Although its name and history comes to us by way of Mexico, scientists now believe chocolate's true origins lie in South America.
Discovery of Chocolate in Mexico
Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in the Yucatan in 1519 and proceeded to claim the land for Spain, conquering both Mayan and Aztec civilizations. During his military campaigns, he encountered a bitter drink popular with both cultures called xocoatl in the Nahuatl language of the Aztec made from crushed cacao seeds mixed with water, chili and a bit of honey. It was said to be a fortifying drink for the Maya and a sacred drink to the Aztec. European explorers found the drink gave them an unusual boost of energy and brought the seeds back to Europe.
South American Origins and Cultivation
Since Theobroma cacao will only grow between 20° north latitude and 20° south latitude, Ecuador's position directly on the equator makes it an ideal environment to cultivate cacao. Recent genetic studies suggest that the wild tree originated in the Amazon basin in a crescent shaped swath that runs along the Brazilian border from Venezuela to Peru, essentially where the Amazon meets the Andes. It is now believed that local cultivation and domestication of wild cacao initially took place in South America, where the mucilaginous pulp surrounding the seeds was consumed as a snack and fermented into a mildly alcoholic beverage. Research suggests that indigenous civilizations brought cacao across low Andean passes where the plants flourished along the Guayas River basin and tropical western coastal regions of Ecuador. From there, cacao made its way along coastal trade routes into Central America where archeological evidence has revealed more sophisticated forms of cultivation. Full cultivation of the seeds as a beverage took place starting with pre-Olmec civilizations up through the Aztecs.
When Europeans mixed the bitter cacao with milk and sugar, the result is what we know today as chocolate. Chocolate rapidly became a luxury item and its value as a commodity soared to become a major revenue source. According to noted professor, ethnographer and anthropologist Jack Weatherford, while North America was busy with the tobacco trade, and the British traded opium in the Far East, the Spanish turned to the production of chocolate.
Chocolate in Ecuador
Two decades after Cortés' conquest of Mexico, his distant cousin, Francisco Pizarro, arrived in South America and proceeded to eventually lead the conquest of the Inca Empire. Unlike the Aztecs and Mayans, the Incas did not cultivate cacao. With the colonization of Ecuador by the Spanish in the latter half of the 17th century, large land grabs by wealthy Spaniards resulted in the discovery of cacao trees growing in the western coastal forests and in the eastern foothills of the Andes in the Amazon basin. By 1740, cacao exports to Spain became the colony's largest trading commodity. Following Ecuador's independence from Spain in 1822, cacao production became an important revenue source for the new country, accounting for 40% to 60% of total exports.
Cacao production continued it's explosive growth right up through the beginning of the 20th century when it was hit hard by two crises. The first was a blight caused by the Crinipellis perniciosa fungus, commonly known as Witches Broom. The second was the stock market crash of 1929 which saw cacao plummet to only a third of its former value. Plantations were either abandoned altogether or replaced cacao with greater revenue producing crops. Banana production gradually replaced cacao as the primary export by 1947. Following the end of Second World War, cacao prices started to rebound, and with the introduction of disease resistant strains of cacao, production started increasing.
Today, Ecuador produces 4% of the world's cacao, of which 85% comes from the western coastal provinces of Los Rios, Manabí, Guayas, Esmeraldas and El Oro. The cacao produced in this region has once again caught the attention of Europe's major chocolatiers, primarily for its intensely floral and fruity flavor. Known locally as Cacao Nacional, or Cacao Arriba (slang for "up river"), Ecuadorian chocolate is once again in peak demand. Brands like Pacari and Kallari command top dollar prices and single-origin bars are all the rage, allowing connoisseurs to savor the differences between growing regions, much the same as fine wines.
Enjoy it first hand
Savor the rich and intense flavors of Ecuadorian chocolate on any of our trips to the Galapagos.
Guests extending their stay in Quito should visit the Kallari Café, a short 2 minute walk from the Hilton Colón Hotel. Enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, learn about and sample artisan chocolates produced by the indigenous owners of the cooperative in the Amazon basin. You may also purchase unique and delicious gifts to bring back to family and friends.
Thomas Winkel, Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences
Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers, Broadway Books