(Note: This is a follow-up story to a previous post – Panama from the Caribbean Side)
It rained all morning on the water taxi ride back to the mainland from Bocas Town. We are met at the dock by a taxi driver who takes us about five miles out of Almirante to a remote valley in the jungle. The guide and interpreter, our hosts for the morning, are residents of this Ngobe village hidden deep in the rain forest (emphasis on ‘rain’). Our trek starts with a slog along a mostly submerged trail through an amazingly diverse habitat which provides most of what the locals need to live. Bananas, plantains, oranges, mangos, dachin (a delicious tuber) – everything grows here in abundance. As we walk along we suddenly find ourselves in a clearing where they have built a school for 200 students, grades 1 through 10. We occasionally spot a house in a clearing, one with a smiling little boy who waves back at me. Our guide proudly informs me that the boy is his three-year-old grandson.
The guides describe with pride the diverse, fertile environment that is their forest home. We are surprised to learn that there are eighty families living in the valley because we can’t see anything but forest growth. Each family is responsible for plot of land that grows about 70 cacao trees per hectare (about 2 ½ acres). Everything cultivated is totally organic making their chocolate among the best quality available in the world. The Belgians and the Swiss buy almost all the chocolate beans being produced here, although the world market for chocolate is currently is down over 30% from its peak before the recession. The low price has hurt the farmers, and the tour we are on is one way they are trying to make up for lost income.
At this point the trek takes a nasty turn. We are all struggling to maintain traction as the trail winds up the slope when my wife slips and lands on her hands
and knees in the mud. I swear, I did not laugh, although to her credit, she did. Fortunately, we are nearing a covered shelter where two women, members of our guide’s family, are preparing us a treat. We see how cacao beans are harvested and prepared for roasting, then ground into powder the ancient way by hand with a stone. The powder is blended with a small amount of sugar and milk and we taste the freshest chocolate ever, and it is delicious! The worst is not over. We have to hike back down to our last stop on the tour, the gift shop and dining hall. Florence takes three more spills on the slippery track, one of them a tumble that could have been disastrous. At this point our guides are feeling terrible about her discomfort, not to mention her being now covered in mud. There is a faucet outside the gift shop where she is able to clean off the big chunks. Three children are gathered at the door watching as my wife is bent over the running water, and I can hear them snickering about her muddy behind. They quiet quickly when I glance their way, and I can’t help but chuckle at the situation. When they see I am humored by the scene, they all break out laughing until their mama hustles them back to the kitchen.
We sit down to a specially prepared hot lunch of roasted chicken, cooked greens and dachin, all locally grown, which we both devour. After picking out gifts of chocolate and handicrafts we head down the hill to the waiting taxi. The driver takes one look at my mud-soaked wife and he quickly grabs a couple of scraps of cardboard for her to sit on so she doesn’t get mud all over the upholstery. Fortunately, our car is parked near a restroom where she can change into clean clothes for the drive back across the mountains that divide Panama between Caribbean and Pacific. The experience has been unforgettable to say the least.
It took a few days for the soreness to wear off, but my wife says she would go back if she had long spikes on her shoes. To her credit she is able to laugh at the experience. We loved the tour. However, we would certainly recommend adequate clothing and footwear to anyone thinking of going there. I mean, admit it – you salivated at the thought of tasting freshly prepared chocolate!