on the way to reception. The friendly manager greeted us with a smile and prepared us for the tour. We would begin with a canoe trip down the Carbon River, ending at Cahuita National Park. With rain threatening, she sent us on our way.

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Walking through dense jungle on rustic trails, we kept our eyes trained on the forest canopy. As always, Vincent spotted the first animals -- a troop of howler monkeys sitting in the trees -- and began to taunt them with howler hoots. A few howler handfuls of flung dung later (Vincent had really infuriated them), a canoe glided around the corner and our guide pulled up with a smile. We climbed into the small, wobbling boat and set off down the calm river. Jorge, our guide, pointed out the commercial banana plantations on our right, where, much to the displeasure of many, pesticide planes mist twice daily. Cahuita National Park was to our left, where ornamental bananas and other tropical plants grew wild.

Suddenly, big water droplets began hitting the canoe's surface. The large umbrella that we had brought with us was not designed for canoes, and since Vincent had the camera, I was out of luck. As the rain's intensity increased, I pulled my sweatshirt hood over my head and huddled inside its warmth. Our expertly guided canoe drifted by large tree trunks and gently ran aground on river shallows as we watched water birds swoop and fish for food.

Soon, we arrived at the river's end, where it emptied into the ocean and bordered Cahuita National Park. We took a brief walk around the park before boarding the canoe and heading up river. Halfway back to Cacao Trails, we pulled the canoe onto shore and began to hike back to base. Since I was wet and cold, the hike helped to heat me up, but the rains continued. We sloshed through mud and, several times, slipped on slick mud banks. The normally active animals were quiet in the forest, seemingly hiding from the rains.

When we arrived, I ran into the bathroom to ring my clothes out. A bit dryer, we settled down for a warm lunch -- the best remedy to a cold day -- of chicken, rice, plantains and delicious toad water (agua de sapo), a Caribbean lemonade. Warmed and in higher spirits, we trekked out once again, stopping first at the onsite ranarium, which housed several of the region's native poison dart frogs.

Weaving along the trails, we made a quick stop at the medicinal plants garden, where Jorge explained the different uses for dandelion (liver congestion), cinnamon (upset stomach, diabetes), basil (brain health) and a host of other flora I had never seen before.

As the drizzle turned into another downpour, we ducked into a Bribri indigenous structure to take a look around. Clay pottery, some original and others recreations, surrounded us. A sweat tent (DIVA YOK) sat to the right, demonstrating how shamans helped cure their patients with medicinal herbs and good, old-fashioned sweat therapy. Ancient cooking tools and a sample grave completed the Indigenous Museum exhibit, and we set out for the chocolate part of our cocoa tour. Arriving at the chocolate museum, Jorge started by grinding roasted cocoa beans. When a fine powder was achieved, he mixed in powdered and fresh milk, cane sugar and a bit of cinnamon, patting it down into a thick paste.

Cutting off big chunks, he offered us the fresh chocolate and Vincent and I happily dug in -- it was delicious, as only very fresh, handmade goods can be. Our tour finished, we headed back to our car and then straight to Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge, our evening's luxurious hotel. I dove into the hottest shower I could bear, but even with the heat, I shivered all afternoon and through dinner. When I arrived home that night, I piled all available blankets onto the bed climbed under, finally falling asleep in their warmth.

Exploring Canals and Cocoa in Pictures

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