Adventure, Costa Rica, Culture, Latin America, Offbeat, Solo Travel
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The Secret Lives of Costa Rica’s Chocolate Farmers.

chocolate making costa rica, costa rica off the beaten path

An old dug-out wooden canoe waited for me on the banks of Yorkin River. Two cowboy-like young boys, dressed in vests and gum boots, greeted me with wide smiles and is-be-shkena. Dusk was fast approaching, so I had little time to voice my apprehensions. For an hour, we manoeuvred rapids upriver with an old motor and a wooden stick, slowing down to a crawl at narrow bends, tilting almost 60 degrees when sharp rocks rose from the river bed, nothing but dense forests on either side. My pumping adrenalin washed off the nervousness of being somewhere so remote, alone, in a country I had set foot in only two days ago (Read: Costa Rica Wasn’t The Country I Imagined).

Yorkin Costa Rica, indigenous people of costa rica

Maneuvering the rapids upriver!

As night descended and finally on land, I lugged my backpack and followed my new friends into the home of the Bribris – one of the last remaining indigenous communities in Costa Rica. Deep in the rainforest, without electricity or connectivity, far from civilization as we know it.

The boys made way for Don Guillermo, the head of the clan, to receive me. I expected him to show me my room or comment on my long journey from San Jose, but Don Guillermo only asked if I would like some chocolate. They were cacao farmers after all!

I spent the evening ‘drinking’ chocolate – natural, dark, bitter, without milk or sugar, yet delicious – with Don Guillermo and his big family, discovering that Panama was a just swim away on the other side of the river, completely unaware of my bearings under the pitch dark night sky, and sleeping on the open roof of the traditional conical hut of the Bribris (Read: 10 Awe-Inspiring Airbnbs in Central America).

Costa Rica chocolate, chocolate farmers costa rica, cacao farmers costa rica

Drinking pure, dark, bitter, milkless, sugarless chocolate!

Bribris Costa Rica, Bribri hut costa rica, indigenous people of Costa Rica

The conical hut of the Bribris, with floors of concentric circles!

On a different kind of high, I learnt how to make my own chocolate from the cacao fruits grown in the village: Extract the seeds, dry in the sun for days, slow-roast over an open fire, crush with a stone, manually separate from the husk, ground in a small manual machine, and you have it – unprocessed, real chocolate!

Cacao costa rica, Yorkin Costa Rica, chocolate costa rica

The Cacao plant.

cacao costa rica, chocolate costa rica

Slow roasting cacao seeds.

chocolate costa rica

The real, unprocessed chocolate!

I chatted in broken Spanish with Don Guillermo’s family, hearing about their contented lives in the forest. They had everything they needed. Ancient cell phones that caught signal up on the hill and a landline that sometimes worked, so travel companies could get in touch to arrange for the visit of day trippers or lost souls like me. A small solar panel to occasionally charge a phone and create light for night cooking. Home-grown beans, vegetables, medicinal plants and of course, the best cacao. Why would they possibly want the stress of the big, busy mainland? (Read: Living With a Mayan Family in Guatemala)

When I asked Don Guillermo about the last time he had left home, he told me in his most serious tone: I go to Panama all the time, but to Costa Rica, not that often. I canoed and swam across the river with his nephew Junior, and discovered why. On the Panamanian side, a gorgeous waterfall cascaded down the hill and made a freshwater pool to swim in, perfect to combat the rainforest humidity. While drying off in the sun, I asked Junior if it was possible to get a beer in the village, and he promised to do me one better.

Yorkin river costa rica, costa rica off the beaten path

Rowing across the river to Panama!

That night, we sneaked out with a German guy training to be a guide, to drink Chicha, a strong but soothing local brew made from sugarcane. Chatting all night long, Junior confessed how happening his life was, despite how isolated it could seem to an outsider like me. He partied with his brothers, listened to reggae music and stalked girls he met in other indigenous villages on Facebook – right here in the forest. Pura vida!

(Also read: 6 Months, 6 Countries: Epic Memories from Central America)

Seeing my curiosity about the Bribri way of life, my bilingual German friend offered to translate the many questions my broken Spanish didn’t allow me to ask. And so we unearthed some fascinating Bribri stories:

Legend has it that when a Bribri elder died, he was buried with all his possessions and the gold his family had accumulated – which was a lot of gold in those days. An outsider from Costa Rica decided to test this legend a decade or so ago. He dug out several Bribri graves in the forest, and sure enough, found an unbelievable amount of gold. When the government heard about it, they passed a law against digging out graves, but were too late to take back the Bribri gold. The real irony is that the government recently built a museum on Bribri traditions, and had to buy back some of the gold this man had dug up!

Bribri people costa rica, indigenous people of Costa Rica, community tourism costa rica

Don Guillermo’s wife and grand-daughter.

Showing us medicinal plants in the forest, Don Guillermo told us about Shamans, who still practice in some further flung Bribri villages. They set a particular kind of leaf on fire, rub it around a sick person’s body and chant in a mysterious language to diagnose the illness. And though he doesn’t believe in their methods, he knows people who have been diagnosed and cured by Shamans. His worry is not about their practices, but that they chant in a language no one can understand, in the night – the time of the devil. What fascinates me is that the pre-colonial beliefs among the Bribris didn’t have this notion of the Catholic-introduced ‘devil’.

indigenous plants costa rica, indigenous people of Costa rica, Yorkin costa rica

An indigenous plant used to add pigmentation to the food.

The dug out canoe waited on the river when it was time for me to say goodbye to the Bribris. I had one last question; I needed to know where the cacao grown in Yorkin was processed, so I could think of them when I ate processed chocolate again. Tucking his machete into his waist belt, Don Guillermo beamed as he said Switzerland, and rather shyly asked me what a Swiss chocolate tasted like.

I saw him waving until he blended into the horizon.

Bittersweet, I couldn’t help thinking.

Bribris Costa Rica, Yorkin Costa Rica, indigenous people of Costa Rica

Don Guillermo, manually separating the husk from the grounded cacao seeds.

Practical Information: Yorkin, the indigenous reserve of the Bribri people, is located an hour upriver from Bambu. From San Jose, take the MEPE bus to the town of Bribri, then a local bus to the village of Bambu. Read more about the experience at www.aventuras-yorkin.co.cr or send an email at aventurasnaturalesyorkin@gmail.com.

Have you met interesting people living away from civilization and technology on your travels?

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First time on this blog? Read about my journey from the cubicle to the road here.

115 Comments

    • Thanks Cornelia! And you bet. The irony of being in most Central American countries (which grow some of the finest cacao in the world) was not being able to find a single decent chocolate to eat. Such is life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mr. E says

        The corporations you talk about are responsible for the slave conditions and child labour in the chocolate industry (mostly in africa). Chocolate has a very dark side: look for fair trade products. Past that those corporations remove the Cacao butter and replace it with palm oil. Palm oil production is one of the greatest travesties on earth today, it is destroying entire countries and rainforest. In Borneo, farmers are paid to kill the orangutans, the primary rainforest is then burned to make way for a monoculture of palm. I have seen this first hand. On top of habitat destruction, irreversible soil erosion then occurs causing a bleak future for the locals (minus the fee families getting rich off of the production).

        Like

  1. parul shah says

    hello shivya i m planning to visit switzerland in may 2015 could u guide me in which city i have to stay n updown from there in different cities of swiss .i m planning to stay 8 days in a apartment

    Like

  2. Beautiful story from a remote corner of our planet 🙂

    The images and your narration is so refreshing and tempting to put this place in our wish list 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing, Shivya, and have a great time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ohh…the way you have spilled the chocolate secrets I wonder if they allow you next time in their territory… 😀 … Jokes apart, thoroughly enjoyed reading your account of the Bribris and their village life. I wonder how they can be content with so less… perhaps that’s the key to real happiness. Thanks for sharing the wonderful stories of Costa Rica. Happy travelling! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The opening paragraph transported me to a place I’ve never been to 🙂 Oh! What joy the simple things of life can bring.. Some side notes on Chicha, mayhaps 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Every post of yours manages to make my already long travel list even longer!
    Excellent write up, pictures and information!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: 6 Months, 6 Countries: Epic Memories from Central America. | The Shooting Star

  8. Rajmita says

    woww… the first few lines teleported me straight to the abode of the Bribris. The processing of chocolate was an added info which i visualized as i read along. and the simplicity of the farmers speak a lot!

    Like

  9. Pingback: Arunachal Pradesh: The Wild Wild Northeast of India! | The Shooting Star

  10. Really enjoyed this Shivya. We are going to Costa Rico and Panama for 7 wks in Jan 15. Looking for lots of advice and ideas. Will definitely follow up some of your links and suggestions.
    Cheers 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Projecteer: Shivya Nath | The Ripple Movement

  12. When we went to Costa Rica we went to a chocolate farm. It made me appreciate the hard work that goes into farming chocolate. Very hard. Thanks for this great blog.

    Like

  13. Hi, I just started a blog today, and I was wondering if you could give me any tips on how to gain readers? You are a great writer, and you seem to have many reading your posts. I hope you can help me! Great post by the way, It was amazing!

    Like

  14. This simple life, where these traditional people simply get on with their lives should be the benchmark for all the so called ‘civilised’ people all over the world. In a world filled with aggression, intolerance, religious bigotry and persecution, and racist nonsense, this story really lifted my spirits. Well written and it sounds like s truly life changing experience 👍😊

    Liked by 1 person

  15. marycatherine72 says

    This was such an interesting post, thank you for sharing! I just find the history of chocolate production and trade fascinating–how Cortes was served hot chocolate by the Aztecs because they thought that he was the god who had originally gifted mankind with chocolate, or how the Aztecs and some Mayans even used cacao beans as currency! I found it fascinating how you tracked the development of such an ancient tradition in the modern world.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I absolutely enjoyed your article about the unique Bribris. What amazing people you must be meeting, and what thrilling adventures you are having on your travels!

    Like

  17. Loved reading your story and reminded me so much of home (South Africa) minus the cocoa, which is grown in the northern parts of Africa. What I also found interesting is what the traditional homes look like, very similar to our traditional huts in SA.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Pingback: The Secret Lives of Costa Rica’s Chocolate Farmers. | kcrescendor

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  20. justlikedreamersdo says

    Wow, I am planning a trip to Costa Rica next year, and now I’m even more excited!!
    Excellent information!! Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Vanessa Ann Fuller says

    This was very interesting! I spent some time in Costa Rica years ago, but I never did anything with chocolate 🙂

    Like

  22. Pingback: The Secret Lives of Costa Rica’s Chocolate Farmers.a bit of sugar & spice | a bit of sugar & spice

  23. johnberk says

    Great article, reminds me of my own journey to Nicaragua. I went to see the coffee and chocolate plantations near Matagalpa, and I enjoyed it! It’s funny to read other people consider Costa Rica isolated corner of the world, with the only reason being its economic/strategic significance. So next time, when you drink your espresso and eating french chocolate in one of the Western metropolis, don’t consider yourself to be in the center of the world – there is no such thing.

    Here are some “fun” facts about this country: 1] they don’t keep military 2] one fourth of Costa Rica budget is allocated to education 3] during the years of the crisis of democracy in Latin America (60s-80s), Costa Rica was the only country that remained democratic without any military junta interlude.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Hello! It’s the first time I read your blog and I enjoy it a lot. I live in Panama and you make think about this trip, I hope I’ll do it soon. Thanks for a good reading and don’t hesitate in contact me if you need some advice about Panama, although maybe you already know more about the county than me 🙂

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  25. Pingback: The Secret Lives of Costa Rica’s Chocolate Farmers. | ¡Comencemos ya! / Let's Start Right Now!

  26. I recently traveled to Costa Rica. We had a lot of fun there. This brings to light the other aspects of that country. This is a good article and a good read. I love to travel as well. I just started my own blog writing of my travels, ideas, inspiration and motivation to get people out to see the world, and all kinds of other stuff. Keep up the good work!

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  27. It was so fascinating to read about their lives! So isolated from the rest of the world, yet they are so content. They seem like such lovely people too – what an amazing chance to learn a bit more about them and their history. And to make your own chocolate!

    Like

  28. I also visited Yorkin last month. We had such a great time and were sad to leave. When I get around to writing about it I’d love to link to your post. I was too busy asking questions and stuffing baby bananas and chocolate into my mouth to take many photos!

    Like

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