A route as irresistible as chocolate
The average British, Swiss or German citizen each eats around 11 kilos (24 pounds) of chocolate a year. That’s about 250 bars of chocolate each a year, or more than one bar every other day. People love chocolate!
But very few people know what the plant that produces this popular delight looks like. Ask you average 10-year-old to draw a chocolate tree and the drawing you’ll get is probably a Mars, Snickers or Lindt bar, depending on where they live. It seems amazing that such an important part of so many people’s diets should be so unknown.
What’s more, chocolate is key to Ecuador’s history.
Not only have archaeological studies at the site of Palora in Ecuador’s Amazon region pinpointed the first traces of cacao in human settlements dating back 5,000 years – making it the oldest in the world – but Ecuador’s chocolate bar makers have been making waves on the world stage over the last decade with their products. They have won dozens of awards. Experts and chefs regard the country’s export as the finest in the world.
So, what better way to cure ourselves of this ignorance and get to know the country’s heritage than by visiting a cacao plantation. And the best means to do so? By train, of course!
The Tren del Cacao is a new route on the Ecuadorian Railways, launched in 2016. It travels from the station of Durán, on the other side of the river from Guayaquil city proper, eastwards towards the Andes, to the diminutive station of San Andrés, in Hacienda La Danesa’s back garden.
The route goes far beyond the focus of just chocolate. Along the way, we learn about all the other agricultural products that this fertile region produces. From the rice paddies close to Yaguachi, the sugar cane close to Milagro, groves of bananas and all sorts of other crops, from tall papaya trees to low, spiky pineapples.
After being welcomed by Niels Olsen, who manages the tourist part of his 500-hectare family farm, we make our way along its main entranceway, bordered by handsome trees and fields of grazing cows. At the end, we come to a small river, across which lie rows and rows of low-slung cacao trees.
This plantation is sown with the CCN-51 variety, which is in fact a hybrid created in the 1970s, to improve the plant’s ability to resist fungus and also be more productive than the original nacional variety.
All around us, pods of varying sizes protrude from the low branches. All are purple. An assistant runs off into the groves and returns with a ripe pod, a bit longer than the length of one’s hand, ready to be split open with a short machete by his expert hands.
Once open, another type of plant emerges entirely. Not purple, not wrinkly, but white. The cacao seeds are enveloped in a creamy, fleshy pulp, in what looks like a more jelly-like version of a corn cob. We’re invited to scoop out one of the seeds from the pulp and suck up its protective skin in our mouths. The taste is sweet and tangy, not chocolaty at all.
At a table set up nearby beneath a thatched roof, our guides explain how the cacao seeds are fermented over time, and then dried out in the sun. Following the last peeling of now-dried skin, it is ready to be ground into powder. We’re invited to try this technique in an old lever-powered grinder. Unrefined brown sugar is added to the seeds before grinding. And, voilà, the end product now tastes very much like the chocolate we’ve come to know and love.
As we head back to the hacienda, gaggles of green parakeets fly overhead, alighting in chaotic squawks in a nearby fire-red jacaranda tree. The hacienda house dates back to the 19th century, making it one of the oldest in the coastal region. Today it’s an elegant country house for the Olsen family, palms framing its entrance and blooms of orchids decorating its front porch. Cabins have been built for guests who wish to stay the night, with more in the pipeline.
We lunch in the restaurant to one side of the family house. Sofas occupy one side with wooden tables and chairs on the other. Exposed beams run over our heads, while antiques, rustic farm equipment, horse tack and dried flowers round off the rustic-chic feel. Lunch is delicious. Keeping the agrarian theme, soft drinks are served in utilitarian glasses, while dessert, a passion fruit cheesecake, comes in a pot with a hinged lid. There is Ecuadorian wine on the list, and of course, excellent bars of chocolate by the San José brand can be bought.
Back on the train, sated and happy, our group is lulled by the rhythmic sway of the carriages as they make their way through the million-green countryside.
“It’s a bit like being on a ship,” laughs one of the passengers, “without the waves.”
The convoy that runs this route is one of the best in the country: the seating is plusher and there’s a café on board, serving cappuccinos and glasses of wine or beer to the passengers.
Best of all, the last carriage is open to the elements on the sides. It makes the ideal platform from which to safely take in the views, wave to the farmers and townspeople who invariably greet the train first, breathe in the aromas of this lush world, and, of course, reflect on this route through Ecuador’s green worlds, so lush and diverse – crowned with the world’s finest chocolate!