This Spring my husband and I began an adventure I have been waiting for for a very long time. This wasn’t just a vacation to Colombia mind you, we were out to Travel, to explore, to learn, to open our eyes, to build relationships and to see about some chocolate.
We were greeted with fresh juice from tree tomatoes, (tomate arbol) a fruit that doesn’t even exist in North America.
We had 3 weeks to see as much as we could while attempting to get a little bit of relaxation too. We were visiting the Coffee Triangle for a few days on an invitation from the Colombian chocolate maker Casa Luker. My husband started Tall Guy Chocolates and had chosen to use a particular variety of Luker Chocolate after much testing and tasting. He learned that they were a pretty interesting company doing some pretty cool things in Colombia “the Luker Way.” He reached out and with open arms they reached back. Next thing you know we’re in Colombia being whisked through the coffee region, winding through steep, coffee covered hills to their educational farm outside Manizales called Granja Luker. That’s where we met Albert.
Alberto, the Chocolate Legend
But we’re not quite there in the story yet.
How are we so lucky to be here!?
In planning our trip we had done our research and heeded the warnings of danger, but we also saw a place with a lot of stigma to overcome that has had a great safety record for a decade and a burgeoning tourism sector that helps the economy. We met incredibly friendly Colombians along the way, Maria Carolina, Mauricio, Alberto, Javier, Maria del Rosario, Oscar. Willing to help us with our crappy Spanish and practice their English with us while sharing their many exotic fruits and advice on where to go… and where not to go. In the popular places for travelers you feel safe, especially if you take standard traveler precautions (don’t have all items of importance in one place, having back-ups, copies, a money belt, traveler’s insurance, using hotel safes, etc.) In the end we didn’t need any of that stuff, but knowing we had taken those precautions made us confident and able to relax.
We planned our trip as a loop (of sorts) around the North, from Bogotá, to the Coffee Triangle, to the mountains in Santander, “the Adventure Capitol of Colombia,” to the forested foothills on the Caribbean Coast. We still have many islands, mountains and cities that are safe for travelers to explore for future trips. Hopefully one day the southern region and Amazon forest will be safe enough for responsible travelers to experience as well.
Tall Guy Chocolates’ very own Cacao Tree
For now, I highly suggest the route we traveled, for diverse combination of adventure, culture, nature, mountains, beaches and cities. Topped with CHOCOLATE.
Most people don’t think of Colombia as a chocolate producer, production of other things may come to mind, like coffee of course, but not chocolate. That’s because the Colombians, whho prefer to drink their chocolate, consume 99% of their production themselves. Albert wants to change that. His gospel is that of Cacao Fina de Aroma and he wants the world to know about it. That’s the good stuff, the stuff that only makes up about 5% of the chocolate out there.
For forty years Alberto has studied, cultivated and mastered the art of growing Cacao and he’s sharing what he has learned with rural farmers all over the country and with anyone who really wants to know.
He and the others at Granja Luker are helping replace coca with cacao and it’s changing lives. In addition to supplying grafts and tools, their own Luker Foundation reaches into these communities, builds schools, latrines and medical clinics among other things and they measure the hope of the children year after year, just by asking them if they have any. Now they say they do. Tiene esperanza.
These are the ideal trees grown in Granja Luker to supply the grafts for farmers throughout the country.
So this is what chocolate looks like. The pod grows on a tree and inside it is this slimy, white, tangy, but sweet pulp engulfing the seeds. The seeds, halved in the photo, are then fermented, dried, roasted and then split into shell and nib. The nib from inside that seed is starting to resemble what you know and love as chocolate.
This is chocolate.
Our first lesson in chocolate
Through their research they have discovered that the white seeds are what produce the finest of the fine Fina de Aroma. The strains of trees they have created are a hybrid of the finest cacao in the world, Criolle, but it’s susceptible to disease and thus not sustainable. So blended with the disease resistant Forestoria they created Trinito. Alberto’s baby.
This story unfolded for us throughout the day from a classroom where he showed us slides battling college Biology classes and equally over my head. He had it down to a science, literally. We got the student for a day treatment, even though they invited us to stay longer and we wished we had had more time. We stayed in the dorm room where the visiting farmers stay, where there is a hand wash basin outside the window for all the laundry of the farm. They never asked for anything in return.
The daily lunch that farmers in this region have eaten for as long as they can remember. It was the best traditional dish we ate on the whole trip. Rice, beans with some sort of meat, ground meat, sausages, a sweet plantain, an arepa (smashed corn fritter sort of,) a fried egg and a hunk of avocado. Of course we could not finish our plates, but not for lack of wanting.
They are teaching the agroforest technique to farmers, not only because of it’s horticultural benefits, but because it creates a short-term, medium-term and long-term income structure from plantains, cacao and hard wood. The farmers leave with knowledge, grafts, tools, a support system and a buyer- Casa Luker. We visited their factory in Bogotá where they receive and process the beans into various forms including the bars that we fell in love with in Seattle, Washington.
He insisted we put our hands in the fermenting vats of cacao beans to feel the heat. They were hot. And they had that fermenty smell you get in breweries and wineries too.
After about 7 days of being turned in the fermentation bins, the beans are laid in the sun to dry. Love the clever rolling roofs on tracks for rainy weather.
Then it’s bagged and sent to the factory in Bogotá. Voila.
And this was all in the first few days of our trip! We planted our own trees, labeled with our names and all were assured that we would be back someday. I sure hope so. Interested in setting up this tour? Contact me through the contact page. They said they would welcome people we send them.
Stay tuned for more Colombia adventures!