For a chocolate lover, all roads lead to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula


I got chocolate for my birthday. Two weeks of it.

I spent 14 days this winter exploring chocolate in the Yucatán Peninsula, a part of Mexico that’s closer to Cuba than to Mexico City and is still home to the Maya, the people who made the world a happier place 2,500 years ago by cultivating cacao.

My husband, John, suggested we come to the Yucatán for our annual get-out-of-the-cold trip. “They’ve got ruins, they’ve got cenotes, they’ve got flamingos, it’s 85 degrees every day,” he said. “Oh, and by the way, they invented chocolate.”


Even if you’re not addicted to chocolate, the trip is still worth it: There are Maya ruins to explore, working sisal plantations from the 19th century, yellow-painted cities that shimmer under the tropical sun, coastal wetlands so dense with flamingos the water looks pink, park squares where costumed women dance with glasses of water on their heads, a delicious regional cuisine and little of the violence troubling other parts of Mexico.


But for us, it was all about chocolate. We planned our trip around the Chocolate Indulgence, eight hours of chocolate lore, cooking and eating led by chef David Sterling, a walking encyclopedia of all things Yucatán and Maya.

Sterling, whose Los Dos Cooking School is TripAdvisor’s top-ranked sightseeing tour in the Yucatán capital of Mérida, is also the author of the Art of Eating’s best food book for 2015: “Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is 576 pages of recipes, photographs, history lessons and narratives of the Maya.

The 13 other days, we traveled from Tulum to Valladolid to Mérida to Celestún and back to Mérida, exploring the peninsula and its great gift to the world: the cacao bean.

The term “cacao” comes from the Olmecs who pre-dated the Maya, according to the Choco-Story Museum at Uxmal.

But it was the Maya who came up with chocolate — both the name and the drink.

Combining the words chokoh, meaning hot, and ha, meaning water, Maya chocolate was a drink that mixed ground-up cacao with chile, vanilla and other spices.

To the Maya, cacao was crucial. They thought it was a gift from the gods and drank it for religious ceremonies. So cherished, the beans were their currency. A rabbit cost 10 beans, a slave 100.

It was xocolatl, the Aztec version of the Maya drink, that the Spanish first encountered — and hated. One of Hernán Cortés’ conquistadors called it “a bitter drink for pigs.”

Nonetheless, Cortés brought the cacao mixture back to Spain. That’s when the magic happened. They added cane sugar, which turned it from something for pigs to what Cortés called “a divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.”

It quickly became a favorite in the Spanish court, then swept through Europe and eventually the world.

Once the secret of chocolate got out, other places started cultivating it. Today more than 80% of cacao is grown in Africa and Indonesia. Less than 2% is grown in Mexico. But the vestiges of the cacao culture remain, and there’s an effort to make the Yucatán the center of the chocolate world again.