We got out of the car, dusty and car sick from the road that never did seem to straighten out and a bad encounter with some spiced caiman at the previous day’s lunch.
On second thought, maybe it was the salsa…(yes, that’s fire ant salsa)
The day was already alive with bugs and the sounds of birds welcoming us. To get to the farm itself we had to cross a small stream which everyone in boots could wade through. I kicked my shoes off and felt the sandy soil slip under my feet sliding down into the river. We splashed across, following Lugo like a bunch of ducklings. I didn’t want to leave the perfectly refreshing water, but there was no time to dawdle.
Up the next bank and into the forest we hopped along the path avoiding the spiny plants, low tree limbs, and ants that bite. Small cacao farms don’t feel much like farms at all. Covered in a canopy of shade trees and the ground carpeted with plants, you simply feel like you are in the forest. Patrick, our fearless Venezuelan host, relived how the last time he was at this clearing, he had been barefoot. He had accidentally stepped into a fire ant nest and while he was trying to brush them off, he felt a mosquito biting his neck. He reached up to slap at the mosquito and suddenly there were ants on his neck. He hurriedly brushed them off and then while attempting to get the last of them off his neck he leaned up against the nearest tree, only to find out the hard way that it was covered in half inch thorns.
We picked our way carefully along the small foot-worn path until we came to a clearing. Jose Lugo proudly announced that the giant cacao tree standing before us was his favorite tree. It was around 150 years old, which made a stark comparison to the 20 year old trees we had seenat the Piaroan farms. It was hung with light pink pods and taller than any cacao tree I had seen. Lugo stood, holding onto the trunk like a proud father, while he told us all about the tree. Older cacao trees are less practical because they grow more of their fruit in their canopy which makes it difficult to harvest. It was so quiet and cool among the trees and the smile on Lugo’s face showed us how proud he was of his farm.
We stopped at another farmer’s grove further down the road so Lugo could show us some grafted trees. Grafting is a process where you can splice the varietal you want to grow onto already established root stock (commonly used in apple orchards). It is helpful with cacao because farmers can grow cacao with more desirable genetics and the trees produce cacao pods faster (because the roots are already established so they can provide more nutrients and water).
Lugo knows so much about cacao farming and it was such an honor to get to travel around with him and see all the knowledge he shares with others along the way.