Making Organic Chocolate at La Iguana Chocolate

Among fields of pineapple and palm is a different kind of farm trying to bring back a lost art: the art of making chocolate. La Iguana Chocolate, set in the rural mountains outside Parrita, is one of a handful of bean-to-bar chocolate producers in Costa Rica. They’re one of the only chocolatiers in this area of the Pacific Coast, and after seeing this awesome video, we really wanted to pay them a visit. While recently staying in Jaco, we had a chance to take a day trip up to the village of Mastatal. Below we share our experience and some tips for visiting La Iguana Chocolate.

 

La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica

A Fallen Crop

Our tour began along the edge of the four hectare (10 acre) property where our host, Jorge, told us a little about the farm and the history of cacao. We learned that Jorge’s family had been farming the land surrounding us for over 30 years. In addition to cacao, they grew many other crops like avocados, squash, beans, bananas, oranges, and lemons. In recent years, the family had started focusing on making artisan chocolate, with Jorge playing a big role.

Pointing to a large yellow fruit protruding from the side of a tree, Jorge told us that this was a healthy cacao pod. With careful land management, their many cacao trees were hardy and productive, but it hadn’t always been that way. In the 1980s, a fungus had spread in Central and South America, wiping out almost the entire crop. Farmers in Costa Rica had planted cacao trees upon the encouragement of the Costa Rican government, and when the blight hit, they didn’t know what to do. Their trees were producing less and less cacao. Production fell by as much as 90%, which caused prices to plummet.

 

La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica
Jorge with healthy cacao pods

 

Jorge along with Vicky, another chocolatier at La Iguana, told us that the fungus was only part of the problem. The underlying issue was poor land and crop management. While the government had encouraged farmers to grow cacao, it didn’t provide the necessary support on how best to do it. Not knowing how to deal with the blight, the farmers cut down their cacao trees and moved on to more profitable types of farming or ranching.

Today few producers in Costa Rica create bean-to-bar chocolate. In stores, you’ll find the usual Hershey’s and maybe some Belgian chocolate, but typically nothing local. The Salazar Garcia family is working hard to change that. In addition to the four hectare plot, they have another 12 hectares (30 acres) of farmland with 3,500 cacao trees. Plans are also in the works to raise funds to buy more land for growing cacao.

The Chocolate-Making Process

After seeing how cacao grows and learning about its complicated history, we saw how chocolate is made as La Iguana would say, from tree to truffle.

The process starts with the raw cacao fruit. Each slimy white seed is plucked from inside the pod and dried and fermented. Fermentation lasts between 4-6 days. The way it works is fruit flies come to eat the sugar on the seeds, and in doing so, carry yeast from the environment. After the beans are fermented, they’re dried in the sun for a couple of days and turn to the familiar shade of brown. The dried beans are then roasted on low heat for 15-20 minutes to loosen the shell. At that point, you have to remove the shell so that when you grind the beans, the resulting chocolate is silky smooth.

 

Cacao Beans, La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica
Dried raw cacao beans

 

And that’s where the fun began. Vicky came over with an overflowing container of the brown beans and dropped them on a wide wooden table in front of us. We peeled off the tough outer skins of each small seed revealing the raw, warm chocolate. It smelled just like brownies. We then took turns moving the deep dark insides over an ancient grinder.

 

Ancient Chocolate Grinder, La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica
This grinder belongs to an indigenous community near Mastatal and is hundreds of years old.

 

The next step was to run the coarse grinds through a more modern grinder to make them finer. Once ground, they are placed in a large electric bowl with rollers that spin and constantly press the chocolate. This process takes the longest (sometimes days) as it combines the chocolate molecules together and distributes the natural cacao butter evenly. Jorge and Vicky told us they add an extra 10% of cacao butter to the raw cacao to make it even more creamy and buttery. They told us that the difference between their chocolate and more commercial confectioners is that the big companies use fillers instead of pure cacao butter to keep costs down. A little cane sugar is also added to the mixture along with any flavorings like vanilla, cayenne pepper, or cinnamon.

Next we got to try our hand at tempering the chocolate, smoothing it along a marble surface to get it to the right temperature. Mastering the technique was harder than it looked but we started to get it after a while.

 

La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica
Jenn really concentrating on tempering

 

Finally, we formed the liquidy chocolate into individual truffles and a bar. A few minutes in the refrigerator later, and we had decadent, melt-in-your-mouth organic chocolate. It was delicious!

 

La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica

 

If you’re looking to get off-the-beaten path on your trip to Jaco or Manuel Antonio/Quepos, consider a visit to La Iguana Chocolate. This was one of the most authentic tours we’ve ever taken in Costa Rica. Learning about how chocolate is made from a family who does it every day was truly special and gave us a new appreciation for one of our favorite indulgences.

La Iguana Chocolate Tour Information

Cost

$20, for 2-2.5 hour tour

Arranging a Tour

Contact La Iguana Chocolate at laiguanachocolate(at)gmail(dot)com or by using the phone number on their website.

Volunteering

La Iguana Chocolate also has a volunteer program, and there were a number of volunteers on our visit. Check out their website for more information.

Directions to La Iguana Chocolate

La Iguana Chocolate is located in a remote area of Costa Rica in the village of Mastatal. It is not well signed so be sure to print out these directions if you don’t have GPS.

Take the Costanera highway (Route 34) towards Parrita to Route 239 towards Puriscal (there is a sign for Route 239/Puriscal). Go about 33 km (20.5 miles), following signs for San Jose; you’ll pass through several small towns, climbing into the mountains. After about 1 hour 15 minutes, take a right onto 318. This road is not well marked- look for a small sign for Mastatal. Go 6.8 km (4.3 miles) more to the town of Mastatal. La Iguana Chocolate is about 1 km past the main area of town on the left.

Conditions and Travel Time: Once you get off the coastal highway, the road turns to bumpy dirt for the rest of the way. Allow around 1.5-2 hours from the turnoff for Route 239. Four-wheel drive with higher clearance is recommended for the dry season and required for the rainy season.

Approximate Drive Time from Jaco: 2-2.5 hours

Approximate Drive Time from Manuel Antonio/Quepos: 2-2.5 hours

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Road to La Iguana Chocolate | Two Weeks in Costa Rica
Road conditions

 

Have you ever done a chocolate tour? What did you think?

 

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19 Comments

  1. I had my amazing stay there last April for two months (2014). Such a beautiful place and great people. I learnt so much and the family were incredibly welcoming. I am now furtunate enough to use their cocoa beans in my chocolates and truffles in the UK.

    A real nice article with some great pictures.

  2. We are so enjoying your blog, Matt and Jenn! The chocolate looks amazing. We may try to do a day trip too. Fred and I are now in our casita in Herradura. It is so serene here. We saw monkeys on Tuesday and a very large iguana yesterday…all from our patio. Sadly, we need to sell our casita, but we will always return to Costa Rica. If you have any suggestions for places to stay in the Osa, would love to hear them. We have not been, but are determined to visit this trip.

    1. Hi Marsha, Thanks for reading! That’s great that you are back in Costa Rica and enjoying the awesome wildlife around Herradura, we saw a lot while we were there too. You should definitely check out La Iguana, it’s a nice day-trip from Herradura and the drive is really beautiful. The OSA is also amazing and is a must. We are actually heading to Drake Bay next week for a few days so look for a fresh post about that soon! Great to hear from you!

  3. We just returned from our first trip to CR and spent 8 days in Manuel Antonio. Sadly, we missed La Iguana Chocolate. This sounds like another great reason to return. Thank you for the great articles and information. I am always excited when the next email arrives!

  4. Hi Jenn and Matt – our last day in Costa Rica will be driving from Dominical back to a B&B near the SJO airport. We don’t really have much planned that day other than the drive and returning the rental car. Do you think we would have time to add in the Iguana Tour and still get back to San Jose by night fall, or do you think that would be too much for one day?

    Thanks for all of your work here! Your blog and book have been incredible for helping with trip planning.

      1. Thanks for the reply! We will be in Dominical from December 3-7 but will try to fit something else in on the drive to San Jose. Too bad, that chocolate looks delicious

  5. Love your blog – it has been so helpful in planning our trip. We would like to take this tour between our stay in San Ramon (Villa Blanca) and Quepos/MA. What route would we take to get there and how driveable is it? Would an arranged transfer work for this connection? Any additional information on this and similar connections would be greatly appreciated — as I’m currently having the great debate over driving vs. arranged transfers. Thank you!!

    1. Hi Kristin, Unfortunately La Iguana is quite far out of the way for you. We have not driven the whole way from Highway 34 north to San Jose via Puriscal but as far as we know, most of that is slow rough dirt road. To get from San Ramon to Quepos, the preferred route is the coastal Highway, 34. You wouldn’t want to access La Iguana that way, though, since it’s a long detour off Highway 34. You could arrive by private shuttle but it would be expensive since it’s a long trip. Maybe it would be better to do as a day trip from Manuel Antonio?

  6. Hi! It’s fun to find someone else that was at La Iguana. I work at a chocolate shop in St. Louis, MO, and a group of us enjoyed a weekend visit early this month. We stayed at the farm, and loved every minute of it! In fact, we brought home some untempered chocolate, and created a special treat to celebrate Earth Day. We flew into San Jose and spent the first night. The next day, we boarded our shuttle for a 4 hour (approx) drive to the farm. On the trip back to the airport, our driver took us along the Pacific coast. We had a fantastic time; in fact, can’t wait to visit again!

  7. This tour sounds amazing! Do you know if there is public transportation that can take you there if you are not renting a car (like taxis)?

    1. Hi Brittany, We wouldn’t try taking the bus unless you’re planning to do an overnight near the farm, but you definitely arrange a taxi to take you. It is remotely located so it will probably be quite pricey depending on where you’re coming from, since the driver will wait for you to do the tour. A private shuttle/driver is another option. Let us know if you’d like us to get you a quote. There’s more info on our website here.

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