Ecuador is the world’s top producer of “fine flavor” cacao—the stuff that makes the most divine, dark chocolate. It’s also the place where cacao originated and was first consumed. But the native trees that produce it are facing many threats, not the least of which is that farmers are choosing to plant a cloned cacao variety that is hardy, but yields a notoriously flavorless bulk chocolate for candy bars.
Barbara Wilson and Jose Meza, the owners of Mindo Chocolate, are part of a growing movement in Ecuador that is working to preserve the old cacao trees from extinction. They do this by making phenomenal (and pricey) chocolate out of the cacao and paying farmers accordingly. Efforts like theirs have also changed Ecuador’s chocolate economy in other ways: Until recently, the country exported all of its fine flavor beans. Now, Ecuadorans are keeping at least some of the beans—and using them to make some of the world’s best chocolate. “It’s nice to see things come full circle,” Wilson says.
Travelers can learn the long history of cacao and chocolate and follow the bean-to-bar process on a tour of El Quetzal de Mindo, Wilson and Meza’s chocolate factory set in a cloud forest, or by enrolling in their weeklong master chocolate-making program offered through the Ecole Chocolat.
Other cacao adventures in Ecuador
Coffee and chocolate expert Lourdes Delgado designs single- or multi-day tours of old cacao farms in the Guayas and Los Ríos provinces of western Ecuador that emphasize the history, culture, and gastronomy of cacao. Travelers can learn about growing and processing cacao, as well as taste cacao used in some unexpected ways: three-cheese and cacao nib risotto, anyone?
Pacari Chocolate offers a day trip to an indigenous community in the Amazon region, where visitors can see how farmers grow and process the organic cacao that goes into Pacari’s acclaimed bars. Back at the company’s Quito headquarters, you can make your own chocolate and taste your way through 12 of Pacari’s 40 varieties of chocolate.
If you harbor hidden fantasies of farming, book a stay in one of the two rustic rooms at Hacienda Limón in the traditional cacao-growing region of Los Ríos. Samuel von Rutte, the farm’s Swiss-born manager, will show you the ropes of farming and processing some of the best cacao in the world. He has been in Ecuador for 35 years, and his cacao beans were the first ones in the country to win a designation by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which strives to preserve endangered cacao trees. Home-cooked meals are included. Overalls are not.