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Chocolate making in Panama with the Ngäbe women

Posted on April 13 2016

Panama’s humid, wet, and tropical climate offers optimal conditions for growing cacao. Yet in the world of chocolate Panama is rarely mentioned- it is actually almost forgotten. So when I was asked by the USAID Farmer2Farmer program to travel to northern Panama to teach indigenous women to make chocolate I was excited to accept the challenge - humbly I said there was no better person for the job. ;)

Panama Cacao

Panama Chocolate

Upon arriving to Panama City my first mission was to find chocolate. I wanted to understand what Panamanians considered to be chocolate. I was not surprised to find the big names like Snickers and M&M’s, but I was more surprised that I didn’t find a local brand. It would be the equivalent to walking into a Panama City grocery store and finding African bananas. Cacao grows in this country yet they import all their chocolate.

Panama City was only my layover, still a short flight away from my real destination, Bocas del Toro, Changuinola District in the north west point, border with Costa Rica. It is Panama's largest comarca indígena, an indigenous district allowed to have it's own indigenous laws.  

Panama Cacao Changuinola

Panama cacao chocolate

My project was to meet with the Ngäbe women to learn about their cacao culture and to teach them how to use cacao in different ways, using only the tools they had. They would sell this chocolate at festivals and outside schools to raise money to eventually be able to build a real kitchen where they would increase chocolate production.

cacao panama

Bright and early on Monday I sat waiting for them in the classroom, we had an 8am start time and about 9am they began coming in. If there is one thing I have learned, and appreciate about working with indigenous women -they experience a full day before they come see me for class. They have already spent hours making breakfast, preparing the children for school, fed the chickens, and started on dinner so it is ready when they come back home. Instead of starting at a certain time, we start when we are all ready. 

The first day was spent trying to remember their names- Tomasa, Milka, Rufina, Dilia ..., letting them get used to me, I am like a new cat in the herd, I know this game; they have to look at me, ask me questions, get used to my accent, and slowly they start to sit closer and closer to me. I only speak Spanish with them and they only speak ngäbere with each other, their native language. 

I learned that everyone drinks cacao beverages, it is common and something they grew up making and enjoying. They all know some other woman that makes cacao paste, cacao balls, cacao disks, or cacao sticks to sell as drinking chocolate. Sometimes this paste is mixed with sugar or cinnamon. This is the challenge, everyone in town makes and sells this exact item. They wanted to make something different, something more appealing that would also get the attention of kids or teenagers, some thing they could possibly send to Bocas Town, the big tourist city, or even Panama City. 

cacao  panama ngabe

Twenty women were my students for nine days of chocolate and candy making. We had access to one molino, a wood fired stove, a big pot, a spoon and a large wooden stick. 

roasting cacao panama

We began our second day by roasting- the cacao looked great and they were doing a good job at roasting; stirring, touching the beans, making sure the fire didn’t get too hot or low. They took the beans out periodically to taste and make sure they didn’t burn. We removed from the fire and waited for them to cool before putting them into the molino to crack.

cracking cacao

Once we had a small batch cracked, one woman went outside to winnow- used the wind to remove the husk from the nib. This process is very delicate; no normal human is able to do this without many years of practice, she is the only one in the group that knows how. Eventually the goal is to buy a machine because doing this by hand is a very slow process. 

winnowing cacao wind

Then we used the molino to grind; we passed it three times for a smoother texture. 

grinding cacao molino

The women seemed natural and comfortable when roasting, smelling, and tasting cacao, they have been around it their entire lives. When I teach chocolate making in urban areas everyone is surprised every step of the way; here I am surprised by their knowledge, they act like they have seen it all. Until I brought out the molds. They had never seen molds before. 

molding chocolate

ngabe woman with chocolate

I knew it would be a challenge without a refrigerator, but we had a cold room where we could leave them overnight. We mixed the chocolate until it cooled then we plunked the thick chocolate into the molds. We left them until the next day and 95% of them released from the molds which was great!!

cooling chocolate panama

chocolate panana

We continued the same process every day to make different flavors and to make different candies.

With limited supplies, no refrigerator or oven – options for desserts and candies were limited. Luckily I consider myself an expert in stovetop candies and desserts and anything you can make on a stovetop you can make over a fire. I decided to teach them caramel popcorn with nibs, nib brittle, fudge, brigadeiros, and chocolate rice pudding. They had never seen any of these candies, which were easy to make, easy to store, and cheap to produce. 

Arcelia Gallardo Panama chocolate

brigadeiros cacao panama

arroz con leche chocolate

caramel popcorn with cacao nibs

Before my arrival they were making only drinking chocolate, but so was everyone else. They didn’t have any products that could set them apart. Drinking chocolate is important to their community, they should keep making it but they can make it look more appealing. Everywhere in Panama you see nature; I wanted this to translate to their packaging. We spent an entire day learning how to make flowers with palm leaves, we decided on a logo and created some great labels. They decided on the name Ñöba Bälen Chocolates, women of chocolate and cacao. 

palm leaf flowers

Panama Ngabe women chocolate

palm leaf flowers chocolate panama

chocolate panama

On the final day we held a graduation where the women wore their traditional dresses, cooked a traditional meal, and invited their families and neighbors to come and purchase their chocolate. There was a ceremony and each woman received a certificate of completion. And yes, they made me a dress. Since I was the photographer there is no photo of me in the dress. But trust me. I wore it well. 

It was an honor to have been able to work with the Ngäbe women and learn about their culture. They were a reminder to slow down. During my time with them there was no such thing as missing morning coffee, lunch or afternoon snack. Sitting, catching up, laughing and sometimes napping, were in every way as important as the task at hand. Standing under the hut, holding our chocolate, waiting for the thunderous rain to pass so we can run to the next hut, became moments of mindfulness for me. I felt thankful for this amazing moment - huddled with the Ngäbe women and their thousands of years of culture and tradition. 

I am leaving Panama very hopeful for the future of cacao and the Ngäbe chocolate group – Ñöba Bälen Chocolates. We were able to create some amazing, delicious, simple products using normal everyday ingredients and cacao. 

Ngabe women Panama Chocolate Noba Balen

The new look of Ñöba Bälen Chocolates is thanks in part to Dandelion Chocolate (, Neo Cocoa (, and Kika’s Treats (, who donated molds and boxes for this project.


In the end I did find a chocolate maker in Panama, but not in Panama City. I found him on an island in Bocas Town - 'Island Cacao Artisan Chocolate'. His name is Grant, an American expat/surfer, from North Carolina. He began making organic chocolate with rare Panamanian cacao in 2014. He works with the farmers, pays a higher price than the local coop, teaches them about preserving the rivers and wildlife on their cacao farms. Check him out: Island Cacao. He has the right tools, understands the market for craft chocolate and is already the best chocolate maker in Panama. Here he is below and I am holding his metate, the smallest I have ever seen. 

Island Cacao Panama Bocas Town

Island Cacao Grant Panama


The only cacao cooperative in the area is COCABO, they purchase fermented/dried beans from 2,400 farmers. In the future they want to build a central processing plant to ferment the cacao themselves (mandatory for selling to craft chocolate makers). Currently they do not sell directly to any chocolate makers but are trying to find these connections- they want to export to the US. They held the first cacao festival, a tiny event to begin promoting their cacao. 

COCABO Festival del Cacao PanamaCOCABO Festival del Cacao Panama


At the festival I met Örebä Chocolate Nativo, another group from a nearby village that conducts tours of their cacao farm and demonstrates chocolate making on a rock. 

Oreba chocolate tourArcelia Gallardo Panama


And on Sunday, I rested. 

Arcelia Gallardo Panama Chocolate

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1 comment

  • Fausto J. Coral: November 02, 2016

    Parabéns pela reportagem. Foi emocionante ler esse seu trabalho e sentir com que honestidade ele foi realizado. Conheço Bocas del Toro assim como também tive a oportunidade de visitar algumas pequenas plantações na Reião Fronteira com a Costa Rica. Acredite, sou seu fã de carteirinha.

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