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The Tropical Gardens of Heliconia Island

Destination: Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui

Continuing my theme of culinary tours, I decided to pay a visit to one of Puerto Viejo's newest gastronomic attractions -- the Black Pepper Tour. Located in Rancho Chilamate less than six miles outside of town, the tour includes a sampling of black pepper-infused ice cream and lunch prepared with heaps of the savory spice.

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Following signs from the main highway, I showed up unannounced at the black pepper farm of Don Carlos. I introduced myself to the hard-working family patriarch, who offered to give me a personal tour of the farm after he finished chasing down a few stubborn pigs. As I watched Carlos and his wife herd chickens into a makeshift coop, I realized how much I appreciate Mom and Pop operations. This was a far cry from the polished affairs catering to bus loads of tourists, and I loved every minute of it.

Carlos assured me that with prior reservation, I would have been greeted by the farm's bilingual guide. Instead, I practiced my Spanish as Carlos and I toured the trails, tasting the zesty green pepper berries which would later be harvested and dried. Native to southern India, black pepper plants were introduced to the Sarapiqui region in the late 1970's and have flourished ever since.

I learned when and how the unripe berries are dried to make peppercorns, which are then sold whole or coarsely-ground. This well-known seasoning has played a vital role in culinary history. Pepper was once so valuable that it was used as currency, and it was considered a spice exclusively for the rich. Luckily, times have changed, and small-scale growers like Carlos allow glimpses into the history and future of the black pepper trade. The slow-cooked peppered steak lunch was worth the trip alone, but the company of Don Carlos and his family made this home-spun tour one of the most interesting in my travels.

My destination for the evening was Heliconia Island, a tour de force in tropical gardening situated 15 minutes south of Puerto Viejo. Lovingly run by Dutch couple Henk and Carolien, the five-acre island is lush with more than 70 species of heliconia, as well as gingers, bromeliads and ornamental plants. The island was created by a split in the Puerto Viejo River and is only accessible via a wooden footbridge.

I parked my car at the base of the bridge, eager to explore this sanctuary of peace and beauty. Carolien and Henk, along with their three playful dogs, escorted me on a garden tour. We walked under towering bamboo groves and giant ferns, and admired the brilliant colors of each heliconia and orchid. Some had funny names like sexy scarlet and Barnum and Bailey's, and each revealed some sort of special adaptation. Carolien pointed out an array of unusual species native to other tropical countries and seldom seen in Costa Rica.

The couple also runs a newly-built bed and breakfast on the island. I slept in one of the four spacious suites, each with views of the gardens. The rooms featured unique bamboo furniture, rustic stone floors, A/C, orthopedic mattresses and super hot showers.

We settled in for a hot cup of tea just as the afternoon rains began. From their river-view restaurant, we watched honeycreepers, tanagers, clay-colored robins and iguanas nibble on bananas left on wooden platforms. I watched the river rise slightly as the rain saturated the island, producing that fresh earthy scent that I love so much.

After a delicious dinner (prepared on request by Carolien), we all decided to turn in early. We joked about how our sleeping patterns have altered since moving to Costa Rica, a country with no daylight savings. The sun always rises and sets at 6, so 9 p.m. often feels much later than it is. I listened to the hum of frogs and other night creatures as I walked back to my room where the soft patter of rain lulled me to sleep.

The Tropical Gardens of Heliconia Island in Pictures

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