Sun Pony Ranch

Diary of novice (clueless) ranch owners

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Trek Day 3 - Rest Day

Gosh, I can't help but laugh typing the title to this post, "Rest Day" indeed!

The first discovery was that I heard someone talking about the laundry area.  They had a washing machine - woo hoo!  We collected contributions from several of us trek-ers and then Patty and I got a lesson from Nick on how to use the machine.

After breakfast, Javier with Phillipe as his translator, gave us a tour of the farm. It is fascinating what they have done.

First lesson in biodiverse / sustainable farming: there aren't large fields with one crop in it.  Rather they are spread out, stuck in places well suited for a plant.  By diversifying the plants, diseases or bugs that like a particular crop won't wipe out your entire investment at once.

Here's a row of pineapple bordering the path.  Pineapple facts I learned:  you can twist off the top of a pineapple plant and plant that in the ground. If you look first to see that it has roots, it may grow.  But it takes 2 years to produce a fruit, and the first one is the biggest: the so-called "export" size.  The others following will be smaller and will produce only 3 or so times.

Pineapple plants also can grow 'daughters' next to the fruit, which if planted, will produce their first fruit in 1 year.

In line with spreading out your crops so that pests can't spread like wildfire, distractor plants or sacrifice fruit can be spread around your actual crop plants to lure the pests there and leave your growing crops alone.

The main camp being on a hill top, had different gardens on each side, falling away down the hill sides.

Yoga is big in Costa Rica.

Javier explaining to Phillipe

The amazingly beautiful passion fruit flower

This is the main central building with it's herb garden out front.  Just under that long overhang is the meal table.

Dave was breaking in the trekking poles he got for Christmas, in preparation for our hike a little later this morning.

These volunteers are building a water heater!  This contraption is to be buried in the compost heap.  (Dave said - I sure hope they are using aluminum wire to hold those coils in place!)

Hydroponics.  A pump runs water from the fish tank below, up through the barrels above that are filled with crushed concrete... (If I'm recalling correctly).  They have a number of tilapia living in the tank at the bottom - though none have been harvested yet for eating.

OK - I'm shocked.  I just looked up the spelling of tilapia, only to learn this is a common name "for over 100 species of cichlid fish"?  HUH!

Another hydroponic installation - this one the base is charcoal from fires on the farm.

Unfortunately I was unable to get a decent picture of "Ditch and Mound" technique of farming on a hillside.  Javier says that typical wisdom says you should not farm hillsides, because erosion just tears away your hill. But, but, but... this is Costa Rica where there isn't anything but hillside!  So you dig ditches along the contour, and then mound up what you dig out of the ditch in between.  This system gives you ditches that collect water and keep it from running off - and also allows you to plant water loving crops (like plantain trees) in the ditch, while you plant drier loving plants in the top of the mounds - like sweet potatoes.  So Cool!

While we had been touring, someone came and dropped off this huge pile of over 100 pineapple daughters!  Now Javier has to figure out where to plant them.  :-)

These folks also brought at lease one pineapple with them - which was quickly sliced up for us.  WOW - even among all the great pineapple we had on the trip, that one was amazing!

After the farm tour on Wednesday, Javier and Phillipe took us for a hike in the near by national park - it is the newest nat. park, (2002).  The entrance just down the road from Villas Mantatal used to be the main entrance, but is now much less used.

That morning we had been given the choice of this hike, which was supposed to be easier, and as was a loop we could turn back any time we wanted to,  The other option was a waterfall hike which was steeper and had a lot of steps.  Beautiful waterfall, but harder hike.  So most of us opted for the national park hike.

First of all, from the parking lot we could see a lot of trees with old dried out pods hanging from them.  The guys said it used to be a cacao plantation, and the pods were all eaten out by monkeys.  But they found an immature pod and Phillipe climbed up to get it.

They busted it open and revealed the cocoa nuts --  eeewww, my first reaction was of opening an alien brain!  Grayish white, slimy, and undulating lumps and bumps.  He had us each pull off a nut and suck off the white fleshy covering - yummie - fruity and sweet.  But very slimy.

When you bite the nut in half, first off you get the very bitter flavor, but then you see it's a beautiful violet purple color!  It's such an  unexpected color though.

Immediately embarking on the hike we found the trail buried in 3-6 inches of leaf litter, sticks, roots, and trail stabilizing bars.  Wow! difficult footing for the best of us.  Dave had his walking poles, and thank goodness!  Though it was pretty funny when he was going along and suddenly one of his sticks fell 3 feet down into an invisible hole!  Thank goodness that was the exception.

It was an amazing hike - right through full on jungley forest.  Hot hot hot and sweltering in the sun, but cool and soothing in the shade.

We were going down down and down.  At one point on the way down we asked how far we were around the loop, and heard that we were already more than half way - so that was that - we might as well keep going since it was now shorter ahead than behind.

At the bottom of the valley we came to a beautiful confluence of two big streams and the neatest waterfall formations made through the layers of the sedimentary rock there.

We stopped for about 45 minutes, while some in the group wandered up around the corner to skinny dip in a big pool.

I loved listening to the forest and watching the constant rain of leaves and debris from the trees coming down.

But soon enough it was time to head back up.

Up, in itself, is tough enough.  At least the view continued to enchant as we made our way on around the bend.

 The scale here is hard to picture, but those leaves were about 4-5 feet across!

And then ... it all went to hell.  The trip up this side of the loop might have been shorter - but it was 100 times harder.  It was steeper (and UP), and suddenly we had tons more ground clutter before.

Javier said that the recent storms had just recently blown down all those trees - we had 12" trees to clamber over, under, and even one that was 4' in diameter that was down.  Luckily that one we could easily walk around.

One section of trail was washed out, so Javier and Phillipe drug a downed tree and propped it up parallel to the trail, but some 3 feet lower than the trail.  We had to slide down to get our feet on that trunk, teeter across it, then scramble back up onto the trail -- and oh yeah, crawl on hands and knees under the other downed tree right there to get back on the trail.

And then there was the section that we dubbed the "ladder" - though in actuality it was more like climing up a muddy slide.

But - we SURVIVED.  I have to say, there is something about facing adversity when you have no choice but to face it.  I never would have guessed Dave would be able to make it through that hike - but he did it!  It was 3 hours over all, and I was worried he might have so far over extended himself that he might be knocked out for at least the rest of the day and maybe more than that.

We finally got back to the farm, where, by the way, the small group of people who did the 'difficult' waterfall hike were cooly sitting, wondering where we were.  THEIR hike was 20 minutes down and 30 minutes back up.  When asked, Javier agreed that given the trail conditions in the park, absolutely the waterfall hike would have been easier.   GAH!

We had lunch and a rest on the dining porch, and by then Dave was feeling good enough to go with us to the Chocolate farm tour. Granted, we were assured there was very little walking at the Chocolate farm. HA, it was about this time that we started to really question the scale at which the Costa Rican people (ticos and ticas) use "easy" and "short" as compared to Americans. But in this case we weren't disappointed.

La Iguana Chocolate farm is one of the few survivors of a large government program to plant a huge number of cocoa trees and educate the locals to farm them and improve the economy. They started this in the mid 80s. It takes about 5 years for cocoa trees to start producing, and unfortunately by that time they started to see a huge number of trees infected with a fungus that destroys the fruit.

The government have tried a number of mitigation plans, but ultimately the only ones still doing the cocoa farming are those individuals who dedicated themselves to figure out what worked best for them. So now Juan Luis (?) and his family are one of the few remaining. Even though he is relatively very successful, given the animals and the fungus they still fight, they lose about 50% of their yield every year. But that is much better than the 80% loss many farmers have. At some point they expanded their operations to include all of the cacao processing in addition to the growing. Then about 6 years ago they added the tourism / volunteer labor program and it sounds like that has made a significant contribution to their standard of living as well.

The second time that day someone had harvested a cocoa pod out of a tree and opened it up for us to sample.  This one was much more ripe.     Still looks like alien brains inside.

This is just another example of some of the Palm Architecture we saw.  The arrangement of the fronds is so pretty, in addition to being functional.

Our translator was an irish gal who was volunteering at the farm with her french husband for a few months.  They are already chocolate makers, but wished to know more about the production of cacao, and they certainly could not have picked a better place.  They hope to source their cocoa beans from Juan Luis in the future but she isn't sure how those arrangements would work.  Shipping charges to Costa Rica are enormous!

In the groves once a week they go out to harvest the fruit.  Any signs of fungus they chop down the fruit and scatter to the ground.  They feel this method controls it well, and is the easiest labor wise.  Then they pick the fruit, and I think in the field they open it and dump all the slimy beans into a pile.  The pile, back at the farm, is put into a bin like a composter, and allowed to ferment for several days. 

Then they are dried for several days. When well fermented and dried, you should see little to no purple left in the bean. Though it is a curious deep brown-almost-purple color that is difficult for me to recall or describe now. At this point they can be bagged up (in humidity-proof bags inside plastic burlap bags) and stored for up to a couple years if necessary, though Juan Louis's farm use/sell all of a year's harvest every year.
When you are ready to process the cacao, they are roasted in a big metal pan over a wood fire. Luc (the french volunteer) was busy stirring up a big batch of them today -- hot work on an even hotter day! When done they start to pop and crackle, and in fact sounded and looked a lot like raw almonds when I toast them.

They pulled out a bucket of the nuts and we all got to try our hand at shelling them. They are very deep, rich brown, and some are brittle and shatter into tiny pieces as you twist the paper-ish shells off of them.

The taste is intense dark chocolate, but surprisingly not terribly bitter.  This - we realized later - are cacao nibs!

Then they are ground. If the cacao is to be made into chocolate, then that is mixed with ground raw sugar cane sugar - and then that mixture again reground to make the mixture fine and evenly combined.

If the ground cacao is to be made into cocoa powder, the first grinding is put into a press and the cacao butter pressed out of it. They use the butter to make skin moisturizer and lip balm, but some will get added back into chocolate.

Much of this work has been done by hand, but I guess they had some rather mechanically inclined volunteers come through in the past few years who have cobbled together some mechanisms to help out. The cacao butter press is an engine mount and tire jack, and the funnel for the cacao nut grinder is just a big piece of sheet metal coiled in on itself.

The group chose to flavor our chocolate with peanuts, and we watched as Juan Louis eyeballed a portion of peanuts into our ground chocolate, and then hand mix the chocolate with several spoonfuls of the cacao butter. But it wasn't sticking quite right, so he eventually went into the store room and came out with some honey which did just what he needed it to. Then we took turns pressing out little chocolate patties in a mold. This chocolate is not tempered, so it is a bit grainey, but on the other hand 3 days later while it has been in our luggage it's still in distinct pieces and still yummie!

In all it was a fascinating and very fun, and fantastic tour, and the end of a very adventurous day.



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