Visiting a Cacao Farm in Costa Rica

A freshly opened cacao pod at La Iguana Chocolate's farm in Mastatal, Costa Rica.

A freshly opened cacao pod at La Iguana Chocolate's farm in Mastatal, Costa Rica.

by NICK MEADOR

Three hours west of San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, down a ridge that winds through lush green mountains gradually descending towards the Pacific coast, sits the hidden village of Mastatal. La Iguana Chocolate (pronounced "cho-co-lah-tay" in Spanish) is a family-owned and operated cacao farm situated at the back of town.

After cacao made a positive impact in my life and I started to incorporate it into my workshops and other events, I felt inspired to visit an actual farm – to see how the cacao is grown and prepared, and to feel the land where it all happens.

Third-generation cacao farmer Jorge Salazar Gaarcia welcomed me in early April 2016 for a private instructional tour at the farm. He showed me how they grow new saplings by clipping small branches off of productive trees. If a tree isn't producing a lot of cacao, they can actually splice a twig from a more productive tree onto the less productive one. It will heal and go onto grow cacao pods as it did on the original tree.

Zoom out to see where Mastatal is located in Costa Rica.

 

Not much happens on the farm in dry season (Nov-Apr), but we were able to find a ripe, yellow-green pod and open it on the spot (see photos below). The beans come covered in a white, spongy pulp that has a sweet taste of its own. It also reportedly contains many beneficial nutrients.

The next step after harvesting is to ferment the cacao. I was surprised to learn that it's a very simple process. The sugars in the white pulp fuel the fermentation, so this and the cacao beans are just left in an open wooden crate. They're turned occasionally for about five days, and the fermentation builds up heat essentially cures the beans for later use. At this point the inside of the bean is more purple than brown.

At this point all beans are dried in the heat of the sun. If the beans are eaten right after fermentation, they're totally raw and have a more floral taste. But as far as I can tell, most cacao sold in stores has been roasted even if it's called "raw." It just hasn't been processed in a way that removes or damages any of the beneficial compounds (like theobromine) or nutrients (like magnesium and iron). So it's more accurately called "pure cacao."

Jorge taught me how to make the cacao beans into chocolate treats. I got to use an ancient indigenous block and stone to grind cacao beans into a powdery paste. Then we melted this while also using a thermometer to keep the temperature below a critical point. This is called "tempering," bringing the crystals into alignment and giving it the smooth appearance we all know chocolate to have. We added in tapa dulce (local, unprocessed sugar), and spices including cinnamon grown right at the farm.

(At Inner Waymark we prefer to keep sweeteners to a minimum and enjoy cacao as pure as possible. We use honey in our cacao treats and offer honey or coconut sugar with our ceremonial drinks. But tapa dulce is much better than the heavily processed white sugar or HFCS used in commercial chocolates.)

It was great to have some souvenir treats to take away with me. Aside from the class, my favorite parts of spending a few days at the cacao farm were dinners with Jorge's family and the other guests, and quiet moments connecting with the land itself. Cacao thrives in hot and humid weather, which is quite a change from the temperate climate of northern latitudes in the U.S., or even the highlands of central Costa Rica and Guatemala.

This was a short visit of three days, and I look forward to spending more time at cacao farms in the future. I loaded my backpack with both the tempered chocolate I made and also a bag of their raw (fermented but unroasted) cacao beans. Every time I eat one I think back to the rich land and warm people who grew it with love, and I'm grateful.

Enjoy these photos from my visit to La Iguana.