Ecuador’s ‘Cacao Trail’

Photo: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere

Photo: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere

A Journey Full of History, Charm and …Flavor!

By Gabriela Paz y Mino

Visitors who travel Ecuador’s chocolaty “Cacao Trail” will find themselves bathed in the golden sunsets of timeworn plantations and enveloped in the scents of tropical fruits. This journey — recommended last year by the National Geographic Traveler magazine as one of the planet’s top-20 destinations — is an opportunity to learn about the cultivation, processing, production and marketing of the purest form of chocolate, whose kernels are also known as Las Pepas de Oro (“The Golden Seeds”).

Not your typical vacation spot, this is a singular experience that involves all the senses. In any of the provinces on the Cacao Trail, you will encounter all of the culture, traditions and culinary arts that have developed around this flavorful seed.

A Different Kind of Experience

Along this trail are found centuries-old haciendas on the Pacific coast and sprawling plantations located deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon. On these estates, each full of rustic charm, you can discover vast woodlands filled with these tropical fruit trees.

The Cacao Trail tour allows travelers to visit these haciendas and plantations for direct introductions to the process of producing these “golden seeds.” In addition, visitors can sample traditional foods of these areas, go horseback riding on paths that weave through these estates, enjoy local folk dancing, and so much more. Visitors are always enchanted by the old traditions and popular knowledge of the locals, who — generation after generation — have been responsible for cultivating, harvesting and processing cacao. And, on top of all this, guests can go on boating excursions and visit area reserves to see wildlife species such as agoutis, Spider monkeys, Spectacled bears, tapirs, ocelots and others.
During these touristic “escapes” into the world of cacao, travelers will learn about traditional farming techniques that are still used on many plantations today. On the haciendas, farmers first collect the seeds in cane boxes and then spread the kernels out in the sun to dry. Finally, the cacao is sacked for export to other countries around the world.
On other parts of the route, these traditional forms of agriculture have given way to modern “cloning” techniques that enable the production of up to 500,000 plants each year, as travelers can see firsthand for themselves.
Traveling along this trail, visitors will be awed by the striking landscapes of the coast and the Ecuadorian Amazon, as they witness the beauty and splendor the jungle, forests and mountains. Travelers can also learn about the daily lives of the major indigenous peoples of Ecuador, including the Montubios people on the coast and the Shuar communities who live deep in the Amazon.

A Trip with Savory Stops Along the Way

The Cacao Trail adventure organized by the Surtrek tour company takes about eleven days to cover, with some of the most interesting points being visits to “coco-lodges.” Strategically located near the cacao plantations, these facilities provide exhibits about the history of cacao production. Their museums display miniaturized structures that demonstrate the fermentation and drying processes, and some of these lodges feature small-scale representations of the old mills that once produced chocolate.
At all of these sites, tourists can go on guided tours that detail the harvesting techniques, and travelers can actually participate in the process of making chocolate – finally getting a chance to taste delicious cacao drinks and other delicacies made from this fruit.

The coastal town of Vinces has been called the “Cradle of Fine Aroma Cacao,” where this tropical fruit has been produced since 1800. On the estates in this town one can discover and breathe in this story while witnessing the process of producing handmade chocolate. Vinces has been one of the main points for exporting some of the world’s highest quality cacao, and the town remains a point of reference for fruit merchants and tourists.

Photo: Jan David Hanrath

Photo: Jan David Hanrath

In the town of Chone (in coastal Manabí Province), production takes places of the type of cacao known as Cacao Nacional Sabor Arriba (roughly “High Flavor National Cacao”), which is world-famous for its quality. The haciendas in this town also welcome investors and tourists alike.

Another stop along the cacao trail is the town of Salinas. Famous for its El Salinerito factory, this village is a major exporter of Ecuadorian chocolate, which has begun to be valued worldwide for its high quality
Similarly, the coastal Jambelí Hacienda is a perfect place to visit banana and cacao plantations, though this site is also to know for such traditions as cockfighting and local dances called “amorfinos.” Here, enjoying nature and appreciating the scenery of the coast are great attractions.

Finally, several Amazonian cantons in Napo province complete the “Cacao Trail.” In this area, cacao is still grown in the traditional way, on “Kichwa farms.” The locals there, mostly women, grow the fruit employing ancestral practices, which makes them the best guides for visitors.

On this part of the route, where cacao woodlands cover about 1,500 hectares (about 3,700 acres), the journey is complemented by ecotourism activities, adventure sports, swimming in Amazonian rivers, birdwatching and “community tourism” (experiential exchanges with the ethnic communities of the area).

 

Four tips

– Most of the roads that run along the “Ruta del Cacao” are paved. However, the secondary roads to the haciendas are usually dirt or gravel roads, though still in generally good condition.

– The Surtrek tour company recommends that you travel in small groups so as to enjoy all of the services and get fuller explanations about the processes of producing cacao. On your journey you are sure to appreciate the natural surrounding and culture related to the production of “Pepa de Oro.”

– Don’t forget to inquire about the route before starting the journey. It’s good to know in advance the details about the places you will be visiting in order to better soak in all the history.

– It is important to travel wearing comfortable clothing that also protects you from the equatorial sun. It’s best to wear light clothes for the daytime heat, and don’t forget to bring along a hat, a swimming suit, insect repellent, and sturdy yet comfortable shoes – preferably boots.

Photo: Luisa Contraras

Photo: Luisa Contraras

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