SAN CARLOS, Costa Rica – Considered a gift of the gods by the indigenous people of the Americas, the age-old crop of cocoa is reviving in Costa Rica not only with refined and organic products, but also through educational and touristic initiatives to reclaim the legacy of the fruit.
Cocoa is native to South America and gradually expanded towards the north to reach Central America and Mexico, where the indigenous cultures considered it a divine gift and derived a thick drink from its seed by mixing it with maize, vanilla and even chili.
There is evidence that cocoa was consumed by the indigenous cultures of Mexico and Central America around 3,800 years ago, Carlos Chavarria, a biologist and cocoa expert, told EFE.
Chavarria leads the Rainforest Chocolate Tour in La Fortuna de San Carlos, northern Costa Rica, a tourist attraction for visitors to know the cocoa tree and fruit in their different stages of development and witness how cocoa bean is dried and ground into powder to make a drink.
The beverage dubbed “drink of the gods” by the natives is a thick chocolate concoction made with hot water that preserves the rich anti-oxidant properties of cocoa that are good for the heart and regulating blood pressure, apart from other benefits.
The cocoa, also known by its Spanish name cacao, is also considered an environment-friendly crop that captures carbon, preserves river basins, protects water sources and helps mitigate climate change in vulnerable areas.
Chavarria said the commercially produced chocolates contain very low quantity of cocoa and a lot of sugar, highlighting the fact that small communities in Costa Rica were now involved in producing fine chocolates with high cocoa content.
In 2019, the International Cocoa Organization recognized Costa Rican cocoa, authenticating the fact that the country exported 100 percent pure and aromatic cocoa, produced in rural and mostly indigenous communities in the north, south and the Caribbean coast of the nation.
These areas are situated at a height of between 0 to 500 meters from the sea, an altitude that provides the best habitat for cocoa.
Cocoa is grown in around 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of land in the country and production is controlled by over 3,000 small indigenous producers who use agricultural techniques that have been passed down the generations.
Costa Rica is currently implementing its National Cocoa Plan 2018-2028 to strengthen the agrochain of the crop during the decade.
The plan includes a funding program by the Costa Rican System of Development Banks (SBD) aimed at doubling the cocoa cultivation area.
The SBD is also carrying out a joint project with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture to gather detailed information about cocoa farms using drones, which would be used as inputs to design plans that could help producers become cost-effective and improve their quality of life.
Apart from tourists, the Rainforest Chocolate Tour is also joined by primary and secondary school students, who are taught about the history of cocoa, closely linked with Costa Rica’s development in the colonial era.
Chavarria said the cocoa bean was one of the first currencies to be used in the region during the colonial era and was an official or unofficial tender for around 80 years.
After the global expansion of cocoa reached African countries, the continent gradually became the largest producer of the product and continues to dominate the market.
The chocolate tour is one of the major attractions in northern Costa Rica, a country which is gradually reopening for international visitors after six months of a shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tourist sector has been one of the worst hit as foreign arrivals had dropped to zero over the past months, although local tourism has witnessed certain revival.
Costa Rica, a country of around five million inhabitants, used to receive around three million tourists annually before the pandemic, with the sector constituting one of the main driving forces of the economy.