How Sucre Became the Chocolate Capital of Bolivia
Nearly anyone you ask in Sucre has an opinion on who makes the best chocolate in town, which is considered Bolivia's chocolate capital despite being located nowhere near the country's chocolate growing regions.
Some taste treats outside the Chocolates Para Ti factory in Sucre. All photos by by Ada Kulesza.
At the moment Jaime de Zudáñez was arrested on May, 25 1809 in what is present-day Sucre, Bolivia for plotting to overthrow the colonial Spanish government, legend has it he was enjoying a cup of liquid chocolate. His detention sparked the "Shout for Liberty," a popular uprising that eventually resulted in independence for the mountainous South American country. The town's central square, Plaza 25 de Mayo, was named in honor of the revolt.
A little more than 200 year later, crowds of indigenous women filled the plaza, chanting slogans and blocking traffic, carrying on Bolivia's proud tradition of direct protest. The women were speaking out again new streetside vendor laws, but it only took a small flight of fancy to imagine that they were actually arguing over their preference for chocolate.
Sucre is technically considered the constitutional capital of Bolivia, although most of the economic and governmental activity is centered in La Paz. One title Sucre holds in both name and reality, however, is the chocolate capital of the country, and the heart of its reputation is centered at one corner of the main plaza. Just beyond the protesting women were storefronts for the two main contenders for best chocolate in the nation: Chocolates Para Ti and Taboada.
Nearly anyone you ask in Sucre has an opinion. The consensus was that Chocolates Para Ti was far superior to their less-famous competitor, but Taboada partisans were fierce in defending their favorite. "Para Ti is just marketing," one restaurant owner confided. "Taboada actually makes much better chocolate."
I figured I'd have to find out for myself, and elbowed my way past the demonstration to try out the goods. Para Ti certainly had slicker packaging and friendlier staff. But honestly, it was hard to go wrong with either. Para Ti offers a fantastic array of flavors, many using local ingredients like chili peppers, quinoa, coffee, salt from the Bolivian salt flats, and of course coca leaves. Taboada has its own impressive display of options, offering a full range of different bonbon flavors in addition to other chocolate and chocolate-related products-- rice and chocolate lollipops, chocolate covered peanuts, the works. The brand isn't quite as ubiquitous as Para Ti but can be found in shops in most cities in Bolivia.
Regrettably, the Taboada factory was under construction and therefore closed to visitors. The Para Ti factory, located a taxi-ride away on the other side of town, did offer a somewhat sanitized viewing of its facilities. A helpful host named Maria was happy to lead a curtailed tour, beginning with a promotional video that explains the production process, followed by a sampling. There was a brontosaurus-shaped quinoa chocolate treat, dark chocolates with various percentages of pure cocoa, and a smooth, creamy white chocolate.
Everything is tied into the history of Bolivia. The dinosaur is a reference to the famous collection of footprints found at the Cal Orck'o cliffs near Sucre. Packaging for other chocolates contains images of famous tourist destinations around the country, giving consumers something interesting to look at as well as taste.
Before it arrives in Sucre, most of the chocolate comes from the Amazon, collected by the local communities. For all intents and purposes, it's organic although they don't have certification since it's harvested from the wild.
Since the company gained ISO 14,000 certification, tourists can no longer visit the factory floor, but you can peer at the machines through some glass windows, watching the brown liquid goo pour down slides into mixers and tanks. Through another window we spotted women—the company is 85 percent female—dressed in white suits and busy making traditional Carnival treats, including a milk-chocolate egg with liqueur inside, covered in a dark chocolate ganache to seal it in.
Sucre takes its chocolate reputation seriously, so it's easy (and encouraged) to indulge in bonbons, hot chocolate, and other treats in restaurants and coffee shops all over the city. Curiously, the town earned its crown despite being located nowhere near the country's chocolate growing regions, which are hundreds of miles north and east and many thousand feet lower in elevation than the city perched more than 9,000 feet high in the Andes.
One of Para Ti's owners, Gaston Solares Ávila, wrote a book titled Sucre, la Ciudad del Chocolate that provides an answer, noting that the city benefited from its location on the trail between the jungles where the chocolate was grown and Potosi, a once-thriving city built around a massive silver mine that effectively funded the Spanish empire. Evidently the colonialists developed quite a sweet tooth, and Sucre became the center of the trade. Initially, the chocolate was mostly enjoyed in liquid form, but by the dawn of the 20th century, production of candies was underway.
The industry quickly became entrenched in Bolivia, and more recently has started expanding internationally, mostly to neighboring countries like Chile. Para Ti, which was founded in 1990 and quickly grew into the largest producer in the nation, with shops in all the major cities of Bolivia, even began selling some products in Atlanta in 2010, but found the market wasn't strong enough to support it—for now.
That means most people who want to taste Sucre's famous chocolate still need to visit for themselves. As for deciding which brand is best, why not try them all?