"Almost there?" Sam looks at me with dire hope in his voice. We have been driving for three hours through the rural Costa Rican landscape. "Yes, take this right," I direct Sam, as we are forced to trust the GPS down the rocky (hopefully not rolly) dirt road. The chocolate haven we set out to conquer is now three kilometers away.
When I was a little girl, I dreamt of having my own chocolate factory because of my insatiable sweet tooth. I wanted to make the perfectly pure chocolate bar: smooth and uncompromisingly delicious. Luckily for my waistline, life took me in a different direction. However, when Sam and I discovered this perfect chocolate factory already existed in rural Costa Rica, we were already on our way to see it for ourselves.
We were greeted by an open-air, roof-covered terrace surrounded by endless greenery and that irresistibly addicting bold and sweet aromatic cloud flowing in the air. As the locals say, "mi casa es su casa," and rightly so, we felt at home as soon as we arrived at the farm.
A Sweet Welcome at Finca La Amistad
Finca La Amistad is a cacao plantation, chocolate factory, lodge, and educational Avant post in San Miguel de Bijagua, Costa Rica. It is located next to the Tenorio Volcano National Park. The farm is the country's biggest producer of sustainable cacao beans, making one of the most distinctive chocolates we have ever tried.
Immediately after our arrival, we were served two cups of hot chocolate and a teaser sampler of their freshly made bars: 45% milk chocolate with coffee bits, 70%, and 85% cocoa with roasted nuts. What a sweet welcome! If you ask me, the forever recovering chocoholic, this is what I call HEAVEN. And as a matter of fact, all hotels and lodges should greet their guests this way. Don't you agree?
A short walk across the lush farm was our Casa Miravalles cabana for the night. The room's veranda was rocking two hammocks. Sam and I were a little spellbound by this rustic, simple, and cozy accommodation - all you need for a night. Casado, a typical Costa Rican lunch, was served at the lodge as we returned from the room. The long journey and the generous portions of homemade food sealed the deal for a short afternoon nap in the hammocks. Cradled by the gentle breeze of the forest vegetation, succumbing to the anesthesia of fresh rain and cacao bean scents, we slept suspended in the dreamy mist of the cloud forest.
The Art of Chocolate Making at Finca La Amistad
We attended our first lesson in the early afternoon: "How to make chocolate." Julian and Angelica guided us through the process, from roasting the beans on an open fire, removing the shells, and grounding the beans, to finally adding the cacao butter and sugar to create the 3-ingredient chocolate mix that would be processed for the next 12 – 24 hours into smooth liquid chocolate. Sam and I were sweating while taking turns. Making chocolate from cacao beans is no joke. And we are not counting the lengthy process of growing and producing cacao beans. You must become a farmer, mechanic, meteorologist, carpenter, chemist, manager, chef, marketing expert, financier, and more. Thank God my dream of a chocolate factory didn't' come true - let's leave this job to the professionals of Finca La Amistad.
A Journey to Sustainable Cacao Production
In 1997, the Brugger family from Switzerland did exactly all that. With the leadership of Ernst (Doctor of Economic Geography, researcher, innovator, and expert in the protection and preservation of natural tropical forests) and his wife Ruth, the Brugger family acquired the land known as Finca La Amistad Cacao Lodge and Farm today. They transformed the overgrazed and depleted soil into a farm specialized in the sustainable cultivation and processing of first-class quality noble cocoa. Today, their son, Simon Brugger, who lives at the farm with his family, manages the farm and its cacao and chocolate production; his sister Kathrin assists the company from Switzerland. The farm employs several locals who are a part of this chocolate family.
A Night at Casa Miravalles Cabana
The next morning, a few days before Christmas, traditional breakfast was served at the lodge's open-air terrace. Shortly after, we attended part 2 of chocolate making class guided by Wendy: our chocolate mix was ready for the final stage – pouring it into the forms before cooling. I gave Sam this oh-so-fun task while I selflessly volunteered myself for another daunting job: licking off the leftover liquid chocolate from the mixing pan. I don't want to exaggerate, but that was perhaps one of the top moments of the year 2021. Afterward, while the chocolate was cooling down, we took a tour of the farm and the various stages of the cacao bean processing.
Making chocolate from seedlings to packaged bars is a long road, and we were lucky enough to peek into the process over our stay at Finca La Amistad. Our tastebuds were satisfied thanks to the delicious chocolates and tasty traditional meals served at the farm. We left with our brains high on serotonin and our suitcases full of various chocolate gifts for the upcoming holidays. Our road trip through Costa Rica started with Pura Vida and ended with Pura Chocolate, the happiest ending of all.
For more information about Finca La Amistad Cacao Lodge and Farm, visit their website at https://www.finca-amistad.com/.
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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