Dona Mercedes Rosario Sosa leaves her house early every morning, dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and with a machete at her waist, ready to go to the farm and harvest cacao. Cutting the pod to take out the beans is a job she has been doing for the last eight years, ever since she and her husband, Jose Antonio Perez, began producing cacao on an eight-acre plot of land. Although not directly related to this work, she grew up in the cacao plantations, since this was her father’s and her grandfather’s work.
Now her five children, two boys and three girls, take on part of her duties alongside their mother on the farm. The traditional division of labor is evident: men knock down the pods and women open them to take out the cacao seeds. The job that Dona Mercedes does is one that few people will ever experience, but in a few months time Dominicans and foreigners who take the Chocolate Tour can try. This eco-tourism project is being run by the Association of Cacao Producers in the East, an affiliate of the National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Farmers (Conacado).
The idea is to attract tourists to the area, and the project has the support of the First Lady’s Office and the El Seibo Ecological Agency. The tour consists of three official stops, but along the 22 kilometers between El Seibo and Hato Mayor there are other stops that are almost obligatory due to the attractions.
The tour starts at Luis Mejia’s farm, where all the processes in the production of cacao are demonstrated for the visitors. Dona Mercedes shows visitors how to open a cacao pod. Visitors learn that it takes three or four years for a tree to begin to produce pods and a cacao tree can last as long as 150 years, but the most abundant crops come after 40 years. A curious note is that a tree might have as many as 6,000 flowers but it will only produce about 20 pods.
Another stop is the egret sanctuary at El Rancho near the Cibao River. While the egrets make a lot of noise and emit bad odors, farmers consider them their friends because they eat insects and other pests. The second official stop is the center for gathering the seeds at San Francisco Vicentillo in El Seibo. Here is where the cacao seeds begin to change their flavor and start smelling like chocolate. Severino Vilorio explains the fermentation process. He is a youthful 74-year old who grew up farming cacao. Of his seven children, only one has followed in his footsteps. The third stop is filled with the aroma of chocolate, and the visitors can taste all the products made from the bean: liquors, wine, preserves and candy. This is the Women’s United Hope Association’s Fermentation Center in Yabon, El Seibo.