My morning cup of joe triggers visions of gardens now that I’ve strolled the stately rows of coffee beans growing in Costa Rica.
My occasional cup of chocolate opens real-time views of ancient trade routes and musings about modern-day chocolate pioneers.
Sure you can travel to Costa Rica for luxurious resort indulgences along the Pacific Ocean, and hike in the handsome national forests and volcano sites. I chose a different route with my two grown sons, their wives and two little granddaughters. We rented a simple house in a community along a black-sand beach on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, a five-hour drive from the airport in San Jose. Our neighbors were mostly Bri Bri indigenous people, Rastafarians from Jamaica and long-term travelers with light luggage staying in hostels. The four-year old went to the local elementary school for three weeks of language immersion and her mother spent every morning in private Spanish lessons. Together, all seven of us marveled that we could explore a chocolate forest in our neighborhood for an afternoon excursion.
The highlight? Sipping a sacred Mayan ceremonial chocolate high in this forest, overlooking waters that once carried boats of spice traders. Until 1850, we learned, chocolate was a drink only.
The design of the tour at Caribeans is forest-to-bar. Cacao trees struggled with a fungus in the 1980s, wiping out the fruit. Today in Puerto Viejo, a forest full of chocolate beans is growing sustainably thanks to two families committed to fair trade, hiring local indigenous people at fair wages. As my tour guide, co-owner Paul Johnson, said: “We are farming consciously, caring for heirloom trees.” He’ll hand you a big pod; yellow means it’s ripe. It’s hard to see how the white, slimy substance inside relates to luscious chocolate.
My eight-year-old granddaughter, who assumed a chocolate forest would be tastier looking than this pod, was mystified … and challenged, waiting for a flavor she’d want. We learn later that fermentation makes the difference. That came after an hour or so of walking, some uphill and all in a mix of sun and shade to match the light patterns cacao trees need: 50/50 is their preferred ratio.
Wear real shoes, not beach flip-flops. Long sleeves are not a bad idea either, or something to repel the biting midges. Since this is a sustainable heirloom operation, I’d recommend organic.
Mango Walk, a colorful sign along the way, reflects Afro-Carib language where “fruit means walk” according to Johnson. Mango also provides the name of lodgings within the forest where you can rent a room for two nights or a two-bedroom house for six nights.
Any time is a good time to visit, because cacao trees provide two harvests: April, May, June and again in September, October, November. Flower to fruit takes three or four months.
Funny, my granddaughters thought to consider chocolate a fruit! Fine, I thought, to consider farmers, chocolatiers and artisans one and the same.
Do you struggle with currency conversion as you travel? Here’s a specific, pertinent experience from my encounters to give the ATM new meaning. At the time of my Costa Rica visit, 50,000 colonas equalled 100 US dollars. The chocolate forest farm I toured paid 1,500 colonas per hour, believing in fair trade they said, respecting five generations of cacao work by the BriBri people, and the Kekoldi.
Until my multi-generational family journey involving the perfect chocolate beverage, I never considered currency conversion equations in the local community fair trade wages way.
“Ancient pathways are the connection,” Johnson says. “We want to pay for generational knowledge as we become the learners.”
Gave me a new grasp of fair trade and the fullness of all that might mean.
We who travel to experience wine know an estate experience ties us to the land of the grapes, and the owners, vintners and vinologists. In the chocolate world, that appears to be true too.
Caribeans, our guide Johnson says, “is becoming the Napa of chocolate.” Take the tour, taste it all, book a week of artisanal cooking classes, stay on site. If you do, muse awhile near the saba tree. In Guatemala this is the national tree; in Costa Rica’s chocolate forest, the saba tree expresses a belief the land is blessed. I suggested to my granddaughters that they believe so. Imagine giving new life to the notion of blessing — leave the US and embrace the wisdom of other eons of time.
Top of the road, above that saba tree, the tour rests … drinks the ancient Aztec chocolate (recipe initiated by the Maya) … and savors.
We gaze over a vista of forest and water, learning that this is a canoe curve of the spice trade route. Then we pair spices with chocolate. Twelve spices.
“Connect your tongue to your brain to recall notes of flavor.” The tasting advice in this Costa Rican chocolate forest carried over to my more mercantile, urban experience in search of coffee.
Jasmine filters into coffee notes for me now, knowing the white flowers that bloom in the April rainy season tie coffee plants to the gardenia family.
Britt, the company whose tour I took, is sophisticated and tech-savvy yet personal, with a tour guide who seemed as willing to field questions as to share details from a well-learned script. This is a walking tour on smooth paths through gentle gardens and a stage show with humorous twists. It’s also a cooking show and life-size puppet collection, reflecting the history of spoofing conquistadores to ease land-ownership resentment.
Britt has a big shop in the San Jose airport, and a big shop on the tour grounds. Tasting is available all day, with detailed information about eight roasts: their names and notes, shade grown, and whether or not they are organic. Slurping is encouraged so that you experience the flavor at the back of your palate. Air over the taste buds enhances the flavor, I was told.
These coffee plants are independent; they self-pollinate, they don’t cross over. Each one takes a year to reach 18 inches, they are then fine to transplant, and then in two more years they are ready to harvest. Hand harvesting is hard work — plucking red ripe beans and putting them in a basket. Fermentation starts right away.
Pura vida (pure life) as they say in Costa Rica.
If you go
Photos and Captions All photos by Christine Tibbetts
1943 Ancient Mayan chocolate drink recipe adapted by the Aztecs is served in the Caribeans chocolate forest in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.
1926 An open chocolate pod astonishes travelers because it looks so un-chocolate.
1943 Spice traders sought chocolate and coffee beans, and one of their routes is visible from the chocolate forest on the Caribbean ocean side.
1949 A dozen spices complement bits of chocolate in distinctly different ways during a tasting on the Caribeans walking tour.
1906 The Mango Walk sign entices visitors toward a forest of heirloom trees, sustainably grown, and also toward lodging.
1917 “We are farming consciously, caring for heirloom trees,” Caribeans co-owner Paul Johnson, left, tells Atlanta visitor Andrew Tibbetts.
#1886 and 1887 Playa Negra, one of the many beaches in the region, is all black sand. Many others are crisp and white.
COFFEE PHOTOS IN SAN JOSE
2257 Colorful carts to transport coffee beans lend a note of history on the Britt coffee tour in San Jose.
2250 Puppet heads and life size puppet characters fill a garden leading in to the Britt tour, evoking an earlier era.
2271, 2263 and 2266 Visitors can touch the coffee beans and taste the coffee on tours of the plantation gardens.