An Archer Travels: Cacao Tour

Hello again! We’ve left “vacation” behind and are getting settled into the next three months in Colombia, but I want to share more about Costa Rica now that we have reliable internet.

One of the coolest things we did in Costa Rica was tour the Museo Nacional de Cacao, aka “Cacao Trails.” It’s less a museum and more a working plantation of organic bananas (sold to Germany, apparently!) and cacao that is also used to educate and entertain tourists.

We arrived early, about 8:30 am, but it was already 90 degrees with what felt like 95% humidity. Fortunately, there was a nice breeze. Our guide Humberto kindly reduced the length (and cost) of the typical two-hour tour to accommodate our kid, and after paying a very reasonable $30 (usually $25/each) we were off to explore the plantation.

This plantation grows the Criollo variety of cacao, which is 52% oil and 1% caffeine. Each tree produces thousands of teeny, tiny flowers, which rely on mosquitoes to pollinate them during a two-day window. After that it’s eight months until the fruit is about the size of a Nerf football, turning from green or red to yellow when ripe. Of those thousands of flowers, only about 40-50 cacao fruits reach maturity per tree per bi-annual harvest. Humberto explained that many other species love cacao, including the local Capuchin species of monkey, and that they are constantly planting a variety of trees and other plants to support native species.

Humberto pointed out all sorts of local flora and fauna. Right away we saw a caiman (a small crocodile) and several Howler monkeys. Just as we started walking they started bellowing a great, full-bellied howl that took me by surprise with how loud it was. We saw them swing and jump from tree to tree throughout our entire tour, and it was the highlight for Mae.

In addition to the many cool animals, we also got to taste some of what the tropics have to offer. First, Humberto pulled up a young palm shoot and encouraged us to take a bite; here was heart of palm, fresh from the source! He also opened up a ripe cacao fruit and had us each take a segment and suck on it; raw cacao beans are covered in a white flesh that tastes like passion fruit, pineapple, and banana had a baby.

Speaking of bananas, we learned that there are nine varieties of bananas in Costa Rica, including the “Square” (the fruits seemed to have four sides) and the “1,000 fingers” (small fruit which grew in incredibly long, tight bunches). We learned that bananas are very fast-growing and are ready for their first harvest just one year after they are planted. While we were there, we kept hearing low planes overhead: crop dusters for the neighboring non-organic banana plantation. Here’s a plug for buying organic bananas: they are easy to find, cost almost the same, and don’t contribute (as much) to the pollution of waterways and negative health impacts on local populations of birds, insects, animals, and humans.

You better believe we ate some bananas – with the chocolate they prepared for us from start to finish! First they built a fire using wood gathered from the forest floor on a sturdy metal stove and roasted the cacao beans until they popped like popcorn. Then the beans went into a manually cranked machine that cracked the shells, after which Humberto expertly and swiftly sifted them in a motion similar to panning for gold – the light shell fragments flew out of the pan and the heavier cacao bits stayed behind. From there the cacao went into another hand-cranked press to pulverize it, and then back onto the fire with some vanilla and a touch of pure sugar evaporated from sugar cane. Humberto’s colleague, whose name I sadly missed, mixed and mixed and mixed until it was the right consistency, and then pressed small mounds of it into fresh banana leaves for us to use as plates.

HOLY CACAO, that chocolate was good. It was still warm from the pot, soft and rich and honestly beyond description. Eaten with a thin slice of banana, it was truly perfect. All three of us ate a great quantity of it and then they sent us home with the rest plus a banana so we could replicate the experience at home, which we did the next morning.

If you ever have the opportunity to tour a cacao plantation and watch the very involved process of getting raw cacao into palatable chocolate, we highly recommend it!