Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica offers an elegant, earthy and unique experience for adventurous foodies.
Not long ago, in the sultry air beneath the Corcovado Rainforest canopy in Costa Rica, I was ambling along with some fellow hikers over a leaf-strewn trail. The soundtrack was nonstop bird chatter, insect buzzes and the scrambling of Capuchin monkeys through the branches above.
We wandered by possum wood and ceiba trees, beneath hanging cacao pods and past an occasional overhead arch of banana leaves as large as queen-size beds. The jungle was a steamy brew of alien sensations, but that particular morning our mission wasn’t just sightseeing. We were experiencing tropical flora in a way none of us has thought of before — as a place for sourcing food. Our trek was a favorite outing called the Edible Landscape Tour, conducted regularly by Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge in Piedras Blancas National Park, a remote, pristine corner of Central America.
Rainforests are nature’s laboratories for some of evolution’s most flamboyant experiments — garish bird species like toucans and scarlet macaws; amazing leaf-cutter ants marching in flotillas 300 feet long; formidable snakes like the eyelash palm viper and the fer de lance; and rare amphibians like the gaudy strawberry poison dart frog.
Towering above, are trees so massive their roots grow lateral buttresses to support their weight. This is the forest primeval, a living encyclopedia of the natural selection process and a sensitive biosphere that is crucial to our planet’s survival.
The elegant and earthy Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge is the hub of a 165-acre wilderness resort, maintained in harmony with the surroundings. Built from fallen and renewable hardwoods, decorative driftwood and recycled construction materials, the main building and private cabañas are powered by solar energy. They’re carefully situated to catch cooling sea and mountain breezes, and the effect throughout is of being in a deluxe tree house.
Playa Nicuesa is accessible only by small boats from villages across the Golfo Dulce. The staff calls the site their selva y mar (jungle and sea) location. From the open-air lobby you can practically slip straight into warm, clear ocean water to swim, snorkel or kayak through quiet mangrove-shaded inlets. The back door leads to the rain forest, where on that particular humid spring morning we embarked on our edible landscape trek.
Our guides were Veronica, Playa Nicuesa’s resident ecologist and Memo, the hotel’s cheery groundskeeper. As we entered the jungle they steered us to examples of wild rain forest produce.
First was the ungainly Espavel, a cashew tree, which produces a sweet, edible apple, the jocote de marañon, to which the actual cashew nut is attached. Up the trail there is cas, “sour guava,” harvested for juices and jams, and mimbro, a kind of dwarf cucumber that is chopped for a traditional Costa Rican relish.
Some of the jungle’s native foodstuffs must be left un-harvested. The palmito, for example, is destroyed by the process of extracting its fruit, hearts of palm. Fortunately for salad lovers, there’s a substitute: our guides presented us with palm hearts from a nearby domesticated pejibay, a tree that produces the same delicacy inside stems that can be removed without damaging the entire plant.
Climate and abundant water make the rainforest ideal for cultivating a broad range of crops beyond indigenous species. Our guides escorted us to Playa Nicuesa’s onsite gardens, with a brief stop among a stand of mature coconut trees. In the tropical heat we hacked open shells with machetes and guzzled coconut water like castaways on a desert island. The gardens were prolific, crisscrossed by neat furrows of lettuces and tropical fruits, herbs, spices, peppers, lemon grass and hibiscus.
By special request from the lodge’s kitchen, we harvested cilantro and coconuts that became part of our evening meal. Memo broke open a chunk of fallen wood and, with a grin, offered me a sampling of the sole edible protein source we encountered on the hike — termites.
“Try them,” he urged, munching down a few himself. “They taste sweet … like carrots.
I’d heard about this gastronomic oddity; supposedly, wild termites derive their distinctive flavor from beta carotene concentrated in their fibrous diet. My curiosity trumped my gag reflex, and yes, they do taste a bit like carrots.
The rest of the food for meals in the Playa Nicuesa’s family-style dining room came from local providers — eggs and meat from small farms, fresh fish caught daily in the Golfo Dulce by Tomás, the lodge’s resident angler. Breakfast and lunch were accompanied every day by chilled guava juice from one of the cas trees. Fruit plates — bananas, pineapple, mangos — were served with the sauce of another guava, the arazá.
Grilled beef came with a peppery condiment from the tamarindo tree, red snapper with a salsa of chopped mimbro, onions, and cilantro. One dessert consisted of fresh coconut dipped in pungent chocolate that had been coaxed from the seeds of local cacao trees. The lodge bartender has even invented a cocktail that mixes Costa Rican rum with cane sugar, lemon leaves and oregano, crushed ice and Playa Nicuesa’s homegrown lemon grass.
Back from the rainforest, we filed into the lodge’s kitchen and began prep work with ingredients from our trek. Tomás arrived with a dripping clutch of silvery aguja — needlefish —caught an hour earlier in gulf waters off the neighboring headlands. The fish were filleted by the lodge’s chef who then instructed our group in the art of preparing his recipe for ceviche: bite size pieces of raw fish marinated in lime juice, with spices and herbs — including our recently harvested peppers and cilantro.
The ceviche was served chilled as a first course. The main entrée, grilled chicken breast was served with salsa de coco made from ginger, chopped onions, garlic, sweet chilies and fresh coconut milk from our recent haul.
Joining us at the cutting board, Veronica spoke about the importance of what we were doing in the lodge kitchen. A serious advocate for sustainable tourism, she said the arc of this simple process — from harvesting to preparing food — was a good way to connect people with environmental issues.
“It makes them think about an important question for our time,” she said, “Where does my food come from?”
Golfito, Costa Rica
Cost: from $200 double occupancy for a one-bedroom cabin to $510 for a cabin suite.
The Edible Landscape package includes four nights of accommodations, all meals, preparation of one guest meal with the chef, garden foraging excursion, rain forest hiking, and a visit to local botanical gardens and farmers market.
Copyright © Jim Cornfield / 2015 Singular Communications, LLC.