Today the humidity is somewhat oppressive, even for the locals. Out on the streets, the available shade is occupied by sleeping dogs, and the women are cooling themselves with brightly colored fans. But as we move into the forest, the high canopy provides enough reprieve to make it palatable. We’re walking down a lightly worn trail in a massive 50-acre plantation that feels more like the garden of Eden than a farm. Our guide points out various tropical and lush flora and fauna, explaining interesting details behind each species and how they relate to the complex inter-connected symbiotic system they’ve created for growing cacao. There are trees that supply the shade (which are also a valuable spice producer), flowers that attract the pollinators and howler monkeys, lizards and thousands of insect varieties that all make the little jungle-world-ecosystem go round. Many believe this is the original homeland of the magnificent trees which bear the fruit that the world has come to love, but very few know its rich history. We’ve traveled here, to the source, with our good friends from Oregon Craft Chocolate to bring them to the origin of their passion; the convection so lovingly known as chocolate.
The history of chocolate cultivation is fascinating, ancient and at time obscure. Multiple locations claim to have been the first to cultivate the roots of this renowned tree – and we’re not here to settle this debate – but one thing is clear: ancient civilizations have been growing and cultivating cacao before the written record in this area of Mexico in the state of Tabasco. And, they’re back at it with a focus and passion expressed throughout the culture: there’s cacao literature, posters, trinkets, and books in just about any location where the small number of regional tourists traffic. An interesting topic in itself, as US tourists are for the most part obsolete, but imminent. They’re coming; they just don’t know it yet. If you ask an American foodie today if they know of Tabasco, they’ll say “the hot sauce?” Ask them in a few years, and they’ll say, “the chocolate.”
The state’s once vast oil production capabilities were summed up in a quick conversation I had with an oil exec waiting for his driver at the front of a prominent hotel. He was here to facilitate the movement of equipment from this region to a different country with higher yield. He was here for a few days, then on to the next frontier. The sun is setting on Tabasco’s once vast oil production capabilities, and it’s time for the economy to evolve or crumble. It’s complicated, and there are more obstacles and moving parts than I care to explain in this blog post, but there are little glimmers of hope on the horizon as a few forward thinkers work to shift the economy to sustainable ecotourism, and growing high valued commodities like chocolate that are in their ancestors have been doing since the dawn of man. Growing cacao, it seems, might be in their DNA. And that’s why where are here.
If you are a history and geography nerd like me, google Tabasco and check it out. I could write an article on the history of this area, but we have other topics to cover. In short, the culture and history storylines run deep. The museums are impressive and empty. The hotels and restaurants and outstanding. This place is poised for a tourism influx, it feels like the calm before the storm. They’re coming. In about a month a new administration will be voted into office and depending on who occupies the decision making seats, there’s a good chance the tourism dollars will hit US markets instead of officials pockets… and the future flow of tourism will change this largely unheard of location. That said, if you told me we were the only American tourists in the country, I would not be surprised. We walked a significant market devoid of a single characteristic tourist shop or item, with a few English speaking locals approaching us with enthusiastic questions like, “where are you from?,” “what are you doing in Tabasco?,” and “So great to see an American here in Tabasco.” If you want to see something authentic, get off the tourists’ highways, and experience a real culture – give this place a shot.
Ok, that’s enough about the lack of tourism subject. I digress. We’re here on one of our favorite assignments. Accompanying brands on expeditions to the source. We feel like anything worth doing is worth doing right. And if you are going to manufacture anything, you have to understand every minute detail of the production – right down to the sourcing for every single component. Over the years we’ve traveled with brands to ultra-remote (and sometimes dangerous) destinations like Madagascar, to Guatemala, Hawaii, Alaska and now Tabasco, Mexico to connect people with transparent sourcing and document the process. It’s the most exciting, challenging and rewarding work we have the privilege to do – and we appreciate every opportunity. Stay tuned for more reports from Tabasco and other examples of going to the source for the story. We’re going to tell you more about sourcing chocolate from Tabasco with Oregon Craft Chocolatiers, how we’re exploring Fly Fishing in Tabasco and the potential for an eco-tourism fishing program to provide sustainable business to protect fisheries.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!