A Brief History of Costa Rica's Chocolate

The start of chocolate
The start of chocolate | © Everjean/Flickr
Jenn Parker

Who doesn’t love chocolate? A treat that is readily accessible, affordable, and comes in a variety of wonderful flavors. It wasn’t always this way though, for thousands of years, chocolate in its original state was prized by ancient civilizations, like the Aztecs and Mayans, and used as currency by other indigenous tribes. The history of chocolate is as rich as its taste and has a significant place in Costa Rican history too.

Chocolate money and drinks

The cacao bean (from which chocolate is made) was a highly prized and sacred crop among the Chorotega and Bribri people in Costa Rica. The Chorotega people actually used the bean as currency up until the 1930s. This cacao bean was very important, culturally and economically, to the indigenous people of Costa Rica. The women of the Bribri tribe would make a special chocolate drink from the bean for rituals and celebrations.

Money used to grow on trees

Costa Rican’s cash crop

Before coffee and bananas took over, cacao was once the leading export in Costa Rica. Whilst other countries like Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela also grow and export cacao, Costa Rica is unique due to the fact that cacao trees are grown in multiple regions of the country. The provinces of Guanacaste, Alajuela, Talamanca, Cartago, and Puntarenas all have thriving cacao plantations. However, in the late 1970s a fungus wiped out over 80% of the cacao trees in Costa Rica, devastating the cacao industry. It wasn’t until CAIT produced cacao trees that were immune to the fungus that the industry started making its comeback.

Chocolate trees

Cacao bean to chocolate bars

So, how exactly do these bitter cacao beans become delicious chocolate? There are a variety of tours that you can take if you are interested in learning the entire chocolate making process from seed to tree, to bean, to chocolate. In short though, the cacao beans are first roasted, then cracked, crushed, ground into paste, conched (a device that mixes and mashes) and then tempered (heated, cooled, heated, and cooled) multiple times. The process can last up to a week for higher quality chocolate. Some highly recommended tours are the Coffee, Chocolate, and Sugar Tour in Monteverde, the Sibu Chocolate Tour in Heredia, and the Chocolate and Cahuita National Park tour in Limon.

Inside the bean

Food of the gods

The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, actually means “food of the gods”. Cacao is categorized as a superfood and for good reason. Raw cacao has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Cacao has been proven to help lower blood pressure, improve brain health, improve cardiovascular health, aid weight loss, help prevent cancer, and improve overall mood, among many other great benefits. High quality dark chocolate is said to have similar effects. Treat yourself like the god or goddess you are and eat more cacao and dark chocolate!

Pre chocolate power nibs

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