Ecuador sits on a gold mine of cacao. In its 19th-century heyday, the country was the world’s leading exporter, but plant disease and global market changes cost Ecuador its top spot in the early 1900s. Recent years, though, have seen the country make a chocolate comeback—thanks to local farmers, sustainably minded businesses, and (before travel restrictions) an influx of foodie tourists.
The nation is now famous for its single-origin chocolate. Such production is time consuming and laborious; it’s done mostly by individual growers working on small-scale farms. During the global coronavirus pandemic, these small farmers have been made more vulnerable.
But there’s unity and resilience within the cacao supply chain. In Ecuador, private and government initiatives have helped aid the transport of cacao to export and offered financial support to farmers.
“Single-origin chocolate put Ecuador on the map,” says Santiago Peralta, co-founder of the organic chocolate company Pacari, which was launched as a way to preserve Ecuador’s native Arriba Nacional cacao variety.
“It would be simpler to buy from a few of Ecuador’s biggest producers, but it’s the smaller, Indigenous farmers who contribute to the world’s genetic bank of cacao,” Peralta says. “That’s what we want: to preserve species and learn about varietals. We have 20 years of work ahead to understand the flavors alone.”
Small scale, big flavor
Cacao, the tree from which chocolate is derived, is part of the pungent, densely sprouting life force in the rainforest-carpeted slopes of Santa Rita, a small community in Ecuador’s northwestern Amazon. It’s a place rich with potential—if you have the know-how. Increasingly, Ecuador knows how. In recent years the ways in which farms in Santa Rita produce cacao have changed dramatically.
“Fifteen years ago, people thought fine Ecuadorian cacao was lost,” Peralta says. “Farmers were paid poorly to produce bulk cacao for mass export—a mono-crop culture. But, as you can see, this is the biodiverse motherlode of indigenous crops.”
At Santa Rita’s maloca (community headquarters), village head Bolívar Alvarado offers an infusion of guayusa, the caffeine-laden plant that fuels Ecuador’s Amazon population and flavors some of Pacari’s chocolate bars. Alvarado leads tours of the chacra (horticultural plot), where visitors learn about Amazonian life and its native cacao, with short treks through rolling tracts of forest and informal tastings of the finished product.
“When we started in 2002, my wife, Carla, and I had no connections or clue about farming,” said Peralta. “We learned alongside the farmers, designing equipment to better ferment and grind cacao beans. It gave us a real understanding of how production affects flavors. We began getting fantastic quality.” Pacari developed the country’s first tree-to-bar, single-origin organic chocolate, among other acclaimed offerings.
Single-origin chocolate is often synonymous with sustainability and fair trade. But, in cacao-producing countries worldwide, this can often be far from the case. You may be able to trace the chocolate back to a single country, region, or even specific farm, but farmers may still find themselves paid poorly for hard-won produce. Even fair-trade agreements can leave farmers working with subsistence income; base market rates rarely fund investments in improving quality, yield, or crop diversity.
Ecuador originated the world’s most prized varieties. While some large factory-style corporate farms are better known for growing such monocultures as CCN-51, a cacao variety somewhat infamous for its high yields and poor flavor characteristics, it’s the smaller, often Indigenous farmers working in profitable direct trade agreements with craft chocolate producers that have spurred a resurgence of lost varieties.
This saw the renaissance of the superlative Arriba Nacional—an endangered cacao variety known for its low-yield, but incredibly rich, fruity, and floral flavor profile. The variety is what put Pacari on the map (though today they produce chocolate from many other varieties as well). The success came thanks to the company’s partnership with 4,000 Ecuadorian farmers, including Santa Rita’s Alvarado.
“We cut out the middleman,” said Santiago. “We traded directly with small producers back at a time when no one was talking to these guys. They were the losers in the big export game—and no one was talking vegan, biodynamic, or organic. We paid above market price, offering an incentive for quality control and loyalty.”
A sweet new era
With the international explosion of interest in high-grade, single-origin chocolate, so too comes a boom in the number of cacao aficionados keen to explore Ecuador’s bean-to-bar luxury chocolate makers.
According to a 2019 report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Ecuador saw the world’s biggest increase in visitor numbers—up 51 percent with 2.42 million visitors, compared to 1.6 million visitors the previous year. While the pandemic has greatly diminished these numbers, the nation is eager to rebound—with chocolate as an incentive.
Ecuador’s remarkable biodiversity springs from its epic landscapes, which range from tropical Amazon basin to snow-capped Andes to sandy Pacific coastline. One of the best ways to explore its varied topography is by bus. Wanderbus offers a variety of hop-on hop-off itineraries in which travelers can call in at small communities in the high-altitude Páramo ecosystem to try a home-cooked three potato soup, or stop off in the Amazon rainforest to learn about medicinal plants and cacao production.
You don’t have to leave Quito, the nation’s vertiginous capital, to savor sublime chocolate. A number of chocolatiers, including Pacari, offer expert-led tastings at boutique cafés in the hippie-chic La Floresta neighborhood.
But true adventurers head straight to the source. Under the palm-thatched roof of Santa Rita’s maloca, visitors can learn about the range of flavors—Andean rose; blueberries from near Cotopaxi volcano; lemongrass from the tropics—characteristic of the world’s best chocolate.
“Those flavors are great for pairings: passion fruit goes brilliantly with Zacapa rum; guayusa goes well with sherry,” says Peralta, offering a sample of raw chocolate with Cusco salt and nibs. After washing it down with a peaty malt, you’ll be reminded of cacao’s scientific name: theobroma cacao, the food of the gods.