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Most people head to Ecuador to see the Galapagos, the Amazon, to climb mountains, or perhaps to the coast. But one of Ecuador’s unexplored and most fascinating areas to visit are Ecuador’s cacao growing regions-which include the Amazon and the coastal lowlands both in the north, central, and south parts of the country. We are just a few days back from another tour of one of EcuadorÂ´s prime cacao growing regions.
Before heading off, we spent day one in the workshop going over chocolate tempering basics, making bar molds and all the little details you need to know to get the bars to come out right, among many other things.
Accompanied by clients and now friends Dana Brewster and Mark Del Vecchio of Millcreek Cacao Roasters, we headed for an unexplored route. Heading south out of Quito for a little over an hour, we took a right and headed through the town of Pujili. I had been there just the week before, so though the turn off is unmarked on the main highway, it was easy enough to find. Pujili is a major market town and is a spectacle to see in and of itself-as you can see from last week’s posting. The scenery once you start the ascent into the highlands is spectacular, and we were fortunate enough to have a very clear day where you could see the Cotopaxi Volcano across the valley as well as the backside of the Corazon Volcano.
It is not at all clear where to head once you get through Pujili, so I made at least a half a dozen inquiries, stopping every five to ten miles, before I was sure I wouldn’t mistakenly turn off and head us in the wrong direction. The road heads, up, up and up into the highlands far above treeline. At one point there is the turnoff for another fantastic part of Ecuador well worth a visit-the Laguna Quilotoa, an emerald-green crater lake high in the mountains, but it was too far off the path to go, so we continued into the highlands.
The scenery in this part of the country is breathtaking. The day was gorgeous, some clouds in the sky, but the Cotopaxi Volcano, far across the valleys below us, stared back at us at what seemed like eye-level, we were so high up. Later, with Cotopaxi no longer in view among the rolling hills, mountain grasslands stretched out before us. As the road continued on this high mountain plateau, then began a mild descent into new, smaller valleys, the scenery continued to impress. High rock formations, steep, rolling hills with a patchwork of green and gold crops, and small towns were visible. Finally, the road began to descend.
It was impossible to tell where we were headed, though I knew it was becoming greener and greener as is typical once you leave the highlands and head down. The road was filled with hairpin turns, and it was obvious that the vegetation was changing, but you couldn’t see much. After a good hour of downhill descent, the clouds parted and we were in Ecuador’s lush, tropical lowlands. We were in a narrow valley with narrow roads, steep green slopes on either side. After another good hour of winding descent, we found ourselves passing through towns such as Siete Rios and California, headed for La ManÃ¡. Finally, after asking several times how much further La ManÃ¡ was (always getting a vague response such as “Soon,” or “just a few more minutes,”) we arrived in the open, nearly flat coastal lowlands, that are also some of Ecuador’s prime cacao growing areas.
We arrived mid-afternoon, set out for lunch in Quevedo, then headed back to the farm for the preparation and tasting of some basic cacao liquors. We Â hand-roasted beans in a clay pot first, peeling them by hand, then ground them in a lab grinder.
The following morning started with fresh fruit, coffee, and home baked bread, then out to check out the plantation, talk about and see difference between CCN-51 and Nacional varieties, and learn about the farm.
We set out before lunch to go check out several traders patios as well, see different quality beans, and learn more about how the cacao trade operates.
Here’s a shot of beans still in mucilage being fermented in plastic crates.
Talking to traders and others in the industry, it rapidly becomes apparent that there are not a whole lot of strict standards regarding grading beans for export. One of my contacts claimed “Sometimes I have an export shipment of beans and I call the Agriculture Ministry, and tell them I need the shipment to be graded. They say ‘we don’t have time to come out, what would you like me to put on it?’.” So basically, it’s easy to just get the rubber stamp you want as an exporter, step right up, pick a stamp, any stamp, just tell us which one you’d like!!! The brokers for beans just see them as another commodity, they don’t care where they came from or whether they’re good or bad, they’re just beans. All the more reason to come and buy from the farm, if you really want to know what it is you’re buying.