Crunchy Cacao Nibs and Tasty Termites

Waking up in a tree house to the sound of the jungle and waves crashing onto the shore is a luxury that I sorely wish I could experience more in my life. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to laze about. After a delicious breakfast provided by our hosts, we took a (land) taxi into town and began the hunt for a water taxi willing to take us across the bay to Green Acres Chocolate Farm. We had booked a morning tour, and the website said to not be late. We thought we had given it plenty of time for negotiating fees and the trip across the water itself (even taking into account Panamanian time), but we were sadly mistaken.

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Boats in Dolphin Bay, Bocas del Toro, Panama

It took about two hours from our arrival to the water taxi docks to actually setting off from the docks in a water taxi. Turns out getting a driver to agree to take you out across the bay, wait there during the length of the tour, then drive you back was no easy feat. Given the reviews and advice we’d read online, we believed it was a typical affair, but apparently not. Either that, or it was just too easy for the locals to take advantage of two slightly puzzled non-Spanish speakers. Each small triumph led to a new obstacle – we finally found a driver! But he didn’t know where Green Acres Farm was. Whew, his friend did! But wait, that’s pretty far. He needed to charge more, since new regulation said they had to take bigger boats out that far. Really? Then we needed to sign forms with our passport numbers. Then we needed to get life jackets. Then we were seated in the boat, but “hold on one second” and our driver disappears for half an hour. Finally he appears, and evidently he had been completing a bunch of paperwork now required for taking out tourists. He wasn’t kidding about the new regulations, it turns out. A policeman came and took a photograph of us in the boat for documentation purposes. It was…thorough. And time-consuming. But yes! We’re finally off! We’ll only be a little late! …..Alas, the boat needs gas, and that’s a whole different dock, a whole different fee, and a whole different definition of patience that clearly is not in my dictionary.

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The serene landscape riding to Green Acres Chocolate Farm, Dolphin Bay, Panama

Looking back now, the situation was quite comical, and ultimately, we succeeded and everything turned out just fine. Our driver and his assistant were as good as their word and did get us on our way, and even offered us water bottles when we arrived at the docks to the farm. They seemed content to wait for as long as the tour would take, so Clayton and I disembarked and went to join the tour.

Green Acres Chocolate Farm is only accessible by boat, though it’s technically on the mainland of Panama. Although it’s main purpose is as a chocolate farm, the privately owned plot of land includes a plethora of tropical flora and fauna to explore. Richard, one of the owners and our tour guide, was waiting for us halfway up the hill from the docks with the only other couple on the tour. We apologized for being late, but Richard was more concerned about us missing the howler monkeys that were visiting the treetops. The moneys were high up in the trees, snacking and swinging about. Richard explained that they did indeed howl quite loudly, and it was one of the more rude awakenings one can have from sleep.

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Our tour guide, Richard, showing us the inside of a raw cacao pod

Richard then proceeded to guide us through a two-hour eco-tour, starting at a table out on the patio of his house. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the land and its inhabitants. It seemed odd at first – an American ex-pat who spent decades as a dentist co-owning a chocolate farm? But he answered our unasked questions by explaining that cacao itself is good for the teeth. It’s the sugary “chocolate” that is not! He showed us some indigenous snakes and bugs – most of them caught inside his very house. I had a different opinion on the scorpion when Richard explained that after being stung in the arm, he didn’t have arthritis in his hand for years. He then cracked open cacao pods and let us try the raw cacao. It reminded me of a large, slimy pomegranate seed. Then we left to explore the farm itself. He walked us down by the beach, explaining the differences of the three types of coconut, showing us some mating praying mantises, and letting us try wild ginger.  And of course, showing us the cacao trees. The farm is blessed with the rare Criollo variety, which produces cacao beans with a rich and delicate flavor and known as the “prince of cocoas”. Richard explained how the trees will decide to let pods die so that they don’t overtax themselves in trying to sustain them. Lessons in sustainability from a tree – it can’t get more poignant than that.

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Exploring the Criollo trees at Green Acres Chocolate Farm
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Richard’s ingenious production line

Richard then showed us the production set-up, and it was nothing short of brilliant. We saw the cacao bean drying trays out in the sun. He’d built many of his own tools for de-shelling the beans and extracting the nibs, grinding the cacao, and packaging it. He used old gas tanks, PVC pipes, vacuum engines… it was ingenious. Nothing went to waste, either. The shells were either used for mulching across the farm, or for chocolate tea, which we purchased later and can now attest to its deliciousness. After tasting more cacao at each stage in the process, we were off to explore more of the farm. We found some poison dart frogs hanging out in empty cacao pods, and Richard picked one up to show us closer, 

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Delicious live termites!

clearly not worried about any adverse effects. Certainly one of the highlights of the tour was when Richard grabbed a handful of live termites from a tree and offered them around to taste. I’d never eaten anything still alive before, and I was surprised to find that the tiny termite simply burst with flavor, reminding me of parsley and dill. We concluded the tour back at the house, trying some homemade banana bread with cacao nibs his wife had made, and purchasing some of the chocolate products for sale, all made at the farm. I bought some chocolate rum, which having tried mixed with condensed milk, was the flavor I was looking for in a drink since trying Punch Coco in Martinique.

 

Soon enough, Clayton and I were on the boat back across the bay. As it began to pour, we resigned ourselves to getting soaked, but the assistant clambered over the seats to hand us a plastic tablecloth covered in flowers. He gestured that we were to cover ourselves with it, and found that we were completely protected from the rain, even with a little hole for our eyes. Simple, yet incredibly effective.

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Monkeys in the treetops – can you spot them?

Back on the main island, we ate in one of the restaurants with its back facing out to the bay. I had some Panamanian chicken fried rice, that was so delicious yet I could never find anywhere else. We got back to the treehouse by riding an extremely stuffed taxi van, with some riders sitting on top of one another. I hadn’t been so squished since the Panamanian metro “crush hour”, as Zach so delightfully calls it. We spent the rest of our evening back at the lodge, swimming in the pool as we watched monkeys swing through treetops overhead. We enjoyed another burrito and a calm night in listening to the waves.

Although it was difficult to get to the chocolate farm, the website touts that it is the highlight of many people’s trips to Panama, and I can’t agree more. It was so worth it. The amount of information Richard shared with us was staggering, and I could never hope to capture it here. We held on to his every word, and we were surrounded by a beautiful tropical paradise, and got to try everything hands-on. Truly a gem.

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Cacao drying in the sun

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