Twenty years ago this picturesque city was little more than a bus stop between Tulum and Mérida, the Yucatán’s biggest city. It’s a destination now, thanks to the sherbet-colored stucco walls of its colonial homes, its vibrant town square, posh shops and Mexican folk art museum.
But it was a cacao factory and museum that brought us to Valladolid as part of our 14-day chocolate exploration of the Yucatán. We arrived appropriately on Valentine’s Day, and the main square was filled with couples canoodling on concrete S-shaped benches called confidentes.
Many of the artisan shops here sell bags of flavored cacao nibs, which we sampled and bought on our way to Chocolate Maya, a museum, factory and store that Astrid and Patrick Laurent opened in 2010 as part of an organic chocolate collective.
Chocolate Maya is just three rooms and an outdoor café. The factory is a glassed-in nook where a woman rolls balls of chocolate from a gob of what looks like black clay.
“We love our culture,” Astrid said, handing us samples of flavored cacao nibs. “The idea behind the factory was to put cacao back on the map of Mexico.”
Astrid and her even more enthusiastic sister (and shop manager) Ariadna Arcie showered us with chocolate facts: Cacao represented “life after life” for the Maya. Doctors recommend eating 5 grams of chocolate daily. Chocolate is an antioxidant and aphrodisiac, hence the “cacao effect.”
And conquistador Hernán Cortés drank 50 cups of cacao a day. “He was a cacaoholic,” Astrid said.
Like other stores, Chocolate Maya sells a variety of flavored chocolate: honey, tequila, ginger, chile and anise. One variety mixes Mexican cacao and anise liquor with honey from local flowers.
“It’s like the Yucatán,” said Ariadna, “an explosion of sensation, an explosion of flavors.”
But the best taste of the day came in Chocolate Maya’s small, open-air café. While my husband drank his chococafe, which Astrid said comes from an ancestral Maya recipe of cacao beans, sweet pepper, honey and hot water, I was in chocolate delirium with my puro cacao y miel, or pure cacao and honey.
“It’s something like Nutella,” Astrid explained before serving it.
Talk about undersell. It’s the difference between canned and fresh peaches. Even my husband was transported by a taste of my chocolate drink/stew.
“It makes Nutella taste like spinach,” he said.
When we finished, Astrid told us that we had become one with Maya chocolate.
“It’s now here,” she said, pointing to her head, “and in your stomach and in your heart. Feel the cacao effect.”