Mindo, Ecuador: A Town Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Chocolopolis / Friday, September 27th, 2019

Barbara Wilson’s voice picks up when she talks about Mindo, Ecuador.

“Mindo is a tiny little town where you can walk everywhere. Everything is lush and green and everyone knows everyone. It’s very safe and there are lots of things to do and lots of people from other countries.”

I spoke with Barbara about Mindo and her chocolate business in advance of the chocolate trip I’m leading to Ecuador May 15 – 24, 2020.

Mindo Chocolate
Barbara Wilson and Jose Meza

Barbara cites Mindo’s incredible biodiversity as part of its unique charm. Mindo is surrounded by a national forest and is included in the Chocó Andino de Pichincha that was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2018. It is a major destination for bird lovers, offering over 500 species, and it is one of only a handful of cloud forests in the world.

I asked Barbara to name her favorite bird, and without missing a beat, she replied, “The Quetzal, of course.” Her chocolate café and restaurant in Mindo is named El Quetzal.

“The Quetzal is really beautiful. It has turquoise feathers on top and an orange-red breast. When it flies it has a large wing span. The Quetzal lives on the edges of cliffs, so you may look down from above to see it flying below you. It has a unique song that is easily recognizable.”

I asked her why she picked the name “El Quetzal”. When she and her husband first opened the cafe in Mindo, she was looking for a good name and noticed that the other businesses in town were named after birds. She was thinking along those lines when she looked out the window and saw a Quetzal. It didn’t hurt that the name had a “Q” and a “Z” in the title. As an avid Scrabble player, “Q” and “Z” are among the most rare and challenging of Scrabble tiles, so the name spoke to her on many levels.

A native of Ann Arbor, MI, Barbara has lived around the world and now splits her time between Ann Arbor and Mindo. A decade ago she and her husband, Jose, took a trip to Ecuador, his country of birth. Jose had not been back in 41 years. It was supposed to be a visit – they were not looking for a place to live – but he saw Mindo and decided to stay. While Barbara and Jose are now separated, they still work together as business partners, making chocolate in Ecuador and the US.

Mindo Chocolate has a 1/2 hectare farm in Mindo with 50 cacao trees that allow Barbara to demonstrate cacao farming to visitors. When she and Jose first started their farm, everyone told them it would be too cold in Mindo to grow cacao. Cacao likes a warm environment, and conventional wisdom was that the cooler weather in the cloud forest would not encourage the trees to fruit. Undeterred by this advice they ate a lot of cacao pulp and planted the remaining seeds in the soil. They were surprised to find that the trees did produce fruit, and that they are able to ferment them the same way they would in a warmer climate.

Drying, however, is more of a challenge. Improper drying can lead to moldy notes in your chocolate which, as you can imagine, don’t taste very good. At lower altitudes cacao is dried in the sun, but there isn’t enough heat and sun in Mindo for unaided solar drying.  By chance, Barbara and Jose happened to choose a location within Mindo that offers excellent breezes and ventilation. That, along with a covered greenhouse, has helped with proper drying.

Mindo produces 11 tons of chocolate a year – about half is made in Mindo, Ecuador while the other half is made in Ann Arbor, MI. The cacao they grow at El Quetzal is not enough to support their chocolate habit. They purchase the majority of their cacao from farms in Puerto Quito about an hour away. The cooperative they work with, Nueva Esperanza, was one of the original Heirloom Cacao Project designees. The first step in applying for Heirloom Cacao status is to have your leaves genotyped by the USDA. The results of Mindo Chocolate’s genotyping showed that no CCN-51 was present (a very good thing) and that there was genetic diversity among the cacao. While the average was 55% Nacional, many trees have a much higher genetic content of Ecuador’s renowned Nacional varietal, with some bordering on 100%.

I asked Barbara to name her favorite dishes on El Quetzal’s menu. I wanted plenty of time to think about the delicious meal we’ll enjoy as part of our Ecuador Chocolate Expedition next May. Barbara’s favorite dish is Macadamia Chicken which is coated in a syrup made from cacao pulp (miel de cacao) and covered in locally-grown macadamia nuts. She also loves the bombones de chocolate which are fried yucca slices dipped in chocolate and served along side the chicken. For drinks, El Quetzal brews their own ginger beer (alcoholic) and ginger ale (non-alcoholic) with locally grown ginger.

And then there are the brownies. Brownies are what started Barbara’s journey in chocolate. When she first moved to Mindo she and Jose set up El Quetzal as an internet and coffee cafe. Barbara was importing a lot of finished chocolate from the US to make her brownies, and then she realized this was a bit ridiculous. There was cacao growing all over Ecuador, yet she was importing chocolate from the US to make brownies. She and Jose started planting cacao and making chocolate, and the rest is history.

Join me on a visit to this incredible Shangri-la in May 2020. I’ll be leading a group of 14 people on our Ecuador Chocolate Expedition from May 15 – 24, 2020, which includes two nights in Mindo. You’ll have a chance to tour the Mindo farm and enjoy a local meal at El Quetzal as well as experience Mindo’s unique cloudforest and diverse bird population.

For more information about our tour, click here. If you would like to hear more about the tour, please join me on October 12, 2019 at The Savvy Traveler in Edmonds, WA. I will be giving a talk on Ecuador’s historical role in cacao and chocolate followed by information about our trip and a short chocolate tasting.