Money doesn’t grow on trees, except in Costa Rica.
Long before gold coins were used in Costa Rica, “money” hung from the branches of the Theobroma cacao tree.
Theobroma, derived from the Greek language, means “Food of the Gods,” and really wasn’t an overstatement in the past. At times it was worth more than gold.
Throughout Central America, the cacao tree’s seeds and fruit were used for ancient and sacred rituals in both Mayan and Aztec cultures. As early as 1900 BC, evidence exists of its usage. It wasn’t until the 1500’s that this magic bean would go viral, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in 1528 and becoming a big hit with Europeans.
When most people think of chocolate, they might not think of Costa Rica.
In fact, most people will think of Switzerland when they think about chocolate production. And rightfully so, as the Swiss are an impressive league of uber-chocoholics, consuming double the amount of chocolate that sugar-loving American consume. And that is no easy task considering the United States is about 23,000-percent larger than Switzerland.
But Costa Rica is, in fact, one of the birthplaces of cacao, and the history of this generous tree and the country’s people are intertwined. The first recorded plantation of cacao in Costa Rica was in the town of Quepos, close to where many YouGetHere Vacation Rentals’ properties currently sit.
In the 1920s, Costa Rica was a major worldwide exporter of cacao beans. Like all crops, however, cacao is vulnerable to plant diseases and inclement weather. By the 1970s, crops in Costa Rica suffered greatly as they fell victim to a country-wide fungus. Smaller farms were heavily affected. Almost 80-percent of working cacao farms closed during the decade.
A world without Chocolate?
Reports show we are running out of chocolate!
Costa Rica wasn’t the only country to suffer substantial crop losses during the last 50 years. As cultivation of the crop moved to West Africa, political conflict and poor working conditions further complicated cacao production. In fact, the International Cocoa Organization has forecasted a chocolate shortage of 116,000 tons over the 2022/2023 season.
A bitter future awaits if we continue down this path, as the cacao tree’s fruits will once again become more valuable than gold. Look around. There are coffee shops on every corner and chocolate bars are sold in every market. The demand for the fruits of this ancient tree only grows with each passing year.
“It will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won’t be able to afford it.”John Mason of the Nature Conservation Research Council (NCRC)
While fears of facing a life without chocolate really took off in the early 2000s, they’ve been exacerbated further by international conflict. Time Magazine recently reported, “the price of cocoa reached a 46-year high on the International Exchange in London on June 30 as traders anticipate more demand than supply in coming months. The price of cocoa, which is traded on the London and New York commodities markets, is up about 40 percent from October.”
Costa Rica’s Plan to Save the Fruit of the Gods
For fans of Cadbury Eggs and Toblerone, Costa Rica may come to your rescue. The Costa Rican government and Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture have outlined a plan, known as the 2018-2028 National Cocoa Plan:
“With this strategy, we expect to go from 4,000 hectares to 6,000 hectares of cocoa plantations in five years, and increase the number of farmer families from 3,000 to 3,500”Renato Alvarado, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock
One of the most promising aspects of the return of cacao plantations in Costa Rica is that unlike in West Africa, Costa Rica’s focus will be on small family farms that are sustainable and actually enhance the soils. This strategy will go a long way toward re-establishing their once staple crop. To understand the nurturing that goes into a cacao plantation, you have to understand how much work it takes!
“It takes 400 cacao beans to make just one pound of chocolate. Here’s what that means: Each cacao tree produces around 30 to 60 pods per year. Each pod contains around 40 beans. So, each tree only produces 2 to 3 pounds of chocolate per year. Add to that the fact that cacao pods are harvested by hand, and you’ll start to understand why good chocolate is expensive.”
As long as the Theobroma thrives in our tropical paradise, the Ticos will continue to plant, grow, harvest and bring this tastebud-shattering gift to everyone.
On your trip to the Southern Zone of Costa Rica, we encourage you to visit these small family-owned cacao farms and sample the artisan chocolate available in our area. If you’re one of the 50-percenters who cannot go a single day without chocolate, then a Chocolate Tour is for you.