As I glide down a small hill on my bicycle, out of the corner of my eye I see a blazing fire that is not (incredibly enough…) a burning pile of trash. Something curious is going on in this family’s backyard, and although my beans are boiling on the stove top back home, I must make a detour and find out what they are doing up here. I flip the bike around and pedal up a little rocky driveway towards the fire. 

A horse is leashed to a large wooden beam held parallel to the ground at about 5 ft by an intriguing machine that I will call “The Grinder.” The horse is trotting ’round and ’round in circles, thus cranking the machine. Inside the circle are two piles of long staffs of sugar cane: one intact and the other the mere remnants of chewed up, spit out sugar cane stems.

The machine is grinding up the long, bamboo-like branches, spitting them out the other side and expelling a liquidy, foamy substance known as guarapo – or cane juice. I am handed a large cup of the sickenly sweet, yet earthy and delicious, beverage as a woman walks me over to an enormous cauldron, the source of the fire that brought me up here in the first place. The witch’s brew holds the same freshly squeezed, or crushed, cane juice, which has been heated, stirred, and skimmed for hours on end, thus producing that sticky, bitter by-product we so love around the holidays – molasses.

Where to get it/ How to find it: Both in the city and in rural areas, molasses is sold in re-used plastic bottles or recycled glass seco (the local brew) bottles. Ask around to find the closest COMPITA. These small market stalls, usually covered in forest-green tarps or awnings, sell both government subsidized fruits, vegetables, and grains as well as locally produced products. Ask for miel de caña. Even though the packaging looks suspect, don’t be afraid of getting sick from it as the sugar preserves the integrity of the molasses.