Our tour guide picked us up at the agreed location for the short drive to the entrance to the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve. There were no signs at that point, just a spot on the road. As I had neglected to bring my hiking boots, I was provided with some wellies, (rubber boots, for those of you unfamiliar with that word). Boy, am I glad I had them! On the drive, Tirza, our English speaking indigenous guide, explained how the Bribri were the first people to live in the area and that they are very protective of their culture and lands.
The Bribri have great respect for mother nature, knowing that she provides food and shelter, and although they have the lowest income per capita in the country, they can grow their food, harvest medicinal plants and build their own homes using the wood from local trees. What they can’t produce or harvest they purchase using cash earned through tourism, as in taking people like us on a cultural adventure through their lands, or by selling cacao.
Upon arrival at the reserve, we were introduced to Herman, the local indigenous guide, who spoke Spanish and Bribri and was waiting for us at the entrance. He presented me with a walking cane, which proved to be invaluable as we progressed on our hike. He had one stashed a little farther up the trail for my brother, Robert.
As we moved forward, cacao trees were visible throughout the forest, some bearing green or ripe yellow pods while others bore red ones. We had the opportunity to taste some of the beans from a seed pod. I can’t say it had much flavour, or that I enjoyed it, but the drink we were presented with by Herman’s wife at their home was out of this world! I’m always baffled how anyone can take something that doesn’t seem like much, but through various stages of a process, can transform it into something wholly different and delightfully delectable. We bought some of their cacao, and I tried to replicate the drink back at our house, to no avail. I did add a splash of rum to my version of hot cacao and that improved it vastly.
The hike was a gruelling three hours through the jungle, up and down, through muck and mire, until we reached a hidden waterfall. On the way, we stopped to taste some of the ripe guanabana, also known as soursop, hanging from the trees. It was syrupy sweet and pudding-like. We also sampled the Annona fruit, which was similar and a treat for the taste buds. Herman pointed out hardwood trees used for home-building while Tirza showed us herbs for various ailments. We tasted wild cilantro and a leaf from the cinchona tree, where the alkaloid, quinine, is extracted from the bark and used to treat malaria. Herman picked the leaves from a tree he uses as a natural insect repellent and crushed them so we could inhale the citrusy aroma.
Tiny frogs hopped to safety along the way, while a chameleon and a basilisk lizard stayed perfectly still in the hope that we wouldn’t spot them.
At one point we caught sight of a mica or neotropical bird snake. It looked like we had startled him as they are tree dwellers, but this one was on the ground. He was a fair size but was gone in a moment. Micas are not poisonous. Naturally, I attempted to take a picture, but snakes move too fast.
Passing by a sapodilla tree, Herman took his machete and chopped at the bark, which then oozed a white substance called chicle, used in the manufacture of chewing gum. So many natural treats along the way! I enjoyed chewing the chicle. So now you know where the brand name “Chiclets” is derived from. The most astonishing moment was when Herman chopped a portion of a thick vine and held it over his hand. Moments later a watery substance poured from one end, and we caught it in our hands for a refreshing drink. The vine is known locally as bejuco de agua, or water vine.
Back to the waterfall. Oh my! There we were slogging through the jungle for hours when there before us was the most spectacular sight. We had been fooled a few times along the trail by the sound of water, but this time it was the real thing. The pool at the bottom was so cool and soothing after such a challenging hike. I tried not to think about the return journey. Herman sliced up some fresh mangoes, which we devoured while lounging on the rocks. We swam underneath the waterfall, and I laid back to watch the water hit my face. Robert has always wanted to swim in a waterfall, so he can now check that off his bucket list.
With some reluctance, we packed up and prepared to head back. On the way, we stopped at Herman’s home for a traditional meal consisting of palm hearts, cassava and some vegetable I couldn’t identify, along with a piece of chicken, all wrapped up in a banana leaf. I did eat some of the chicken in an attempt not to offend, but couldn’t finish. I cannot judge these people as they do not factory farm or add unnecessary chemicals to their food. In the same way, I do not judge the Inuit people for harvesting fish and mammals for their livelihood. It is the mass production fueled by greed at the expense of the animals, the environment and ultimately ourselves that I object to. The Bribri people hold everything created as sacred.
We passed by a bird watching tower, which we stopped at briefly, but due to the time of day, there weren’t any birds in flight. They are smarter than us humans as they, along with most of the animals in the area, have an afternoon siesta. If you arrive in the morning, this is supposed to be the third best place in the world for spotting birds in migration. We did spy a group of capuchin monkeys after they had tried to pelt us with fruit. Cheeky little things, peering at us through the branches. They have a pretty good aim considering they had to hit moving targets from a distance, with vegetation in the way. They didn’t hit any of us, but they tried!
Herman and his wife are self-sufficient, growing fruit and vegetables along with what they can gather from the jungle. They raise chickens and have two pigs. They process cacao from pod to compressed powder and sell some of their product to supplement their income. They also make necklaces from various seeds and the fibre from a yucca-like plant, while one of their sons carves hiking sticks.
I don’t remember Herman’s wife’s name, but she was very hospitable, immediately offering us a drink of that unforgettable cacao. As we approached their home, we could hear her hearty laughter coming from within. They were such a friendly cheerful couple, I will remember them for many years. What a privilege to see how the indigenous people live here in this particular part of Costa Rica. With all of our conveniences and gadgets, I doubt we possess the contentment these folks do.
Thank-you to Tirza from Life and Culture Adventures for coming along as our translator and for providing us with a day I will hold as a treasure for the rest of my life.