Conscious Food Choices

For the love of delicious healthy food…

Eating Fresh Chocolate with the Bribri

Costa Rica is a really interesting place, food-wise. There are a number of paradoxes. They have so much edible exotica hanging from the trees here, plus hundreds of varieties of coconuts and palms, cocoa and banana trees growing wild everywhere, and almond trees lining all the beaches… yet it’s extremely difficult to get coconut oil anywhere or any kind of natural sweeteners including palm or coconut sugar, nuts are mostly imported and extremely expensive, and the unsweetened cocoa powder (when you can find it) is strangely fruity and does not resemble anything we have in the states.  That being said, I just had the coolest chocolate adventure ever…

A few days ago I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Bribri Indigenous Reserve in the Talamanca, or “blue mountains”, right on the border of Costa Rica and Panama. To get to the village, we traveled almost an hour into the mountains, sometimes stopping to push the truck  (and other vehicles) across the flooded roads, and then another hour upriver in dugout canoes. It had been raining hard the day before so the river was high, and full of flocks of yellow butterflies, with white and gray herons fishing alongside the banks everywhere.

The Bribri are Costa Rica’s largest indigenous group, and while there are only 10-15,000 people left, from what I could see they seem to be gracefully navigating a delicate balance between modernization, change, and maintaining the cultural preservation of their community and local culture. The story goes that the men of the community spent most of their time working in the banana plantations, and, as happens, the money wasn’t exactly coming back home with them when they returned. So the women, realizing that they needed to take things into their own hands, formed a council of leaders and began to organize educational tours of their community. These tours are unique in that they are highly organized but wonderfully informal. You never feel like a tourist, you feel like you have been personally invited to experience a small slice of the Bribri life… their life. For real.

When we pulled the canoes back onto shore, we were met at the boat by one of the local women leaders, Priska, who toured us through the Bribri primary school, showing us their new kindergarten and the health clinic, and then down a dirt sunlit path past their new secondary school which was build last year and just graduated its first group of 12 students. There are no cars, not even bicycles here, and the buildings are built lightly, on stilts, out of bamboo and rough unfinished wood. They are beautiful.

As we continued along the path I realized we were walking through acres and acres of cocao trees, and that there were cacao fruits hanging everywhere! Marcello, who is the co-owner of the Goddess Garden, has a close relationship with the Bribri and he and Priska picked fruits from the trees and cracked them open on a rock by the side of the path, sharing the soft white meat and purple seeds with us. My chocolate adventure had begun!

We arrived at a simple wooden “restaurant” a short while later, and were met with cold fresh limeade and warm banana pancakes on banana leaves. Yumm. After, we all made our way down to the river for a swim, trailed happily by a troupe of brown naked children who jumped in with us and cut like fish through the strong current.  After a swim and a short bake on the river rocks, we made our way back to the restaurant for lunch. Lunch was vegetarian – it is usually chicken or fish, but Marcello called ahead and told them they could save the chicken –  and it was fairly standard Costa Rican fare: white rice, black beans, some sort of refried beans, and a mixture of veggies including green platanos and tiquisque which was simple and tasty.  Plus a little spaghetti (..!?) and a pile of boiled fresh hearts of palm, which was totally delicious.

Afterwards, one of the younger girls of the village, Daisy,  joined us at the table and gave us a bit of history about the community and took our questions. Apparently, both schools, the clinic, and the big suspension bridge over the river we were swimming in have all been built from money earned from tour groups like ours, but the Bribri only accept 700 visitors a year because any more people would “keep them from doing what they want to do”.  I love that. I wish I had asked them what they want to do, but I suspect it is just to live their lives…

At this point, the smell of roasting chocolate was too strong to ignore. One of the women brought from the kitchen a large wooden bowl of freshly roasted cacao beans which we were all invited to taste before she began to crush it with a huge stone. Several of the visitors took turns crushing the chocolate, and then one of the local girls –  Felicite, the resident expert –  flipped the bowl a few times, spinning the beans into the air and deftly removing all the chaff from the cacao. I wish I had tried that – she made it look easy but I am sure it was not. At this point the still warm cocoa beans were fed slowly into a hand grinder and pulverized to a thick, gooey paste, and apparently I was the only one in the group that thought this was delicious (it was a lot less bitter than the unroasted cacao I use at home!). She then whipped out a small can of sweetened condensed milk, combined it with the cacao paste, and passed out pieces of banana for us to dip in it while the children ran off with the condensed milk can. Everyone was happy.

I have to tell you that the reason I was there in the first place is becuase Marcello and I have been talking about doing a cookbook here at the Goddess Garden, featuring my vegetarian recipes and highlighting the local and indigenous food of Caribbean Costa Rica and the Bribri in it. We had also been speaking about the Bribri diet, which I understood not to be so healthy. So I was here in the village to see all of this for myself. And I have to say, even though the women looked a bit heavy, I thought they all looked more solid and wholesome than truly unhealthy. Sitting there with them, eating roasted cacao, mixed with sweetened condensed milk, on a freshly picked banana… another interesting paradox of Costa Rica was coming into focus.

Also, I have to show you the kitchen, which gave me a whole new appreciation for “wood stove”. The stove they cook on is actually built out of wood, with a couple of cinder blocks and two metal to put pots on. There is no electricity, except for a small amount of solar, no refrigeration, and the sink drains directly into a small ditch, which no doubt leads off into the jungle somewhere and down to the river. But given all of that, it had the vibe of a professional kitchen and I felt completely at home there.

Marcello had arranged for me to speak privately with Priska and some of the other women – I wanted to know what the typical meals are, and what their special traditional dishes are,  whether they use any natural sweeteners like palm sugar or dried cane juice, what they grow and what they harvest, whether they grow their own rice and beans, etc. It quickly became clear that I would have to spend more than one day there to get any kind of understanding of their lifestyle. Marcello and Priska spoke about working with me to explore ways I may be able to help them improve their own diets a bit, and how I might also help them provide some extra sweets and snacks to sell to the visitors to take home with them. I would have to come back speaking Spanish…which I promised to do.

Part of the paradox is how un-opportunistic people are in Costa Rica are, in the midst of so much natural abundance. And although I can feel my own hyper-opportunistic American nature by contrast, I do think some sort of gentle “cultural exchange” would be really interesting and could be helpful to them as well. But more than anything I came away humbled by what they are able to pull off in that simple kitchen, and by the quiet dignity of these women, and I think it would just be a gift to be able to spend more time with them –  an opportunity to understand them and their way of life.

March 6, 2011 - Posted by | Food Consciousness, Fresh | , , ,


  1. Hi Jorin,
    That was beautiful! You gave a real feel for your experience! Love Michelle

    Comment by Michelle | March 6, 2011 | Reply

    • It was beautiful! You will have to come visit them with me when we come down here for our Integral Health Retreat at the Goddess Garden next year. 🙂

      Comment by Jorin Hawley | March 7, 2011 | Reply

      • Yes!!

        Comment by michelle | March 9, 2011

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