Quite possibly our favorite place to visit the rainforest on a budget. If Finca Verde aka Finca Gavilan and Heliconias Lodge at Bijagua between Tenorio and Miravalles national parks weren’t so incredible there wouldn’t be any competition.
Under $120 (okay so it’s $119 – $59.50 each) for two people in newly remodeled air conditioned rooms overlooking the gardens (off the road down a path so no jake brake noise) including entrance to the reserve and trails (walk-in $34), breakfast and either lunch or dinner (have a couple of power bars on the trail and opt for dinner).
It’s the cheapest “All Inclusive” in Costa Rica. Hopefully you’ll have a few bucks left over for a guided night tour or morning birdwatching tour because the naturalists here are some of the best in the country.
There’s more. The beds are new and orthopedic and the bio-digester powered showers are the best.
That may not sound like a big deal, but when you spend as much time traveling around and staying in hotels, lodges and resorts as we do to update the map you notice the little things. The showers are better than the Four Seasons. Good pressure, hot water, and it doesn’t suddenly stop when you’re all soaped up. They even had the hot and cold knobs hooked up correctly (at least in the room we had) which none of the Hiltons can claim.
Honestly the only reasons this isn’t on the Costa Rica Top ten list is that we’re selfish and want to keep it secret and not everyone appreciates a real experience. There are plenty of places where you pay four times as much for half the quality, but enough about bargain hunting – the real attraction is the reserve.
The Rain Forests
Tirimbina Rainforest Center is a national wildlife refuge operated as an education, research, and eco-tourism center. It was founded by a private foundation in Milwaukee (yes the one in Wisconsin) but is now owned and operated by its own foundation.
We first visited 20 years ago when it was a research and experimental agriculture site associated with the Milwaukee Public Museum. It has since added accommodations and become an environmental education and conservation hub for the Sarapiquí region.
Trails right outside the rooms lead to a puente colgante (suspension bridge) over the Sarapiquí river and into wonderland. The river can be vicious in the rainy season and acted as a natural barrier to farming, ranching and development. It protected the rainforest until a modern NGO took over and on the other side you’ll find Costa Rica nature at its best.
The birdwatching is fantastic (use that cash you saved to get a guide) and the trails through one of the last stands of mid-elevation, premontane rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica are well maintained including additional canopy segments on bridges up the slope from the long bridge across the river.
If you’re adventurous the trails are even reasonably wheelchair accessible.
We’ve had three different guides at Tirimbina and they have all been in the top ten of the ones we’ve met. I’ve got a PhD in biochemistry and I’ve read all 816 pages of the tropical wildlife and ecology “bible” – Costa Rican Natural History by Janzen cover to cover half a dozen times.
Sue is forever elbowing me in the ribs for correcting tour guides when they get too far off base – but never at Tirimbina. Theses guys and gals know their stuff – cold.
Besides the general guided walk and more specialized birdwatching tour which are both excellent Tirimbina offer two tours that really stand out.
We may have been lucky on our night tour to see highly endangered northern olingo (Bassaricyon gabbii) and kinkajos picking fruit side by side in the treetops before we even crossed the bridge but it just kept getting better. Frogs, snakes, stick insects – and our guide knew something about them all besides their English, Costa Rican and Latin names.
I’ve been to Belgium, Switzerland the Godiva facilité tour but in my mind there is no doubt where the best chocolate flavor in the world is. It’s the liquor you cook over a wood stove during the Tirimbina chocolate tour.
The foundation that established the biological reserve decided that it wasn’t only important to protect the amazing primary rainforests but also the traditional agriculture that was encroaching on nature when they purchased the land.
They maintain a few hectares of coco plantation and offer the best chocolate tour we’ve found in Costa Rica. Focusing on the traditional methods of taking the bitter seeds from the pods to a finished product they reveal the magic of chocolate.
It’s obvious I’m no Scorsese but here’s a little chocolate movie showing the process
Making chocolate on a wood stove
1) Harvest the pods and scoop out the pulp covered beans
2) Bacterial fermentation over 2-5 days breaks down the pulp so it’s easy to remove and warms the beans accelerating chemical changes inside
3) Slow drying in the sun or a dryer over 1-2 weeks followed by roasting at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes to 2 hours reduces the moisture content and determines the darkness/flavor/strength (much like coffee roasting).
4) Winnowing is the process of breaking open the seeds and removing the husk to leave the cocoa nib.
5) The Cocoa nibs are crushed and warmed to form cocoa liquor (pure unsweetened chocolate) which is then combined with other ingredients to make milk chocolate, sweetened chocolate etc.
Right next door (three minute walk) is one of the best archaeology sites in all of Costa Rica – the NeoTropical Center. There’s a small museum, a number of petroglyphs, a burial site and some excavated houses and reconstructions from the pre-columbian era.