Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 20 – cacao farms in Bocas del Toro

Tom, Steve and Kate travelling across the lagoon, Chappie in the middle behindA day messing about on boats, spinning about different islands and stops around the lagoon investigating cacao production in the Bocas del Toro area.

Before setting off though, our host Steve took us and the other guests at La Loma on a short tour of the Lodge’s cacao growing area and the butterfly farm. This was a fascinating distraction for visitors to the Lodge and a good reason to not travel further than a few hundred metres from your cabin for the whole day. We, however, had other plans and were soon on board yet another power boat racing across the open lagoon.

First we arrived – by the ‘back door’ jetty as it turned out – at the estate of Jim Jackson, an investor who has bought up five different farms and is preserving them for cacao farming. Bocas is turning into a huge tourist and retirement area, and even though the region is designated as national park, huge slices of the shoreline mangrove are being bought up and turned into beach-side condos.

Jim Jackson and Steve Chung on Jim's plantationWith some fellow investors, Jim has bought up a significant chunk of land with the specific intention of keeping it whole and revitalising cacao farming in an ecologically sustainable way.

As we didn’t arrive at the ‘main gate’ we had a ten minute treck across the peninsular, giving us a sneak preview of the farm. Situated so close the lagoon, a sea breeze wafts across the raised land of the farm, making it light and breezy compared to most cacao farms.

We were led across a gravel track to the main farm buildings next to the main jetty, where some rather more substantial boats were moored. We sat down with Jim Jackson, his farm manager and a mix of his friends and some other farm workers. Jim told us his plans for the farm – sustainable cacao farming and preserving the coastline – and we told him some of our ideas about reviving cacao production in Panama and producing a more finished product than just beans.

Hacking off cacao with 'snow pod'After our meeting we toured round the nearby parts of the farm, which was basically a slow amble back to the jetty where our covered power boat waited, wandering through the widely space cacao trees.

I walked with the farm’s agronomist and manager, discussing the pros and cons of cacao farming, how growing cacao can form play an active part in conservation and the various diseases affecting the plant.

Jim Jackson buzzing around his plantation in his golf buggyWe saw some good examples of these, and hacked away at the odd pod or two as we walked and talked. I was interesting to see up close examples of ‘snow pod’ as well as ‘old favourites’ like black pod, which seems to be the bane of all cacao plantations.

By the time we reached the jetty our party had split itself up into various groups, and Kate and Tom – last seen setting up the tripod next to some fine looking pods – had disappeared all together.

Jim Jackson turned up on his golf buggy and vanished back into the farm to find them – a great way to navigate around a cacao farm.

We were soon back on the boat and heading for the farm of the Cerrutis, a retired couple from the US now famous in the Bocas region for the rough refined chocolate that Dave Cerruti makes in a small shed, using beans from trees on their own land.

After landing, Dave took us on a tour of their farm, which was more like an enlarged garden. Dave was really too kind to his shade trees, leaving many standing that might be better cut down, so there was not really enough sun or air among the cacao, limiting production. The Cerruti’s were quite happy with the way things were though, letting nature have its way while still caring for the cacao and doing their best to limit disease.

A swelling pod in early development, a sign of black pod?Dave gave us an intersting insight into how black pod can be detected early – when a bulge starts to appear on young cacao pods.

At this point the pods should be removed and destroyed, however, on most farms such pods would probably be left on the trees and this subtle sign of a disease that could spread would be missed. Apart from their slightly odd shape, they look quite normal.

Dave Cerutti on his garden plantationWe saw how Dave produced his semi-refined chocolate in his hot, tiny, shed, with a variety of home made and adapted devices. It can’t be easy trying to make chocolate in such heat, and for the final setting Dave has to work later at night when it is cooler and use a fridge.

I’d tasted Cerruti’s chocolate a few years ago when a friend had brought some back from Panama. The ‘bars’ come in a very distinctive semi-circular half tube shape, and today I found out why. After much experimentation, Dave hasn’t bettered using half a plastic drainage tube as his mould.

We took our leave of the Cerrutis in time to arrive back at the lodge as darkness fell and dinner was ready. A few cocktails later we were ready to ascend to our cabin for our last experience of the jungle night.

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