The air is thin at La Paz airport in western Bolivia. La Paz is perched 13,000 feet above sea level, ringed by the Altiplano, or high plateaus of the Andes mountains. I was fresh off the plane from Miami and glad to be on solid ground, but my heart was pounding and I was breathing heavily from the effort of lugging my bags through customs at the unfamiliar altitude of the world's highest capital city.
I was greeted at the airport by Jorge Valverde, a jovial Bolivian involved with the local high-quality coffee export business, who wants to start working with premium cocoa producers as well. Jorge and I were about to set off on a week-long journey, traveling 11,000 feet down from La Paz to the lowlands in the Alto Beni region to explore the communities of cocoa producers who farm the unique cocoa trees native to Bolivia.
Finding dependable sources of high-quality, certified organic cocoa for producing our minimally processed chocolate is challenging, to say the least. It takes months of searching, thousands of frequent flier miles, meeting dozens of new people in faraway places, and a healthy dose of dogged persistence. But after years of hearing about how different and intriguing Bolivian cocoa is, I was anxious to see it for myself and to learn if it could be a new source for Taza Chocolate. For a chocolate maven, this journey was an adventure in search of a rare, distinctive kind of cocoa bean.
Later that same afternoon, after hours of hair-raising driving down two-way, one-lane, gravel mountain roads with a cliff on one side and no barrier between us and eternity, we finally found ourselves in the lush tropical region of Alto Beni, headed through Caranavi and on to the old mining town of Guanay. It was time to rest and recharge for the next leg of our trip, which would take us into the heart of the region where we'd heard tell that there were vast stretches of uncultivated, wild cocoa.
The next morning we were up early. Fueled by Jorge's lovingly prepared daily pot of French press coffee, we climbed aboard a riverboat to continue our journey into cocoa country. These boats are essentially large dugout canoes with topside extensions; very long, with very little draft, and perfect for ferrying supplies and people up and down the region's turbulent rivers. We cruised up calm waters with gold miners working on the riverbanks, past beautiful high rock walls with waterfalls, and up whitewater rapids, until after four hours we reached the small hamlet of Michiplaya.