Last Sunday for the first time in nearly 10 months I returned to the valley of Ocobamba. Getting from the mountains 3,000 meters high up in the Andes to the lush valley of Ocobamba is no easy task. The long snaking roads lead up to some of the highest points in the Peruvian Andes (4,500) before sloping down into the Amazon Jungle. The windy back and forth road is paved in some sections and pure dirt and rocks in others. The occasional landslides (which are more common during the rainy season) can halt a caravan of cars, busses, and trucks for hours at a time, while crews work quickly to repair the roads. I can only imagine how difficult the journey would have been for the generations before as I have heard stories of journeying days at a time with horses and mules to carry precious cargo. However difficult the journey, the reward waiting you on the other side is more than worth the effort – picturesque mountainsides filled with dense vegetation, pure crystaline streams, endless supplies of fruits, and the songs and sites of thousands of birds and wildlife.
On a hike up to a farm mid-way up the hillside I caught this view of the valley of San Lorenzo in Ocobamba
After arriving in Ocobamba, I met Richard Gutierrez, a friend and cacao farmer in the San Lorenzo section of Ocobamba. Throughout my time I here I have met a number of cacao farmers and their families. I am focusing on farmers who cultivate the “chuncho” cacao variety, an heirloom variety native to the State of Cusco. This cacao is noted for it’s high fat content, and sweet floral aromatics. The farmers who have the “chuncho” variety in Ocobamba have full sized trees that haven’t been grafted – which means the trees reach 50-60 feet in some cases! This is truly tremendous for cacao trees; as most modern plantations have trees that stretch a maximum of 15 ft.
Richard Gutierrez holds up a freshly cut ripe "Chuncho" cacao pod on his farm in Munaypata, San Lorenzo, Ocobamba.
Richard Gutierrez lives with his wife Isabelle, 11yr. old son Shaimong, and 9 yr. old daughter Sheybell. Their 20 yr. old son Shirman is currently working deep in the jungle of Peru and the family is eagerly awaiting his return (as well as the pictures and stories from his journey) in late April. Richard nor Isabelle are originally from Ocobamba, but the clean water, pure air, and pristine fruits brought them to the valley they now call home. Richard has a few separate sections of farmland at various altitudes. In the lowest of the farms is a cacao orchard inter-planted with dozens of other crops including citrus fruits, mangos, avocados, coffee, passionfruits, yucca, turmeric, ginger, and bananas. In the middle altitudes the coffee, avocado, mango, wood trees, and other wild plants proliferate. At the highest altitudes, Richard plants corn for his family’s consumption and for feeding the chickens and ducks he raises near his house below. The Gutierrez family is extremely friendly and hospitable and I spent 10 wonderful days living with them. We had a great time and I helped teach English and Microsoft Excel to Richard and Shaimong. Richard Gutierrez is excited about the possibility of becoming a partner farmer and will surely be providing cacao in the years to come. When I told Richard I would bring him a bar of chocolate professionally handcrafted by an artisan chocolatier in the US, his face lit up with excitement!
I have met a number of other cacao farmers and I'm excited to share their stories, and some beautiful pictures straight from their farms! Cacao harvest season means chocolate bars are right around the corner!
Shaimong, Sheybell, and I on the back steps of their house in San Lorenzo.