CHOCOLATE AND CACAO IN CUBA

Cuba Private Travel
Cuba Private Travel Blog
8 min readAug 19, 2020

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Travelers to Cuba tend to think about this Caribbean island as the place for Cuban rum and tobacco, the sandy beaches of Varadero, the colonial streets of Trinidad, or beautiful Havana. But Baracoa, in the east of Cuba, has among its many treasures, luscious, delicious cacao!

For many, no trip to Cuba is truly an unforgettable experience unless you travel to Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa, and experience Cuban nature, music, and food at its best, including Cuban chocolate. A tour of small, local cacao farms can be an authentic and delicious experience. If in Havana or Matanzas, an unusual and interesting day trip to Hershey (yes, Hershey, not often found on Cuba travel guides) will delight you.

Cuba is traditionally known for sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, and music. But cocoa as a crop was introduced in the 16th century, and the eastern mountains of the island, particularly in the Baracoa area, proved the perfect geographical area for it.

Cocoa Fruit.
Cocoa Fruit.

A bit of history

Cacao is commonly known as an intrinsic part of the history of Central and South America, as it was planted and used by the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs, among others, in the continent. Its high nutritional value made it a staple and a valuable necessity.

It was introduced in Cuba by the Spanish in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until 1771 that it reached a boom, with the arrival of French colonists from Haiti, who settled in the eastern areas of the island, in what is now Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, and Guantanamo.

Back in the west, though, a bit of a historical curiosity may be found. Milton Hershey chose to build another all-American town after the one built in Pennsylvania, this time amid the oceanic sugar cane fields on the bluffs overlooking Cuba’s northwest coast. But more on that later.

How is cacao processed?

Cocoa beans require a complex industrial process. The cocoa seeds are first roasted at 150 degrees Celsius to release their aroma and flavor. They are then husked, ground and pressed to extract the fat or cocoa butter. Afterwards, the compacted mixture is crushed to make cocoa powder, used to make an assortment of products.

There is only one factory in Cuba that makes cocoa into chocolate bars and other products. It is not open to visitors, but the exquisite aroma drifting from the factory is hard to miss as you pass in front of it when you go to river Duaba, mount El Yunque, river Toa, Maguana Beach, and Alexander Humboldt National Park. Many travelers make a ritual stop here and take a good picture of themselves in front of the factory.

Chocolate connoisseurs are not big fans of the chocolate bars produced there, so heavy on sugar, but the true gems of chocolate-making and cacao processing can be found in small farms along the mountains of Baracoa.

Cocoa farm.

Baracoa and its treasures

Where is Baracoa, Cuba? Baracoa was one of the earliest Spanish settlements in the Americas. In 1490 Christopher Columbus recognized the value of the harbor, and christened it Porto Santo. Thankfully, and unlike elsewhere in Cuba, the Spanish never completely wiped out the indigenous population, and there are still direct descendants living there, which adds to the town’s diversity and pride. “Baracoa” is thought to mean “presence of the sea” in Arawak, but might as well mean “paradise on Earth”, as the entire area around it and the mountains of eastern Cuba in general are bountiful in nature at its best: beaches, rivers, caves, waterfalls, luscious vegetation, and incredibly diverse fauna.

Cacao trail in Baracoa Cuba

Road sign on Baracoa, Cuba

No matter what road you take in Baracoa, cacao farms will be waiting for you at every turn — small trees with trunks covered in flowers that will become pods loaded with the heavenly beans. Baracoa produces 75% of Cuban cacao, across thousands of hectares with the highest productivity-level farms in the country. This cacao is of such high quality that the world-renowned Swiss chocolatier Spruengli has added a line of truffles, two chocolate bars, and assorted Neapolitans made with Baracoa cacao.

Local farmers have cultivated the art of cacao growing and passed it down from generation to generation. Cacao pods are cracked open, revealing the cacao beans encased in a soft fruity pulp. The pulp is spread out on grates for several days until it ferments and liquefies, leaving only the beans — an important step that cannot be rushed as it determines the quality of the beans. After the fermentation process, the beans are dried in the sun for several days. Then, they are roasted in an iron pot over an open flame, cracked, and shelled. The length and temperature of the roasting process also affect the resulting product. A low-temperature roast produces a tarter, aromatic flavor. The last step involves grinding the beans into a thick, creamy paste. This cacao paste is rolled into balls of about three inches in diameter and folded in aluminum foil or banana leaves. These balls are greatly sought after by Havana chefs and bakers.

We can organize visits to some of the best local farms, and will usually include a gift of a cacao paste ball, or 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 can also combine your cacao quest with swimming in a river, trekking, or horse riding. If you are interested in tasting Baracoa dark chocolate visit this link and buy from the amazing Willies Chocolate company in the UK.

And back in the west of Cuba… on to Hershey!

Hershey’s Train Wall Painting

The early 20th century was a time of supreme US confidence in the power of private industry as the engine of social progress: a force that could build a New York skyscraper 800 feet into the air, assemble automobiles in a matter of hours, and make a delicacy for the wealthy — chocolate — into an affordable treat for the masses.

That was how Milton Hershey made his fortune. He’d put his name on a model town in Pennsylvania built around his vision of scientific planning and corporate benevolence. With sugar prices peaking during World War I, he chose to build another all-American town, this time amid the oceanic sugar cane fields on the bluffs overlooking Cuba’s northwest coast. Along with the sugar mill, Hershey built modern utilities, schools, health clinics, and subsidized housing for his workers. Hershey’s greatest technological achievement was a state-of-the-art electric railway running 57 miles from Havana to the port of Matanzas, with his town in the middle. The rail cars could gather raw cane for delivery to the mill and ship it out again through the ports in either city, with passenger service that linked dozens of rural towns and hamlets along the way.

Hershey left no heirs when he died in 1945, and had already instructed his executives to sell off his Cuba holdings, the company’s only properties outside the United States. When the revolutionary government headed by Fidel Castro came into power in 1959, the Hershey mill and tens of thousands of acres of cane fields around it were in the hands of Cuban sugar magnate Julio Lobo, one of the island’s richest men. The Hershey mill was nationalized, along with the railway, the town’s peanut oil factory, power plants, as was eventually the case with all private industry in Cuba.

The town was renamed Camilo Cienfuegos, but the name never stuck. When the Soviet Union collapsed and took Cuba’s economy with it, global prices for sugar were already depressed. The mill began grinding toward a slow death and closed for good in 2003. The government retrained some of the workers for jobs in nearby tourist resorts and oil fields, and built a new ceramic tile factory in town. But many Hershey residents left for Havana, Miami, and beyond.

For decades this small town in Santa Cruz del Norte, just 45 miles from Havana, has been something of a ghost town. Cows graze among the red iron detritus of empty vats and giant cogwheels forged in Ohio and Pennsylvania nearly a century ago. But there is still a sleepy, nostalgic aura around it, and the train, known to all as “The Hershey Train”, still runs from Havana to Matanzas, making it an interesting day trip to make if staying in either city (which can be combined with a day at the beach, not far). Riding the Hershey train has a Gabriel Garcia Marquez charm and magic to it!

Cacao beans.

Safe experiences in post COVID19 Cuba

Cuba’s active screening, clinical management, and safety protocols have been exemplary, and the pandemic is now in the low single digits for confirmed cases. Health, hygiene, and social distancing protocols have been in place, and hotels and all staff working in tourism are being trained in the industry standards for this new post-COVID19 world.

Travelling to the east of Cuba to visit rambunctious Santiago de Cuba and amazing Baracoa can be daunting if arranged on your own, but easy and fun if organized by an experienced travel agent like Cuba Private Travel, your travel expert on bespoke Cuban experiences.

There is much to do and experience in Cuba if you are a chocolate fan. And even if you are not a connoisseur, visiting Baracoa, (did I mention also incredible seafood?) and the east of Cuba in general will be an unforgettable experience you will remember for years to come.

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Cuba Private Travel
Cuba Private Travel Blog

Cuba Private Travel is a luxury travel company that creates extraordinary bespoke experiences on the Caribbean island of Cuba. www.cubaprivatetravel.com