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Health Ministry shuts down Chocolate Festival

A large crowd gathered at Hot Rocks bar in Puerto Viejo Friday for the opening ceremonies of the third annual Chocolate Festival, only to have the event shut down by the Health Ministry.

The community festival was planned to celebrate Puerto Viejo’s re-emerging chocolate scene, which for decades had all but dissapeared after a fungus wiped out most of the area’s cacao crops in the 1970s and ’80s.

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Police and Ministry officials arrived around 7 p.m. when the event was already in full swing. A crowd of more than 100 people had gathered for performances and to sample chocolate from chocolatiers from around the country. The ministry ordered the vendors off the premises and told organizers the festival violated the country’s health code because the event was too large and the food was from unknown origins.

“Since we called it a festival they classified it as a massive event. We could have called it anything else and it may have gone differently,” said Hot Rocks owner Charlie Gregory.

Festival organizers specifically chose a private venue for the event in order to avoid permit issues with the ministry. Though the festival had been advertised for months, Gregory said he never received a warning that the event would cause a problem.

“It’s as if this was designed to break in the eleventh hour after we couldn’t do anything,” he said. “Are they just shutting down an event this large to make an example of us? Maybe.”

This morning, the festival’s shocked and disappointed participants met to discuss a plan for the festival’s remaining events, but many vendors left disappointed.

“It cost a lot for us to come out here to do this,” said Juan Luis Salazar, owner of Iguana Chocolate Farm near the country’s Pacific Coast. He and farm volunteers had traveled eight hours to sell their chocolates at the festival.

Despite the setback, many of the events and workshops will still take place at venues throughout Puerto Viejo. Those still wishing to attend the festival can go to Hot Rocks for a list of new locations and times.

“I still believe we can pull this off,” said Paul Johnson, owner of Caribeans Chocolate and one of the festival’s founders. “We are fighting to come back from a cacao natural disaster that destroyed many people’s livelihoods. This [setback] isn’t much by comparison.”

Health Ministry officials will not be available for comment until Monday.

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