As we walked along the beach road towards Chuao, a coastal Venezuelan town, a local was approaching from the other direction, swinging a machete in time with his steps. On either side of the concrete surface, the dense jungle towered above: enormous mango trees, banana groves, bamboo thickets and the shorter cocoa (or cacao) plants that make this particular stretch of the Caribbean so special.
“How much of this is cacao?”, my friend asked as the three of us greeted one another. The man looked puzzled and slowed his steps, allowing the tip of his blade to scrape along the road’s surface. Raising it to eye level, he drew a wide arc through the air with its point, indicating the plants with long, thin leaves that surrounded us. “This is all cacao”. Moving towards the nearest tree, he looked with a discerning eye at the oval pods growing out of its trunk. Finding one to be sufficiently ripe, he twisted it from the plant and, using the curb rather than his weapon, opened it with three swift cracks around its perimeter.
Removing the empty half and throwing it back into the jungle, he revealed a stack of slimy white seeds within the other. “Suck on the seeds, they are delicious” he said, resuming his stroll towards the beach. Delicious, perhaps, but not at all what we'd expected - rather sweet and tangy, like mango, and leaving a tingling sensation in the mouth. “They don’t look or taste like chocolate until after fermentation” he shouted back in response to our bemused expressions.
Chuao is situated in Henri Pittier National Park, a region of protected coastline and hidden beaches less than two hours from Caracas. The region’s farmers produce some of the world’s finest cacao, specialising in the criollo strain, a superior if less resilient type of the plant, of which there are over two thousand.
The oldest national park in Venezuela, Henri Pittier is packed full of beaches accessible only via speedboat and is home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Pumas, howler monkeys and rattlesnakes inhabit the dense jungle around the road to Choroní, the park’s main tourist draw. Bird-watchers come to catch glimpses of nearly half of the avian species native to the country, with specimens as extravagantly named as the Rufous-vented Chacalaca and the Pin-striped Tit Babbler.
Leaving our cocoa expert behind we arrived in the town itself. Plastic bunting lined the streets, suspended from first floor windows, below which front doors remained open, a rarity in security-conscious Venezuela. Inside, families were sitting down to lunches of fish, bought directly from the boats as they returned with the day’s catch.
In front of the church is the Plaza de Secado (drying plaza), where the cacao undergoes the traditional process of preparation, spending specific periods of time on each of the various surfaces, some rough and others polished and smooth. The beans are laid out in circular piles to be baked under the sun until they gain the dark brown hue and rich aroma that is turned into chocolate.
Serving Europe’s growing hunger for chocolate, Caribbean imperialism saw cocoa become a large and profitable industry. Huge plantations sprung up and left their mark throughout the region, with Trinidad in particular one of the largest producers. A plantation owner was known as a ‘Gran Cacao’, or ‘Big Cacao’, and the expression persists in Creole Spanish today, used in the same way that an English-speaker might refer to someone as a ‘Big Cheese’.
Unsurprisingly, restaurants around the town serve up a variety of cacao-based dishes, with chicken stewed in chocolate a particular favourite at Edis Liendo’s shop. “Eating chocolate is the easiest thing in the world”, she told us as she prepared cinnamon-topped chocolate milk from the blocks of pure cacao stacked around her walls.
Leaving the town via speedboat that evening (the only other way to get to Chuao is a two-day jungle trek), the beachfront community was still audible long after it had disappeared from sight around the immense headland. The ubiquitous salsa beat thumped almost in time with the bouncing boat, smashing through the swell and soaking the passengers as we powered back along the coast.
Alasdair Baverstock is the author of the Venezuela chapter in the upcoming third edition of the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.