Cacao Trails: A Walk Through the Natural
History of the Caribbean
By Marlene Adam - Special to The Tico Times
When Wolfgang Bissinger decided to devote himself to a project
that was from his heart, he didn’t know how all encompassing
the task would be. After purchasing 10 hectares of land
abutting Cahuita National Park on the southern Caribbean
coast, he began the formidable task of nurturing his vision
into reality. Two years and $330,000 later, in December,
Cacao Trails opened to the public. It is still a well-kept
secret, and the trails meandering through the vast property
are tranquil and serene, unencumbered by the hordes of tourists
clogging other, more well-known attractions.
On the eight hectares comprising the public tour, Bissinger
has planted and cultivated more than 350 varieties of local
plant life. This is a one-stop learning experience where
the rich and interesting plant and wildlife of the area
is available for viewing and education purposes. Many of
the plants are marked with their common and botanical names
so that wanderers can take their time enjoying the ambience
“What this is, more than anything,” says Jean
Guirein, general manager of the site, “is an educational
experience – to teach people about the everyday foods
they eat and the history of the plants.”
Most people don’t know that the word “banana”
comes from the Arabic word for “finger,” for
instance, or that vanilla is the only edible orchid, or
that iguanas drop 50-150 eggs at a time, or that the male
howler monkey may kill babies of other males if given the
chance. These facts and more are abundant at Cacao Trails,
and the enthusiastic guides who among them speak five languages
love to bring alive the mysteries and history of the region.
The trail begins with a stroll through the front garden,
where common bushes and flowers sit prettily, offsetting
two lagoons stocked with crocodiles and their food, a tropical
fish called tilapia. The first animal display sits behind
protected meshwork containing varieties of poultry, such
as Japanese hens. This short walk is just an appetizer of
what is to come.
The property is divided into several sections. The first
garden, a special favorite of Bissinger’s, is the
Orchid Garden. More than two dozen varieties of the bromeliads
are on display here and, with luck, one of the orchids will
be in bloom, a rare and delicate flower that normally lasts
no more than a week.
A section for medicinal and herbal plants has also been
cultivated. Costa Rica, particularly the Caribbean coast,
has a dizzying variety of medicinal plants that many locals
still use to heal ailments. Knowing how to recognize the
plants and their uses is a valuable introduction to life
in the tropics. Markers telling the story of the plants
and their benefits make this portion of the garden a definite
Plants are not the only focus of Cacao Trails. A serpentarium
housing several local varieties of snakes is included on
the tour. Here visitors can see boa constrictors, the dreaded
fer-de-lance and the deadly yellow eyelash viper, as well
as innocuous varieties such as the frog snake. Miniature
frogs, found in all parts of this lush jungle countryside,
are also on display, their neon-colored skin advertising
Two areas of Cacao Trails form perhaps the most unique parts
of the attraction. One is the small outdoor Indian History
Museum, holding remarkable pottery pieces, some of which
were excavated from the Talamanca Mountains, where human
inhabitants have lived for thousands of years. These same
mountains hid a complete cacao-drying machine that Bissinger
brought down, cleaned and polished, and is now on display
at the Cacao Museum, the second area providing a unique
look at the anthropology of the region.
Cacao, its history, culture and taste, is the raison d’être
of the development. Until the 1970s, when monilia pod rot,
a fungal disease, brought an end to the thriving cacao industry
on the Caribbean coast, cacao had been the region’s
main crop and source of income for 100 years.
“Now local people don’t realize it was a complete
culture, and know little about it,” says Bissinger,
who hopes to provide a place to educate area residents as
well as tourists.
To this end, he has invited area schools to bring classes
to the property for day trips. “In the end, this is
all for the kids,” says Bissinger, who has organized
a one-week boot program for school holidays and is planning
a tent camp by the river for overnight stays, as well as
children’s classes on the natural history of the region.
The property used to be a cacao farm, and it is a delightful
surprise to taste a piece of the delicious chocolate served
after each meal. As part of the tour, visitors can see how
cacao is processed to produce pure ground chocolate (see
box). There is also a banana plantation, a heliconia garden,
an organic farm and a remarkable collection of indigenous
but rare trees, such as cotton and teak.
And if all this isn’t enough, a canoe tour along the
Río Carbón is also offered. This river, named
after the chunks of charcoal that dot its sandy bottom,
meanders through Cahuita National Park amidst quiet, uninhabited
byways all the way to the Caribbean Sea, where it merges
with the deserted beaches unreachable except by foot or
Canoeing quietly down the silent curves of the river is
a rare pleasure. Water birds such as egrets, herons and
ibis abound. Freshwater shrimp can be seen jumping up out
of the way of the many fish that ply the waters, such as
sardines, tarpon, river bass, roncador, guapote and guabina.
Monkeys, caimans, coatis, iguanas, pacas, porcupines and
sloths live along these banks and can be seen at various
Back at the main area, a refreshing, kidney-shaped swimming
pool is available for all guests to relax and enjoy. From
the sun-warmed waters, a view of the tree-lined hills across
the way soothes and beckons.
The open-air rancho is also an inviting way to relax and
get fortified, before, during or after the tour. This spacious,
palm-thatched structure can seat up to 200 guests. Banana
stands hang invitingly around the restaurant, and the huge
kitchen area gleams in front of the buffet. Breakfast and
lunch are available, as well as a refreshing variety of
The lovely tile work in the bathrooms is worth a peek.
“This is the first thing we built,” says Bissinger,
who believes clean, spacious facilities are a must. The
cool, shady interior of the rancho also houses an inviting
boutique, stocked with local crafts, artifacts and souvenirs.
The extensive grounds that form Cacao Trails have been cultivated
into an impressive collection of flora and fauna that will
only get better with time.
“On a scale of one to 100,” Bissinger says,
“we are only a five.” There is still much to
be done and more exciting projects to come. Under construction
are a farmhouse to display the farm life of long ago, and
a viewing stand to observe the private wildlife sanctuary.
Bungalows for overnight guests are also in progress.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of this new project
is the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff, who go out
of their way to provide quality service and friendly smiles.
Cacao Trails is on the main highway, 10 kilometers south
of Cahuita. A tour of the grounds is $20; a guide is $5
extra. A complete day tour, including a canoe trip down
the river, a meal and a guide is $47. Area residents who
want unlimited access to the grounds and services can purchase
memberships in the Pavo Real Club. For more information,