Category Archives: Travel

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?

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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.

Five Chocolate Things to do in and Around Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Neptune guards Puerto Vallarta.  Hey Neptune - pay attention!

Neptune guards Puerto Vallarta with his signature spear. Hey Neptune – pay attention!

IGNORE THE MEXICO TRAVEL ADVISORY?

A week before we boarded the plane, the US State Department issued a travel warning against any non-essential travel to Mexico [1].  As I follow through now with our family vacation in Puerto Vallarta,  I’d like to defend my actions as essential travel.  Dear Dept of State:  If you knew the stress and hard work my wife and I have endured over the last year, you would understand the necessity of this trip.  As far as I can tell, the only way you’re going to get accosted here is by some guy trying to sell you a time share.  And, you wouldn’t know by the airport that people have been scared away from Mexico – the lines in Immigration and Customs were horrendous, but it was a Saturday after all.  Besides the upgraded Malecon – now peacefully closed to vehicle traffic, and the project to widen the sidewalks in the Zona Romantica, everything seems pretty much the same.

Someone said to me before our departure: “Oh, as long as you don’t venture outside of the resort, you’ll be fine.”  Resort?  This is not some artificial all-inclusive Caribbean resort cocoon.  No, we are in the Zona Romantica –  the real thing with its dusty cobblestone streets teaming with semi-retired Canadians and 30-plus gay men, art galleries, open-air restaurants, a few Tequila shops, technicolor Pacific sunsets and an overabundance of beach vendors on Playa de los Muertos all coddled by the gigantic Banderas bay on one side and steep hillsides on the other.  So venture out into the real world I did.  Out to find something chocolate.

This is not as easy as it sounds since Puerto Vallarta is a long way from the epicenter of chocolate in southern Mexico – Oaxaca.  But, with two young children in tow, we were going to stay where it is safe for now.  Here’s what I found.

FINDING CHOCOLATE IN PUERTO VALLARTA

Mexican drinking chocolate disks

Mexican drinking chocolate disks are, for me, too sweet to eat straight, but you could mix them up with milk or water for a traditional drinking chocolate.

1.  Mexican Hot Chocolate Disks of Moyahua – I found these traditional style Mexican chocolate disks in a sweet shop one block off the Malecon.  There were no ingredients on the list, but the guy in the shop said it was 70% cacao.  I tasted it at home and it’s not.  Instead, it’s a typical coarsely ground mix of heavily sugared cacao with a bit of cinnamon taken almost exclusively as a drink.  For me it’s too sweet to even drink as cocoa, but I have a plan to blend it into a mole along with some better chocolate and chili peppers I’ve acquired on this trip.  I have to say it’s better than the disks of Abulita that I found on my last trip to Mexico.  The shop also had a large almond chocolate bar that had cacao as the first ingredient.  Both are 85 pesos.   Dulceria Con Orgullo Azteca, Juarez 449.  The shop is a block or two off the Malecon.

A woman stirs the mole kept warm by charcoal

Chocolate mole is kept warm over charcoal and ready to sample.

2. The Chocolate Mole at El Mole de Jovita –  Head down Basillio Badillo away from the beach and walk right past the highly overrated Joe Jack’s Fish Shack to this authentic mom and pop restaurant three doors down [3].    On a Friday night, we found a young woman stirring a pot of mole sauce ready to blanket a variety of chicken and other dishes from a simple menu.

The exact recipe of any Mexican’s chocolate mole is usually a well guarded secret, but the savory sauce is brought to life by chili peppers and balanced by dark chocolate thrown in at the end.  Other ingredients may include tomatoes, fruits such as raisins, spices and bits of bread or tortillas as thickeners.  They told me this mole  contained something like of 37 different varieties of chili peppers.  Don’t worry, the heat is actually quite mild.

She offered a sample of the sauce on a chip with a few sesame seeds sprinkled over the top.  I found it neither excessively spice nor sweet – nice balance.  The dinning room is open to the street in front for people watching.  With great regrets, we were already waiting on a table next door on the last night of our trip.  I really wished we had gone into this place for a more authentic dinner prepared by a Mexican family.  The reviews on TripAdvisor are excellent.  Next time.  El Mole de Jovita Restaurant, 220 Basillo Badillo.

3. Xocodiva Artisan Chocolates – I blogged on this shop a couple of years ago and it’s great to see that they are still going strong.  Excellent, rich, thick drinking chocolate, chocolate bars, truly artisan truffles and other chocolate confections.  Not cheap, but top notch.  Worth a visit or two, or three for sure.  They’re in the romantic zone next to the San Marino Hotel on Rodolfo Gomez 118.  322-113-0352.

The view over Sayulita, Mexico

The view over Sayulita, Mexico

The Choco Banana will fuel your body for surfing.

The Choco Banana will fuel your body for surfing.

4. ChocoBanana, Sayulita.   We did venture out on the highway north of the bay to this picturesque and vibrant surfing village.  One of the better coffee shop / cafes is ChocoBanana along the main road in the center of town.  We never did get to try the namesake banana because noise from the nearby sidewalk construction drove us out.  None-the-less, there’s lots to do in Sayulita besides eating, like shopping, lying in the sun or learning to surf!  Surf lessons abound on the beach as well as laid-back beach eateries and chairs to rent.  The crowd is mixed, but definitely younger than in PV.

We took the 75 minute taxi ride up from the Zona Romantica for about 650 pesos plus tip and then decided to take the public bus back for about 80 pesos (for two adults and two children).  The bus was fine.  We had to stand for about 5 minutes, then another 30 minutes with kids in our laps and then the rest of the 90 minute ride with our own seats as the bus emptied out.  Without children, it’s a no-brainer to take the bus.  Catch it at the airport or at the Wal-Mart.

Chocolate Creme Tequila

Even the least cloying of the chocolate creme tequilas was just OK. Find out for yourself by tasting small samples at the store.

5.  Chocolate Cream Tequila Liqueur –  I had read there was a chocolate tequila available in PV, but there was not much information to go by.  I’m not really a tequila drinker, but the chocolate twist sounded intriguing and conjured up images of some Mexican craftsman extracting cacao beans into a traditional distilled agave spirit.   I found a large tequila shop, Tequila Arrecife, on Olas Allas one block south of the Los Arcos hotel on the opposite side.

A salesman with excellent English ran through the options – about 4-5 tequila-based chocolate liqueurs with a few, but not all available to taste.  Think Bailey’s Irish Creme, but with chocolate flavor and a backbone of tequila.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but I was on a mission, so I picked up one that was the least sweet – Mayakoba Crema de Chocolate al Tequila.  This liqueur used silver tequila base and the flavor was sweet and heady.  I found it a little disturbing that there were some bits of solids floating around despite my vigorous shaking.  At only 28 proof, this is not much stronger than wine.  I could see taking this as a dessert drink or pouring it over ice cream.

You can expect to pay about $30-40 US for 750 mL unless you are more patient than I was, you and can get a better deal.  If they quote you in US dollars, then pay in dollars.  Otherwise, pay close attention to the exchange they are using for Pesos and make sure it matches the local exchange you paid…or walk away (tell them you are going to get some dollars and think about it).

Tequila Arrecife has only been open for three months and has no sign, but it’s too big to miss.  There are also plenty of smaller shops on the Malecon including some branches of Tequila Arrecife.  411 Calle Olas Altas. P.  222-0984.

TO RETURN TO MEXICO OR NOT?

Still recovering from travel now, we haven’t yet decided whether we will go back to Mexico next year.   We went to Costa Rica ten years ago and then again in 2011 and both were wonderful experiences.  But recent reports are that Costa Rica is becoming over priced as everyone afraid to travel in Mexico is fleeing further south for vacation.  On the other hand, Puerto Vallarta has its unique charms that might not be apparent to the unobservant.  It’s like a museum that can’t decide whether to show classical art, contemporary art or natural history.  It’s all there along with crumbling wings under repair and a hidden security system that, for the most part,  keeps the bandits out.

Notes

[1] The warning is detailed state by state and includes the state of Jalisco where Puerto Vallarta lies.   But the general warning also states:  “…there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes.”  If you read the fine print on Jalisco, it says that the trouble there is in areas bordering other states.  Until drug dealers have a reason to go off their beaten drug route, PV will remain unscathed and safe, in my opinion.

[2] At first I was going to recommend that you visit Joe Jack’s Fish Shack and have their Mexican Hot Chocolate for desert.  The drink has improved over the years and gone from an overly sweet, heavily cinnamon-laced drink to a thick, rich melted dark chocolate with rum.  The pros on Joe Jack’s:  the roof terrace.  The cons:  It’s overflowing with a clueless crowd that seems to seek dumbed-down, tasteless Mexican food, the wait is ridiculous, and the service is slow.  We went there on our last night in PV and were “overlooked” by the manager while waiting for a table so that we had to wait on the street almost an hour even though we had arrived at 5:15!  If you judge a sushi restaurant by its rice, then you judge a Mexican restaurant by its guacamole. The guacamole at Joe Jack’s is a half-hearted effort to mash some avocado with tomatoes and onions.  Case closed.  “But it’s not a Mexican restaurant,” you say?  Right, it’s a kind of overpriced Mexican fusion pub.  Still not worth the wait.  We’re done with Joe Jack’s.  The manager did give us a free coconut pie for desert only after endless complaining on our part.  Thanks man.  It was the right thing to do, but we’re done.