Let me say it plainly: the bundle of cacao nibs is phallic.

When you crack open the fruit, the fleshy white membrane structure that surrounds the cluster of valuable cacao nibs is definitely penis-shaped. Or maybe it’s more like the chestburster alien. Either way, it’s not exactly appetizing. 

Luckily, many delicious foods are phallic in shape (one of my favorite foods of sausage being chief among them), and the pre-Colombian citizens who called the Yucatan home almost 5,000 years ago hadn’t seen Alien yet.

See, the cacao nib is one of the great currencies of Central America. You can trace records of cacao/cocoa from the first records Spaniards passed back to Europe after arriving in the region. Cocoa was the preferred drink of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II and his nobles and became an instant sensation from its first importation to the European continent in the 17th century.

How do we get from the phallic pulpy nib cluster to the drink of the gods? And how did I end up learning about how the raw nib has a sharp flavor of sweet limón when you wrestle one slimy nib out from the herd to suck on it? We need to back up a bit.

Limon, Costa Rica

The day started with sloths. After another overnight journey aboard the Coral Princess, we awoke in the port town of Limon, Costa Rica. On the eastern, Caribbean coast of the country, Limon hasn’t seen the development of popular Pacific cities and towns; it wears a ragged look and the harbor caters far more to industrial ships and equipment than our gargantuan gleaming ship.

First impressions aside, Costa Rica was one of the countries on our Panama Cruise itinerary I was most eager to visit. In planning our excursions throughout the trip, Marissa and I had coordinated our choices. In Costa Rica, the choice was obvious and unanimous: we simply had to visit the Sloth Sanctuary an hour south of Limon to meet one of Costa Rica’s most famous citizens: Buttercup the sloth from that one Animal Planet show I’ve actually never seen. (It’s called Meet the Sloths.)

We dutifully boarded our small group charter bus and took a harrowing ride out of town and south from Limon along two-lane Costa Rican roads. We passed over beautiful estuaries, between fields of banana trees, and past countless signs selling local pipa fria (coconut water) harvested by Costa Ricans from their own properties.

Upon arrival at the Sloth Sanctuary, we enjoyed a lunch that was probably meant to be relaxing. Instead, we hurried through soup and sandwiches and dashed up the stairs to meet Buttercup. Can we add another note to the record? Sloths are hilarious.

Yeah, they’re cute and cuddly and you just want to put one in your pocket… But the process by which such a silly animal evolved and thrives in the Costa Rican jungle makes me smile every time I think about it.

Buttercup was the first sloth to call the Sloth Sanctuary home. Founders Judy Avey-Arroyo and Luis Arroyo originally met in Anchorage, Alaska, I learned from their grandson Jeff during our tour. They moved back to Costa Rica and in the early 1990s began hosting injured and abandoned sloths on the property. Though it’s difficult to assess the health and wellbeing of all the sloths who live at the sanctuary from a single tour, the Sloth Sanctuary provides a unique opportunity to observe and interact with sloths in what appears to be a safe environment.

Also, so cute. So silly.

We ended our tour in the sloth nursery. A small sloth stole everyone’s hearts with his slow-moving appeals to be picked up. (Note: Guests are not permitted to touch sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary.)

On the ride back to Limon, most of the bus was in a cuteness hangover. Our guide Celimo was not about to let us languish. He had spent the whole drive to the Sloth Sanctuary teaching us about Costa Rican history and culture; the ride back was going to be equally educational. As we rumbled down the road, he grabbed his bag and rummaged around inside. He extracted a lumpy yellow fruit that looked a lot like a papaya. “Can anyone guess what this is?” he asked.

Smart enough to avoid looking as silly as sloths, I did not say “papaya.” It turns out my guess wouldn’t have been off; the cacao and papaya fruit are actually similar in size and shape.

“It’s cacao, you know, cocoa? Has anyone ever seen it before?”

Again, yes, I’ve seen papayas, I think to myself. But this is not papaya, and I’m not seeing the connection to Oreo Milka bars (my fave).

Bending down, he gave the fruit a sharp crack against the interior step – and I tried not to think about hygiene codes which probably don’t exist anyway. Straightening back up, he bent and twisted the fruit until with a satisfying crack! it popped open to reveal the chestburster-alien-phallic-pulpy mass of cacao nibs. Definitely not papaya.

Celimo begins telling us the history of cacao, the importance of these almond-sized nibs hidden under white pulp. As we pass the fruit around, he spoke about how most people enjoy them in their final form – chocolate – or as caramel covered nibs sold as a popular souvenir. He produced a small plastic bag of “Cacao Sweety.”

After enough shore excursions, I smell a ‘souvenir opportunity’ setup from a mile away.

He continued on to describe how Costa Ricans will enjoy the fresh nib from the fruit. “Like this,” he said and wrestled a nib off out of the fruit and into his mouth.

“The bean is very bitter, so we don’t bite into it. We just suck on it and it has a perfect sweet and sour flavor. Most people don’t like it, but it’s one of my favorite flavors.”

While Roger attempted to describe the flavor, I was struck by a whim. I reached out – two hands like a cute sloth just wanting to be picked up – and took the fruit from his hands. With my forefinger and thumb, I grabbed a slimy, slippery nib, tugged it free, and put it in my mouth before I had time to second guess if fresh cacao nibs will be as slimy as escargot or more like the insides of tomatoes.

A world of flavor exploded in my mouth, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The outer layer was sweet and slippery as I rolled the nib around in my mouth. Underneath, a tart lemon flavor mixed in to make me pucker up as I turned to the rest of the bus and exclaimed, “you have to try this… it’s amazing!” Even better than papaya, I kept to myself.

Suddenly, I understood why the Mesoamericans had been willing to crack open this ugly, lumpy papaya-like fruit. Why they had cast aside aspersions about the penis-like shape of its seeds, ignored the flesh of the actual ‘fruit,’ and realize that one single nib of cacao was an eye-opening experience. Nibs were used as currency by the Aztecs, and turned into the “drink of the gods.” They revered cacao, using it in birth, marriage, and death rituals. The understood the power of xocoatl, the Aztec name that forms the basis of our modern word.

What we call chocolate is like the hipster older cousin who comes back from Europe having tried weed in Amsterdam. Chemically altered and opened to new possibilities by the Dutch, cacao is still American underneath. It comes from a fruit you can easily pass on countless Costa Rican roads. Even in its raw form – or perhaps because of it – cacao, cocoa, chocolate is the kind of flavor you’ll never forget your first taste of.

Details About My Trip in Costa Rica:

  • You can book a tour of the Sloth Sanctuary directly on their website from $30.
  • Yes, I know about the allegations of animal abuse at the Sloth Sanctuary. In my interactions with volunteers and sloths, I did not see any signs of abuse or neglect.
  • As part of a shore excursion, you can book the behind-the-scenes Meet the Sloths Tour from Princess Cruises.
  • Here’s a cool article from Smithsonian about A Brief History of Chocolate.
  • If you want to bring cacao back from Costa Rica to wow your friends, snag a bag or two of Cacao Sweet made by Adventure Chocolate Company. I bought a bag, so the ‘souvenir opportunity’ obviously worked.

[info]My shore excursion to meet the sloths in Limon was part of a 10-day Panama Canal cruise with Princess Cruises. As part of my partnership, I am sharing this (and other) stories about my experience in the Caribbean. You can see more on the Princess Cruises website, and book your trip here[/info]

[success]If you enjoyed this story, check out others about my cruise:

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