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Garden Lifestyle

Costa Rica: Pura Vida

While my last blog was also on Costa Rica featuring fauna and flora and a paddleboard trip through the mangroves, this one will highlight going up the coast to visit a spice farm and inland to where they grow vegetables and fruit.

  • Vanilla bean orchid growing on a host plant at Villa Vanilla in Costa Rica. The farm is certified organic and demeter biodynamic. Each vanilla bloom is hand pollinated with a small stick and the vine is marked with a colored tag to note date of pollination... it takes pods about 9 months to mature and they will split open if not harvested at the right time.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Vanilla beans drying in the sun--they are put out everyday--then rolled up and brought in at night so they don't get moist from the dew. They are graded from small to medium to large and premium; the premiums are the fattest, biggest vanilla beans I have ever seen.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Here we have many stages of the vanilla bean pod: green beans, brown beans, fermenting beans and plump, dried beans of premium quality. And of course, pure vanilla extract.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Tour guide at Villa Vanilla, Roy, shows us a cracked open cacao pod. The seeds or cacao beans as we call them, are coated in a slippery white membrane--we sucked on them and it tastes like a mild, sweet chocolate--once you get to the bean, it is bitter! Beans are spread to dry before crushing.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Chile-infused hot chocolate with vanilla and a Costa Rican chocolate chip cookie made with chocolate nibs and a hint of cinnamon. We enjoyed this gourmet snack overlooking la jungla and cloud-covered mountain tops.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Piper nigrum green berries almost ready for harvest. They will be dried for both black and white peppercorns. These plants also grow on a host tree.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • The open-air produce market at San Isidro de General displays produce grown in the central valley of Costa Rica. They are known for their onions and potatoes in this area, and of course tropical fruits abound.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Both plantains and bananas are seen growing on farms, in yards and in the wild. We drove by acres and acres of banana and plantain groves. The bananas taste stronger there, like they've been injected with essence of banana--they also have a hint of citrus to their flavor and a firmer texture.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • These big, winter-looking squash are a very popular vegetable. We saw them stacked up at roadside stands. They are sauteed and mashed.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Chamomile, sold fresh or dried, is a favorite herbal tea used for relaxation and to aid in digestion.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Camote are root vegetables, rather like a cross between a white sweet potato and a regular potato. They are prepared like regular potatoes, are starchy and have a mild sweet flavor.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Mango trees, as well as papaya, are seen all over the country and some mangos grow to be quite huge. The mango tree is where I spied my first toucan. Fruits vary in size and color. We ate mango and papaya, guava, pineapple and watermelon everyday.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger

The smells in Costa Rica are incredible. The casita of my cousin has two ylang ylang trees and their perfume is in the air day and night; most especially though after dusk and when it rains. It is very floral and rather ethereal and it distracts one’s mind every so often. One is right next to the pool so it is a rather exotic experience to float around with that fragrance wafting around.

One of my main desires was to visit Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, which is a tropical laboratory for sustainable agriculture with 27 acres of agricultural prodcution and 125 acres of primary and secondary rainforest. We had to travel about 1 1/2 hours to the spice farm and half of that was on the coastal highway and the other half on gravelly dirt roads at about 5 to 10 miles an hour for about 14 kilometers. It was bumpy and hot and dusty, especially with the windows down. There was a tour and I’d say there were about 12 other people. We had a handsome young Costa Rican guide named Roy and he was very knowledgeable and did a great job explaining all of the processes of cultivating vanilla bean orchids, cacao trees, Ceylon cinnamon, pepper vines, chile coffee, peppers, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, allspice, and Tulsi basil–all crops that they cultivate and process and sell. We saw fresh vanilla beans and fermenting ones drying in the sun; cacao beans drying in the sun and white and black peppercorns as well as turmeric root; we watched as Ceylon cinnamon was barked; and we saw cacao pods on the tree and sucked on the beans covered with a wet, slippery membrane, then tasted the dried nibs and some chocolate made there.

I took so many photos my camera ran out of battery and used my Iphone for the rest of the hike. We hiked up the Epiphyte Trail through plantings of vanilla and pepper vines, ginger, cardamom and turmeric plants, waist-high tulsi basil plants, to an overlook with an open-air building (bodega), which had an incredible view of valleys and cloud-covered mountain tops where we tasted a bright red-, iced Ceylon cinnamon decoction which was immediately refreshing; vanilla bean cheesecakes; chocolate allspice cookies with vanilla bean ice cream and chile-infused hot chocolate with cacao nib shortbread cookies. Yum and a spice and sugar buzz! I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and the fascinating new info and photo ops besides the delicious spice-infused desserts. Many plants like the vanilla orchid and the pepper grow on host plants; it is amazing how they grow native crops interspersed with the exotic spices and they work symbiotically. I was delighted to be able to purchase organically-grown, Costa Rican-grown whole vanilla beans, ground beans and extract, cinnamon bark, whole cacao beans and nibs, ground cacao, and mangosteen extract at the little shop there. www.rainforestspices.com

For another excursion, we drove to San Isidro de General which is in the central valley and they have an open air market there under cover since it would bake the produce sitting out in the hot sun all day. The ride there was up a windy mountain road and as we ascended the air became immediately cooler and the flora became more lush and greener. We passed the usual palms of every type, bananas, bamboo, hibiscus and heliconia however then we saw huge brugmansias in shades of coral, brilliant bougainvillea, frangipangi and more.

The market had every type of veggie from huge carrots, beets, cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli, radishes, taro–they grow lots of onions here and potatoes along with camotes which are similar to potatoes only they look like a white sweet potato–they are starchy and slightly sweet. And then there were piles of all of the tropical fruits like mango, papaya, watermelon, cantaloupe, banana, plantain, passion fruit, etc. We had to control ourselves from buying too much, since we had upcoming travel plans to go to the rainforest.

The perfect way to end the day was lovely glorious rain nourishing the parched earth–watering all of the crops, trees and flowers, which we had seen on our excursions–then sitting on the veranda with a tropical libation and watching the clouds and the waxing moonlight on the ocean. Pura vida!

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