I'm smothered in melted chocolate. Painted from neck to toe (in fact all the way to the very soles of my feet) in a generous layer of this warm and fragrant confection. The scent of chocolate is driving me wild: it fills the room, seeps into every last pore, yet I cannot taste it. It feels wrong to have this food of the gods smeared over my body but kept well away from my tongue.
I know what it tastes like, of course, for this isn't my first encounter with Ecuadorian chocolate – nor the fruit from which it originates. Days earlier, in an Amazonian rainforest village far below the high altitude city of Quito, I'd watched as a Quechua man plucked a golden-yellow pod from a wild cacao tree. He'd split the pod open to reveal a cluster of cacao beans sheathed in a gelatinous white substance: cacao fruit.
I'd chewed on the fruit – a pleasant blend of piquant and sweet – and had bitten down on the bean contained within. Raw cacao, I'd heard, can produce within those who consume it an intense state of euphoria. Packed with 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries and an equal density of minerals – calcium, copper, zinc, potassium, iron – it's said to greatly improve one's physical and mental well-being.
But there's a reason we prefer cacao in its processed, chocolatey form, for the bean is inexcusably bitter; sadly, I wasn't able to consume the quantities required to induce its apparently miraculous effects.
Instead, back in Quito, I'd sought out a more palatable version of cacao at Pacari, a chocolatier in the city's historic centre. The scent of chocolate overwhelmed me as I entered the store: here were shelves stacked high with award-winning, organic chocolate, wooden bowls filled with cacao beans and nibs and those glossy yellow-orange-red pods – now wrinkled and brown – that had hung like Christmas baubles from the Amazon's understory.
The story of Ecuadorian cacao – believed by many to be the best in the world – is told here in timelines and anecdotes etched upon the walls. Just as a good grape is the foundation for a high quality wine, it reads, so must the cacao bean be perfect in order for it to produce a world-class chocolate.
But care has been taken not to transform the bean so that it is no longer recognisable: the organic chocolate bars are high in cacao – and those bountiful antioxidants and minerals – and low in sugar. Andean herbs and fruits infuse the chocolate with the delicate taste of guayusa and golden-berries, rose and lemongrass.
The notion that chocolate might also be beneficial when used on the body became apparent in the nearby Bohemian district, La Ronda, where Cristina Indemini manages her parents' chocolate workshop-store, Chez Tiff. She handed me a small tub of cocoa butter – not to be eaten, but to use on my face. A study in the UK found that this humble paste has the same impact – without the side effects – of Botox, she said.
And there were benefits to be had, too, in the chocolate cappuccino she served me, for dark chocolate and cocoa stimulate the endorphins and are believed to be beneficial in warding off certain cancers.
"They are one of the best things for your body," she smiled, setting down my cacao-infused, chocolate-dusted drink.
Back at the Swissotel's Amrita Spa, I conclude that chocolate has indeed transcended its nutritional purpose. With all its healing properties, the rich paste smothering my body promises to nourish and regenerate my skin. The therapist unpeels the towels and plastic sheets cocooning me. She helps me to my feet and directs me to the shower. Safely inside, I lick my chocolate-smeared arm.
The writer was a guest of Ecuador's Ministry of Tourism. She paid for her chocolate spa treatment.
Delta flies daily from Sydney to Quito via Los Angeles and Atlanta. See www.delta.com
EXPERIENCING CHOCOLATE THERE
Swissotel's Amrita Spa offers chocotherapy sessions starting at around $150. See www.swissotel.com/hotels/quito. Pacari is on the corner of Venezuela and Eugenio Espejo, near Plaza de la Independencia, and doubles as an espresso bar. See www.pacari.com. Chez Tiff offers chocolate workshops and tastings. See www.cheztiff.net