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. 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?
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 .
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.
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.
 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.
 The shop and the factory are separately owned and operated, but work closely together.