Cooking With Cacao: Making Chocolate For The Gods

While a little under the weather in Arequipa, and Tim away on his Colca Canyon hike (link here) I decided to stroll around the beautiful colonial town of Arequipa and find something to occupy my time. On one of the main roads heading down to the main plaza/square I stumbled passed “cooking with cacao – make your own chocolate!” Considering chocolate is one of my favourite things and I was in the capital of the superfood continent I booked in for a class that afternoon!!

Luckily, the class was just me and one other girl! With a semi-private tour we dived straight into our class with our teacher. Aprons on, our teacher explained to us that he was a gastronomic masters in his studies and also a chef. He has studied food all over the world, and now has returned home to Peru, to chef at one of the best restaurants in Arequipa.

Our teacher explained to us the history of cacao, through Mayan and Aztec culture. But this was no boring history class – he was so enthusiastic, and full of energy you couldn’t help get excited about chocolate as well. While learning about the history of cacao, we sampled how the ancient cultures used to use it (cacao beans were used as currency!!) and drink it – the Mayan cacao mix, only drunk by the prestigious and gods was cacao mixed with panela sugar, hot water, and chilli – a spicy, energising hit.

Not being a spicy fan it wasn’t to my taste. Considering though that this was all made by hand by de-skinning, grinding and melting the cacao butter, it was definitely impressive for ancient times.

We then learnt about the health benefits of cacao and why it’s basically one of the best in the world. I could ramble on about antioxidants and aphrodisiacs, but basically after 5 minutes all of us were rubbing 100% pure cacao butter all over our bodies, faces and hands (free beauty treatment anyone?).

Moving more into the history (which I found fascinating) we learned of how chocolate made it to the rest of the world. This movement occurred through the Spanish invasion of the Central and South America which then allowed it to be taken back to Europe. Here things got really interesting! The Spanish added sugar to the cacao to make it less bitter and more sweet (hence the beginning of addiction). The Swiss and Belgian took the cacao and created their style of chocolate by adding fresh full cream milk, straight from the alps to create milk chocolate. The French were envious of their neighbours, so they took cacao and created praline. And lastly, the Italians came along and created the ultimate hazelnut/cacao combo – NUTELLA!!! All this was super interesting and was taught to us whilst we sipped on some hot cacao tea (amazing and 100% guilt free).

We finished our history lesson on modern day chocolate, and how unfortunately cacao isn’t as sacred as it once was. Companies such as Nestle, Hershey and Cadbury have unfortunately ruined the REAL chocolate by adding unfathomable amounts of white sugar, artificial flavours, and horrible powered milks to their ‘chocolate bars’ that contain less than 5% real cacao. Sorry Snickers & Kit-Kat, but I’m now officially a chocolate snob.

Updated and totally in love with this magic bean, the moment of truth was here, COOKING TIME! We headed downstairs into the cooking space where ALL of their chocolate made is sold on premises. We were lucky to have a 70% cacao that was being cooked that day so our 12 individual truffles were going to be 70% dark chocolate, perfect!

We got to select 12 different and creative fillings for our chocolates which was awesome! The selection was so versatile from your standard raisins, almond, and peanuts, to coconut, coca leaf powder, banana, and of course another superfoods, quinoa. It was super fun filling our trays and after we got to lick our bowls (and hands) of the delicious melted chocolate.

While our truffles were setting in the fridge, we headed back to the classroom and started our sampling. We were given a test to guess what percentage of cacao was contained in each of the 7 samples. The favourites were the white chocolate, 70% dark and the 50% milk.

After almost feeling sick from too much chocolate (is there such a thing?), the timer went off and our truffles were ready to be bagged! Wrapped up in a cute package and ready to take home, that concluded our chocolate making class that went for over 3 hours.

Classes are held twice a day once around 10am and 3pm, and they last for over three hours. We highly recommend booking in advance, and the afternoon class is also less busy. This place also has a great rooftop cafe coffee bar so if you’re keen to just get a decent Peruvian coffee in Arequipa and chill in the sun (and to maybe indulge in a fresh brownie or cacao smoothie too), this is the place. The class cost me $____ Peruvian, which at the time was expensive on my travel budget but in reality, was only around $20 AUD for an absurd amount of the BEST quality chocolate and cacao in probably, I wouldn’t hesitate to say, the world!

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Panama Canal Miraflores Locks

We were only in Panama City for a short period of time as we wanted to make our way to Colombia. To make the most of it we tried to fit in as many things to do as possible, which led to trying to see as much as possible! And whilst we could never hope to fit everything in, we did manage to hit most of the ‘highlights’ that Panama City has to offer. Let us just say there is much more to Panama City than first meets the eye, and here is a rundown of what you might be able to accomplish in one very full day!

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo Panama City

Start the day off early by heading to where the city was first founded in 1519 by the Spanish. Of course you won’t be heading here to look at stylish buildings but rather the ruins of a city that was sacked in 1671.

You will be able to walk many streets around Panama Viejo and see many ruins, including the impressive Casas Reales once separated from the city by a moat.

Entrance to the Panama Viejo site costs US$12 and please remember that the site is closed on Mondays. On Tuesday to Sunday you can access Panama Viejo from 8:30 in the morning until 4:30pm, so make sure you get an early start to ensure you make it through the rest of our planned ‘day’!

More information on the site can be found here.

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

After having a couple of hours at Panama Viejo, it is time to move on to where the city was rebuilt after Panama Viejo was sacked – Casco Viejo. This historic quarter only spans 4 blocks, but with its view over the pacific it certainly is an up-and-coming area. It is this view, which places you on the southwestern tip of Panama, that gives this place it’s hip feel and allows you to see ships coming and going that are heading for the grand Panama Canal.

Casco Viejo

But of course there is much more to see in this small neighbourhood, with a lot of it relating to gastronomy. There are many great restaurants and bars here, alongside hip cafe’s serving expensive (but good) coffee. One such place is called Café Unido within The American Trade Hotel, serving up different blends to thirsty customers. Wherever you end up going in this quaint little neighbourhood, make sure you walk around and take it all in. Whether you’re looking for a Panamanian style hat (I was tempted) or just want to sample the great rum that the country produces, you can find it all in Casco Viejo.

Ancon Hill

If you haven’t had too much rum in Casco Viejo, the next stop on your list should be to hike up and get a great view of the city. Ancon Hill provides this experience, with the green hill jutting up from what seems to be almost the middle of the city, with the Panama flag waving in the breeze on top.

Ancon Hill Panama Flag

Starting at the base of the hill, it should take around 1.5-2 hours return trip to make it to the top of the small hill. But the effort you put in will be rewarded with a stunning view of areas including Casco Viejo, and the pacific ocean. The great thing about the hike is that it winds up through some beautiful houses, turning into rainforest along the way. The rainforest then provides you with a shaded walk alongside opportunities to see many species of animals including birds, sloths, and monkeys!

View from Ancon Hill

Amador Causeway

Happy with the exercise you’ve received and want to do some more? Then head on over to the Amador Causeway and walk or rent a bike to experience this great land bridge that connects Panama City to four islands that jut out off the coast. Created using rock excavated for the Panama Canal, this ‘bridge’ is now a great spot for a 4km walk or bike to see the expensive houses and nice coastal views.

Amador Causeway

You obviously do not need to do the whole causeway if you are not inclined, and you also have the option to just drive out if you want, but we really recommend doing the full track and renting some bikes to make it a bit easier! If you like you will also find many restaurants (and even decent nightlife) on the causeway, giving you an opportunity to have a meal or even just bring a picnic to enjoy the view.

Panama Canal (Miraflores Locks)

Miraflores Locks

Now that it is probably the afternoon, the best thing to do now is to head to the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks provide the best opportunity to see the ships passing by, and if you don’t have a car we would highly recommend taking an Uber out to this location. You can of course take public transportation and it is relatively easy (see post here on how to do it using the Metro and red buses of Panama City), though with time limits on our day we took an Uber which ended up being not too much more!

Panama Canal Museum

Now the reason we say to head to the Locks in the afternoon is because that is your best opportunity to see big boats coming through them, which is what you really come for anyway right! Now after you pay your $15US admission (seriously expensive but worth it), you can head in and get a good seat to view the boats.

We would also recommend going through the museum they have which explains all about how the canal was built, and the handover of the canal from USA to Panama actually owning and running it.

Metropolitan Natural Park

Metropolitan Natural Park

Still haven’t had enough in your day yet? Well if you want to squeeze one more hike in, head down from the Miraflores Locks to the Metropolitan Nature Park, which is a great little park right in the middle of town. The great thing about this place is that not many tourists seem to know about it, so we were able to do a nice 1-hour hike up to a viewpoint in natural forest and rainforest surroundings without many people around!

We got amazing views whilst in the park, and also saw many animals (including more sloths!) which really made this stop one of the highlights of the day. The entrance is a tiny $2US which goes towards their conservation fund, and if you like you can also visit a butterfly house in the park for a small fee. Head here to check out the trails available, and other information including opening hours.

Once you are done you can either walk a short distance to the bus stop (in front of the University), or take a fairly cheap Uber or taxi back into the city which is quite nearby.

Plan Your Evening

We think that at this point in the day you will be sufficiently exhausted and immersed in Panama City, though of course there is always more if you like. If you really want to keep on going, there are many options available to have a great night! Some recommendations from us would include:

Shopping Malls

There are many shopping malls in Panama City that are surprisingly good (maybe we were just used to other Central American countries without good shops)! Some good examples to check out include the Albrook Mall, Metromall Panama, Multicentro, and the Multiplaza Pacific Mall.

The majority of these also have cinemas located inside, which can make for a great cheap movie if you don’t feel like heading out.

Restaurants

There are literally hundreds of options for restaurants in Panama City, and we are not going to pretend to know all of the best spots. We would however recommend going back to Casco Viejo where there are some great restaurants for all budgets. If you are looking for a cheap backpacker option you can’t go too wrong heading to the fish market (there are many, but look for the stands in front of the Mercado de Mariscos), where you can get a cheap ceviche!

Nightlife

Panama City comes to life at night, and in addition to the earlier suggestion of the nightlife on the Amador Causeway, we can recommend a few places to you to wet your whistle. These include:

  • Brew Stop: This place provides a number of beers both in bottles and on tap. Of course they mostly do craft beer (and a lot from America), but they also have some great Panama brews available. These guys also do food so it is a great option to start the night!
  • Relic: Looking like a cave, this bar is located underneath the Luna Castle Hotel in Casco Viejo. It can get quite busy here, but make sure you at least visit during happy hour when the drinks are quite reasonable.

From Relic you can continue your night as the Casco Viejo area provides many options until the wee hours of the morning.


So there it is, a guide to a very full and busy day in Panama City. If you are able to get through everything on this list in one day, we applaud you. However, it is also great to just pick and choose what you like as they all provide different experiences that can easily be spread out over a few days (or even a week if you want!).

We hope you enjoy your time in Panama City, it surprised us and we really enjoyed the city whilst we were there.

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Panama City in a Day

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