The Cost of a Year Around the World, Part 2: The Spend

Last time, we talked about the budget process for a year around the world, where I estimated that it would take $28,000 per person (around $500 per week) to circumnavigate the globe (at an enjoyable pace) in roughly a year. After the 54 weeks of travel across 5 continents and 28 countries (31 with layovers), we had spent $25,286.50 per person ($468.27 per week)! Below, I’ll talk about what we actually spent our money on and how we kept our costs down, as well as how you might be able to spend a year traveling on even less.

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Our breakdown of spend for the year.

Sticking to a Budget

A budget only works if you stick to it, so I built a tool to help us track our spending through the entire trip. It’s an Excel spreadsheet with tabs that I tracked all of our spend on in five categories – lodging, food, travel, personal hygiene and health, and fun. It then calculates total spend by category for each week and by country. You can download it for free below to use on your trips, and if you have any questions feel free to contact me!

Download the World Budget Template

P.S., one thing I would change about my budget is to write the spend in on the day the event occurred, not when we purchased tickets. This is the same day for most things, but for travel will help you sort spend better by region. For example, spend in LATAM looked way higher originally because it included the tickets for our flight to New Zealand, but that should actually be part of the Oceania part of the trip. I’ve made adjustments to the data manually below, but it was a pain to do.

What our budget went to

Because I love data, I ran an analysis on our expenses from the trip and below describe our breakdown of what we expected compared to actual spend by category. As an overview, travel was definitely the biggest part of our budget, which is unsurprising when you’re circumnavigating the world. But even this, as well as food and lodging cost less than we thought. And as avid hikers and explorers, we found tons to do that was fun and free.

Our weekly total spend by region.

Travel

Expected: $200 per person per week
Actual: $162.24 per person per week

As mentioned above, travel was our biggest budget category and is nearly twice the size of our nearest other spend categories (food and lodging). This is primarily because I set out with a goal for us to circumnavigate the world AND chase summer, so we had to travel round the globe in a giant sinusoidal shape (that’s a sideways “S” shape for, for those of you who don’t know). We had to cross both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and shift between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and that much distance to cover in a year while leaving time to enjoy things means we paid money for flights. It was normally a couple hundred dollars here or there, but there were also a few big-ticket items like the flight from Phoenix to Mexico City, to and from the Galapagos, from Santiago to Auckland, and the flight home from Berlin. Trains, which were really only available Western Europe as a mode of transit (save for Russia and Indonesia), were surprisingly often as expensive as flights. Bus was often the slowest, but cheapest and most interesting option between locations (even the bus ride from hell counts).

Our best rule for saving money became the two-week rule: unless there was no other way, we booked flights only if we were travelling more than two weeks out. If we were within the two-week period, we caught a bus or some other mode of transit instead. Rome2Rio helped us out a lot in figuring that out.

Weekly spend on travel by each region; definitely pricier in Oceania and Europe, while Asia’s is higher because we bought 2-week JR passes in Japan.

Lodging

Expected: $105 per person per week
Actual: $78.39 per person per week

Another expected, constant cost of our trip was a place to sleep each night. We had a budget of $15 per person per night, and what we could get for that varied a lot both between and within countries — heck, it varied a lot even within the same city. Prime example was Cartagena, where a private hostel bedroom within the walled city with the bed taking up nearly the entire space, no AC, and gaping holes in the ceiling that let mosquitos in cost us as much as an air-conditioned, modern room with a TV just outside the city’s walls.

My primary strategy to keep cost down was research, research, research. If I had the time or knew we were going to be somewhere for a while in advance, I checked Hotels.com, Booking.com, and HostelWorld.com for the cheapest deal, looking in particular for multiple-day stay discounts. If it was last minute, I skipped HostelWorld and just stuck with Hotels.com and Booking.com, looking for last-minute discounts.

We also cut costs by having transit sometimes double as lodging, taking overnight buses, flights and trains. This was particularly helpful in South America, where long-haul buses are commonplace and first-class seats were affordable for travelers, even on our budget. For flights, the airport often doubled as our accommodation, as we would find a quiet part of the airport and rolled out our camping mattresses before or after our flight. Since people frequently sleep overnight in airports (there’s a whole website dedicated to it), most airport staff don’t bat an eye.

Lastly, we cut about a month’s worth of lodging (and food) costs and had the most amazing time possible by doing the obvious: visiting where we had friends and family currently living. It meant we had a happy host, a welcoming bed, amazing food, and often a far better guide than the internet to the area.

Weekly spend on lodging by region; the spend in Asia is so high primarily because of Japan, but also due to a few nights of splurging on a hotel room here and there, and lower in Europe because of stretches of stays with friends and family.

Food

Expected: $105 per person per week
Actual: $89.66 per person per week

Like having a place to sleep, you always gotta have something to eat, but we found while food could vary wildly by country, we had more control over it than the cost of lodging. If you’re staying in a hostel in almost any country, you can pick up ingredients from a local market and cook a meal for a fraction of the cost of a meal out. This played a big role in making Western Europe affordable, where we saved for one nicer ~$25 meal a day and otherwise snacked on homemade sandwiches and salads. The only caveat I would give here is that there is an opportunity, no, an enjoyability cost. Because a place’s cuisine is often unique and singular to a place (like the culture), it’s worth springing the money to enjoy at least a couple of meals and understand how the locals eat. We would rather spend a little extra on food over lodging any day (which usually gives you less of a window into culture), and our actual spend reflects that.

Beyond cooking your own meals, the other way to save costs is the above-mentioned stay-with-friends-and-family method. Not much can beat a home-cooked meal, and in many countries your more rural relatives have better tips on the best cheap places to eat.

Weekly spend on food by geography; Asia is high primarily due to volume of food and not necessarily cost, and costs in Europe are lower due to a lot of staying with friends and family, netting us delicious meals.

Personal hygiene/health

Expected: $20 per person per week
Actual: $41.88 per person per week; $11.46 per person per week without our year of travel health insurance

So depending on whether you want to count the pre-trip costs in the budget, I was either wildly under-estimating this one or just a little over-estimating it. When I put together the trip budget, I originally dropped the pre-trip expenses into a different spreadsheet and built the travel budget without it, so I wasn’t counting the travel insurance. As I mentioned in the last post, that travel insurance wasn’t useful beyond peace of mind, because even when I took a fall in Peru and needed an X-ray, the full cost of the visit was the equivalent of ~$200 USD and it was difficult to keep track of receipts and submit them for reimbursement while moving around so much.

Otherwise, this category sat pretty unused with the exception of repairing our equipment and restocking medicine, which I’d recommend purchasing when you are getting modestly low, not when you’re low or out, because there are some countries that just don’t have certain medicines. Pharmacists in Indonesia and Vietnam, for example, had no idea what bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) was, so we were out until we got to Hong Kong.

The equipment repair and replacement was also pretty variable, and mostly consisted of us repairing the same pairs of shoes we wore throughout the trip. In general, a good rule to determine whether you should repair or replace is look at the current socioeconomic status of the country around you; depressingly, it’s affordable to get things repaired when you’re in a poorer country, but to buy something new when you’re in a richer country, just because of the variation in cost of labor. In some countries, we couldn’t even find people who still repaired camping equipment or shoes.

Weekly spend on personal hygiene, medical, and emergency by geography. The cost in Oceania is so high because we bought a UV sterilizer when our water pump broke, and in Europe we had to renew travel insurance.

Fun

Expected: $100 per person per week
Actual: $96.10 per person per week

I’m thrilled to see the budget for fun experiences and souvenirs is almost spot-on with what I predicted, because I wasn’t sure if I had dramatically under-or over-estimated. We started out in South America being cheap as hell and got a little spend happy in a couple of other places (Japan, Western Europe, looking at you). We did have a couple of big splurges on the trip, like the five-star Galapagos cruise with a Cordon Bleu-trained chef on board (why our LATAM bar is so tall) and fine pens/hobby equipment in Japan. I also placed meals in really nice restaurants in this category because they felt more like experiences than food. But overall, we managed to keep costs down by being outdoorsy people and going for hikes or walking around town. We would also ask locals for recommendations on what to do for fun, as these tended to be way cheaper and more interesting than whatever was set up for tourists.

Weekly spend on fun experiences and mementos by geography; the cost in LATAM is our $3,000 Galapagos cruise, and everything in Oceania cost so much money to do that we basically on did free hikes.

How to do it on less

There are two ways you could travel for a year on less: make fewer hops between countries, and stick with cheaper countries. We stayed in a location 1-2 weeks before moving on, which meant we were paying a lot in travel expenses. We also intentionally visited some more expensive countries (New Zealand, Japan, France, Germany), because we wanted to see them. If you weren’t set on the idea of circumnavigating the planet, stick with just Asia or LATAM and save yourself the cost of cross-continental hops.

Next, I’ll be doing a breakdown by country of our costs and provide some tips on how to save money in each country.

Read Part 1: The Budget.

Read Part 3: Country Comparison.

Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.

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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.

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The little mushroom that could #1.

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The little mushroom that could #2.

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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.

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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.

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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.

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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.

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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.

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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.

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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.

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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.

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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.

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A salticid in a patch of grass.

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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.

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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.

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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.

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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.

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The color of moss.

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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.

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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.

Boots repair (#2?)

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Tink!

The zipper pull on my boots snapped off. I guess this was bound to happen at some point given the abuse they go through. I’ve zipped them on and off nearly every day for the past year. These boots were my main pair of shoes for several months before the trip cause hey, they’re comfortable and have good support and grip. Wearing them also means I don’t have to check the weather daily, something I never got used to as a Californian living in the Northeast. I don’t need to worry about it if I just pop waterproof, weatherproof boots on every day.

But this broken zipper pull is a problem because it means more time and finger strain getting the boots zipped. It’s an even bigger problem because this is the left boot, which had some zipper problems back in South America that required stitching to repair—the zipper started tearing itself out from the rest of the boot. And it’s only month four of the trip, so a new pair of shoes is out of the question. So what have we got that’ll serve as a substitute zipper pull?

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Thank goodness I’m clever. When in doubt, hook a keyring loop to it! A tiny carabiner would have also been fine, but one of the easiest things in the world to find are keyring loops. Pick up a cheap keychain, pull one off a keychain you’re already carrying, or just pick one off the ground for free (like I did). You never know when it’ll come in hand to fix a broken zipper.

Booking a Last-Minute Galápagos Cruise

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A blue-footed booby along the water in the Galápagos

The Galápagos: a mythical faraway place that conjures up images of pristine beaches and exotic animals, from flitting Darwin’s finches to sunning sea lions. It’s the kind of place you dream of going to someday, maybe once you’ve gotten a more stable job or that raise at work or the time and money and stars align for that perfect anniversary getaway. After all, it’s expensive! This isn’t a place you just decide to visit next week.

That’s how I thought of the Galápagos, even once I learned it was a short flight from Quito. I kept thinking that way when Stoytcho and I entertained the idea of going. We talked about it jokingly, and I told Stoytcho I was pretty sure it wasn’t possible on our budget. But when it became clear we wouldn’t have time to get to Torres del Paine in Chile (partly thanks to our oh so lovely, just-one-more-week stay in Colombia), we began to entertain the idea of visiting the Galápagos more seriously. Just how expensive would a trip out there be, though?

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A sally lightfoot crab in the tidepools

Google searches quickly turned up a host of websites touting last minute Galápagos cruises at “discounted prices”, but with even the cheapest at over $1,000 per person they still seemed pretty pricey. More worryingly, these cheap options were all on small boats with mixed reviews, attributable to two things: cramped living quarters and rough seas. At 6’4″, we were already struggling to cram Stoytcho into tons of places in South America that weren’t built for people his height, from buses to hostel beds. Spending several days hunched over in low ship corridors combined with potential seasickness would not a fun Galápagos journey make. The more comfortable options, the shiny, sleek, azure-sky-and-water luxury cruises still boasted price tags of around $3,000, far out of our price range.

There were some TripAdvisor threads and blog posts that suggested we shop around in Quito or Guayaquil to get cheaper prices, but the thought of running around Quito to visit travel agencies between Christmas and New Year’s sounded awful. So we gave up on the thought of visiting the Galápagos for a while. When we arrived in Quito, our first visit was to the Basílica de Voto Nacional. After visiting, we wandered down one of the streets heading south, meandering our way to El Panecillo, when we noticed a sign in a window proclaiming “Last Minute Galápagos Cruises”. Figuring we could just get a ballpark on what the cost for a last minute cruise was here, I grabbed the handle to the travel agency door and pulled it open.

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Baby Galápagos sea lions on the beach

There are some times in life where you get things because you deserve them, and some times where you get things because maybe you deserved them but also you chanced to meet the right person at the exactly right time. This was a case of the latter. The travel agent behind the door was Gabby Segova (of Ecuador Family Tours), and she spent the time between December 26 and New Years’ Day working with us to book our dream cruise. She was a one-woman powerhouse, walking us through the prices and itineraries of all the available trips, negotiating prices with cruise companies, and finally booking the cruise. And the whole time, she was the most cheerfully delightful person to work with.

In the end, we opted for the ultimate dream cruise–the Santa Cruz II, one of the highest-rated luxury cruises in the Galápagos. Complete with small-group guided tours, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, two onboard hot tubs, roll stabilizers to protect against rough seas, and a library (no, REALLY), the Santa Cruz II was a dream come true. The original price was $4,500 per person. The last-minute cruise price online was $3,000 per person. And our price? $1,550 per person.

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A Galápagos penguin swims in front of our cruise boat, the Santa Cruz II

That’s not to say this process was easy. It involved all of my negotiation skills, from persistence and playfulness to doing my detective work. We visited one other agency, to check their prices. We visited the cruise company and asked for their lowest price, just to make sure they couldn’t give us a better deal. We spent three days sweetly asking Gabby to hold out for a better deal from the original last-minute price of $1,750. That was three days of hoping they wouldn’t sell their last few spots, wondering if we were pushing our luck, wondering if it might fall through. And even with the discounted price, this was still 3 weeks of our estimated travel budget, devoured by a tour lasting less than a week. But now that we’ve done it, I can say it was definitely, DEFINITELY worth all of it. During this experience, I created a framework to help us identify our dream cruise. I’m sharing it below, along with some negotiation tips so if you’re dreaming of the Galápagos, you can make that dream a reality.

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One of the giant tortoise species found on the Galápagos

Why a cruise:

Why didn’t we just visit the Galápagos on our own? Excellent question. The Galápagos is a heavily protected national park and visiting without a tour severely limits what you can see. Overnight stays are permitted on only a couple of islands. Similarly, day trips from the main town of Puerto Ayora visit only a subset of locations in the Galápagos. And in most locations, you’re not even allowed on land without a guide as a precaution to minimize tourist damage to the islands. If you visit the Galápagos on a cruise, especially one with a good itinerary, you’re able to see far more of the Galápagos than you would visiting on your own.

Where to look for cruises:

  • Websites – The easiest place to look, but also the place with the least discount. Googling “last minute Galápagos cruise” should return plenty of websites offering spots aboard cruises leaving in the next week or month.
  • Quito/Guayaquil – Local tour agencies in both cities have information on last-minute cruises and their prices. I’m obviously biased toward Gabby, but work with whomever makes you feel the most comfident. Do make sure they know not only boat types and prices, but also the itineraries of the boats-this heavily influences your cruise experience.
  • Puerto Ayora in the Galápagos – The last, last minute place to book a cruise. You can book from an agency (prices were discounted by ~$50-$100 compared to Quito) or by negotiating directly with a boat captain (does not work for luxury cruises). The tradeoff is that staying in Puerto Ayora is expensive compared to the mainland ($30 vs $17 per night for a room, $7 vs $4 per meal), so you risk spending quite a bit of money if you hang around negotiating too long.

What to consider:

  • Itinerary – Decide what you want most out of your cruise. Do you want to do more snorkeling, or walking around on land? Do you really want to visit a certain island? Do you HAVE TO see the tiny, adorable Galápagos penguins? This is where a good tour agent really shines, as s/he will know cruise itineraries, which locations are worthwhile, and which locations you can visit on your own.
  • Price – This is always a huge factor in deciding which cruise to take, but don’t be priced out by what’s listed on websites or first quoted by an agent. Take note of it and hold onto it for later.
  • What it includes – Our cruise included everything except wetsuit rental and soft drinks/alcohol. Others might charge for the snorkel, or for all drinks beyond water, or for bringing your own alcohol. Be sure to ask your tour company what is and isn’t included in the price of your tour.
  • Timing – Like any tourist destination, there are high seasons. These occur in the summer and during Christmas/New Year’s. Part of the reason we got a great deal was because we booked for just after New Year’s, when the number of customers steeply declines. Keep this in mind if you have flexibility in your travel time.
  • Cruise type/ship type – Are you willing to rough it or do you want to be pampered? How much do you want to be pampered? There may be some variation in cruise type and ship size, but we found the following from our last-minute cruise information: budget (often small yachts and sailboats), mid-tier (larger yachts and small ships), and luxury cruises (the largest ships).

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A marine iguana sunning on volcanic rocks

How to get the best price:

  • Do your research – Nothing is a substitute for knowing your stuff. Go to websites, visit travel agents, and figure out what cruises are happening in the next few weeks. Write down the names of the cruises you’re interested in, when they depart, their itineraries, how many spots are left, and the price. Focus on itineraries that you would enjoy the most.
  • Set your “dream price” and “satisfied price” – the dream price is what you would love to have, and satisfied price is what you’d settle for. For example, our dream price for in the above scenario was $1,500 per person, but we decided we’d settle if we could get below $1,600 per person. During this step, don’t be drawn in by anchoring of their previous prices. Set the price to what you would LOVE to pay, the price that would make you jump up and down and shout if you somehow got it.
  • Shop around – It’s time to get down to business and get quotes from multiple places. Visit travel agents, contact the company running the cruise, and even talk to the captain of the boat if you can. Ask for your dream price. See what price they can give you. Use the difference between their quoted prices and your “settle” price to narrow down your list to one or two cruises to pursue.
  • Be persistent and playful – Now that they’ve made your opening bid, it’s time to check in every day and see if they’re willing to lower it. This could get old really fast for the people you’re contacting, and it will if you’re adversarial or unfriendly. Instead, make it a game and be cheerful. Brighten their day and get to know them. And handle their refusal to lower the price with grace, something like “Darn! It was great talking to you anyway. I’ll try again tomorrow.” At best, these people will grow to like you, they’ll work to meet your requested price, and you’re more likely to get your dream cruise. At worst, you’ll have made several people happier. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being playful.

P.S. We weren’t asked or paid to advertise any of the businesses in this article. We just loved our experience.

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Sunset over an island in the Galápagos

Hostel Chocolate Part III, the Thrilling Conclusion

When we last left off, I was turning the cacao nibs we roasted in Costa Rica into powder via an uncooperative coffee grinder. It did not look promising. While the cacao mixture had liquefied as expected, it seemed grainy. I dumped it into a container and then placed in the fridge, where it solidified into this mass by next morning:

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It kind of looks like chocolate, although it looks more like chocolate that has gone off

I paused at this point because after reading various chocolate-making resources, I learned that I wasn’t going to be making anything except the darkest chocolate without cocoa butter. It would be something that hovered around 82% chocolate*, which is definitely not my cup of tea. Or bar of chocolate.

While it was possible we might find cocoa butter somewhere in Medellín, I didn’t have high hopes. Because it’s needed to make chocolate and much of it can be lost in processing cacao, cocoa butter is the most valuable part of the cacao mass. Most chocolate-makers order it from sources online, so what are the odds I’d find some that someone selling it in a shop? We were also heading to the tiny town of Guatapé for two days, so the likelihood I’d find cocoa butter soon was nil. Right?

It turns out that the old adage about finding things in the least likely places is true. While in Guatapé we encountered José, the owner of La Tiendita de Chocolate and full time chocolate-maker. As luck would have it, he had just ordered a huge amount cocoa butter to work with, and he agreed to sell us a couple of ounces for about $2 USD. “It’s funny,” he told us, “I just got cocoa butter for the first time last week. I’ve never had it around before then.” How’s THAT for good timing on our part?

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Our little nibbin of cocoa butter

With cocoa butter in hand**, I returned to Medellín to complete our chocolate making adventure. The first step was to assemble the ingredients: the cocoa mass, the cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder. Milk powder isn’t generally used in dark chocolate, but I figured I could try making some dark milk chocolate. I took multiple recipes and mashed them together, aiming for roughly the following ratios:

5 parts cocoa mass
1 part cocoa butter
2 parts sugar
2 parts milk powder

The first thing I did was put the coffee grinder through one more round of grinding-things-it-shouldn’t be. I wanted the chocolate to be as smooth as possible, and without water sugar doesn’t dissolve, leaving a sandy texture. I put several tablespoons into the coffee grinder and created a fine powder.

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Sugar, before (left) and after (right) grinding

I did the same with the powdered milk, but it turns out that the powdered milk was indeed powder, and the grinding had no effect:

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Our milk powder, before (left) and after (right) grinding.

Then I got down to working with the cocoa mass. In hopes of making the cocoa particles finer, I tried to give it a second grind in the coffee grinder, but the poor thing had finally had it and started jamming. Thankfully, there was a blender in the hostel kitchen. I broke the cocoa mass into pieces and tossed it into the blender:

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Let’s hope the blender does a better job of grinding the chocolate mass than the coffee grinder did.

After several minutes of grinding, I got powdered cocoa mass but nothing finer. I decided to abandon making it finer and tossed in the ground sugar, so at least the blender would have a chance to start the mixing process:

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Nope, blender does not grind cocoa mass better than a coffee grinder. I added some sugar to start the mixing process.

Now that the cocoa mass-sugar mix was ready, it was time to start the chocolate making process. Since direct heat is anathema to chocolate, I fashioned a double boiler out of pots found in the kitchen.

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The makeshift double boiler; at least the aluminum ensures quick heat transfer.

I let the water heat for a few minutes, then I tossed the cocoa butter (about 1 oz.) into the double boiler. It immediately started to melt and release the most amazing smell ever–think chocolate combined with melted butter and vanilla.

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Cocoa butter melting. If you ever want to make your room smell like heaven, melt some cocoa butter.

Once the cocoa butter was melted, I tossed in the whole chocolate-sugar mixture and began stirring:

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Amazingly, the cocoa mass began to melt and smooth out, so that it was nowhere as grainy as I thought it would be! I kept stirring, and the mass continued to melt until I had shiny, smooth chocolate:

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What followed was a long process of taste-refining. I stuck my finger in the chocolate and found it was still extremely dark and bitter. I tossed in a couple more spoonfuls of sugar, and a bit milk powder, and then tried it again. It was better, but still too dark for my tastes. I repeated this process until I had something that tasted like something between a milk and dark chocolate. The final ratio of ingredients in my chocolate was probably closer to the following:

4 parts cocoa mass
1 part cocoa butter
2.5 parts sugar
2.5 parts milk powder

Having somehow accomplished fermenting, roasting, grinding and melting chocolate all in a hostel setting, I ran into a final challenge: how do I temper chocolate without a concher or some kind of surface to mix it on? Tempering is the mixing of chocolate in the right conditions such that it will form ideal crystals. It’s what gives chocolate its characteristic gloss and snap. There are two tempering methods: you either use a thermometer and mix chocolate continuously at very specific temperatures, or you seed your newly-made chocolate with an already-tempered piece of chocolate and it magically teaches your chocolate to form the right crystals***.

Unsurprisingly, the hostel kitchen didn’t have a thermometer. I also didn’t have any chocolate to seed with. I settled on the solution of instead reheating my chocolate once more on the double boiler while mixing continuously, then continuing to mix for several minutes after taking off the heat. Finally, I spooned the chocolate into molds (our old leftovers container, used previously for the cacao mass):

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I spoon the chocolate into a clean leftovers container for cooling after my approximated tempering attempt.

Since I wasn’t optimistic about the chocolate flavor, I also ground some cloves and sprinkled the clove powder on top of one of the chocolate bars. I figured that at worst, the strong spice of the cloves would help offset any burnt flavors in the chocolate.

I tapped the chocolate containers a few times to remove bubbles, then I left them to set. Unfortunately, a few hours later they were still pretty runny:

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The chocolate bars setting (very) slowly. The bar on the left is plain, while the bar on the right has powdered cloves sprinkled on top.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as Jose had mentioned that too much cocoa butter might prevent the chocolate from solidifying. I had read that I shouldn’t put chocolate in the fridge to set because moisture will damage it or cause seizing. But I figured committing heresy and having poor quality chocolate was better than it spilling everywhere or having it filled with flies who drowned in chocolatey paradise. I placed both bars in a paper bag and slid them into the fridge.

Miraculously, when I pulled the chocolate out an hour later, it wasn’t ruined and had hardened quite nicely. There was some evidence for bloom on the tops of the bars, but it was nowhere as bad as I thought it would be with my tempering job.

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Flipping them out of the molds also revealed that the bars had a fairly nice shine, despite my approximated tempering. Whether I had actually done a good job, I had just been lucky, or the patterns on the molds had helped set the chocolate properly remains to be determined. Maybe it was all three.

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Then came the real test: the taste. Stoytcho and I snapped off bits of each bar and tried it. The chocolate was darker than I expected, losing some of the milky flavor during the cooling phase. The words I would use to describe the flavor profile would be bittersweet, fruity, and slightly burnt. It was definitely not the most balanced set of flavors, but it wasn’t awful. And the cloves bar was actually downright tasty, as the spiciness of the cloves helped offset the vague burnt undertones in the chocolate****.

So there you have it, everyone. Against all odds, poor resources, and an utter lack of experience, I have forged chocolate in hostel kitchens across two countries. I am a cooking god.

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I pose with my creations. This success bodes well for my attempts at ridiculous culinary acrobatics in the future.

Attributions:

This project would not have been possible without the magic of the internet, Google, and the following resources: Kojo Designs, The Ultimate Chocolate Blog, Bean-to-Bar, Chocolate Alchemy, and José from La Tiendita de Chocolate in Guatapé. If you’re looking to make your own chocolate, their knowledge is phenomenal.

Notes:

*Ever wonder how the % on your chocolate bar is worked out? Well, if you’re working with cacao mass like I am, it’s simply the ratio of chocolate to other ingredients by mass. So an 80% chocolate bar is something akin to 5 oz. of chocolate and 1 oz. of sugar.

**Well, not really in hand. It would have melted. The melting temperature of cocoa butter is just under human body temperature, which is why chocolate melts in your hand (or your mouth).

***It’s not actually magic, but the more amazing power of science! “Seeding” a solution with a seed crystal, a piece of the material where the molecules have settled down the way you want, is fairly common in chemistry. You can use it to make awesome crystals.

****I should note here that the love of the clove bar was not universal; Stoytcho most definitely preferred the plain dark chocolate bar. But he likes extremely bitter, dark chocolate, which makes him weird. Right? RIGHT???

Hostel Chocolate, Part II

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Processing the cacao

We’ve come so far, through Panama and northern Colombia, with nary a moment to think about the roasted and somewhat ground cocoa beans we’ve been carrying. We needed a coffee grinder to turn our current cocoa product into the final product*, chocolate. Since we finally have a breather in Medellín, we went in search of a coffee grinder to continue our Hostel Chocolate adventure.

 

Part 1: The search for a coffee grinder

Colombia is one of the top three coffee exporters and is rewnowned for some high-quality brews, but getting a coffee grinder here is nearly impossible. Good coffee gets exported and the people here mostly drink the pre-ground, freeze-dried coffee, so grinding your own coffee just isn’t a thing. We started our search at big-box stores such as Falabella and Exito, big-box stores like Wal-Mart that sell appliances. While they offered coffee-makers, they had no coffee grinders. The next day we tried three independent coffee shops in the Zona Rosa district—two had no coffee grinders, and the last only had a high-end Japanese glass grinder for $100 USD. Eesh. We asked this last coffee shop where we might be able to find an electric coffee grinder, and they suggested a mall in the next district. So we caught a bus there and hunted around until we found a department store. We asked if they had a coffee grinder and indeed they did! But then we asked how much it was, and they said it wasn’t for sale. The grinder was only available as a free gift with the purchase of a KitchenAid mixer for hundreds of dollars. Defeated, we returned to our hostel.

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Coffee and chocolate shops everywhere, but not a coffee grinder in sight. This store suggested we try the mall, but we had no luck bying a coffee grinder there either.

The next day we stopped by a Juan Valdez for a cup of tea, and lo and behold, they had an electric coffee grinder for $25 USD! It was the last one and a bit dented, so I tried to talk them down in price, but the manager said no to my attempts. All the same, WE HAD OUR COFFEE GRINDER! Thinking I could try making milk chocolate without cacao butter, I grabbed some powdered milk on the way home as well. At the time I didn’t notice it says “fortified with iron”. When I realized it I just figured, “the chocolate will be extra healthy?” Hooray!

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Our ingredients: the bag of somewhat ground, roasted cacao beans and a bag of powdered milk. I accidentally bought the one fortified with iron (hierro), so we’ll see how that affects the chocolate.

 

Part 2: Cacao’s time to grind

That night, I got to grinding the chocolate in hopes of finally completing our chocolate, only to run into the problems of capacity and viscosity. The first problem was capacity—we had roughly 300 g of chocolate, but the machine had capacity for only 50 g at a time.

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~50 g of our starting product in the coffee grinder.

To get the machine to grind the chocolate effectively, I had to grind it for a couple of minutes, open the lid and mix it around, then grind again. I’d repeat this process 2-3 times, so the first batch took about 10 minutes. Despite this, by the end the chocolate had gone from rough grind, to fine powder, then a dark mud, and finally a dense liquid. We had cacao paste, ready for action!

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The product after several minutes of processing. This is about 75% done.

This is when I encountered the second problem of making cacao in a grinder: the  viscosity. Cacao paste has a higher viscosity than ground coffee, so the coffee maker wasn’t designed to handle the extra resistance. The coffee grinder’s motor worked harder, and coupled with the reduced heat dissipation from a paste (instead of the drier ground coffee), the machine soon began to overheat. After the second batch the grinder produced a burning smell, and I had to take breaks within and between the following batches to keep the grinder from dying entirely.

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Attempting to reheat the cacao paste in the pan to grind it more finely. Don’t ask about all the spoons.

With these setbacks, the cacao grinding took about 3 hours in total, and at the end I had a still-slightly grainy paste. I tried to improve the consistency by heating it a pan to grind it again (above), but this turned into a massive mess. Unhopeful, I mashed it into a clean leftovers container** and set it aside to cool overnight.

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The final ground mass of cacao paste. Though blurry, you can see the grainy dots along the surface of the cacao paste.

Not wanting to admit total defeat, I also took one spoonful and dissolved it in some milk made from our powdered milk and sugar, and had myself some chocolate milk. It felt like the spiritual equivalent of making lemons out of lemonade, since we didn’t have high hopes for the cacao paste.

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Chocolate milk: because I refuse to accept that what I’ve made is totally inedible! It was actually pretty good, so at least I’ve made drinking chocolate.

The next day we took a look at the cacao paste and it didn’t look as bad. It had solidified into a dark mass and seemed less grainy, but some areas had white bloom suggesting the fat had separated from the rest of the cacao mass. We were heading to Guatape that day, so I didn’t have time to move forward with the rest of the recipe. But as you’ll find out soon, this was actually a lucky move.

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The solidifed cocoa mass. The whitish parts are bloom, where the fat has separated out. It doesn’t look terribly edible, does it?

Stay tuned for our adventures in Guatape, the land of many (artificial) lakes, and the culinary conclusion of Hostel Chocolate!

  • Natalie

 

Notes:

* A coffee grinder is actually a subpar tool for making chocolate because the ground cacao particles aren’t small enough and result in somewhat grainy chocolate, but it’s the cheap option. Various kinds of ball mills are used to create small-batch and commercial chocolate, running quickly into the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars category. There are cheap ball mills out there for $150-200 that some people swear by for chocolate-making. But I figured our chance of running into one of those in Colombia was pretty much nil.

** When travelling you’re often short on your standard kitchen gear, so saving food containers from restaurants and takeout is insanely useful. It’s basically +1 item for food storage that you can discard or leave behind when you have to move on. We found the Styrofoam boxes don’t keep well, but plastic ones are wonderful. Even the super flimsy plastic ones (like the one in the final photo above) can be reused a few times.