For years people have been telling me that I need to move to Baracoa, Cuba. Ever since visiting The Chocolate Garage over four years ago, I’ve been obsessed with chocolate and cacao, though it took years to get to Baracoa. After graduating from university, I treated myself to ten days in Belize to visit their Chocolate Festival & 38 days in Cuba. I spent nearly a week of that time in sleepy coastal Baracoa. It actually did indeed turn out to be my favorite city on the entire island.
Baracoan Cacao Pilgrimage
With a big move to teach English in South Korea looming in the near future, I journeyed to Baracoa to bring back as many sweets and treats as possible. I’ve already stress-eaten and enjoyed half of my chocolate stash, but some remains yet. I already cannot wait to return to the east coast of Cuba in the throes of harvest some years from now to see what, if anything, has changed.
My first two full days in the province of Guantánamo were dedicated solely to seeking out those sweets, and I consider the time well spent. I visited three different cacao plantations and tried a half dozen different versions of Baracoan chocolate, most of them good but none of them particularly impressive.
At the first restaurant we went to in town, we even found cacao décor & tried a couple of chocolate treats, though neither was worth writing home about. But the remarkable thing was that this décor was just coincidental, and had nothing to do with the oceanic theme of the restaurant. Cacao just runs through Baracao’s veins, and it was one of the early agricultural pursuits in this, the first Cuban city.
This low quality doesn’t surprise me, considering the rudimentary processing technology available on the small plantations outside of the city. But it gets me excited about the future of cacao in the country, especially as the imminent changes come under weigh and knowledge of processing improves further. As we learned on our third cacao plantation of the trip, there are numerous varieties of cacao grown in Cuba.
The country has whole branches of agricultural centers dedicated to cacao study,as they well should. So as technological innovations from outside become available on the island, I see big shifts towards more consistent and quality chocolate making in the future, though for now I am appreciative that I have gotten to see how it is in all of its current Cuban-ness.
Down the Cocoa Path We Go
We chose to bike from downtown to the plantation, only a few kilometers. Just a little before the Sendero you’ll notice the chocolate factory founded in honor of Che Guevara. It does not offer tours at the moment, and is completely government-run, surprise surprise. So basically it’s a nice photo-op, something Cuba’s become famous for.
Finally we arrived at El Sendero around lunchtime, alongside an official government tour group which logically took precedent in getting a guide. Because we still had to pay the $2CUC entrance fee per person, I jumped on this as a chance to teach the friend I’m traveling with about how cacao is grown and processed into chocolate, a specialty of mine after having worked for three months on a cacao plantation in Ecuador. We evidently arrived a month or so before the next harvest of the year, so trees were a bit sparse. Lucky for everyone, cacao trees grow fruit year round.
After we finished the self-guided tour of the finca’s foliage, signs, and structures, the plantation’s manager answered my many questions about varieties and gave a general overview in Spanish of how they process everything in Cuba. If you decide that you also want to visit, which I recommend, then a modicum of Spanish skills or a translator or friend who speaks Spanish is a must to get the most out of your time here.
Finally, we were each served a complimentary cup of chorote, the local chocolate drink made from ground cacao and locally-made coconut milk; Rumbumba is the nighttime version of chorote, the difference being the addition of local rum. We left with a little container of unrefined cacao butter and a ball of cacao paste to make hot chocolate. Later on we saw both of them for sale elsewhere. I assume that most of the products there are produced locally, in the country’s only chocolate factory.
The Best Unexpected Chocolate We Found in Cuba
The other plantation we saw that day was at Rancho Toa, as part of the Ten Dollar Tour we created & executed the next day. The Sendero was nice for an introduction, but the better overview we got was actually on a government tour I would actively and wholeheartedly recommend: the trip to Yumurí village. Our guide, Indira, spoke fluent English, French and German, and was very amiable despite having had a nail go through her foot the day before. Cuban resilience is strong, I’ll tell you that.
Our tiny tour group of three visited a local cacao plantation on the other side of Baracoa, and she explained to us the process of raising cacao trees, and then showed us the step-by-step of how this local farmer makes chocolate from her cacao beans. We also saw and tasted fresh cacao from the farm, still one of my favorite flavors ever.
It was delicious chocolate, the best I had in Cuba, and had only cinnamon and local honey added for flavor. I bought a couple of gifts from the mustachioed owner as I sipped on the exceeding sweet Cuban-style mocha, explaining to our wide-eyed guide that I was already planning on bringing back a ridiculous amount of chocolate. So it was fine that I continued counting out the tiny bars of chocolate and adding them to the large plastic bag filling at my side. It’s part of my budget, I explained to her, and showed her the cacao pods tattooed on my hip.
Both women were very knowledgeable, as I’ve come to expect most of the Cubans I run into to be. Most of the guides they have working the government tours can answer any question about their city or find someone who can. In Baracoa, I learned more about Cuban command-economy cacao production as well as the dearth of and yearning for information about the outside world and the processes there.
Indira taught us about Cuba’s way of doing things, while I told her about how it was different from what I had experienced in Ecuador and Guatemala. It’s amazing to tell people about a world they’ve largely only heard about. I can still picture her smiling face, and her hands, holding out the bowl of fresh cacao and gesturing to the sweet floral seeds in offering.
Where are you excited to check out first? Any weird places you’ve found chocolate? Drop a comment below!Thanks for reading!