Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Magical Place Where Chocolate Grows on Trees

We had heard a lot about chocolate farms in Panama and wanted to take time to check one out. All the websites and books mentioned the Oreba Chocolate Farm and how amazing the tours were there. We took a water taxi from Bocas Town and then a taxi from Almirante to the Oreba Plantation. The best part about the Oreba tour is that is entirely run by indigenous Ngabe Community and all the proceeds from the tours and chocolate go directly back into their community.

With our tour guide for the day, Jack
Our guide for the day was Jack (his 'english name' of course).  At the age of 20, he is a tour guide, runs his own chocolate farm (each family member gets a plot of land given to them), speaks 3 languages (and learning 2 more), goes to university and eats chocolate at every meal! What a legend. 

With our walking sticks for the hike around the cacao plantation
Jack said he eats a chocolate bar for breakfast, some chocolate with lunch and of course some with his dinner. He only has 'sweetened' chocolate once or twice a day since his mom told him this as its a way to stay balanced. The rest of the food they eat all comes form the farm (there are no grocery stores or pizza delivery around these parts). So this includes bananas, starfruit, plantains, bread fruit, chicken, eggs, yuka and a few other items. Its quite amazing that they can do so well eating just what they grow. Jack mentioned to us that no one in the community has cancer or diabetes since they eat so clean with no processed foods or chemicals. (their chocolate is organic too!)

The tour starts with a hike around the plantation where you see all the fruit that they grow and learn about the chocolate farming business. The Ngabe Community actually supplies chocolate to Switzerland (Lindt), US, Germany and soon to be China too. It is now one of Panama's leading exports. Jack showed us all around the organic farm, explaining the process for growing the cacao at high altitudes (up on the hills), then the harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting and then making the chocolate.  I will include photos below from the rest of the tour and explain the process with the pictures. (since I know most of you are visual learners!)

  • First we saw how the cacao fruit grows on the trees throughout the farm. I told you this stuff grows on trees! :) It takes about 3 years from planting a cacao tree to when you can harvest the fruit. After its starts, you can harvest the fruit every 15 days.

Cacao fruit growing on trees!
  • When they harvest the fruit every 15 days, they need to remove the 'beans' from the centre of each fruit. This plantation had over 40 different types of cacao fruit, so the colours of the skin ranged from yellow to red to purple.

  • The inside of the fruit had huge beans that were covered in a fruity white coating. We all got to try a few of these and suck the fruit off of the beans. It was delicious! It tasted like a mango.

  • The next two steps aren't pictured. First they have to ferment the beans in large wooden bins for 8 days. Next they have to dry the beans in huge solariums where it is extremely hot for 8-15 days (depending on weather)
  • Next comes the roasting. You can see one of the Ngabe woman roasting the beans for us to try below.

  • After they are roasted, most of it is sold to major chocolate manufacturers. For the portion that is sold locally, they then have to hand mash the roasted beans to form a chocolate paste.
  • Below you can see the Ngabe woman using a rock to mash the cacao beans into chocolate. The rock she is mashing it onto is said to be over 500 years old. At this point, they let us take turns at mashing the beans, Nathan had a go at it and realized how hard it was!

  • Here is a shot of the bowl of roasted cacao beans with the mashed chocolate paste.
  • Now for the tasting! They mixed some of the chocolate paste with some sugar and heated it on the fire to give us a taste of the fresh chocolate. It was divine. 

  • After we saw the chocolate making process, we hiked back down the hill to experience a traditional Ngabe lunch. The lunch consisted of chicken (from their farm), elephant ears tube (which tastes like potato) and their leaves (mixed with garlic and tasted like spinach).

  •  At the end of the tour, you get to purchase some of their products made on the plantation. We bought some dark chocolate, hot choc mix, cooking chocolate and roasted beans. Our BIGGEST mistake was not buying more... the dark chocolate is to die for! Probably the best chocolate we have ever tasted. We are going to make Mole Chicken tonight and use the baking chocolate.

Here are some shots of the beautiful children of the Ngabe tribe:

The tour is $30 and you can learn more about the it here: Oreba Farm

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bocas del Toro: Starfish Beach & a 30KM Cruiser Bike Ride

So this post was supposed to be about our epic bike ride to Starfish Beach and back. We didn't exactly do just that and I will explain all that at the end of this post.

Starfish Beach (Bocas Del Drago) is located on the other side of Isla Colon, which means its a heck of a long way from the side where most people are staying. There are a few different ways to get there: (Approx 15km each way)

  • Taxi from Bocas Town: About $15 round trip per person, approx 20min drive
  • Island Bus from Bocas Town: $5 round trip per person
  • Water Taxi: I don't know the price, it will depend where you come from
  • Bike: About 1 hour and 15 mins each way.
We decided on the bike route since we have rented cruiser bikes for 2 weeks and thought the ride would be a great work out. Well that turned out to be an understatement. A few websites said the ride was a bit 'hilly' and to make sure to rent mountain bikes with gears to do this ride. Well we didn't do that. We had one-gear cruisers and worked our asses off the entire way. The ride was really beautiful though, you go through little villages, jungle sections and gorgeous scenery. 

We made it! 15km done.
When you get to the beach, you then can either take a water taxi to Starfish Beach or do an easy 20min hike along the ocean. We took the walking route, why stop exercising now right?

Short walk to Starfish Beach
When you approach Starfish Beach you see TONS of little beach huts that locals have built to sell beers and food to all the tourists. It takes a little bit away from the beauty of it all, but the ice cold pineapple/mango smoothie, beers and fish lunch was pretty frigin awesome. We also opted to  rent out 2 beach chairs to laze around it all morning. (beers are $1.50 in Bocas, still can't believe this)

The starfish that line the beach really are quite amazing. I think there used to be many more but thanks to all the tourists picking them up, many have vanished or moved to other areas (taking them out of the water can kill them). We probably saw about 15-20 along the beach, mostly when we took the snorkel gear out and had a swim around.

This was taken by the shore in shallow water

We decided to head back around 3pm and walked back to our bikes. We were pretty tired and hot at this point and not really looking forward to the ride. But we sucked it up and headed out, all set for 15km of hills. About 10 min into the ride I heard a loud POP behind me and knew something was wrong. Nathan's back bike tire had popped. We were now stuck on the island highway with no way to get back. We sat in the shade for a bit and luckily a taxi came by and was able to drive us back into town. (Most taxi's are pick up trucks to allow for surf boards and bikes) So there you have it... we attempted the 30 km bike ride, we really did. But we only made it about 17km... That taxi back was bittersweet. We were upset not to have properly completed the journey BUT also super happy to not be biking those damn hills in the 33c heat.

We are hoping to attempt this adventure again before we leave Bocas... stay tuned!

Before the 'ride home'

Behind the scenes

Gorgeous beach

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bocas Del Toro: Monkey Tree Casita

After living in hostels in Bocas Town for the last two weeks, we are now residents of Monkey Tree Casitas. What is a Casita you ask? Well using my trusty 'Google Translate' tool, I learned that Casita means Cottage in Spanish. Monkey Tree only consists of two Casitas and they are situated in a jungle-like setting on the main Island of Colon.

When you open the big wooden gates to the property, you are greeted my gorgeous plants that immediately transport you into another place. The Casita's were beautifully built rustic wooden flours, timber verandas and tiled steps. On the veranda is the dining table, 4 chairs and a huge hammock to chill out in. I love how most of the place is outdoors and you feel like you are living in the jungle.

When you walk up the stairs to our door, there are tons of little critters running around. So far we have seen frogs, geckos, butterflies, but still no monkeys! Apparently they live in the trees around us but we haven't spotted them yet. The butterflies are absolutely stunning. There is one (or maybe its more than one - who knows) that always flies by when we leave or come back in the house. It has a neon blue colour, I've never seen anything like it.

Another great feature is where it is located on the island. We are a 15 min bike ride from Bocas Town and have a great beach right across the street. The beach in front of our place has a reef over most of it, so swimming is a bit tough. The good news is that there is a swimming hole within the reef so we are able to take dips there. We bought two snorkels yesterday so hoping to get out there and snorkel on the reef a few times this week.

We have rented 2 cruiser bikes and are able to get everywhere on the island on them. The road into town is beautiful. It winds around the beaches and palm trees all along the coast. The only really dangerous thing* you need to watch out for is fallen coconuts. This morning I rode into town for a Yoga class and couldn't get the smile off my face. 

The beaches by our house also offer awesome surfing. A huge swell hasn't come yet, but Nathan has been enjoying having the waves across the street and has been out once or twice everyday since we got here. (I even got out there one day.... which wasn't too pretty)

Having our own place, has been awesome for making home cooked meals. I have a few tropical meals to share but I think I'll wait until the next post!

Interesting Facts:
  • *There are no bike helmets on the whole island. Weird right? When you bike on the main road, there are taxi's and rental cars that zoom by and it is a little scary at times. I really can't understand how no one has thought to bring some in yet... but everything here is about 30 years in the past.
  • Taxi's are an interesting experience. Once they pick you up, it is never a direct route. The cost to get from our place to town is $2 US each. Buuut, anyone that flags the taxi down, will also get a ride (and pay as well). You could be taking a 10 min taxi to town and stop for 4 more people (so you are squished in the back) and arrive 20 min later. It's all pretty funny actually and very convenient when you want to hail a taxi yourself!
Are you guys actually reading this?? If so, leave a damn comment below :)

For all the other pics, go to Flickr.

Hammock happiness

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bocas Del Toro: First week!

Welcome to Bocas!

So it has now been almost two weeks since we left Toronto. The day we left was around -30c outside. You could not ask for a better time of year to fly to a tropical island. We had 6 weeks in in Panama ahead of us. We decided to head to a group of islands* called Bocas Del Toro since it had great surf this time of year, beautiful beaches, it was inexpensive and had lots of great little islands to explore.

We were delayed on one of our flights due to the severe winter weather in the US and had to stay the night in Miami. Luckily, we managed to catch our connector from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro last Sunday and arrived on time. At least we weren't stuck in the snow storm of Chicago, am I right? ;)

Mareiguana Hostel - Bocas Del Toro
For our first week, we stayed at Mareiguana Hostel on the main island. This was a classic tropical hostel and we loved it. All the common rooms were open air outdoor areas. This included a bar/dining room, kitchen and a lounging common area that had an abundance of hammocks and view of the ocean. The ocean view deck also has free wifi which turned it into a Facebook-posting-hammock-zone pretty fast. It's a fairly small hostel, only about 20-25 people staying here so you get to know people pretty well. On our last night, they had a big steak BBQ so that was pretty cool. 

Bocas Town
Bocas del Toro consists of three main islands that most tourists visit. Isla Colon, Isla Bastimentoa and Isla Carenero. We were staying on the biggest of the three, Colon, which is also just referred to as Bocas since the main town - 'Bocas Town' is on this island. One of the coolest things here are the water taxis (see pic below). There are these small tin boats driven by locals that transfer you from island to island. They range from $1 to $5 each for a ride (everything is in USD for here for some reason). These water taxis comes in very handy when hopping from one island to another.

Here is a brief overview of the three islands below:

Isla Colon (Bocas)
  • Main Bocas Town on this island 
  • Biggest of the 3
  • Colourful buildings line the water that are mostly hotels with restaurants/bars looking out onto the water. You are almost always dining over the water on a dock type floor
  • Includes a long 'jungle highway' that connects Bocas town to 15km of gorgeous beaches for surfing and swimming. (more on this in my next post)
  • Lots of taxis, trucks, motorbikes and cruiser bikes up and down road 

Isla Bastimentos
  • Next biggest island
  • No cars on this island except for some of the resorts or tours 
  • Gorgeous beaches like Red Frog and Wizard Beach, great for surfing
  • Has a national park/jungle area 

Isla Carnero 
  • Tiny little island with no cars
  • There is a small walking path around entire coast, took us about 3 hours to circle the whole island. 
  • Amazing beaches with chrystal clear water and tons of coconut trees 
  • Lots of surf spots off the reef on one side of island (water taxis can drop you off right at surf break)
Isla Carenero
Along with all the awesome beaches and gorgeous sunshine, there are some negatives as well. 
Here are a few:
  • Spanish. We wish we knew more. A lot of locals don't speak a word of English so conversations are tough. 
  • Bugs. They are bad. We both have over 30 bites and they are incredibly itchy and painful at times. Through reading a bunch of sites, we have figured out that they are sand flies (called Chitra's here) The only real way to avoid if to slather coconut oil on your legs and arms. The little buggers drown on you before they can bite. Seems to be working :)
  • Cold showers. Most places in Bocas don't have hot showers. And if they do, it's just for a few hours a day. These aren't bad at all if you have just come in from the 39c heat. But if you have already cooled down, it can be tough. I know there are some parts of the world where clean water isn't even an option so I will suck it up and be happy for my icy cold shower :) 
  • Cheese. I guess good cheese is extremely had to get on these islands. Every time we order cheese on a sandwich, we get what looks like a Kraft cheese single, still in the plastic! Weird. 
  • Island time. This isn't necessarily a bad thing it just takes some time to get used to... No one is in a hurry. Your food might take an hour to come, your bill might take 25 mins, but no ones cares. It's the islands. We are trying not to make any arrangements that include times. There is just no point. 
A water taxi at the back of our hostel

Interesting facts:
  • Hammocks are the key to success
  • Free wifi is critical if you are traveling around a foreign country with no phone
  • Never sit under a coconut tree. Nathan's rule. A falling coconut is deadly. 
  • Beer in Bocas is $1.50. Everywhere.
  • Happy Hour - just in case $1.50 was too steep, happy hour has $1 beers and $2 cocktails. It also usually includes reggae music and a sunset ocean view. 
  • *Archipelago means a 'group of islands' 
  • We slept in bunk beds for the first week we were here