by Maribel Rivero | Photography of Carla Barbotó and Santiago Peralta courtesy of Pacari
Eating chocolate is a common food experience known all over the world. Less common for most is an actual visit to the Amazon where the temperamental theobroma cacao tree—chocolate’s mother source—is grown. Ecuador is one of the leading exporters of cacao, and a visit to a cacao tree plantation had been on my wish list. Although there are no tourist tours, per se, to visit a plantation, my interests linked me with award-winning chocolatier and cacao cultivator, Pacari.
Dynamic husband and wife duo Carla Barbotó and Santiago Peralta co-founded Pacari in 2003. My tour guides for the visit to the cacao-growing community, Santa Rita, are Barbotó, Augustín Peralta—Santiago’s father and a pivotal contributor to Pacari—and Asian market sales coordinator Mario Zapata. The trip will take us about two-and-a-half hours east of the Quito city limits and past several mountainous regions. As we leave the city, Barbotó spots her favorite roadside vendor selling choclo—a large maize grain variety (often confused with hominy) known for its plump and sweet kernels. The delicious kernels are simmered in water, served piping hot and often topped with freshly made queso fresco. “There’s nothing like fresh choclo…and this choclo is the best variety,” says Barbotó.
We continue east—winding our way through various small towns. The landscape and climate have noticeably changed from lush, verdant mountains and crisp, cool weather to thick, green, leafy trees and humid tropical air. “Have you been to the Amazon?” Barbotó asks. “Yes,” I answer, “to Los Yungas in Bolivia.” I tell them my harrowing story of traveling on the infamous “death road”—declared the most dangerous in the world in 1995 by the Inter-American Development Bank.
Unlike Bolivia’s roads, though, these paths are well paved with proper driving signs for a safe, smooth ride. To sweeten the trip, we pass around tastes from a Pacari raw chocolate bar. “When you taste a Pacari chocolate, you taste an incredible journey,” says Barbotó. That journey she speaks of includes the couple’s trial-and-error organic flower business followed by the realization of the market need for premium cacao exportation. And now it includes the production of world-class chocolates: In 2012, Pacari’s 70 percent raw organic and biodynamic chocolate bar won a gold medal at the International Chocolate Awards, and has continued to place every year since.
We finally arrive at the Santa Rita community—newly titled “The Cacao and Chocolate Community of Santa Rita” as a reflection of the successful cacao cultivation in cooperation with Pacari. The area is a canton of Ecuador’s Napo Province, which consists of Amazonian rainforests and indigenous people known as the Quichuas (pronounced kich-was). The Quichuas are subsistence agricultural survivors, and have maintained the cultivation of indigenous crops such as cacao. There are 150 families in the community who cultivate cacao as well as other crops for market. Aside from cacao, one of the crops in high demand is the guayusa plant, the leaves of which are made into a tea that’s considered a superfood with purported double-strength antioxidants. The growers here own their own land—creating a sustainable income for themselves and their families.
Bolivar Alvarado, Pacari’s cacao farmer liaison, receives us with a humble smile. Alvarado oversees 40 growers (both men and women) who produce an organic heirloom variety of cacao called Nacional Complejo. Pacari, in turn, offers the highest price for their cacao seeds. We begin our walk through the forest field of cacao trees, with Alvarado using his machete to carve a path. “I’ve grown cacao for eighteen years,” he says. “The demand for growing cacao has grown with Pacari’s support—otherwise we would still be in the mountains.” Alvarado chuckles while gesturing to the outlying mountains. Alvarado grew up with his family cultivating cacao and naturally invested his future in its profitability. His children will also likely follow suit with continued demand for cacao. As we continue to walk, Alvarado pauses to open a fresh guaba fruit. Imagine an overgrown green bean shell with seeds that are covered with a white cotton-candy-like texture that dissolves on your tongue and tastes like lychee fruit.
There are no tidy rows of cacao trees here, but rather a jumble of vegetation such as fennel ferns, guaba and palm trees where we get hearts of palm, known as chonta. We also discover a melon-sized green fruit—a variety of the theobroma known as bacao or pata. Just down the way, there’s a roaring river, and as we continue to walk, Alvarado shares his daily schedule, which includes fishing in the river for four hours before preparing a typical maito (wrap) using bijao leaves, then cooking the wrapped fish over a wood-burning fire. The daily bounty feeds fellow cacao growers and their families.
We come across a pile of empty cacao pods in vivid colors of dark brown, red, orange and yellow. Barbotó explains that the empty pods are left to turn to compost. The variety of colors indicates varied types of cacao pods—much like the varied colors of chilies that are slightly different but still the same variety. Alvarado knows when the pods are ripe for harvest by their color. He cracks open a fresh cacao pod and inside is a sweet white pulp that coats the bitter, purple cacao seed. Our walk ends at the fermentation and drying tent. Before the cacao seeds are edible, they are fermented for four days and then dried. There are three large bins for fermenting, rotating and holding the finished product. The seeds are covered with jute bags that seal them with part of the cacao pod pulp. The fermented seeds are then laid out to dry—the length of drying time depending on the humidity and weather.
After walking through the fields and familiarizing ourselves with the lay of the land, we enjoy a hospitable lunch of quinoa soup with tubers, flank steak with vegetables and white rice. Our final treat is a toasted seed from the cacao plant. It’s served warm, and we all relish the natural nutty flavors with a touch of salt.
Visiting this community has not only revealed the technical aspects of cultivating cacao seed, but moreover a way of life that sustains a people and community. By living countryside, building strong alliances and creating family-like partnerships, Barbotó and Peralta have enabled the production of some of the best organic cacao that Ecuador has to offer. It’s a tradition they intend to protect with organic and sustainable agricultural practices to further provide a safe and fortuitous future for all.