Years ago I worked for “The Visitor” a tourism newspaper and I had to do a report on Oreba Chocolate Tour. That was in 2014 and now in 2018, I had to send my photographer for a campaign to promote Agro Tourism in Panama.
If you stay in a hotel in Bocas Town in the province of Bocas del Toro, you must take a boat to cross to Almirante on the mainland. The transfer takes half an hour and costs $5 per way which is not included in the tour. Upon arrival in Almirante, you will be taken to Río Oeste Arriba, an indigenous Ngäbe community, where the Oreba estate is located. The tours are done at 9:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. everyday.
Oreba means chocolate
The first thing I asked was the meaning of the name of the farm and they told me that “Oreba” means chocolate in their Ngäbe language. Most love chocolate, but few have seen the process to do it. However, in Almirante, province of Bocas del Toro, there is a plantation that has more than 60 types of cocoa plants, where tourists can see the origin of their chocolate bars.
It is a unique eco-tourism project, which is not only educational and interesting, but also benefits 80% of the people in the area who have cocoa plantations. The money raised by the tours is used in medical care and education for the community. In addition, they sell handicrafts made by Ngäbe women.
Oreba Chocolate is the brand under which the product is marketed and most of it is exported to Switzerland.
Sowing and harvesting cocoa
Mauricio, the local guide, told us that “to grow cocoa you need two things: patience and love.” The trees show flowers at 18 months, but takes two and a half to three years to produce fruits, and they produce for 25- 30 years. It takes eight months from the flower to the harvest of the ripe fruit.
The fruit produces capsules with seeds that grow inside, which over time become the raw material for chocolate. These capsules start green, but slowly change colors to different shades of yellow, orange, red and purple. Cocoa is harvested every 15 days or monthly depending on the season.
The transformation process begins with the fermentation in boxes, where the leaves are placed, followed by the cocoa, then leaves again. The layers reach 50 degrees Celsius and have to be tacked daily, like compost. This is followed by 9 days of drying, up to 15 days if there is rain. At this stage the cocoa seeds should be tacked every hour. The dried seeds are roasted for 15 minutes, then they can be processed in what we know as chocolate.
High quality product
The Oreba farm sows organic cocoa which also has its challenges. They must fight the attack of monilia, a fungus that undermines the ear of the fruit. Only in seven countries the white-ear creole cocoa is produced and Panama is one of them. This type of cocoa can be worth three times the normal and a metric ton can cost up to nine thousand dollars. Therefore, they receive technical advice since their value is very high, similar to the premium coffee market that is planted in the highlands.
Some coffee farms in Panama that you can visit:
- Janson in Volcan
- Hartmann in Volcan
- Lara in Nueva Suiza
- La Milagrosa in Boquete
- Boquete Bees
In Bocas del Toro there are 6,500 hectares of cocoa but according to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) we should be planting some 20,000. The production per hectare is also low, 160 kilograms, when the optimum should be 1000.
Tourism in Oreba
At the end of the Oreba tour, you are taught how to grind cocoa seeds after they were roasted. They make a tasting of the different products they offer, including dark chocolate, nibs, roasted cocoa and 100% pure chocolate. Natural cocoa, not commercial cocoa, has many health benefits that indigenous cultures discovered thousands of years ago. You can buy products on site.
Apart from the cocoa you can also see birds and other local fauna, including frogs. There are trails in and near the Oreba estate. You also learn about medicinal plants and the variety of local trees.
Tours cost $ 35 per person and include a chocolate souvenir. They will offer you a lunch of chicken with vegetables and tubers like the ‘ñampi’ that is difficult to get in Panama.