Eladio Pop greets me for a tour of his 30-acre acre farm with a football-size cacao pod strapped to his back and a braided reed across his forehead.
“Welcome to my paradise,” he says, as we head into his Belizean rain forest brimming with cacao trees, pineapple shrubs, banana and mango trees, coconuts palms and a host of medicinal plants.
“This is where chocolate begins,” Pop says, plucking a ripe, yellow cacao pod from a tree before splitting it open with his machete. Inside, the thick white pulp cushions a kaleidoscope of purple beans covered in sticky gel. I pop one in my mouth, taste the sweet tropical nectar and then bite into a raw bean. Before it’s dried, fermented, roasted and mashed, cacao is just a mild-tasting legume.
We continue along the winding path, smelling and tasting other fruits and aromatic leaves. It’s all part of Pop’s Agouti Cacao Farm Tour (www.agouticacaofarm.wordpress.com) in this tiny Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia in southern Belize.
Cacao has been prized in Mayan culture for centuries. The word is said to originate from the Mayan word ka’kau. Long revered as a drink consumed by the elite, the beans were once used as a form of currency.
Agouti Cacao Farm, run by 57-year-old Pop, his wife, Virginia, and their 15 children, is in a remote part of this Central American country, some 40 minutes by car from downtown Punta Gorda. Chocolate “agritourism” in the area has been picking up steam, thanks in part to the public’s insatiable love of chocolate and the increasing popularity of “origin designated” chocolate bars. Tourists are trickling in for cacao farm tours, chocolate-making classes and most of all, chocolate tastings.
Back at the Pop home, a mile from the farm, our tour continues. Adalia, Pop’s oldest daughter, demonstrates traditional chocolate making. She roasts the raw beans on a flat metal disc over an open fire, stirring them with a corn cob to prevent burning. Once the shells are paper thin and dry, she cracks the beans gently on a wood table, transfers them to a tin pan and vigorously tosses them up and down. The shells fly off into the air, leaving only the cracked beans, now called cacao nibs.
She then grinds the tiny brown nibs with a cylindrical Mayan metate stone, releasing the natural fats to create a smooth, glistening paste. The intoxicating aroma of chocolate fills the air. We taste the chocolate as a drink, with a splash of water, and pressed into molds, as a confection. The tour finishes with a traditional Mayan lunch of handmade tortillas with stewed chicken, rice and beans.
This farm is one of several chocolate-related activities in the area.
At Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate in the village of San Felipe, husband-and-wife team Juan and Abelina Cho hold hands-on classes on making chocolate and tastings in their storefront property. A traditional lunch is also available as part of the tour (www.ixcacaomayabelizeanchocolate.com).
Situated along the Moho River between San Felipe and Santa Ana is Cotton Tree Lodge (www.cottontreelodge.com), where friendly staff offer guided cacao farm tours along with on-site chocolate tastings. During Chocolate Week, March 18 to 25, guests can experience chocolate roasting, grinding and molding, among other activities.
The charming property’s cabanas feature 30-foot-high vaulted thatched roofs and mosquito netting over the beds; rates start at $152 a person, including meals. During the evening, the grounds become an orchestra of animal sounds from howler monkeys to toucans. Kayaking, rafting and snorkeling also are available.
At the end of the winding driveway leading up to the lodge you’ll find Maya Mountain Cacao, or MMC. Owned by American entrepreneur Emily Stone, MMC (www.mayamountaincacao.com) sources premium cacao from local, mostly organic farmers. Once they drop off their bounty, the beans are graded for quality and then fermented, sun-dried on mats and packed in burlap bags for shipping to chocolate makers.
Creating a supply chain that responsibly connects small farmers with the premium chocolate industry is the mission of Stone’s nonprofit group Uncommon Cacao, which launched a similar operation in Guatemala. Visits to MMC are by appointment only.
The town of Punta Gorda — the largest in Belize’s Toledo District — offers multiple opportunities for chocolate tours and tastings. Cotton Tree Chocolate Co. (www.cottontreechocolate.com), a quaint, two-room factory on Front Street, is one of several small producers open for factory tours and chocolate-making demonstrations.
In 2015, the Toledo Cacao Growers Association launched Maya House of Cacao (www.tcgabelize.com/projects/maya-house-cacao) in Punta Gorda. The 2,000-square-foot museum has exhibits on the history and symbolism of cacao.
In late May, the cacao growers association puts on a three-day festival. Slated for May 19 to 21 this year, Chocolate Festival of Belize (www.chocolatefestivalofbelize.com) is an annual celebration of cacao.
Laura Levy Shatkin is a freelance writer.