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Cacao Currency

“This doesn’t seem like the right way,” my mom remarked as we drove down a gravelly dirt road. She squinted at her phone again, trying to read the Waze directions. “There’s no signs––how are we supposed to find this place?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Just keep following the route, I guess.”

It had been another action-packed day in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. We started the morning with a tour of the Bolgarín park, our guide hauling around a telescope so we could see the sloths lumbering around the trees. We even saw a couple of toucans. Then, it was on to La Fortuna Waterfall. We descended 500 steps to the murky blue water below and peered up at the stream thundering down around us.

Now, it was time for chocolate. 

After some tricky navigation, we finally reached our destination: Two Little Monkeys Chocolate Tours & Workshops. I was excited to make my own chocolate… even if it meant watching as the machines did it for me. The farm’s owner, Ishmael, greeted us warmly. Everything was set up for the outdoor workshop right on the farm. There was a big table in the front adorned with a brightly colored tablecloth. A bowl of roasted cacao beans sat on the table, and their earthy aroma floated around us. Next to that, there were a few other ingredients, a couple machines, and two pitchers.

Ishmael held up a cacao pod as a sign that he was ready to begin. This was the origin of chocolate: the freshly harvested cacao pod and the raw beans inside. After breaking open the hard casing, he offered us a sample of the sugar surrounding the beans. 

“Is there a trash can?” my mom asked as she scanned the room.

“Just throw the beans out into the farm,” said Ishmael. “That way, new cacao trees will grow wherever the beans land.”

“What about cacao nibs?” I asked after tossing the beans away. I peered at the jar of cacao nibs on the table.

“That comes after the roasting and fermenting process,” Ishmael replied, inviting my mom and me to crush the roasted beans into nibs and sample them. They came with the expected bitter taste. My mom frowned at the lack of sweetness. 

 Ishmael explained that cacao nibs weren’t only used to make chocolate. He described the Aztec tradition of making xocolatl, a warm drink made with cacao, cinnamon, allspice, and cayenne pepper. “It’s the drink of the gods,” he added as he made a paste from the cacao nibs using a mortar and pestle. We watched as he scooped the paste into the metal pitcher and mixed it with cinnamon, allspice, and hot water. He then mixed a second drink from raw sugar, milk, and cinnamon. We poured each drink into small mugs and sat on one of the benches to enjoy them. The xocolatl was spiced and bitter, while the raw sugar drink was creamy and sweet. They complemented each other perfectly. 

I took a deep breath as I sat and sipped my drinks. My mom and Ishmael discussed his factory and life on the farm, and he gave us plenty of time to sit and enjoy our surroundings. The soft breeze continued to flow through the workshop area. I felt the dense humidity around me ease up slightly. The birds chirped softly in the distance, along with the occasional howler monkey. For the first time on the trip, I felt like we could enjoy a leisurely activity. I wasn’t worried about hiking a trail as fast as possible to reach a viewpoint and take pictures. I wasn’t thinking about checking all the boxes and seeing all the sights. Instead, we got to slow down our afternoon. 

The most important part of the workshop was learning more about the tradition behind making chocolate and the hard work that goes into making a high quality product. We took our time to talk to Ishmael about the different processes of crafting the farm’s products. He then brought out a small machine to make fresh dark chocolate from cacao nibs and raw sugar. The machine made a paste from the nibs, and then Ishmael applied heat using a blowtorch to speed up the process. I was grateful to simply observe the spectacle instead of making the product by hand.

It was finally time to decorate our own chocolate. Ishmael prepared molds for us to pipe in the melted chocolate, and laid out a variety of mix-ins like shredded coconut, almonds, sprinkles, and salt. My mom couldn’t resist taking out her phone to capture some photos (she loved posting on Instagram). We carefully piped the melted chocolate into molds; mine were shaped like pineapples, and my mom’s like butterflies.

As the chocolates set, Ishmael guided us around the farm and pointed out the wide variety of trees and other plants that grew there. He plucked leaves from different trees and smiled as we took in their earthy, medicinal scents. 

Tasting the chocolates on the ride back to the hotel reminded me of the simplicity of the whole experience. It was just cacao and raw sugar topped with almonds or coconut. This time, we engaged with nature in a different way. It was like an interaction, something more reciprocal. We slowed down and had conversations, and we learned more about the space around us. And just as nature gave us the cacao for the chocolate, I remembered what Ishmael said: we could always toss the beans back and plant more trees wherever they ended up. In that way, we repaid nature in cacao currency. 

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