all text and photos copyright 2017

Monday, July 23, 2012

'Cos I'm on a world with the chocolate trees...

We lumped ourselves into a dusty local taxi. This was indistinguishable from any other car, as far as I could see, but of course everyone in town knows who the taxi driver is...why on earth would he need to put a sign on top of his car?

Silly tourists.

Our destination: a cacao farm. That's right. Chocolate.

display of chocolate bean stages at ChocoMuseo, Cusco.

It was chocolate, not coffee, that had brought us to this region in the first place. I had stumbled upon Choco Museo while mapping out things to do in Cusco. A chocolate museum? Delightful. Further investigation led to their tours, and that was all she wrote. It had to be done. Many emails, some in Google Translate-assisted French (!) and a good hunk of cash (US dollars, s'il vous plaît), and we were all set.

That had been a month ago; now we were rattling down the road, a tall, ever-smiling cabbie in his 20's, shiny dark hair to his shoulders in the driver's seat, our translator Laura in the front seat next to him. We were in the backseat, belting out any and all Inglés 80's hits along with the MP3 player, no matter how cheesy they were.

It seems that everyone with a car who can afford an MP3 player has one. Radio is iffy in the mountains, after all.

our taxicab and a local woman with traditional braids, shirts, and hat.  

Various and sundry bling bounced and swayed from the rear view mirror and we bounced and swayed in the backseat until we got to the tiny town of Maranura,  which had a paved road down the center, tuk-tuks and chickens.  After the town, back to the dusty, jolting road, until, after a series of twists and turns, the road disappearing until we followed tire tracks in the grasses. We reached a little farm with an enormous red blooming poinsettia arching over the tire track road and many, many butterflies, different kinds and colors,  flitting and flirting with each other in spirals and the dust.

The jungle was denser here, trees and vines competing for the sunlight. As soon as we entered the farmyard we realised that this was a far, far poorer residence than Juan and Julia's, neither as well kept nor half as welcoming. The animals and children looked less cared for. Juan and Julia's place had been a welcome respite from reality; shades of the poverty of a third-world country, which can wear on you as you travel though Peru, lived here as well.

I had read that the vast majority of the world's chocolate farmers live in extreme poverty; with that in mind, comparably, these folks were doing okay.

All the buildings (of concrete) and animal pens (branches and wire) were arranged around a rectangular yard area; the dogs flopped in the dirt seemed disinterested in us. Laundry strung on lines crisscrossed the open space.

A conversation between a old woman with deep creases who had been soaking coffee cherries and our translator didn't appear to be going terribly well. I sneaked a look in the kitchen, having heard it was a can't-miss. This turned out to be an understatement:

Guinea pigs! Running all over the floor! Chirruping and cheeping and muttering to themselves. Cuy cuy they said. Oh for cute.

It makes sense to have easy to raise, fresh little bundles of meat scampering about in your kitchen. They eat scraps that fall off the table and don't require refrigeration.

This is what I told myself. And they taste good, I recalled. Still...

I fired off a few shots with my trusty little camera, and good thing I did, for the older woman finished her discussion with Laura our translator  then shut and bolted the kitchen door. Whether she didn't want me to photograph it is uncertain. What was certain was that I was done doing so!  

Another woman, younger this time, showed up, and some girls peeked at us. Laura turned to explain. there had been some sort of mix-up and they hadn't expected us. Maldito.

One of the little girls had come up to Laura and was looking expectantly at her. It was finally worked out that we could go onto the farm and the little girl would helpfully go with us. She was a confident and sweet child. and it was she who told us in singsong Spanish that those giant spiders might jump at but that they not bite us and not to worry. Salta no pico, de nada.

We followed the small figure into the shadows.

As we ducked and pushed our way through some heavy growth, Laura asked Abigail about a cat that she hadn't seen for awhile. It had died, we learned. Laura expressed condolences to Abigail for the loss of a pet, saying "that's sad." Abigail shrugged unconcernedly. "No. Why is that sad? We can get another cat, who cares?" Laura translated for our amusement.

Right. Farm animals. Not pets, like those at Juan and Julia's.

The ground was thick with crackling dry leaves, the trees much closer together than at Julia's plantation. It felt like jungle. I found myself thinking about snakes. There are quite a few deadly ones in the Peruvian rainforest, I had read. How many in the "eyebrow" of the Amazon, I wondered? Fer de Lance, Coral Snake, Bushmaster, Green Tree Vipers?

Oh well. At least we didn't have to worry about crocs or alligators or piranhas or electric eels. You needed to be on a river for those.


We carefully avoided the spiders and their webs. A chicken scratching in the leaves, flipping them into the air nearly gave me a heart attack.   Besides the butterflies, Tillandsia (air plants) that had fallen from the trees littered the ground. I picked one up with an exclamation, as I'm rather fond of these funny plants that don't need to be planted to survive, and was told "weeds".

Well, I like them.

Through the dense smaller trees, we came to a more open area where the large-leaved Theobroma cacao trees grew, some small, others soaring overhead. Chocolate trees! All thoughts of snakes evaporated like mist.

cacao pods, old and dry

When in season, we were told, the pods perch in clusters on the trunks of the Cacao trees.

Of course, they weren't in season, so a sort of Easter egg hunt began, trying to be the first to spot one that had been missed during harvest.

Craning our necks, we searched for the Nerf-football-shaped pods that grow in shades of the sunset. These contain both a sticky, marshmallow-y substance and, most importantly, the chocolate beans.

Lots of them.

But you had to find the pod first.

Abigail found a long forked stick and, turning it around backwards, picked a mandarin for us by catching the fruit on one side of the fork and the stem on the other and pulling. 

Sucking on the fragrant citrus sweetness, we kept looking, butterflies still swirling around our feet.

Finally Laura spotted one and we cracked it open, to dismay. Dried out. No marshmallow goo to try.

Laura slipped Abigail some money, indicating to us that it should be done away from the house. The adults would surely take it away from her if they knew, she explained quietly, as they generally did not treat her terribly well. "Keep it hidden, it's a secret, don't tell," Laura emphasized to the little girl in Spanish over and over again. Abigail is the abandoned daughter of a gringa, of whom the family did not approve, who had apparently dumped the child with her Peruvian father and never looked back. Mike forbade me to even think about adopting her.

It's hard not to think such things in third world countries.

We wandered back to the farmyard, noting that the semi-outdoor dining area also doubled as a schoolroom, keeping our hands away from the temperamental white dog Blanco, and admiring various and sundry poultry that Abigail caught and brought to us in turn to inspect. I took her photo and then let her look in the view screen to see herself. Then I handed her the camera to play with, much to her delight and surprise.

She took this photo of her sister, gesturing to her subject to scoot forward into the light for a better picture, and composing the shot carefully. Much to our surprise.

Then an obligatory group photo during which she bossed us like a big shot photographer.

The two little girls sat and scrolled through the memory card, once they figured it out, looking at all our photos like it was a television. At one point they became quite excited "caballo!" they sang out with joy pointing and laughing at the screen. Laura asked them something, and they chattered gleefully; they'd never seen a real horse before, and I'd gotten a drive-by photo of some on the mountain pass.

Admittedly, horses with their heads obscured.

It was another insight into the lives of those children. I was rather sorry it wasn't a better photo.

After this is got rather interesting. Abigail confronted Laura, holding the camera up and asking how much I had paid for it. I mentally converted Arab Emirate dirhams to US dollars to Peruvian soles and came up with a ballpark figure. Then Abigail, clear-eyed and intelligent, had Laura tell me that she wished to buy the camera from me...with, one must assume, the money we'd just given her.

Can you say awkward? I must have looked quite comical for a moment. With Laura's help I replied that I was very, very sorry - but no, I only had one camera and, no darling, I couldn't sell it. "She can't get batteries for it anyway," Laura said, "and they would probably take it away as well. Don't worry about it."

Fortunately we had another highly desirable carrot to dangle: we offered to share our taxi back to town. Abigail's father rushed to take a shower in the plywood stall next to the plywood stall that served as a toilet. (Don't ask.) I nearly ran into him as he came out, half draped in a towel. Abigail also scampered to get ready, disappearing to change into her best going-to-town clothes and getting her hair wet and slicked back to look nice for the townspeople.

Neither of them seemed to believe that we would be willing to share, let alone didn't mind waiting for them to get ready. Another insight, I suppose.

While we waited we wandered down the lane a bit, taking a funny photo of Laura and her cigarette with a tobacco plant,

then, after Abigail and her father came hustling down to join us, squeezed back into the taxi, where 80's tunes were playing at full blast once again. Abigail nestled snugly and happily on Laura's lap as we bumped and swerved back to town where we said good-bye and adios, gracias, gracias to our small guide and her father.

I braved a tiny grocery to pick up more bottled waters; we were out and could feel that we were getting dehydrated, a danger since we were going to go back over the pass that day. I gave up trying to figure out how many soles the proprietress wanted for the aguas, sin gas, and, in the trusting way of travelers sine lingua, stretched out a hand with what I figured would more than cover it. She tittered with her friend and picked out some coins, and gave me change.
If you can't talk the talk you takes your chances.

Back at the plantation, we packed up our gear and then were summoned by Juan and Julia to come make our very own chocolate.

No, really. Can you say terribly excited?

Mike and Natalie in the jungle. The edge of the jungle, anyway.
Banana, papaya, cacao, mango, and mandarin trees visible.
And goodness knows what else.


  1. Wow lady!! I love following your adventures!

  2. Chocolate! Oh my! More, more please Natalie!

    1. Yea, I'm like that about chocolate too...! :)

  3. What a fantastic story! And how lucky that you got to have such an experience with Abigail. I'm sure it made her day to be able to take pictures and have a ride into town. The spiders would have freaked me out. Glad you got chocolate in the end! :)

  4. It is hard to imagine that the nice chocolate square that I just swallowed came all the way from these pods and that environment... kinda sad in a way. Still very much enjoyed reading about your adventure though!

    1. I am always amazed at the paths everyday things take to get to us. Food for thought.