El Quetzal de Mindo Chocolate Tour

Every day that we were in Mindo it rained, usually starting around 1 pm.  Despite the constant downpour, we still went out after long mornings of birding to hike, hoping to see even more birds.  Towards the end of our trip, though, the rain and our tiredness made my brother and me more receptive to a suggestion my parents had made on our first day: take a chocolate tour.  That afternoon, we walked to El Quetzal de Mindo, a restaurant, artisanal chocolate factory, and lodge on the edge of town.

Our tour was led by an energetic Portuguese man named Sergio.  He started the tour by showing us examples of cacao in various stages of production, and giving us a brief overview of the process.

Sergio then led us out into the central courtyard of the chocolate factory, and to a small garden.  They had a few young cacao trees on display in the garden, as examples of what they look like, since Mindo is too high and cold for chocolate to do well.

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Cacao (Theobroma cacao)

The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small, compact tree, at least when it’s cultivated.  It has broad, glossy leaves and flowers consistently throughout the year, as is typical of many tropical trees that do not have to worry about seasons.

The flowers are tiny and pop right out of the trunk and larger branches, giving the tree an abnormal appearance.

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Cacao Flower

If a flower is pollinated by a cacao midge — various species in the genus Forcipomyia — it ripens into a long, grooved, orange, pod.

One of the other people on the chocolate tour mentioned that they’d heard that chocolate was in danger of going extinct.  Sergio said something about the cacao midge declining, worrying Ecuadorian authorities.  This statement piqued my curiosity, so I did a little research.  It soon became obvious that cacao is in no danger as a species, but there are some concerns for the well-being of the cacao industry.  Climate change is likely to move and reduce suitable habitat for both cacao and its only pollinator.  Cacao does best in humid climates with lots of rain and warm, stable temperatures — it is well adapted to its home in the lowland rainforests of South and Central America.   Despite cacao’s origin and long history of use in tropical America, the majority of industrial cacao production is in West Africa.

One frequently cited study forecasts that the region suitable for cacao production in West Africa, where two thirds of the world’s cacao is produced, will move uphill into the mountains as the climate becomes drier, due to climate change.   This smaller and more inaccessible territory would be a problem for the Ivory Coast, especially, as according to Wikipedia, 40% of their national export income is from cacao.   Drier conditions are also a serious problem for cacao midges (Forcipomyia), the only bugs that can pollinate cacao.  They are adapted to moist, shady conditions, as is the cacao plant itself.  They need rich, damp leaf litter to complete their life-cycles.  The midges’ need for moisture is already causing the chocolate industry problems due to the industry’s favored growing technique of large monoculture plantations.  When cacao is planted in large plantations with no other trees, it creates a drier micro-climate, without good leaf-litter.  These dry conditions result in the pollination rate of plantation cacao flowers being only .3%.

Both present and future problems with cacao production could be partially addressed by cultivating cacao under a canopy of native rainforest trees on smaller farms instead of on large monoculture plantations.  The additional trees create a damper microclimate, which the cacao trees need to thrive.  Shade grown cacao farms have a much higher pollination rate, because the cacao midges also prefer the dampness and leaf litter that the larger trees offer.  Shade growing cacao could also help combat the effects of climate change on the cacao industry by creating damper conditions in an overall drier climate.  Furthermore, trees in cacao “agroforests” sequester more carbon than cacao monocultures, providing an opportunity to address climate change at its roots.

Although agroforests are not a substitute for primary rainforest, their greater plant diversity provides much better habitat for many species of insects, amphibians, birds and other creatures than plantations, while still producing a similar cacao bean yield.   Shifting from plantations to shade grown cacao could become increasingly important in the future if pressures continue to reduce primary rainforest habitat.   Many species of neo-tropical migrant songbirds, such as the warblers that breed in the Appalachian Mountains near where I live, need rainforest in Central and South America for wintering habitat and agroforests could meet some, but by no means all, of this need.

“Bird friendly” shade grown coffee has become relatively well-known recently, with several organizations developing certification programs so that buyers know they are getting a more environmentally friendly product, and growers can charge a premium price.  Certifications for shade grown cacao don’t seem to have made it as much into the main stream, although I did find one program, Forest Chocolate, that certifies organic and shade grown chocolate.  Fair trade chocolate, in general, is more likely to be shade grown since it comes from smaller producers.

Back in the chocolate factory, Sergio showed us the ripe, unprocessed cacao pods.  The cacao “beans” were lined up in rows, and coated with thick, white pulp.

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Opened Cacao Pod

Sergio pulled a seed out of the pod and gave it to us to suck.  The pulp tasted like a fruit and not at all chocolatey.  The first step in making the chocolate is to scoop all the pulp and cacao “beans” out of the pods and dump them into a sealed cedar box to ferment.

Once the chocolate pulp has fermented for a few days, it is scooped out of the boxes onto open trays in a greenhouse to dry.  By this point, most of the pulp has rotted off, and the inside of the beans is beginning to smell similar to chocolate.

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Drying Cacao Beans

When the cacao is dry, it is ground and roasted with hand-made simple machines.  The ground and roasted pieces of cacao are blown through a tunnel, where the heavier insides of the cacao fall to the floor while the lighter shells blow out the front.  These lightly ground, shell less, roasted chunks of cacao are called cacao nibs.  The cacao nibs are ground into a finer paste, which is either pressed into cacao powder and cacao butter or exposed to high pressures and temperatures which liquify it.  Liquid chocolate is then hand tempered, so the crystals inside the chocolate form in a way that allows the finished chocolate bar to break cleanly.  The chocolate is poured into molds, and the finished bars are hand-wrapped.  El Quetzal makes 87%, 77%, and 67% pure chocolate bars.  Sergio said that the only thing added to the chocolate was organic sugar, and in some cases flavorings, such as macadamia nuts, hot pepper, and ginger.

After the tour, Sergio brought us a host of delicious looking chocolate products to try.  I don’t eat chocolate, out of a possibly irrational paranoia that it causes my migraines, but I was seriously tempted to try some.  We were offered all the different bars in many different flavors.  Once the pieces of bars had been eaten, unfortunately not by me, Sergio gave us each one of EL Quetzal’s famous brownies.  My mom ate mine with pleasure.

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El Quetzal Chocolate Products

Birding Mindo

I woke at 6:00 AM on my first day in Mindo, Ecuador to the sound of hundreds of unfamiliar birds chattering and singing.  My brother Theo and I got out of bed, and together we walked out onto our deck, peering through the half light at the backlit forms of singing birds.  The large elegant shape of a motmot caught our eyes sitting in a fruit laden tree in front of us, but it was still too dark to make out enough color to identify it.  As the sky lightened, we began to notice tanagers foraging in the flowers of the same tree.  We identified flame-rumped, blue necked, bay-headed, and golden tanagers, which were all lifers.  I noticed a tiny, richly patterned hummingbird, reminiscent of a bumblebee, buzzing on some purple flowers and I called Theo’s attention to it.  We later learned that it was a purple-throated woodstar. Other common hummingbirds that we saw that first day included rufous-tailed hummingbirds, western emeralds, and the green crowned brilliant.

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Western Emerald (Chlorostilbon melanorhynchus)

After breakfast, we decided to bird the popular waterfall trail, a road leading up into the mountains above the town of Mindo.  We had heard that white-capped dippers and torrent ducks could be seen in the white-water and waterfalls accessed along the road.  Fifty foot tall dirt banks loomed over us as we walked up the road, their sides adorned with lush, dripping vegetation.  Mosses carpeted everything, from the huge trees and tree ferns to the occasional well lit patch of forest floor.  The forest was so dense it was hard to see beyond a few feet from the road.  As the road climbed onto ridges, we were able to look down at the canopy on either side of us. Here we encountered our first large tropical foraging flock.  We came around a bend, and suddenly birds were everywhere — tanagers of all descriptions, wood-creepers, spinetails, flycatchers, and warblers.  Some warblers familiar from home like blackburnian and Canada warblers, and tropical parulas, were joined by new species like slate-throated red-starts and three-striped warblers.

After several more exciting flocks, we turned off the road onto a small dirt trail that descended swiftly down into a heavily wooded valley.  The trail was slippery and muddy, cut into a steep cliff with metal railings on one side.  A small flock exploded in the trees over our heads.  The brilliant, golden orange faces of flame-faced tanagers stood out in the dark leaves.  Soon we saw our first white-winged tanagers and blue-winged mountain-tanagers of the trip.  As we descended into the valley, the air grew noticeably warmer and more humid.  An agouti, a large, rabbit-like rodent, ran across the path in front of us as we entered a clearing.

We crossed a rickety metal bridge with rotting bamboo hand-rails at the first river crossing.  The water churned beneath us, rushing over rocks in white clouds and crashing back into the river-bed.  Despite the rough water, we could not see a dipper. We came to a place where cement had been lain on the banks of the river, changing and channeling the water into a deeper slower spot.  An incredibly steep-looking water slide made of crumbling cement was positioned on one of the nearly vertical banks of the river.  We continued until the trail ended just past another river crossing, and turned around.  As we began climbing the slope away from the river, I looked back and saw a white blob on one of the rocks in the turbulent stream below. I raised my binoculars, and saw it was a white dipper with a black mask. We had found a white-capped dipper after all.

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White-capped Dipper (Cinclus leucocephalus)

During our visit to Mindo, we had many opportunities to bird the grounds of Las Terrazas de Dana Lodge, where we were staying.  We found that in the early mornings and late afternoons the birding was often good in the trees around the edges of the cabins, with larger and more frequent tanager flocks there.  All the common tanagers, thick-billed euphonias, yellow-tailed orioles, green-crowned brilliants, and red-headed barbets also fed at the lodge’s banana and hummingbird feeders in the late afternoon.  When we tasted the Ecuadorian bananas, it became apparent why the birds appreciated them so much.  They were the sweetest, creamiest bananas I’ve ever had, and they were never hard and green or brown and rotting.  We asked the lodge for some to put on the platform banana feeder directly behind our cabin, and we soon had all the brilliantly colored tanagers and barbets visible from our private deck.

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Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii)

On several occasions we walked out of the entrance of the lodge and went right on the road, away from the town of Mindo, and the turnoff for the waterfall trail.  We twice encountered a scarlet-backed woodpecker on this road, as well as an olivaceous piculet, which is an exciting little tropical mini-woodpecker of sorts. Southern lapwings flew about in the field across the road from the lodge, and roadside hawks were also often present.  One day we made the trip down this road while it was raining, and we lucked upon a torrent tyrannulet hunting over a little trickle.  We also saw a striated heron, variable and yellow-bellied seedeaters, and a cooperative pale-legged horneo.

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Pale-legged Horneo (Furnarius leucopus)

Another location in Mindo that we birded multiple times was the Yellow House Trails, a 494 acre reserve of secondary and primary cloud forest.  From the Yellow House Lodge at the beginning of the trail, we climbed up over cow pastures and scattered guava trees towards the top of the mountain, where the forest started.  From the exposed vantage point the slope gave us, we could look out on raptors flying in the valley below.  We saw roadside hawks, hook-billed kites, and even a rare snail kite.  Once we reached the rainforest, smaller trails numbered one through five branched off the main trail.  These trails wound right through the heart of the cloud forest, giving a close up view of it.  Huge trees towered over a dense understory of bushes and vines, which were carpeted in mosses and epiphytes.  The forest was so dense that it was often hard to see far enough to spot birds, but despite this challenge, the trails were still very productive.  Pale-mandibilled aracaris and yellow-throated toucans squawked and flew about in the canopy.  On the way back towards Mindo via the main trail, we saw a crested guan slowly walking about in the top of a tree.

In the first mixed flock we encountered on the Yellow House trails, we spotted a cerulean warbler, a beautiful and endangered songbird that breeds in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States.  Seeing one so far from where I’ve experienced them in the summer in Virginia highlighted for me the importance of such far flung places as habitat, even for a songbird as representative of the southern Appalachians as the cerulean.  It also helped to complete my picture of the species, adding a memory of it foraging in the cloud forest canopy with species like fawn-breasted, golden and blue necked tanagers to visions of cool early spring mornings when the buds are just opening and the trees are full of bird song back home.

Mindo is located in the Choco-Darien moist forest ecoregion, a biodiversity and endemism hotspot that ranges from southern Panama through north-western Ecuador.  Almost 70 species of birds that live no where else in the world can be found in Mindo and the surrounding mountains.  When I first became interested in going to South America a couple of years ago, I wasn’t sure whether I would rather travel to Peru or Ecuador.  In the end, Mindo’s incredible birding and ease of access – its only 2 hours from Quito international airport by car – won the case for us.  After more than a week in the Mindo area, I definitely felt that we made a good choice.  If you have any questions about Mindo or the region, or information to share, feel free to email me or leave a comment.