El Viejo Wetlands offers tours of its ox-operated sugar mill. // © 2013 Kelly Rosenfeld
Costa Rica’s El Viejo Wetlands set up a 5,000-acre sanctuary for native wildlife species in the tropical dry forest, where visitors can take tours of one of Costa Rica’s most unique ecosystems. On a morning riverboat tour of the area, I was lucky enough to see howler monkeys, crocodiles, giant iguanas and too many species of birds to try and recount.
An unexpected part of my tour at the El Viejo Wetlands was the chance to learn about the production of sugar in colonial Costa Rica. El Viejo is home to one of the largest sugar mills in the country: a traditional ox-operated sugar mill (called a trapiche). During the process, the ox is hooked up to the machinery and walked around in a circle. The operators feed stalks of sugar cane into the center of the machinery while the ox applies the pressure, allowing the machine to squeeze out the usable parts of the sugar cane from the plant.
This was the first time I had ever seen the long, wood-like stalks of sugar cane, let alone witnessed any part of the process of producing sugar. I even got to try sugar cane juice that was squeezed from the stalks right in front of me, as well as some samples of candy made from the sugar cane.