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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.