I Learned the Truth About Fair Trade Chocolate in Panama

From Bocas Town, it’s a short ride to the mainland of Almirante.

There, I joined fellow Habla Ya students interested in knowing more about chocolate on an organic chocolate farm tour. Yummy, right?

Sadly, while the process was fascinating (and delicious), the realities of life for cacao farmers are harsh and extremely unfair.

Finding out the Truth about Fair Trade Chocolate in Panama

Chocolate Tour

starting the tour off with my favorite mode of transportation – boats boats boats!

From the boat jetty in Almirante, our guide was waiting to bring us to the Oreba Cooperative, a community of more than 30 Ngobe indigenous families united in working together to produce cacao. We were welcomed into the community, following a path up a hill lined with smiling children-filled homes and flowers.

Chocolate Tour Bocas Del Toro-1

Once at the top, we sat down to a delicious traditional meal and talked with our guides. Our younger guide could speak 7 different language fluently – demonstrating his expertise by switching through all of them. For those of us still working on our monolingualism (cough cough ME) – it was truly inspiring!

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Traditional Ngobe Meal

From the filling lunch, we picked up walking sticks and set off on the trail. Whoa, was it ever hot!!

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Our guides pointed out different fruits and plants, and of course the cacao tree!

It was really interesting to see the different colors of cacao, and what it looks like in varying stages of maturity. I never knew!

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The hike took us throughout the cacao field (really more like a forest), and was very hot but not too difficult. The guides stopped us every now and then to show various plants, and we could stop to take photos.


entering the cacao forestDCIM100GOPROG1110958.

time to stop for a quick breath and a hiking selfie

After hiking through the woods, we stopped at a hut on a hill where several women and children waited for us. This is where the cacao is roasted, after fermenting and drying out.

Still hand roasted in small batches similar to the way it has been done for centuries, the process was fascinating to watch and ridiculously rich to smell. The whole air (thick with humid heat already) was positively full of chocolatey scents.

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We were able to try the beans, both when raw and after roasting. Such a difference from a hard and somewhat sour seed when raw, to the lush and rich cacao that creates cocoa paste.


trying the raw beans
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After roasting, the beans are ground into paste by hand using a stone mortar and pestle. I tried my hand after taking some cues from the experts – it is hard work especially in the heat! I gained a whole new appreciation for all the work that goes into creating our chocolate bars!

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After seeing the process and trying our hands (and trying the chocolate!) our guides shared with us the reality of cacao farming. Cacao prices have continually dropped (even for all-natural organic cacao like at Oreba) but the cost of living has increased. Now cacao farmers grow other crops as well to offset the financial burden of growing cacao – it is difficult to break even, let alone make enough to support a livelihood or a family.

Chocolate Tour Almirante Bocas del Toro

our guide, describing the harsh conditions of cacao farming

Even more devastating, a vicious fungus has begun to ravage the pods, killing the cacao before it is ever collected. Now, farmers must be ever vigilant and visit their farms constantly, picking and destroying any infected pod before it can spread to others. Farmers cannot rest even for one day, lest they miss an infected pod that could destroy their whole field.

Aside from overrunning their lives, because of the fungus fewer pods than ever can be collected – especially on an all-natural farm that doesn’t use pesticides – which means even lower production.

Our guides also explained the the Fair Trade chocolate that so many of us pride ourselves on buying isn’t always so fair for the farmers. While the program creates fair prices for the middle men, very rarely do the actual cacao farmers see the benefit of so-called “fair trade” chocolate. At Oreba, their precious, hand-picked, organic, sustainable cacao is sold for less than $1 a kilo, which is then resold by the middle man at many times the price.

So what can you do? Buy your chocolate directly from farmers and small producers – that way you know your money is going to the people who need it (and deserve it) the most.

Oreba is a collective of more than 30 very small family-owned farms, with each farmer owning between 1 and 4 hectares of land. The cooperative works to educate the community, and also other cacao farmers by encouraging good practices and organic farming. The cacao tour proceeds are used to benefit the community, by supporting the school fund, future projects, and the livelihoods of the farmers.

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Necessary Details

The organic chocolate tour costs $35 for students of Habla Ya with proceeds benefitting the Oreba Cooperative and including lunch (vegetarian/vegan available – request in advance). This price does not include the cost of the boat to Almirante ($6).

While the Oreba chocolate tour is not that strenuous, it does include a hike through the forest and can be VERY hot.

Be sure to wear proper closed-toed shoes (like sneakers or hiking shoes or my fave Vibrams), wear bug spray or a bug band (apply it BEFORE entering the farm unless it is an organic bug spray, as Oreba is an organic farm), and bring a bottle of water.

Do you try to buy fair trade chocolate?

Is it important to you to benefit the communities that you travel to?


A short vacation in Thailand turned into a life abroad with a canceled ticket home. Nearly a decade later and after living in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Puebla, and Puerto Vallarta, Steph is on to her next adventure and living back in beautiful, cosmopolitan Mexico City. She is living, traveling, and working (both as an expat therapist and an international health insurance representative) around the world to find the beautiful, inspirational, and interesting while sharing it with you!

Find me on: Web | Instagram | Facebook


  1. March 11, 2016 / 4:19 pm

    Great article! You talk about buying directly from the farmers – is there a way to do that when you are in your home country?

    • March 12, 2016 / 9:07 am

      Hi Laura! Thanks!
      Depending on which country you live in and how big your city is, your local farmer’s market might have cacao farmers. Otherwise the best way is to stock up when you’re on a trip. There might be farmers with websites, especially in the future, when you can order direct, but I don’t have personal experience with any farms that do and the farm I visited did not have a website for international ordering.

    • JoAnn Padgett
      December 10, 2017 / 3:52 am

      Wonderful article. Saw this same farm on Jack Hannas Wild Life. Interested in helping the farmers. Thank you for your info.

      • Steph
        December 12, 2017 / 9:48 am

        Thanks so much, JoAnn! It’s an incredible visit and I highly recommend it. Very informative, and delicious!

  2. Alberto Espino
    July 1, 2017 / 9:40 pm

    Hello Steph,
    Your article is great and vivid, I felt I almost was there. I’m looking for information about production cost for these farmers, did you found out how much they spent per hectare per harvest?
    Thank you

    • Steph
      July 3, 2017 / 8:12 am

      Hi Alberto! Thanks so much!
      I’m so sorry, but I didn’t! The awesome guys at Habla Ya could probably connect you with someone at the farm, though, if you were interested!

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