It is at the beginning of the region’s rainy season that any new trees are planted. Unlike most crops, cacao pods are harvested most months of the year, rather than during a particular season. In western Ecuador, the cacao harvest peaks from March to June and a second, smaller crop is harvested between October and February. The cacao pickers, usually men, called tumbadores, use a machete or other blade to harvest the pods. The pods are collected from the fields by hand, a job usually accomplished by the women and children. Within the next ten days, the pods are cut open, and the raw beans are extracted. The beans are allowed to ferment in their own pulp for a few days to a week, depending on the type of beans. Fermentation helps to eliminate the bean’s unpleasant bitter taste and amplifies its natural flavors, be they herbal, nutty, floral, spicy or fruity.
The beans are then dried in the sun or in a dryer apparatus for about a week. The fermenting and drying of the beans may take place at the farm or at a centralized facility called a centro de acopia. Increasingly, some of the intermediaries in the cacao-selling business are being eliminated by the establishment of grower associations.
The crops, comprised of mostly Arriba and CCN-51 hybrid beans, leave the growing region of western Ecuador to be exported to far-off continents where factories turn the beans into premium chocolate bars and other chocolate-based products, place them in boxes with bows and give them marketable names. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that cacao was a product of Belgium, Switzerland and France.
Most vacationers begin their travel to Ecuador with Quito tours. To spend some time in the heart of the country’s chocolate plantations, visitors may wish to consider Guayaquil as their point of entry. Among the many Ecuador tours that Southern Explorations offers, two of the land-based Galapagos Islands tours (the nine-day Galapagos Hiking Adventure and Galapagos Multisport trips) and all of the Galapagos Islands cruises may be started in Guayaquil.