Chocolate & Crocodiles

Most of us managed to escape the chilly weather in the US to arrive in Costa Rica, but one person had to cancel due to injury and two others are still hoping to join the tour in two days after their airport was closed because of ice. A storm moving through the area here made it excessively windy, with some rain, so we weren’t able to enjoy the beautiful gardens behind the hotel as much as if the weather had been pleasant.

Scenes in the garden at Hotel Bougainvillea.

Scenes in the garden at Hotel Bougainvillea.

Our first stop this morning was at Sibu Chocolates in the greater San Jose area where co-owner Julio greeted us as we got off the bus, and then co-owner George welcomed everyone into the main building. We sat at several tables where small wooden dishes with a careful arrangement of chocolates were placed at each seat. Then the two owners gave an excellent presentation on the history of chocolate, from its initial consumption as a bitter beverage by the indigenous cultures, exportation to the Spanish aristocracy, its spread through Europe and technological developments in commercial manufacturing, its importance during the two World Wars, and the eventual adoption by the general public as an affordable treat, to the present focus on artisanal chocolates – stopping periodically to sample their chocolates that demonstrated the different styles and tastes of chocolates through its evolution. Afterwards there was time to shop for bars or boxes of chocolates to try to take home (we’ll see who can resist eating them before they leave the country!), enjoy some coffee and cookies, and look around the small gardens filled with bromeliads and flowers.

The group learning about chocolate (L); hot chocolate (LC) and cacao pods (RC) and George passing out samples (R).

The group learning about chocolate (L); hot chocolate (LC) and cacao pods (RC) and George passing out samples (R).

It was hot and steamy when we got to the highway crossing over the Tarcoles River a little before noon, where we made a stop to use the bathrooms before walking across the bridge in the hot sun to see the crocodiles on the sand banks of the river below. These large, primitive reptiles congregate in this area partly because of the physical characteristics of the brackish river at this point and because people have been feeding them regularly, keeping their populations higher than they would be naturally. It was a convenient opportunity to easily observe the animals from a safe distance.  Our guide Margherita filled us in on a few facts about these carnivorous animals that can grow up to 18 feet long and how they differ from caimans (smaller and prefer fresh water).

Crocodiles in the Tarcoles River.

Crocodiles in the Tarcoles River.

As we drove from the crowded urban areas of the Central Valley towards the Pacific coast we descended in elevation, going from the moister highlands toward the western part of the county whose dominant vegetation ecosystem is tropical dry forest. This ecosystem is characterized by distinct wet and dry seasons, and many of the plants have adapted to the six months or so without water by shedding their leaves. Many of these deciduous trees bloom before they produce a new set of leaves at the onset of the wet season, so their flowers are much more conspicuous than if they were mixed in with the foliage. There were golden shower (Cassia fistula) with a canopy covered with pendant, pale yellow-gold blossoms and pink acacia (Gliricidia sepium), then later pink poui or pink trumpet tree (Tabebuia rosea) and yellow poui (T. ochracea) with their large, trumpet-shaped flowers. After crossing the Tarcoles River, and especially at the Rainforest Adventures site along the edge of Carrara National Park near Jaco, we saw lots of yellow Schizolobium parahyba (called gallinazo in Spanish) with their erect terminal panicles of many small yellow flowers just starting to open, making those trees noticeable among the mainly green trees on the slopes.

Yellow-flowering trees in the forest (L and C); infloresences of Schizolobium parahyba (R).

Yellow-flowering trees in the forest (L and C); infloresences of Schizolobium parahyba (R).

After lunch and an aerial tram ride at Rainforest Adventures, where we boarded gondolas to quietly glide up from the forest floor to view the diversity of trees from within and above the forest canopy, our guide pointed out three tent-making bats roosting on the underside of a fan palm leaf. These bats, characterized by two prominent white stripes on the face and a leaf-nose, eat primarily fruit, but also some insects. They bite the top of the leaf so that it droops, creating a more protected spot where they can hang out during the day. As we walked a short loop trail through the forest we saw many palm leaves that had been cut by tent-making bats, but didn’t see any more of the little animals using the shelters.

Tent-making bats roosting under palm leaves (L), tent-making bats Uroderma bilobatum (C), and upper surface of palm leaf chewed by bats to create roost (R).

Tent-making bats roosting under palm leaves (L), tent-making bats Uroderma bilobatum (C), and upper surface of palm leaf chewed by bats to create roost (R).