The Cacao Route

A Journey to the heart of the chocolate-flavored jungle - Many say that Ecuador produces the best aromatic cacao fino de aroma. It’s also synonymous with the South American country’s culture and patrimony.  

WORDS Hugo Carro
January 2017
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Santiago Peralta and Carla Barboto are an Ecuadoran couple who met surfing in the Pacific Ocean in 2002. They fell in love dreaming of a life together, and got married in 2006. Today they have two children and are the recognized producers of Pacari organic chocolate (Pacarichocolate.com). They invited me on a very special trip to see how their exquisite product is made.

It’s a Saturday at 7 a.m. in Quito, when the sun is starting to poke its rays out of the tops of the mountains and volcanoes. Outside the offices of Picari, I get on a bus headed for the colonial town of Archidona in Napo Province, two hours from Quito. The objective? To learn the process of making chocolate, from the plants to our mouths.
 
The zigzagging in the rain required to connect the capital of Ecuador to the jungle is not only a question of horizontal distance, it’s a descent of 2,960 meters to a height of 600 meters. In Archidona, our destination, we’re welcomed by Kichwa natives from the Amazonian community of Santa Rita, who are dedicated full time to the production of cacao.

60-Year-Old Plant
I put on high rubber boots, and we start the route to a nearby cacao plantation. I’m sweating in the bothersome heat and trying not to lose my balance in the jungle mud. An intense shower falls; more than getting us wet, it delights with its naturally perfect temperature and the rhythmic musicality of drops hitting big leaves.

The first part of the journey is to come face to face with the cacao trees and become familiar with how they are cultivated and their biodiversity.
 
“From the time it’s planted, a tree takes about four years to bear its first fruit,” our guide says. The plants that stand out from other vegetation by the olive green, red, yellow or brown color of their fruits, are between 50 and 60 years old. The fruits measure on average 20 to 25 centimeters long by 10 to 15 centimeters wide, and have the shape of a rugby ball.
 
The richness and abundance of the natural resources that characterizes the zones in which cacao is produced – like Santa Rita– have allowed, over several centuries and in the hands of over 100,000 small farmers, to develop unique flavors and aromas.  They remind us of plums, raisins, berries, citrus fruits, nuts, caramel, honey, malt, sugar cane, almonds, peanuts, jasmine and violets. Thus its name: cacao fino de aroma (fine aromatic cacao).

Everything Smells of Cacao
In Napo Province, according to official information, there are 17,000 acres of cacao, almost all of them cultivated, particularly by women, and using traditional forms of sustainable production. There are also multiple cultural and touristic initiatives relating to cacao fino de aroma.

To make the route more dynamic, thematic attractions have been built, like the Cacao Village in Archidona, the cacao Eco-Center in Tena and the Garden of Cacao in Arosemena Tola. In addition, greenhouses for cloning cacao have been developed as well as centers where cacao is gathered, fermented and dried. There are also several artisan chocolate factories.  
 
After an all cacao day, I go back to my cabin, where a meal crowned by pure organic chocolate and fruit is waiting for me. Next, a demonstration of toasting, peeling and grinding cacao with clay, rock and a wood-burning stove.

A Dreamers' Vision                                   
Santiago Peralta, who is 44, and his wife Carla Barbotó started Pacari, (the name means “nature” in Quechua), in 2002. He studied law, “but it was too twisted for me,” he jokes, as the couple’s children Martín and Agustina play around him.
 
“We wanted to be in the countryside to join small famers and do organic farming,” Peralta says. “In 2007, we had already processed cacao, made paste, and someone said ‘this is the best in the world.’ The chocolate was the next step, and we started producing it.”

Today, Pacari’s organic chocolate, made with high quality cacao, has recieved 130 prizes, including 95 gold, silver and bronze medals in the last three International Chocolate Awards in London.
 
According to Peralta, “Santa Rita was rediscovered and brought to the world. Today, in contrast to the past, it’s a pure place with anthropological value, where its inhabitants live from the trees and what they produce.”

Ever Flavorful Comparisons
A few days after the cacao adventure in the Amazon jungle, I went to a formal chocolate tasting at Cafelibro, a place that’s emblematic of Ecuadoran bohemian culture. The tasting offered chocolate in bars, drops and powders. I tried eight varieties: Esmeraldas, Raw 70%, Piura, Sal, Cedrón, Maracuyá, Guayusa and Rosa.
 
It’s a unique cultural and very educational experience, during which you learn a lot in a short time. The tasting invovles all of the senses: you have to see, smell, touch and savor every chocolate attentively. And even listen to it. Like a toast, in which the glasses clinking together make a noise, with chocolate you have to listen to the sound when you bite it, and savor the sensation.

Food of the Gods

Cacao has origins in the Amazon, and arrived to what is today the South of Mexico on commercial routes established by different aboriginal civilizations.
 
Cacao’s scientific name is Theobroma cacao: In Greek, Theobroma means “food of the gods,” and “cacao” comes from náhuatl, the Aztec language.
 
The myth that cacao is an aphrodesiac has existed since antiquity. Studies show that this could be associated with chocolate’s chemical structure, which is similar to that of Cannabis.
 
From cholocate’s millennial history, perhaps what is most notable is its financial importance. Some records of the discovery of America report that cacao seeds coudl be used to buy anything from rabbits to slaves.
 
Hernán Cortés, in a 1520 letter to King Carlos V, wrote that his troops could not get supplies or arms because they lacked cacao seeds. So he asked Moctezuma for land in which to plant cacao.

Chocolate Tourism

San Lorenzo de Vinces
This historic city in the province of Los Ríos marked the beginning of the Cacao Route in 1600.
Visitavinces.com
 
Hacienda Las Cañas                                                          
A grand historic ranch on which to see the harvest, have lunch and enjoy folkloric music and dance. Located in Puerto Inca (One hour from Guayaquil).                                             
Haciendacanas.com
     
Hotel-Spa El Señor de los Caballos                              
Very close to the cacao plantations, in San Lorenzo de Vinces, also the site of fresh water beaches and bird watching.                                        
Huasquila Amazon Lodge                                              
In Cotundo, Napo, one of the more populated centers of the colorful Kichwa community.  
Pacari Cacao and Chocolate Tour
All-day tour in Santa Rita that leaves from Quito. 
Pacarichocolate.com

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