A chocolate farm surrounded by tropical rainforest is pretty much this girl’s dream come true. As a biologist, I love being in the rainforest more than the paparazzi love Britney. When I heard that Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula was home to a small chocolate farm, I thought that I had finally found my Nirvana. And I had to go.
Although Costa Rica is an immensely popular tourist destination, I had been skeptical of its appeal, partly due to its popularity. I tend to prefer more “out of the way” places, but in January 2008 I decided to take a week to see whether Costa Rica really was the biological diversity haven everybody said it was. I told my PhD advisor I was going to work off campus for a week, hopped a flight, and landed in Costa Rica in search of adventure. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the Osa Peninsula is the least visited of all the regions in Costa Rica, and home to the largest expanse of rainforest in the country—Corcovado National Park. Seemingly hidden in the pages of my travel guide was a short description of a chocolate farm. Chocolate farm? Next to a rainforest? How had I survived to the age of 34 without knowing of this little gem? I departed the next morning from San Jose on the 12 hour bus to the Osa to find out if this really was all I imagined it would be.
My experience at Finca Köbö was more rewarding than I expected, partly owing to the biological history of the place, and the eco-friendly owner, Alex Mena. In fairness, if you’re hoping for piles of fancy chocolates amid a lush tropical setting, this isn’t the place to find it. But if you want to see how cacao is grown, learn more about the relationship between cacao plantations and primary forest, and enjoy other aspects of being in close proximity to neotropical jungle, Finca Köbö is where it’s at.
From our late night arrival until our final departure, the staff were unfailingly friendly—coming out to the main road to meet us where the bus dropped us off in the middle of the night, pointing out all the different bird species around the ranch, and picking us up from the remote eastern gate of Corcovado N.P. after our 2 day excursion. Alex was eager to share the history of the ranch with us, and I was immensely impressed by his approach to cultivation and conservation. The ranch had previously been owned by a man who actively fought the local government to keep a portion of the property as primary forest, which is part of what attracted Alex to it when it came up for sale. The ranch had a number of cacao trees on it, but many were infected with a fungus, limiting the cacao yield. Alex reasoned that since fungus grows in humid environments, the fungus might be killed off if the trees were thinned out a bit to allow more air and sunlight to penetrate. He was right, and he proceeded to convert most of the traditional cacao to organic, and has enjoyed increased crop yields every year for the past several years.
Alex is also a big proponent for maintaining biological corridors, which is rare among non-bio nerds. He understands that animals in small forest remnants fare better with access to larger forest tracts, and not only maintains corridors on his property, but readily explains the importance to guests in a way that is easily understood by all. He is committed not just to producing chocolate and preserving the forest closest to him, but to teaching others the importance of conservation, and how to go about it. He has a holistic view of life that is reflected in everything he does. Food crops are grown organically on-site, and used in the meals served to guests. His partner, an Austrian-born osteopath and physiotherapist, provides massages and treatments to guests. He limits the number of tourists into the ranch’s primary forest in order to minimize impact on wildlife there.
All of this makes Finca Köbö a great destination for nature lovers, but the chocolate lovers among us come for the chocolate. The focus here is on production rather than finished chocolate. Alex provides tours of the ranch that walk guests through the history of the cacao tree, its relation to the forest and which animals feed on it (coati and monkeys among others), facts and figures on chocolate producers and consumers (Ivory Coast produces the most cacao, the US consumes the most), and how the chocolate is made. The tour ends with chocolate fondue served up with fruit and house-made banana bread, and blocks of unsweetened chocolate are for sale in the gift shop. In a perfect world there would also be stacks of chocolates with tropical influence, maybe some passionfruit or ginger chocolates, but alas. Despite the dearth of refined chocolate available, I highly recommend Finca Köbö to anyone interested in seeing the raw material that makes up this food of the gods, or anyone interested in combining a little nature with their chocolate education. I asked Alex why he named his ranch (finca) Köbö, and he told me it is the Guayami word for dream. Definitely a dream Chocofrolic destination