Tag Archives: chocolate tours

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.

IMG_3483

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.

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Searching for Chocolate in Costa Rica: Day 4 – Cacao Trails

This guy welcomes you to the orchid garden before finding your way to cacao trees

This guy welcomes you to the orchid garden before sending off to the cacao trees

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

In the old plantation where Molina has taken hold, the trees thrive while the pods rot before maturity.

In the old plantation where Molina has taken hold, the trees thrive while the pods rot before maturing.

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.

These hybrid pods are thriving and will ripen to maturity

These hybrid pods are thriving and will ripen to maturity

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

Genevieve

Genevieve

Grinds...

grinds

beans

beans

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.

Finished chocolate ready to eat

Finished chocolate ready 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.

Notes:

[1] The standard tour includes an indigenous peoples museum, but we were short on time, so we skipped it.

[2] I paid for the tour and all chocolate myself.