The Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama is world-renowned for its stunning beaches, islands, surfing and snorkelling spots. And there is one more reason to go to Bocas: the mountainous forests on the mainland by the harbour town of El Almirante are home to one of the best organic cacao producers in the world!
From El Almirante where we got off the boat from Bocas, the road gets narrower and winds up through the dense forest of bamboos and banana trees to end by an indigenous Ngobe community of about 700 spread along the mountain slopes. From there, we go on foot and hike the steep hill towards the cacao trees with our guide, Pablo.
Along the way, passing a few houses, he explains what the trees we come across are used for by the Ngobes who live close to nature: the dragon wood is used for its juice, the breadfruit is boiled and eaten as a potato-like side, the cedar wood is burnt to keep mosquitos away… As it gets steeper, we look at each other, happy to have left our heavy backpacks down, as we are getting out of breath. As if he heard our silent exchange, Pablo stops: the cacao tree plantation starts here.
From a bit higher, we contemplate the view on the mountains. “There are about 60 varieties of cacao trees, but to ensure the best taste and year-round production, only 3 of them are used.” The Criollo is favoured as its cacao is the finest with the most complex taste of vanilla, nuts and tobacco. But it is blended, as different varieties of cacao trees are planted to make them more resilient: “fungus has been destroying about 85% of the pods”, Pablo explains with a sad look. A delicate balance of shade, to ensure the cacao flowers don’t burn, and sun, to dry the humidity and limit the progression of the fungus is reached by planting higher trees in the fields. Pruning and trimming are essential, and this is an everyday task for the farmers.
On our way back down, we pass by a few greenhouses made of wood and plastics. “When we open the cacao pods, we need to ferment them to prevent germination. The process is completely natural, putting the beans between two layers of banana leaves, and in about 5 days, they reach the desired temperature of 50°C: they turn brown and have a characteristic smell of fermentation. Then, they are put to dry in the greenhouse for about 9 days. If we mess up, the quality goes down and we can only sell them for half the price.” Pablo describes.
In a small clearing, a Ngobe woman dressed in a traditional pink dress is standing by a pan on an open fire and a grinding stone. Pablo breaks open a ripe cacao pod. The white fluffy substance surrounding the brown beans tastes sweet. He drops a few beans in the pan and the woman stirs. They start to pop: they are ready. We peel off the warm skin before tasting 100% pure cacao. “Oh, it’s strong and bitter!”, I say, surprised. The woman smiles. She adds a bit of brown sugar to the paste she has been grinding on the stone and presents it to us. We spoon it out. “That’s more like it!”, I smile back. “That’s 95% cacao”, Pablo specifies enthusiastically.
As a chocolate addict, understanding what it takes to grow and produce cacao makes me appreciate it even more. This specific cacao grown in Northern Panama is mainly exported to Switzerland. There, it is processed to become one of the best chocolates in the world. I just hope to explore this next part of the process soon to
taste write about it!
Claire & Marcella
- We visited the cacao plantation in Rio Oeste Arriba with Oreba, and the tour was of excellent quality with a fluent guide in Spanish, English and German.
- If you are interested in other culinary delights made organically in Panama, you may find this article quite interesting.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!