Cacao Trails Chocolate Tour, Costa Rica
I started the day in great anticipation of doing a big chocolate tour – this one without kids. After the babysitter was set, we zoomed up north along the well-potholed roads to the Cacao Trails Chocolate Factory and Cultural Museum. Only 15 minutes from the beach, it’s an easy drive from Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. If you don’t have a car you can still get there on an arranged tour. Ask your hotel or innkeeper for details.
Starting in a tropical garden
We lucked out and had an almost private tour with a Swiss couple joining us part way. The guide led us through the bright, but comfortable Caribbean sun down a trail through an orchid garden, traditional medicine garden, banana trees and cacao trees. Costa Rica is home to over 1000 different species of orchids and someone had spent time planting 25 or so of them in this garden. Stepping into the traditional medicine garden we were shown the infamous noni fruit, respected by locals for it’s curative powers, but infamous for its odor. One quick whiff and I realized it’s the only thing I’ve smelled outside of China that’s reminiscent of stinky tofu. After a quick look at how sugar was extracted from cane back in the day, we found our way to the cacao trees.
The Return of Chocolate to the Caribbean Coast
Sometime in the late 70s, cacao farming was decimated by the Monila fungus bringing the chocolate industry on the Caribbean coast to a screeching halt. Some cacao farming continued in the mountains, but the moist air by the sea allowed the fungus to flourish. Eventually these cacao plantations were replaced by bananas, an irony since cacao had itself replaced bananas in the 1920’s when Panama disease killed off the banana trees.
Much to our delight, the folk at Cacao Trails have been experimenting with hybrids of different cacao species – trinitario, criollo and forestero, and have found a blend that’s disease resistant. We were able to walk among healthy cacao trees with growing pods of different colors. We also strolled past the old plantation, the oldest on the coast, and saw the live cacao trees, decades old, with rotting fruit affected by Monila. It was still great to see the beauty of a cacao farm that is lost on many people – that the trees can grow in the shad of the rain forest, allowing all the tropical birds, monkeys and sloths to thrive in their natural environment. Unlike banana plantations which require clear cutting before planting, cacao, and hence chocolate, is an environmentally friendly food if cultivated properly. It’s wonderful to see a slow revitalization of the cacao industry in Costa Rica as interest in premium and organic chocolate has spiked in recent years.
Making Chocolate by Hand
The most fun came when we helped out with chocolate making the traditional way. Now, “traditional” is in the eye of the beholder. While the afro-Caribbean way would be to grind the roasted beans in something that looks like a meat grinder and then mix it up in a drink with water, we made some kind of a cross between this old way and a rustic European style. After the beans were roasted over a charcoal fire, they are peeled and put through the hand grinder. This pure cocoa, which is oozing with cocoa butter, is mixed with raw sugar, vanilla, rum and dried milk using the back of a spoon and a lot of elbow grease. Finally, the mixture is flattened out into a cake on a wooden cutting board and cut up into pieces for us to eat.
This was one of my favorite chocolates of the trip because I knew it was made fresh – right in front of me – and because it felt more like I was eating a food than a candy – with all its luscious cocoa fat, a bit of smokiness, and chewy-crunchy texture. The guide told us we could have as much as we wanted…and we did. The tour ends with a parting gift – a couple of rum-flavored truffles made from their hand-ground chocolate.
Back home now with sunburns healed and all of our chocolate from Costa Rica eaten, I’m going to raid my stash for some Theo Chocolate single-origin Costa Rica bars and see what kind of memories it brings back.
For basic information about this tour including cost and driving directions, see this summary of chocolate tours in the area.
 The standard tour includes an indigenous peoples museum, but we were short on time, so we skipped it.
 I paid for the tour and all chocolate myself.