Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 8 – Soconusco belt, Guatemala

So, what would you want for you birthday? I quite like the idea of standing in a cacao farm in Soconusco, the most renowned of Aztec growing areas, where the emperor Motecuhzoma had his own personal cacao groves. So, lucky it actually was my birthday then, and according to some superstitions, a very lucky, auspicious day, being 08-08-08. It certainly was a good one as far as I am concerned.

The day started pretty well – Edgar pulled up in the town after we set off, disappeared for a few minutes and soon appeared with a boxed up metata, a fantastic birthday present. Now I just have to get this shipped home.

After that, back on the road to Soconusco. Before anyone rushes to correct me, we’re talking the Socunusco belt here, the cacao growing region, which extends across the Guatemalan border into Mexico, rather than the official Mexican district.

Once upon a time, the finest cacao in the world was grown here, original pure criollos with thousands of years of human selection and cultivation for quality, taste and stimulant effect. Sadly now, like criollo itself, the region’s quality cacao is largely gone, but if ANAKAKAW have anything to do with it, hopefully not for good.

We set off with Edgar Chávez, and met up again with Juan Francisco Mollinedo, Roberto Deleón and Astrid Ortiz of ANAKAKAW on the road. Our plan was to visit ANAKAKAW’s experimental farm in San Marcos, however this was thwarted by a strike against the new government, who it seemed were failing to live up to promises made to indigenous groups during the election. The country’s borders were closed, and so was the road to San Marcos.

We had a backup plan though, Emily Stone had given us a contact. A farmer nearby in Samayac, Ernesto Porras, running a mixed coffee farm with some cacao and small artisanal production of chocolate.

First though we stopped for lunch, the delights of a Soconusco shopping mall food court proving yet again that malls are more or less the same the world over. We did get to try local a delicacy though, frozen fruit dipped in chocolate. I went for mango.

We’d originally planned a short visit with Ernesto, but our cancelled plans in San Marcos meant we had a much more relaxed visit, though a couple of angry bulls kept us from seeing all the sights.

When we arrived, Ernesto was struggling with a black pod infestation, and so was cutting back a lot of trees to try to increase ventilation. Part of the day’s harvest had just arrived, and the majority of it was spoiled by the disease.

Every cacao farm I’ve seen so far has been different, and in our time with Ernesto we learnt more about grafting of cacao, pruning and clearing shade to reduce humidity around the tress. The farm grows a mixture of coffee and rubber, while cacao is the smallest crop but growing in size. Maize is also grown by the farm workers, a hang over from when coffee prices were low and the farm was struggling to support all of its workers.

Coffee is a good earner, due to efficiency measures Ernesto introduced to remain competitive when prices were low. The farm is not that high though, so the coffee doesn’t attract the kind of premium that high altitude coffee would. This might make fine cacao an attractive alternative in the future, though at the moment Ernesto farms cacao more for maintaining tradition and out of interest, rather than profit.

Ernesto’s artisanal chocolate was produced in the farm kitchen, which from our brief sampling was pretty good. Unfortunately we left our bars in the house at the beginning of our tour and didn’t manage to get back there. Ernesto, if you’re reading this, it would still be great to try your chocolate properly some time!

After leaving Ernesto and parting company with Juan, Astrid and Roberto, Edgar drove us back into the highlands and onto Panajachel, a town on the shores of lake Atitlán where we’d be having a brief rest and a little tourist time.

The several changes in altitude we’d made that day were beginning to have an adverse effect, headaches adding to tiredness, but after check in we went out for a little shopping in the streets, which were a little touristy, but laden with interesting indigenous clothes and crafts. After that, we finished the day with a birthday meal in a German / Guatemalan restaurant. Margaritas were in order, and there was hearty singing from American tourists and much embarrassment from me when ‘Happy Birthday’ started up and unplanned chocolate cake appeared. I think I’ll try to spend all my birthdays like this from now on.

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