Any coffee lover knows that some of the best coffee beans in the world come from Costa Rica. But did you know that Cacao beans are also abundant in Costa Rica and are also considered to be some of the best in the world?
Cacao beans were farmed regularly on the Caribbean coast until about 50 years ago. At that point, a disastrous fungus killed off many of the plants and entire plantations were abandoned and the jungle to simply took over. But before that, entire communities and cultures were built around the production of cacao. Cacao beans were currency from the days of Columbus for several hundred years. To many local, indigenous people this plant was sacred and remains so to this day.
One man, a Minnesota native who now calls Costa Rica home, is on a mission to make artisan chocolate production a foodie experience on par with wine, cheese or coffee. His chocolate tour in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica is an absolute must do for any slow food or wine/coffee enthusiast.
How to find Caribeans in Puerto Viejo
Like most things in Puerto Viejo, directions are relative to another building, sign or landmark. In the case of Caribeans, it’s a few minutes south of Puerto Viejo town next to Tasty Waves. Look for an abandoned blue car and plenty of signage saying “Caribeans chocolate forest tour” and “Hostel”.
Here you’ll find a coffee shop and hostel where you sign up for the tour. There are 7 group tours held each week. Price is about $20 per adult and you can find more details on their site here.
Grab an iced coffee and some vegan banana bread while you wait for the tour to begin.
The Resurrection of a Cacao Plantation
As you’re driving around Puerto Viejo, trying to read signs and not collide with the constant stream of bikers, pedestrians and ATVs, it’s hard to imagine what’s hiding in the thick jungle, just a few feet from the road.
But on this Puerto Viejo Coffee tour you head up into the hills on foot, and while you’ll be sweating while climbing this hill on most days it’s well worth the effort.
As you learn about the history of this area as a cacao plantation and how they have resorted the primary forest which was at one point cut down for coffee farming and today use no pesticides or fertilizers as they have created a natural balance in the ecosystem for the cacao plants.
You’ll also be able to spot poison dart frogs, hawks and learn about the difference between primary and secondary forest. With plenty of rests along the way, you’ll slowly make your way to the top of the hill.
Production of Gourmet Chocolate
Chocolate in Puerto Viejo is produced using ancient methods. Raw beans are fermented in wooden boxes, and then transported to flat trays to dry in the sun.
Next, they are roasted using surprisingly simple methods as well. This tour walks you through step by step, giving you hands-on opportunities to taste the raw beans, feel the dried beans and taste the cacao nibs as they turn into liquid chocolate.
I was amazed to learn that these methods, while ancient, for the proprietor of Caribeans is entirely self taught. Using a combination of Google, online forums and lengthy conversations with elders from the local, indigenous communities who grew cacao over 50 years ago before the blight, he’s pieced together what is today one of the only production facilities of it’s kind.
Carbbeans is one of the only places where cacao is grown, harvested and made into chocolate bars today. Traditionally, the beans are grown and harvested and send to Europe for production. He feels it’s critically important to constantly improving the quality of the product for everything to be managed in one location.
The team should be able to experience the fruits of their labor.
Three-Course Chocolate Tasting
The highlight of the tour is the chocolate tasting. After a slow hike up a big hill, you are rewarded with stunning views of the coastline and the jungle-covered mountains while you sit in the shade with a well-deserved glass of cool water.
Next, you’re taken through a 3 course chocolate tasting. Even our hot, tired kids perked up for this.
First, we tasted four different varieties of 72% cacao chocolate. All four were made using the exact same production method and recipe, yet each bar tasted extremely different. Labels told us who the grower was, and Paul explained that similar to the terroir in wine, the soil and exact location where the beans grew has a significant impact on the final taste.
Next, we enjoyed a toast to Pura Vida, the cry of the pure life in Costa Rica, with liquid chocolate spiked with traditional spices.
Finally, we did a chocolate tasting, including over 20 flavors and spices. We were encouraged to mix flvors with chocolate to see what we liked best. Combinations like curry, sea salt and ginger or coffee and vanilla with the chocolate were highlights.
We all came away having learned something about cacao production, saw a unique side of Costa Rica and ate our fair share of chocolate for the day. This was an excellent outing if you’re traveling with kids to Costa Rica and Puerto Viejo in particular.
Have you had pure, artisan chocolate at the source before? What did you think?