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?

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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.

Searching for Chocolate Near Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica – 8 Tips for Your San Jose Layover

Fruit stand on highway to PV

The road to Puerto Viejo is lined with fruit stands, banana plantations, and the occasional restaurant, but get some rest before the drive.

The first night in San Jose

It’s been a while since our last trip to Costa Rica, but since many of you are about to head down again, I’d like to share a little of our experience in San Jose. Our ultimate destination was Puerto Viejo where we searched for local chocolate, but the five-hour drive to this idyllic beach-town required a night in San Jose on both ends.  Why?  Well, this is not a drive I would want to start in the dark – the city is confusing at night and unless you know Spanish, finding someone to get clear directions would be hit-or-miss at best.  So, get some rest and head out in the morning.   Here are some tips to make for a more comfortable transition.

A flight delay put us on the ground at midnight only to find no one at the airport rental car desk even though we called them from Miami to confirm they would wait.  The next day we learned that Economy Rental Car didn’t hold our car as promised and were not willing to give us the original rate.  After over an hour of negotiation, we left the city rental office with a small SUV and started our adventure.  Tip #1:  before you head over to any rental car office, get a firm price on the phone, get the name of the person you’re talking to and ask them how long they will hold the car.  When you meet them face-to-face, be prepared to argue persistently with the person you talked to on the phone when their story changes, if you can find them.  Tip #2: don’t do business with Economy in Costa Rica.  I don’t know about the other car rental agencies, but these guys simply don’t play straight.

Tip #3:  Accept the fact that small problems are a normal part of travelling.  My rule is that something always goes wrong on a trip.  The best thing to do is don’t sweat it and be happy to get any minor disaster out of the way early.  Keep in mind that you are in a kind of paradise, so it’s all good.

Where to Stay in San Jose, Costa Rica

TIP #4: A far more pleasant experience was our overnight stay at Out of Bounds B&B. Recommendation by our American expatriate friend, this place was comfortable, reasonable and well situated – only 20 minutes from the international airport.  The rooms were clean and smartly decorated.  Most of all, the owners, a couple from Canada and Costa Rica, were extra helpful – jumping in to assist with our rental car mix up and providing advice on alternative transportation to Puerto Viejo.  Breakfast was served outdoors on the second-floor balcony with a view of the tropical hillsides.  At the time, rates ranged from $80 to $125 per night for standard and deluxe rooms, but may vary by season.

Arenal Brochure

A brochure for an Arenal Volcano tour combined with local hot springs. Costa Rica's most active volcano started its most recent eruption in 1968.

This place is hard to find in the dark, so I would recommend getting a taxi from the airport to the inn (can be arranged through Out of Bounds in advance) and then getting your rental car the next day.  You can also hire a taxi or van to take you all the way from San Jose to Puerto Viejo (cost varies depending upon the size of car required, but will be north of $100 ).  If you are travelling light, the Grey Line bus is only $35.  At your destination, you may also be able to hire a car for a few days, rather than the whole trip.

What to see around San Jose, Costa Rica

A top priority on my bucket list is to see Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal which is northwest of San Jose.  TIP #5: It can be done as a day trip, but I would recommend staying overnight near Arenal so you can get a chance to observe the eruption at night, from afar.  Expediciones Tropicales offers tours including hot springs near the volcano and overnight packages.  Or, you can drive up on your own schedule.

TIP #6: If you don’t have much time, you can visit the Britt Coffee Plantation and Factory.  Our friends took this tour at the end of their trip and walked on the plane all loaded up with genuine Costa Rican gifts: bags of coffee beans.

Red Velvet at Cupcake Cafe

The Red Velvet was our favorite at Cupcake Cafe, San Jose

Mary Little helps us decide at Cupcake Cafe

Mary Little helps us decide

TIP #7: If you are in the city, give your feet a rest and stop to check out Cupcake Cafe.  Owner Mary Little goes far beyond the run of the mill cupcake and makes some wonderful and creative indulgences with flavors such as Chocolate Brownie with Leche Dolce, Zucchini, and our favorite, Red Velvet.  Of course they also  have a serious espresso machine to make the perfect complement to your frosting-topped treat using the best coffee from the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica.  The clean and lively decor will stimulate your conversation and plans for the next great adventure.  Cupcake Cafe: Mon. – Fri. 11AM-7PM, Sat. 11PM-5PM.  Tel: 2224-5563

There’s so much more to do around San Jose.  For more ideas, ask your innkeepers, Meranda and Matteo.

Destination: Puerto Viejo

For us, the ultimate destination was the secluded sea-side town of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.  TIP #8: If you’re looking for some chocolate tours in or around Puerto Viejo, take a look at this earlier post.