The Long, Winding Road To Wonkaville

After four days of commando coffee tourism in Caranavi, Mark and I were itching to hit up the next logical step in the andesnotthemint agro-adventure chain: cacao. According to Ruben, our gracious host from FECAFEB, the small town of Sapecho is the “place to be” if you’re at all interested in cacao production. Although the actual processing into chocolate bars, cacao powder, etc., takes place in a factory in La Paz, the growing, fermenting, and drying happens in Sapecho. That’s all Mark and I needed to hear to prepare for the next leg of our trip deeper into the Bolivian jungle.

On Thursday morning, we readily packed up our stuff and headed out to find space in a colectivo that would take us 2.5 hours along one very windy, extremely bumpy and interminably dusty, high and narrow cliff-side road—the only way to Sapecho. Needless to say, although the experience of riding in a car with six other people was vastly quicker and far more comfortable than the same journey on a bus would be, that didn’t stop me from getting extremely carsick along the way. Oddly enough, though, I now look at it as a Bolivian rite of passage. If you can survive the trip into the jungle, you can survive anything while you’re there.

When we finally arrived in Sapecho and I could open my eyes without getting the spins, a feeling came over me out of nowhere that colored my entire perception of the town: one of serenity (for lack of a better word). Even as I write this, I’m not sure what makes this town different from the others, but there’s definitely a feeling of peace and beauty here, found not just in the swaying palm trees, the balmy weather, and the general quiet that settles over the town at dusk, but also in the faces of the people who live here. No one gawked at us as we walked along the main drag. No one greeted us with any seeable reservation when we went to buy vegetables or inquired about a tour of the Ceibo factory. Instead, they just smiled and helped us in whatever way they could before getting back to whatever they were doing prior to our arrival.

Perhaps the person who most exuded this type of confident grace was our host Leonardo, the owner of the hotel where we are staying. One of two places to stay, Hotel Rodriguez is surprisingly large, given the size and remoteness of the town. You would think throngs of people would be coming here for Spring break. Nevertheless, our room is on the top floor with an outdoor balcony, and although the conditions are fairly basic, it is obvious Leonardo put a lot of care and pride into the design and build of his empire (there is also a restaurant and farmacia on site). Plus, his dinners of freshwater fish (that can grow to be over two feet long, apparently), rice, and a fresh salad from his garden, are incredibly satisfying.

After we got up this morning and were treated to a tour of Leonardo’s garden, grove of banana and coconut trees, and one resident hog, we walked the short distance to town to see if a tour of the Ceibo plant was possible. Although the front door was locked, we walked around back and politely inquired with one of the workers, who then introduced us to the director of the operation. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos during our tour (gotta protect the industry secrets!), but he did answer all of our questions and showed us around the property. A bit of what we learned . . .

El Ceibo, producer of really quite delicious organic cacao products like the bar I’m munching on now that’s made with toasted coffee beans, was founded in 1976 and is currently made up of 49 cooperatives throughout the region known as Alto Beni. Each of the 1,200 families that make up the cooperatives provides the factory with their portion of the 7 different varietals of cacao plants grown in the area. After the fruit has been picked and harvested, the beans are then dumped into a four-tiered system of wooden holding tanks in order to properly ferment. After two days in the top-tier tanks, they are transported to the next row down for two more days, then the next row, and so on, until they are fully fermented and ready to be dried. The smell of cacao beans fermenting is not unlike that of coffee beans (except slightly sweeter), and the flies and bees buzzing around the tanks make a cacophonous ruckus.

When the beans are ready to be dried, they are poured out onto a long table with a slight lip on each side. For five to six days, they roast in the sun until they have reached perfect conditions. Workers use long brooms to periodically push the beans around the holding table. When they are sufficiently dry enough to be transported, they are dumped into huge burlap bags and transferred into a building as large as an airline hangar for temporary storage. They are then loaded onto trucks and transported to La Paz where the Oompah Loompahs are ready and waiting to create the delectable treats we grown-ups like to eat! (Stay tuned for a full report of that tour, if we can finagle our way in when back in La Paz!).

All-in-all, it was a pretty fun experience and, yes, we did procure a bunch of snacks along the way! One last cool factoid about Ceibo as a organization? In addition to producing top-notch chocolate, a core aspect of El Ceibo’s mission is to improve the lives of the families they work with. Along with technical and logistical support on the farm, El Ceibo provides supplemental health care and educational services for its workers.

Meanwhile, as I write this, the sun is beginning to set and Leo is preparing another delicious meal for the second night in a row. Tomorrow, we are off to Rurrenabaque, where we are preparing for one of the trip’s Marquee Experiences, as Mark likes to call them. Stay tuned for more details (and, hopefully, monkeys!) in the days to come!


About andesnotthemint

Alexis, Mark, 2 seasons, 1 continent, a very long mountain range.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Food, Lex, The Yungas, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Long, Winding Road To Wonkaville

  1. mom wyman says:

    What a wonderful description of all the work and steps
    that go into making a chocolate bar.
    Thanks for sharing……Oh so yummy too!!
    love, mom w.

  2. Herbert M Wyman MD says:

    Sights, sounds, scenes along the winding road—all amazing! Look forward to those bird calls, recipes, aromas on your return. Last several posts outstanding. I’d now agree also coffee much more complex a process than wine. Checkers:wine=chess:coffee. Do any of these wonderful coffees/chocolates make it up to the states? btw the Winding Road has now wound right off my Rand McNally map of Bolivia. Lost you after Coroico. Can see the Yungas but none of those towns, even with my NC Wyman Magnifying glass from Lake Massapoag. Are you heading East to the Matto Grosso? Will have to get better map,
    Love Dad W

  3. howie says:

    I demand a photo of the resident hog.

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