Today’s main adventure was a morning Chocolate tour – an activity where you see the process from the cacao bean to the chocolate we know and love. Or at least that’s what we tried to sell the kids. Cacao was one of the major crops in Costa Rica until the 1970s when a fungus killed 80 percent of the Costa Rican trees. It is making a comeback with organic artisanal growers, tourism and educational initiatives.
We combined our chocolate tour with a visit to a clan of the Bribri, an indigenous tribe located in the mountains near Puerto Viejo. We learned how they’ve traditionally used plants for building materials, baskets and medicines. We saw how they lived and learned about their spiritual practices. We explained it was a social studies expedition but the kids still weren’t thrilled by ‘another nature tour with a bunch of plants’. Oh well, Mom and Dad enjoyed it very much.
The community that we went to was approximately 300 people, all extended family. The houses are positioned amongst the plants they rely on for medicines and ones like bananas and plantains they sell. As part of the experience we were invited into their conical house which our guide described as a cross between a church and a hospital. We also had a traditional lunch of chicken, potatoes, yucca and squash served in a leaf bowl and eaten with our hands.
We did, eventually, get to the chocolate part of the day. Cacao, as in most of the indigenous groups in southern Costa Rica and northern Panama, has a special significance in Bribri culture. For them the cacao tree used to be a woman that Sibú (God) turned into a tree. Cacao branches are never used as firewood and only women are allowed to prepare and serve the sacred drink – called ‘Drink of the Gods’. Cacao is used by the Bribri in special occasions, ceremonies and in certain rites of passage and is also used for tourism and turned into goods to sell for income.
The process started by tasting the seeds of the cacao fruit – the white gooey stuff has a mild, not unpleasant taste but the seed is fairly bitter and doesn’t taste anything of chocolate.
After the seeds are removed from the fruit, they are cleaned, dried and fermented for 20+ days. We skipped that part and went straight to the roasting that happens next. The first roast is to start to bring out the oils and make the shells easier to remove. After shelling, the second roast is when it really starts to smell like the warm, dark chocolate we’re accustomed to but the taste is slightly bitter. This product is high in anti-oxidants and other health benefits and many people enjoy them as cacao nibs on a regular basis.
To continue the traditional Bribri process, the roasted beans are rolled with a rock to mash them to a chocolate paste. Then different flavors and sweetness can be added. At this point it is also used to purify the skin. Cacao is a natural astringent and made Tiffany and Suaram’s face and hands soft and smooth.
We got to try some finished product after lunch – each clan has different flavors they make. We tried chocolate with orange, with peanuts, with ginger, with vanilla, with coffee, with salt and with chili powder. They were all really good and we decided to buy some to take home.
With treats in hand we headed back toward the house. The tour was hot and humid so we made a stop at a lovely waterfall for a refreshing dip in the pool.
From there we headed to the beach for a couple hours of waves and an epic sandcastle the whole family helped create. The surf started coming in so we made a little movie of its slow and then quite rapid destruction.
We ended the day with the kid’s favorite dinner – breakfast food and then some Lego Masters. Brian may have even snuck in most of the opening game of the NFL season. Not too shabby.