Category Archives: Costa Rica

The Chocolate Forest Experience in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica – A Tour with a View

Pod on tree puerto viejo crp

…It never ceases to amaze me when I find a cacao pod growing straight out of the trunk of a tree

A few years back, I went searching for chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and found some enjoyable and informative tours that explored chocolate making, history and ecology.  Of course, they all had some form of chocolate sampling too.  Upon my most recent return to Costa Rica, I found that a small cafe and chocolate shop, Caribeans, had moved out of the center of Puerto Viejo and closer to Playa Cocles where they started running tours through their “chocolate forest” and factory.  I’ll do a review of Caribeans chocolate later, but for now, here’s what I found on a walk among the cacao trees above Puerto Viejo.

We started off the main road across from the beach.  It was a sunny, dry day that was not so hot as to distract us with thoughts of splashing in the waves.  The first part of the tour was a slow walk alongside heirloom cacao trees hidden among the jungle vegetation.  Most of their trees are Trinatario, a fine variety that’s resistant to the “black rot” fungus that devastated the Caribbean cacao industry during the last century.  They continue to work on restoration of trees through grafting of disease-resistant varieties in a process that takes more than five years.

Carribeans tour pod

Our expert tour guide, Jeff, offers a sample from a freshly-cut Costa Rican cacao pod

Our guide explained the biology of the trees and cacao history of the area while stopping frequently to answer questions.  There was a relaxed, informal, we-have-all-day-to do-this feeling that permeates life in Puerto Viejo.  At one stop, we opened a cacao pod and ate the raw bean surrounded by its mildly sweet citrus-like pulp.  It was nothing like the chocolate that we were about to taste at the top of the hill, but still something that you need to experience if you want to understand where chocolate comes from.

I’ll avoid too many spoilers here and leave a the rest for you to discover.  Let’s just say you will learn more about how cacao is harvested and turned into chocolate both during your hike and when you visit the chocolate “lab” where the bars are produced.

A Chocolate Tasting with a View

View over sea crop

Pull up a stool, breath in the view, and taste some chocolate!

What made this tour stand out was the arresting view from high in the jungle looking out to the coastline.  What an exceptional setting to taste single-origin Costa-Rican chocolate!  Our group sat comfortably in the shade on a deck perched above the trees.  The tasting begins with several single-origin and single-estate dark chocolates.  Everyone gets a healthy-sized slab to nibble, ponder and discuss.  Caribean’s is ethically sourcing cacao from around the area and many of their bars bear the names of the cacao farmers that produced the beans.

Carribeans chocolate tasting

Pairing chocolate with foods and seasonings

The tasting also includes a shot of drinking chocolate and an exploration of flavor pairings. We stepped up to an array of herbs, spices and seasonings and combined them with tiny squares of chocolate in a fascinating exploration of flavor synergy.   This was good fun and evoked more conversation among the group.  Chocolate plus sea salt?  Done that.  Chocolate plus coriander and chili pepper?  That’s interesting.  You can take it in a familiar or strange direction, but either way, it’s a sweet exploration.

 

Is the tour suitable for kids?

IMG_3460

Poison dart frogs greeted us on the path to chocolate

I brought my almost 7 year-old chocolate connoisseur on the tour which lasts about 2-3 hours. It was a bit long for him, but he was a real good sport and was motivated by anticipation of the chocolate tasting at the end despite the somewhat sophisticated slant.   He’s no stranger to single-origin dark chocolate so the rewards at the tasting were well received indeed.

Also, the jungle life found along the trail aided his excitement including red poison dart frogs and a tree with giant thorns menacingly protruding straight out of its trunk.  The hiking is not at all strenuos with many stops along a wide path winding up the hill.  Still, good shoes are recommended – not flip-flops.

You know your kids best, so you can judge.  I would say in general, 10 and up would be a more appropriate age, but if your kids are really into chocolate – dark chocolate – then younger kids may find it enjoyable.

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Kai spots cacao beans drying in the sun

The Best Chocolate Tour in Puerto Viejo?

Each of the five or so chocolate tours in the area has its own merits for sure.  The Chocolate Forest Experience rises to the the top of the list of those I’ve tried so far due to the quality of the chocolate, the picturesque, relaxed setting for the tasting and the convenient location.  Most people staying in the area could easily ride their bike there if not walk.  It also doesn’t hurt that all the people in the operation are super nice.  Other tours offer a make-your-own chocolate experience and yet another is given by local people, adding a sense of authenticity and direct connection with the culture.  If you have limited time, I would place the Chocolate Forest Experience high on your list.

With a slowly evolving chocolate tourism industry in greater Puerto Viejo, the area may just be shaping up to be a sort of Napa Valley of chocolate.  This is, in fact, the vision of Caribean’s owner, Paul Johnson, something I hope to write about soon.  Until then, The Chocolate Forest Experience tour runs five days a week: Mon., Tue., Thu., Fri., Sat.  For more information, visit their website.

Note: I paid for this tour myself and was given no consideration, monetary or otherwise for the review.

Searching for Chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica: Day 5 – CARIBEANS

Caribeans Coffee, Chocolate and Ice Cream

Caribeans Coffee, Chocolate and Ice Cream

Update:  Caribeans has moved and reopened as a “Chocolate Tasting Lounge” in Playa Cocles just south of Puerto Viejo proper. I paid a short visit in February of 2015 and I’m pleased to report both the chocolate and the space have improved. Check it out.   I  try to do another review soon.   As the last day of our trip approached, the rain started and continued all night and into the day as if to prove beyond a doubt that we were in a real rain forest. This was our cue to find a decent coffee shop – one with an espresso machine but without the continuous party music of the popular reggae bar and grill, Tex Mex.   Caribeans is a little coffee and ice cream shop in town right near the water.  We were told it’s got the best coffee in Puerto Viejo, so with little time to spare, we went straight there.

Don’t expect air conditioning and all dangling blown-glass lights with well-coordinated furniture like Starbucks- if that’s what you need you should probably vacation in Miami instead[1].  Like so many places in Puerto Viejo, this is some kind of converted house or maybe fishshack and has taken on a sandy, organic character of its own.  You can enjoy your drink inside while surfing the web at one of the free internet computers, you can sit out in front and listen to the waves, or you can park yourself at a couple of small tables by the water and watch the surfers over at Playa Negro.

The place serves up a few of life’s basic necessities:  coffee, ice cream and chocolate.  Beyond that they also had baking bars, roasted cacao nibs, tee-shirts and other accessories.  The chocolate comes in an array of flavors including orange, cardamom and other experiments.   Since it was mid-afternoon, I decided to get something cold – an iced cappuccino and sit by the water while my son teased the waves.

But I had two missions this day – one to find some decent java and another to figure out where the chocolate in Puerto Viejo was really coming from.  Clearly the Cocoa House could only make enough for their on-site sales and a bit of rough stuff for exfoliating at the spas, while Cacao Trails couldn’t possibly grow enough cacao for all their tours and Echo Books, despite their fresh and refined results, was clearly not doing bean-to-bar in the back room.  Would the chocolate at Caribeans turn out to be identical to one of the others?  Where is the chocolate factory?

Caribeans owner

The author with beach head in full bloom talks with Caribeans owner, Kees.

To get a handle on this,  I caught up with the owner, Kees Hessels, an energetic and optimistic guy who gave me a quick tour of the place.  Kees is active in the community working on a mission to bring fairly traded goods from the indigenous people to a broader market.  Kees explained that they used to have a chocolate factory at the shop until recently when their refining machine failed in a blaze of exploding chocolate glory spewing chocolate all over the walls and ceiling. They’ve since moved the factory off site which is just as well since they have bigger equipment now and can make more chocolate [2].

Organic, Fair Trade Chocolate

It seems that the chocolate factory has eluded me once again, but the chocolate hasn’t.  With a plane to catch, there was no time for a full-on tasting, but I did take some notes on their Organic 80% Dark Chocolate bar.

 

Caribeans Bar

WHAT:  Caribeans Organic Fair Trade Dark Chocolate. 80% Cacao. 25g.  Ingredients: cacao organico y azucar. Where to buy:  Fly to Costa Rica and drive 4-5 hours south from San Jose to Puerto Viejo.  Take the first left over the bridge into town.   Say hi to Kees when you get there.

WHEN:  March 1, 2011

AROMA:  Oh yeah. I’m going to call this the Talamanca aroma from now on – roasted ham, leather, coffee and  tobacco out the wahzoo .  This appears to be characteristic of cacao from this region and is perhaps the best thing about it.  The scent of the stuff now brings back wonderful memories of Costa Rica.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS:  Earthy, peat, coffee.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Peat turns into cappuccino.

FINISH:  The fruit arrives early in the finish in the form of slight melon and banana.  The very end is black tea.

TEXTURE:  A bit of a crunch which is typical of the chocolate making style of this area.  You can think of it as more of a minimally processed approach or a traditional Caribbean style. Either way, if done well, you get more of the fruitiness and raw tartness of the original bean.

After tasting this chocolate, I don’t think this bar has anything  to do with any of the others – at least the factory is not the same.  As for the beans, some may be grown just a couple of miles away at Global Creek, a place where you can go for Ecological Tours, but everyone also points to the inland mountains as the source of most beans.   That makes sense since the coastal plantations were devastated by fungus a few decades ago – a tragedy whose effects are only slowly waning.

I could go for a little more sugar and vanilla in this chocolate bar, but it would also work well with coffee as is.  Yes – I’m seeing now –  like a pure chocolate biscotti.  The cardamom bar should work especially well.  Now I have a reason to go back to Caribeans and get a good hot cappuccino to enjoy next to a cardamom dark chocolate bar while sitting out by the waves.  Maybe another trip is just what’s in order to unravel the mystery of where the cacao is coming from, how the chocolate is made … and why.

If you want to try Costa Rician chocolate, but can’t get to Puerto Viejo any time soon, try Theo’s Single-Origin Costa Rica bar.

[1] I have nothing against Miami – been there, done that, but it’s miles away from Puerto Viejo, physically and culturally.  One is polished, highly developed and chic (with a bit of a dark underbelly) and another authentic, raw, real and grasping, we hope successfully, onto its roots for dear life against a steady gentle breeze of change.

[2] The shop and the factory are separately owned and operated, but work closely together.

[3] I did the tasting for review before I left Costa Rica.
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