Hidden in the steamy jungles of Central America, grass roots tourism initiatives bring enrichment to visitors and life to remote communities

Words and pictures: Roderick Eime

A glorious tropical morning among ‘pinch me’ scenery was just the start as we arrive on a picnic-ready beach at Playa Blanca on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula. We split into groups, each heading to their chosen excursion where we visit families who own and operate subsistence-level farms, each with their own specialities.

In between, there’s time for a sumptuous BBQ lunch under a huge fig tree that plays host to a trio of Scarlet Macaws. The three brilliant parrots sit high and aloof cavorting and preening among the branches, looking down on the curious, clumsy mammals with an air of comic disdain.

My first exploration is to the sugar cane farm of Johnny Rodriguez, whose family has been cultivating and harvesting the sweet, bamboo-like product for some 50 years. His 95-year-old father-in-law, Carmine, still sprightly, is busy helping out too. Johnny is proud as punch with his 100-year-old ‘trapiche’, set up to crush the long juicy stems while his horse hauls the heavy beam attached to the old grinder.

Going ashore by Zodiac tender

While the family farms several root and fruit crops, the sugar cane is the long-standing tradition. Here the 100 per cent organic product is processed into molasses plugs called ‘tapa de dulce’ through a boiling and purification process with their own wood-fired stove and hand-made mahogany moulds. We see the whole process from whoa-to-go, each stage eliciting a satisfying smile from Johnny. His wife Naomi meanwhile is busy mixing up a sweet concoction of molasses, nuts, coconut and milk powder while the children look on in delight.

After lunch and a further mocking from the three macaws, we are treated to a short cultural display from young schoolchildren in traditional costume before setting off for our second installment.

Sampling jackfruit

Next, I’m heading to the Finca Kobo cocoa farm for reasons that don’t need explaining but am delighted to discover far more than the humble chocolate beans on offer. Our guide, Juan-Luis, delights in walking us through a tiny section of his 50ha farm that grows some 85 different varieties of fruits, spices, herbs and vegetables. And not your average greengrocer selection either. We ogle such exotic crops as custard apple, noni, cinnamon, turmeric, jackfruit, star apple and several varieties of citrus and guava.

“The noni is full of antioxidants and vitamin C,” says Juan-Luis as he slices the pungent fruit with his pocket knife, “the taste is not nearly as bad as the smell.”

Johnny squeezes the sugar cane in the ancient method

And he’s not kidding. The innocent looking fruit has an aroma something like a mix of ripe blue cheese and eau de laundry basket. We think of the many health benefits that outweigh the unfortunate perfume as we consume the slices through clenched lips.

Next, a ripe jackfruit the size of a rugby ball is plucked from a grateful branch. With the outer texture of a sun-ripened iguana, the husk is split open to reveal innards that could come from a Ridley Scott movie. Slimy, glutinous tentacles conceal marble-sized seeds and despite its alien, anemone-like appearance, is so delicious, our greedy hands clutch at the flesh like delinquent vultures.

A twirl after lunch from local schoolchildren

We do eventually get to the cocoa process and learn the dirty secrets of the big confectionery companies who strip out the best stuff (like the pure cocoa butter) and leave us with a mere hint of sugar-inundated chocolate wrapped in shiny paper and marketing hype. Suck on that for a moment.

All jokes aside, the family-owned, community attractions here on the Osa Peninsula are an enlightening example of how tourism can resist the temptation to become a mass-market commodity and maintain sustainable, eco-friendly operations that are a joy to experience.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog (free to use stock)

This is just another day aboard a Lindblad Expeditions vessel, jam-packed with activity. Whether it’s cruising the majestic polar ice fields, the vast Pacific Ocean, the otherworldly islands of the Galapagos or cavorting with friendly whales in the Gulf of California, Lindblad’s team of lecturers, naturalists, photo instructors, wellness practitioners and destination specialists ensure an immersive experience that is guaranteed to leave guests with a whole new view on our beautiful and delicate planet.

Keel-billed Toucan (free to use stock)

For more information on National Geographic – Lindblad Expeditions, see https://au.expeditions.com/

For more information about the local tourism initiative, see www.caminosdeosa.com

For more information about travel to Costa Rica, see South and Latin American specialist, Movidas Journeys – www.movidas.com.au

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au