Shortly before sundown on our last day in Bocas Town, I signed us up for a tour on the mainland. This was Oreba Chocolate Tours, a tour organized and run by a local Indian village that takes visitors on a step by step process of the very beginnings of the chocolate making process—the part most of us know the least about.
We left Bocas in the morning, taking the water taxi back to the mainland town of Almirante. The water taxis used to run through Changuinola, the headquarters of the Chiquita banana operation, using the old canals that the banana boats went through for decades. But Mother Nature has started to obliterate those canals, filling them in with silt and making them impassable. So the taxis go to Almirante instead.
We made landfall and were greeted by Mauricio, one of our two guides, who shuttled us to a taxi for a twenty-minute ride out to the village.
The village of Rio Oeste Arriba.
Mauricio gives the tour in Spanish, with translation provided by Jake, who learned English years ago from a Peace Corps volunteer who came to work in the area. We started up a hillside where they explained the kinds of trees and fruit that grow in the area, and what they are used for (one tree’s roots are used to treat hepatitis, another tree’s leaves are boiled to make tea for a variety of stomach ailments). And, of course, there are the cacao trees.
Cacao tree with premature pods.
Cacao is the lifeblood of the village. It is used for food and drink and, of course, as the major cash crop for the people who live there. Mauricio and Jake told us about the process of pruning the trees. Everything is done organically, which is to say it’s done the same way it was for the hundreds of years before chemicals and pesticides came on the scene. The trees are pruned every eight days to prevent a certain fungus from devastating the crop. Since the cacao grows at high altitudes, this means climbing hundreds of feet every day to check a different section of trees. There are also the issues of pests that eat the cacao, such as monkeys, squirrels and woodpeckers. To combat them, other trees are planted with fruits that the pests will eat instead. “We don’t kill them,” Mauricio told us. “They’re our friends.”
Star Fruit Tree. A pest decoy.
Once the pods are ripe, they are cracked open and left to ferment in vats for eight days. The cacao seed is white and sweet. If you put one in your mouth and suck it tastes exactly like mango. Once the seeds have been fermented, they are placed in a solar drier until they are brown and crisp. At this point, they can be roasted in a pan over a fire, then ground on a stone. We were led to a hut where a woman named Katia demonstrated the roasting and grinding process, then combined what she’d ground with a little bit of milk and sugar and gave us a taste of 90 percent pure cacao, organically grown, harvested, and produced right there in the village. There might be better chocolate than this in the world, but I haven’t had it yet.
Jake at the solar drier.
Katia grinding the roasted seeds.
The tour was the highlight of the trip so far, and more than that I don’t think I can say without being incredibly sappy, and probably a little condescending. I’ll just say I could stand to learn a lot more about where my food comes from. This tour revolved around something I have for a treat sometimes, and here was this enormous amount of labor and thought going into every piece of it. And that labor was something upon which an entire village’s future depended. That’s a heavy thought to process. I’m not going to try to do it all at once.
It was a hell of a good tour, though. I wish you call could take it. Maybe some of you will.
We’re back in David, now. We grabbed the bus back over the mountains to Chiriqui Province after the tour. We’ll spend the next several days in this area, particularly the highlands around Boquete, before continuing on to Nicaragua. Chiriqui is the major coffee growing region of Panama, and I’m anxious to learn more about that process as soon as the opportunity arises.
As I wrote that, my jukebox kicked over “One More Cup of Coffee” by Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. Perfect.