Tourism in Costa Rica
In some ways, Costa Rica is the Disneyland of Central America. It’s the safe, comfortable and expensive option for tourists who want to visit the region without the fear of corruption, crime or civil unrest that can appear without warning in neighbours like Nicaragua or El Salvador. Particularly for American tourists, it’s a short journey into a lush exotic adventure playground packaged in bubble-wrap to prevent any breakages.
But it’s foolish to think that Costa Rica is crime-free. It is certainly more stable and secure than most of the region, but only the naïve would believe there is nothing to fear. Even major hotels in the capital San Jose have signs with warnings of possible scams and attacks. “If you have a flat tire on the road, don’t stop to fix it – drive to a safe place first,” for example.
Tourists don’t want to worry about this, though. They want to see the national parks, the wildlife, the beaches and the culture without always being reminded of the dark side. For most, this is a holiday – and a holiday should be all sunshine.
The problem is that to protect the visitors from worry, quite often the solution is to keep them away from the real Costa Rica. An artificial construction of the country is built within controlled environs and presented as reality.
Let me tell you the tale of two chocolates, one sugar-coated.
Chocolate tours in Costa Rica
The first chocolate is at the Tirimbina rainforest centre in the northeast of Costa Rica. It is, in part, an educational centre that shows people the history and culture of the country. Chocolate is a large part of that – something that has been grown, produced and eaten in this area for generations. It’s part of rituals and traditions that go back far beyond the arrival of Europeans.
And so the Tirimbina centre hosts two ‘chocolate tours’ every day that show visitors the story of the plant. The visitors are either staying at the centre’s accommodation or come in by bus. They walk across a large suspension bridge through the forest to a hut on an old cacao-growing plot. Once there, the guide spends almost two hours showing everyone the history of chocolate and how it is turned from beans into the substance we know today. Some people will get to help grind it or flavour it. Everyone will get to taste it.
The tour demonstrates the traditional production methods native to Costa Rica. The guide is energetic and engaging. The information is interesting and the presentation is slick. In many ways it is a very well done tour… except it could be done anywhere. The guide is not a chocolate maker, chocolate has not been harvested or produced here for years, there is nothing related to chocolate that is not sitting on the table in the hut.
The tour, however, is safe. It gives the tourists an insight into a cultural aspect of Costa Rica without them having to interact with the real Costa Rica or leave the controlled grounds of the centre. It is a taste of the country as a pit stop for a tour bus.
Compare that to the demonstration of the chocolate production process during a visit to the indigenous Bribri community at the Yorkin Reserve in the south of the country. It’s just one part of a day trip into the community where you see how the indigenous people live, eat their local food, and talk to them about their lives.
The women of the family make the chocolate for you. It’s a matriarchal society and this has always been the task of the women – it’s seen as an almost sacred ritual.
For as long as anyone can remember, the indigenous tribes here have harvested the cacoa and made chocolate. Even today they eat it as a special food – although most of what they collect is sold to earn a living. It is quite literally the food they live off. And so to be shown the production process – without using any words of English – in a community that has always done this… well, I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.
There is nothing flashy about this chocolate demonstration. The local woman just goes through the process as she has many times before like her mother and grandmother before her. There are no signs or presentations. She offers the opportunity to join in on several occasions but, other than that, there is nothing overly touristic about the whole thing.
This is the tale of the two chocolates. Both experiences effectively showed me exactly the same thing. In fact, I probably learned more from the demonstration at Tirimbina because the guide was practiced at explaining the background in English and it was much more detailed. Yet it was with the woman from the Bribri tribe that I felt more connected and more involved in an authentic act.
I wonder if tourists to Costa Rica who are dropped by their bus at ‘education centres’ realise what’s happening. If they knew of the options beyond the border of reality, would they be more interested in exploring them? Or perhaps tourists to the country know what they are being presented with and don’t mind – it’s still a fun holiday and the risk of something going wrong has been eliminated.
If you go to Disneyland, you expect Disneyland. But there are plenty of ways to step outside and see a different type of magical kingdom.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.