BS.AS a Alaska

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

Back when we were in Cahuita, one of the most notable features of our hostel was the Volkswagen minivan parked out front. It had the same homemade feel as the hostel, hand-painted in bright colors and filled to the brim with belongings. It popped against the green of the tropics, a vibrant, living animal come to rest under the shade of the hostel palms. That’s a great transport van for a hostel, I thought.

As the days drifted by, though, it became clear that the van didn’t belong to the hostel. A trio of young twentysomethings from the hostel tended the van like an ill beast. They cleaned it and checked things under the hood. From time to time I heard them start the engine, although I never saw the van go anywhere. And at night after dinner, we saw them retreat to the van for sleep.

Then a few days after we checked in, one of the twentysomethings approached us and asked if we wanted to buy some banana bread. She was cheerful and friendly, crowned with dreadlocks and accented with a slightly lispy form of Spanish that we struggled to understand. We asked why she was selling the bread. “To pay for gas,” she replied. “Do you need help getting somewhere? Maybe we know someone who can give you a ride,” we said. “No, it’s ok,” she shook her head politely, “We’re driving to Alahka.” “Sorry, where?” I listened harder to understand. She repeated herself, “Alahka. Alahska.”


It turns out that these twentysomethings were driving from Buenos Aires to Alaska. Six months ago, they had purchased a Volkswagen minibus, kitted it out with a sleeping area and pop out kitchenette, and started the drive. They parked and slept where they could, trading labor at hostels for the use kitchens and restrooms. They did odd jobs and sold what they could to get gas money. Currently, that consisted of banana bread made in our hostel’s kitchen and stickers they made to promote the trip. When we met them, they were estimating it would take a year and a half to drive up and another year and a half to drive back—a trip of three full years.

According to Google Maps, Alaska is 6,575 miles (10,582 kilometers) from Cahuita, Costa Rica. This distance encompasses six countries, countless stretches of empty road, and at least seven border checkpoints. I wasn’t terribly worried for them driving through dangerous parts Honduras or Mexico, though—they could clearly take care of themselves. The place I was most worried for them was the Mexican-U.S. border, or specifically, how in hell they were going to get across that border. I tried asking the woman selling banana bread about whether they had U.S. visas: she said they didn’t.

Getting a U.S. visa, even a tourist visa (B1/B2), isn’t a trivial task. Because Argentina isn’t on the visa exemption list, the three of them definitely need visas. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure how much work it took, but doing some research revealed that the application takes around $140 USD, an interview at the embassy in Argentina, and several weeks. That doesn’t guarantee you a visa, either: the U.S. government can choose to reject you if they consider you either a security risk or they think you’ll break the law or overstay your visa. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government makes it very hard to enter the United States.

In previous years, I think they would have had a good shot at a visa, though apparently it’s always been difficult.  But every new visa restriction put in place by the Trump administration makes it seem less likely. It’s true that these restrictions are mostly on visa programs for refugees and long term migrants. But I don’t think it will be long before the administration starts cracking down on tourist visas under the pretense of protecting us.

Which always raises the question for me, “Protecting us from what?” The main response I’ve heard to this is terrorists and terrorism, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the last 15 years, only 2 out of every 10 convicted terrorists is an immigrant; the remaining 8 were citizens born in the United States. And looking at all crime, immigrants that are not U.S. citizens (both legal and illegal) are less likely to commit crimes than native U.S. citizens. If we took at 1,000 people currently imprisoned for crimes, only 60 of them would be immigrants. Of these 60 imprisoned immigrants, 40 would be convicted of immigration-related offenses (like entering the country illegally). Only 1 of these 60 people would be imprisoned for violent crime; that’s 1 in 1,000 people imprisoned overall. If we want to prevent terrorism and violence in the U.S., shouldn’t we be using our limited resources to address 80% of terrorists and the 94% percent of crime committed by U.S. citizens? Are the crimes and victims of crimes committed by U.S. citizens somehow less important, less deserving of respect and resources? And while the argument is often about what we do or don’t gain by keeping immigrants out, what about the things we lose by excluding them? What about their creativity, their ideas, and the wealth they create?

I have no idea what will happen to those Argentinean artists bound for Alaska. Maybe they’ll make it. Or maybe they’ll run out of money or a vehicle breakdown will end their journey. I just hope that it doesn’t end because of overly-strict immigration laws at the U.S. border.

P.S.: I’m incredibly curious to know what applying for a U.S. visa is like. If you have a story of applying for a U.S. visa (either success or failure), comment or send me a message.

Making chocolate from scratch in a hostel – Part 1

Some people have a passion for specific types of projects, like woodwork, or surfing, or cooking. Me? I apparently love challenging projects (see: getting a PhD, travelling around the world).

This manifests as evaluating projects thusly: is it really hard to do well? Is there a moderate or high chance of failure? Do I currently lack the skills and knowledge to do this project, and will I have to learn a ton to do it? Is it usually done with specialty equipment that we will have to McGuyver substitutes for? If the answers to the previous questions were yes, then HELL YEAH I’m in.

So, as I was stuffing my face with cacao fruit and lamenting the fact that the little beans within would go to waste, I hit upon the following realization: I could make chocolate.

Did I know how to make chocolate from cacao pods? Nope. But that didn’t stop me from scouring the jungle and Old Reef Farm for cacao pods to figure it out.

Note: A HUGE special thanks to Davide and Hakuna Matata Hostel for their patience with this insane project.

Cacao anatomy:

The first thing to cover is what part of the cacao pod actually makes chocolate. Let’s go from the outside to the innermost bit. First, you have your cacao pod, which grows from the stems on the cacao tree:


The pod is hard and inedible, but cracking it open reveals the seeds, surrounded by a fleshy, delicious fruit:

With finger for emphasis of fruit deliciousness

Inside each unit of fruit is a cacao seed, which is composed of a husk on the outside and the cacao bean or nib on the inside. This little nib is the source of all things chocolate. But biting into it raw just gets you a range of bitter and highly astringent flavors – definitely not yet chocolate.

Cacao Types:

We had to figure out type of cacao pods we had, since this determines some of the processing steps and the flavor of the final product. There are three traditionally-recognized “varieties” of cacao common in South America: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Modern genomics have actually revealed 10 clusters, but your standard chocolate-making information on the internet hasn’t quite caught up with this information yet so we’ll stick with the three.  The Criollo bean variety is prized for having complex fruity and spicy flavors, but Criollo trees are susceptible to a wide range of pests and diseases, making it fairly rare. The Forastero bean has a more traditional chocolate flavor, but because of the reduced complexity of flavors compared to Criollo, it’s considered inferior. However, Forastero trees are resistant to many types of pests and diseases, making them the most common type of cacao. Trinitario is a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero varieties, resulting in trees with greater resistance to pests and beans with a more complex flavor.

Our cacao pods

There are several traits that distinguish these three varieties, but since we only had the cacao pods, we had to stick with the pod and cacao bean traits. Our cacao pods were somewhat bumpy, and the beans inside were moderate to dark purple and black. Criollo pods are extremely bumpy and have white or light pink cacao beans, so they were immediately ruled out. Forastero pods are smoother and have dark beans; combined with their abundance, it’s likely we had Forastero pods. The one exception is the orange pod on the far right, which had moderately purple beans and rougher skin, suggesting it may be a Trinitario. Luckily, it seems like Forastero and Trinitario can be processed together (Criollo is more finicky).

From Bean to Chocolate:

Internet research yielded five major steps in making cocoa powder: fermenting, drying, roasting, shelling, and grinding. In total, “proper” cacao processing should take at least a week. While we had more time in Cahuita than we expected thanks to Hurricane Otto and Costa Rica declaring a state of emergency, we still had only 5 days. So, we had to fudge a few steps, no pun intended. I’ll break each step down below and explain how it’s normally done, then how we did it.

Step 1: Fermenting

I didn’t even know chocolate making had a fermentation step before this project, and it threw a definite wrench into our plans. Once removed from the pod, the fruit-covered cacao seeds are traditionally fermented in buckets or boxes for at least 3 days and up to 2 weeks. This process is an actual fermentation process, where the fruit around the cacao seed is consumed by a complex microbial community of yeasts and bacteria that produce lactic acid, alcohols, and aromatics. The result of this fermentation is two-fold: it kills the cacao germ with heat and prevents it from germinating (which produces astringent flavors), and it initiates the flavor development process in the bean. This presented two problems for us: we didn’t have that much time for fermentation, and we’d already eaten the cacao fruit off half of our seeds. Oops. I couldn’t find much information on whether these things would affect the fermentation process, but dangit, I’m a biologist. I know the three things needed for fermentation: sugars, low oxygen levels, and warm temperatures. Half of the cacao seeds still had fruit, so I figured this should be enough to drive the fermentation process. As for the low oxygen levels, the most airtight thing we could find was a plastic doggie bag (a la making prison wine I read about once), so we dumped our cacao seeds into that:

Double-bagged, for protection

As for the warm temperatures, your standard bread-and-beer yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae favors temperatures of roughly 30° C, or slightly below body temperature (thanks to my yeast labmate Eddie for this info). So after tying our double-bagged cacao mass shut, we slept with it under our sleeping bags for two nights and left it wrapped in the sleeping bag during the day. Since these temperature conditions would speed microbial growth, I figured we could cut fermentation down to around 36 hours. And considering that the bag started to bulging with liquor-scented carbon dioxide that we had to open and release every few hours, I think I was right.

Step 2: Drying
The second cacao-making step I didn’t know existed, in this step cacao beans are dried either in the sun or with low external heat to make them both easy to ship and to further develop flavor. I considered skipping this step entirely, but since the roasting step could go horrendously without it, I decided against it. Since we only had 1-2 lbs of beans, we opted for sun-drying on plates borrowed from Hakuna Matata’s kitchen:

Our drying cacao seeds

By some kind stroke of fate, the days following the hurricane were hot and sunny, so we spent 2 days at the hostel drying our cacao beans, which consisted of placing them out in the sun, turning them once every few hours with a fork, and then moving them when the sun shifted. The little fermented beans definitely attracted some bugs, as well as some curious looks from hostel staff and guests. Finally, on the evening of the second day, our beans were dry enough for roasting.

Step 3: Roasting

It’s like stir fry, except it smells like chocolate

From here, cacao processing gets fairly fast (can be done in a few hours) and the internet can provide lots of instruction, as most people start chocolate-making from scratch with fermented, dried beans. Like coffee, cacao beans are roasted to mellow acidic flavors and develop complex aromas through the Maillard Reaction. The practical goal of cacao roasting is to roast enough so that these flavors develop, but not so long that the cacao burns. There are some fantastic online resources on roasting cacao beans in an oven, but we didn’t have an oven at the hostel. So we opted for this guy’s awesome pan roasting method.

Eternal stirring to prevent cacao burning

The primary goal was to start hot and then lower the temperatures for a roast of at least 30 minutes, pulling the beans off when they smelled chocolatey but before they were “done” since they would continue cooking. Also, since we had Forastero and Trinidado beans, we could opt for a longer roast time. So, we heated our pan and tossed the beans in, stirring constantly. Once the beans had heated (about 5 minutes), we lowered the heat. We then kept stirring and tried a bean every 5 minutes to see if they were done, which is marked by a loss of astringent flavors and conversion of bean color from purple to chocolate brown. Finally, 45 minutes later, we pulled the beans off and poured them into a metal bowl. Since they tasted done, I wanted to cool them quickly, so I went over to the hostel’s pool and used it as a water cooler to rapidly cool the beans.

The final result of roasting the cacao beans

Step 4: Shelling
This was probably the easiest step in the process, as it involved cracking the seeds, dropping the bean into one pile, and then dropping the husk into another pile. We did this manually, and kept the husks to make a fairly tasty tea. Here’s what the beans looked like:


And here are the husks: IMG_2037

Step 5: Grinding
Grinding is the final challenge in making cocoa, which is arguably fairly easy to overcome with a spice or coffee grinder. But we were in Cauhita, which doesn’t have an electrical appliance store (or really, most stores), so we opted for a manual grind. We found and washed a nice elongated rock, and ground the beans in a metal bowl as finely as we could.

Real handmade chocolate

Arguably, our cocoa powder wasn’t super-fine, but upon tasting it actually tasted like chocolate. Not like the nasty raw cocoa beans, and not sort of like chocolate, but ACTUALLY chocolate. We had transformed raw cacao beans into actual cocoa powder. We’re wizards.

We actually haven’t finished making our chocolate yet. We poured the cocoa powder into a bag and have been dragging it along with us, hoping to find a cheap coffee grinder here in Colombia. I’ll post an update when we do.

A Jungle Adventure

Our six hours in the jungle began at 10 in the morning on the side of the road on the north end of town. We met up with Cameron, his dog Rousy running around us as he led us up the damp road at the foot of the mountain. The road passed by small houses with large gardens, herds of cattle, and sweeping views of what was once dense old growth forest now cleared for grazing and development by the local honcho.

Cows graze on the hillside

At two thousand dollars or more per tree, the temptation for profit looms large and leaves visible scars in the landscape and ecosystem. The hectares of cleared forest allows wind, flooding, and erosion through to areas that had never before had problems. Higher up the mountain, the road narrowed and steepened past the clearings and into untouched jungle. Rousy trotted along easily, turning around to see why we slow humans had stopped : usually water or breath. At a point where the trail split into three, along the left path, Cameron’s finca – plot of land – began and Rousy led the way.

The allure of this trip was for us the chance to explore almost untouched rain forest : to hike and see what animals we could. Cameron had hopes of finding and clearing a route to the waterfall on his property – the end goal of all this being starting an eco tour and hostel business for the more nature-loving crowd.

From the outside a rain forest seems imposing and dense, every visible nook and cranny filled with green or brown. From the inside, the density is lessened. The natural order of large trees, winding vines, and broad-leafed plants does not allow for the infinitely dense foliage seen from outside. There are paths to walk on, clearings to rest in, and, as with any good forest, and infinite number of directions to get lost in. As in many other forests, every path looks almost exactly the same as any other, and past a few meters the leaves and branches blend together with only the shape of the land as a guide.

Cameron and I look down the trail

The start of our trail was roughly cut and fairly slippery, riding the edge between downward slopes on either side. Handholds and careful footing were the rule, with special caution for trees baring needle-like spines waiting for a careless hand. Our first animal encounter also fell into the caution label : a lone bullet ant on a branch across the path.

At about an inch and a half long, this ant is generally not aggressive, but when provoked can deliver a sting that’s rated as one of the most painful in the world.IMG_1716
Eventually withering into nothingness the trail led us to a small clearing pointing to three or four possible paths, with no clear trail in sight.
We chose to go left down the slope we were currently on top of. This direction was steeper and muddier than the trail before it, but space between the trees marked a walkable line.

One of the strange flowers we saw

As we reached the bottom, it became clear that the patch of forest ahead of us, behind us, to the right and to the left, all looked identical. Fearing getting lost, we taped markers on trees to little effect. In the clearing at the bottom of the slope we found a small river leading to the right of our original trail. A group vote on direction ensued and we chose to turn right, following the slope along the river.

Some minutes of scrambling and climbing later the vegetation became too dense and the slope too steep to pass forcing us to turn around. Deciding to walk in the stream, we began with my

Foliage covers a view of the river

unceremonious slip down a meter of mud, landing shin deep in water. The others were more graceful in arriving.From now on our trek was up a clear river, deep enough at times to swim in though usually no more than ankle deep. Its curving route led us up and around the righthand slope, presenting fallen trees, rock faces, and wide pools as obstacles. While we were never in any immenent danger, at every turn the river gave us just enough challenge to keep the trip interesting and exciting. At all times there were birds audible but invisible -except when flying- overhead, and the bellowing calls of monkey troupes was a constant background effect. In the river we found a palm-sized river spider, to Natalie’s delight.

A river spider, 6 inches long

Of interest on our trek up the river were : several clusters of frog eggs encased in crystal clear jelly overhanging the river,IMG_1759
a small group of strawberry poison dart frog (Bastimentos color variety),IMG_1746and a simply massive tree fallen above the path. IMG_1772
A few small waterfall climbs, a scramble up a rock wall, and a scurry along a fallen tree ramp took us to the end of river, in this case in the form of dense, almost topiary-like vegetation that reduced the flow of water to a trickle and barred any attempts at passing.

Natalie and I near the end of the stream

Perhaps Cameron’s machette, stowed until now, could have gotten us through the tangle. At this point we were four hours in and not eager to get caught in the ever-looming rain. A quick backtrack and a zig-zagging climb up the mountain slope to the right of the river put us on what we thought would be the path out of the jungle. The path here was the steepest we had yet taken on, and only with the help of firmly rooted trees did we make it up. With no further trouble we popped out in the middle of our origina trail, now relatively easy and well cut.

A small jumping spider

For the end of our trip, in lieu of a waterfall, Cameron took us further up the mountain into neighboring land. Here we encountered clear views of Cahuito, the ocean, and the remainder of the vast jungle. IMG_1800Nearby we spotted a cacao tree with one ripe pod holding a dozen or so cacao beans. Each bean is roughly triangular and is covered in a thin layer of pulp. It is this pulp that you eat, and it tastes like pink starburst, but infinitely better. Sucking on our cacao fruit, we headed up the mountain even further to an abandoned navy sighting tower for the U.S.S Argon. Natalie quickly climbed the built-in ladder on the side, Cameron joined shortly after. Rousy and I stayed firmly on the ground.

Natalie climbs the tower

Along the way back we saw several keel-billed toucans in the trees and in flight, and heard the song of the oropendola, a sort of up-pitched whoop and trill. As Rousy ran ahead of us, raptor birds of an undetermined type flew overhead, remnants of the yearly raptor migration numbering in the millions. Quickly descending the mountain we found ourselves back in town, adventured out and ready for lunch. The waterfall remained out of sight this time around, but the jungle trek was well worth it. The sights and sounds of this piece of rain forest were an unique and engrossing experience, and we look forward to Cameron finding the trail and starting his business – tree-houses surrounded by miles of rain forest waiting to be explored.

A small beetle looks back at us

Old Reef Farm, or TRY ALL the tropical fruits!

A few kilometers from Cahuita is a farm where over a hundred different fruits grow, nurtured by the warmth of the tropical environment and the caring hands of the family that owns the land. Old Reef Farm has been around for a long time, but a few years ago Ramón came to the premises with the interest of collecting as many different fruits as possible. He now runs tours of the farm, where you can try fruits both familiar and foreign and pick as much as you can carry for 10,000 colones (~$18 USD). What you’ll find at the farm will vary by season, but here’s a sampling of what we had when we visited in November:

Achacha, yellow mangosteen – A tangy, golf-ball sized fruit common in South America that tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a pineapple. The rind itself is bitter, but when pulled off reveals a sweet white pulp that surrounds a large seed. Discarded rinds can be pureed with water and sugar to make a refreshing summer drink.

The achacha fruit

Ackee – The national fruit of Jamaica and a mainstay in the Caribbean, Ackee is a relative of the lychee. The edible portion of the fruit is the cream-colored bit attached to the black seeds in the pods, which tastes somewhat like a walnut. The immature, closed fruit is highly toxic due to presence of hypoglycin, which is converted in the body to metabolites that inhibit amino acid biosynthesis; fruit must be left to ripen on the tree until it opens, when hypoglycin levels have dropped and it is safe to eat.

Ripe and unripe ackee fruit on a tree. The shiny black things are the seeds in the open pods

Ylang-ylang – This is actually a flower and not a fruit, but it’s too cool to not mention. The ylang-ylang flower is the source of scent prized by many perfumers and is the floral scent of Chanel No. 5. The smell of the flower is intense, but the trees grow only in tropical climates so if you want your own plant get that greenhouse ready.

The ylang-ylang flower

Biriba – A spiky green tropical fruit that in maturity is roughly the size of a grapefruit, it reportedly tastes like lemon merengue pie. This specimen was unripe so we were unable to verify this, so we’ll have to look elsewhere to find some. Because the flesh of the ripe fruit bruises and blackens easily and has a shelf life of only a week, this fruit is hard to get outside of the tropics.

Unripe biriba fruit

Teak, Lipstick Tree – This is a tree more commonly prized for its high-quality wood, but Ramón showed us that the young leaves released a brilliant red dye when rubbed. This dye has long been used to make light red and brown dyes in cotton and as makeup, leading to its common name the “lipstick tree”.

My hand stained with teak. It, uh, went away eventually.

Pitanga – This tropical fruit looks like a wrinkled cherry, and tastes pretty similar! This pair of fruits has a little friend (a salticid).

Pitanga fruits with a tiny jumping spider

Canistel, eggfruit – This bizarre little fruit is both delicious and confusing. It tastes incredibly sweet, almost like the filling of an egg tart, with dry and crumbly texture of egg yolk (hence the name). Each fruit comes with tons of edible “pulp” around a single shiny brown seed. It decays quickly upon maturity, meaning it’s shelf life is short and it’s hard to get outside the tropics.

The eggfruit has both the look and texture of eggfruit, and the taste of egg custard.

Cacao – The undisputed king of all tropical fruits that we tried, cacao is the source of the wonderful substance known as chocolate. The beans that come out of the pod taste NOTHING like chocolate, as cacao goes through a fermenting and roasting process similar to coffee (more on that in another post) to make it not taste awful and astringent.

The cacao pod. This one is likely a forastero strain.

Housed inside this little pod is another treasure, though: the cacao fruit. It exists in a thin layer surrounding each cacao bean, and tastes like a cross between citrus, mango, and pineapple – the ultimate refreshment after a long hike in the tropics. Like an avocado, the cacao fruit discolors soon after the pod is opened, meaning that the fruit can’t travel far and is usually discarded. However, in some places farmers ferment a liquor out of cacao fruit called Solbeso, so if you want to try the flavor and can’t find cacao pods try looking for that.

An opened cacao pod, exposing the beans surrounded by fruit.

That’s all for now! See you later.

– Natalie

The aptly named green-and-black poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus. Unlike the fruit, don’t put this one in your face.