With its tropical lowland climate, southern Belize has the ideal conditions for growing cacao - the fruit that is processed into chocolate. Cacao grows on trees in red, yellow, orange, and green pods. Each pod contains about 30 - 40 cacao seeds growing along a stem and covered in a sweet gooey white pulp.To turn cacao into chocolate, farmers must crack open the pods, separate the seeds, allow them to ferment, dry them, roast them, and grind them with sugar and other ingredients.
Cacao was used by the ancient Mayans as a unit of currency, and also ground into a warm, dark drink often seasoned with pepper. Today, cacao is enjoying a new popularity as a cash crop for Mayan farmers in southern Belize. A small and hearty tree, cacao can be grown organically, prevents erosion, provides habitat for wildlife, and offers an alternative to slash and burn farming. Most farmers in Toledo sell their beans to the Toledo Cacao Grower's Association (TCGA). This Fair Trade cooperative, which was organized by Green & Black's chocolate, ensures that Toledo's farmers have a market to sell their cacao at a fair price.
A number of chocolate activities are available through Cotton Tree Lodge:
Cacao farm tours to San Felipe village and San Pedro Columbia village are regular favorites with our guests. See how cacao is grown, learn to process chocolate, and enjoy lunch with a Mayan family in their home.
Cotton Tree Lodge is associated with a Fair Trade, organic chocolate company, Cotton Tree Chocolate, and tours of the Cotton Tree Chocolate factory in Punta Gorda are offered frequently. Those who are truly interested in chocolate might consider joining one of our Chocolate Weeks in February or May. Participants visit cacao farms, meet with the TCGA, participate in chocolate making workshops, and leave with chocolate bars they made themselves.
On the grounds you'll find the Maya Mountain Cacao fermenting and drying facility. This new social enterprise was launched by one of the founders of Cotton Tree Lodge, and seeks to purchase organic cacao from area farmers at above market prices, and export to artisan chocolate makers in the US. Stop by and learn about the beginning stages of chocolate making, including fermentation and drying.
The Toledo Cacao Festival in May is an annual celebration of chocolate in the Toledo District, as well as a showcase for the music, food, and art of the Mayan, Garifuna, East Indian, and Creole cultures of the region.
Juan Cho's organic cacao farm is just around the corner from Cotton Tree Lodge by boat or van. Juan's father established this organic farm many years ago and now Juan and his son continue the tradition. Spend around an hour walking the farm and learning how the different plants, animals, and insects balance each other to maintain this productive agricultural ecosystem. Mr. Cho will show you both new and mature cacao trees, explain how they are harvested, and allow you to taste the fruit. Also an extensionist forSHI Partnership, Juan is a charismatic teacher and guide.He regularly shares his knowledge with local students, fellow farmers, and tourists alike.
After completing the farm tour, a Cotton Tree Lodge vehicle will bring you to the village of San Felipe where you will meet with Juan's wife, Abelina, and his mother, Cyrila. Several years ago, a Peace Corps volunteer began working with the Cho's to develop a small chocolate business. Now Abelina and Cyrila produce chocolate bars, cocoa powder, and cacao wine under the label Cyrila's Chocolate, all from cacao grown on the farm.
Learn how Cyrila and Abelina make chocolate from scratch on a matate (grinding stone) made of volcanic rock and brought over from Guatemala. Help them crack and winnow the beans, grind in local allspice, sugar, and vanilla, and sample your completed work. You will finish up your afternoon with a traditional lunch of chicken caldo, corn tortillas, and a warm spiced chocolate drink.
Please note: Tours of the cacao farm are generally only available on weekends, though may be available other days with advance notice. Chocolate making demonstrations are available any day of the week. The farm is fairly easy walking, but can be slippery in the rain. It is possible to reach this tour by horseback riding or horse-drawn buggy.
Just outside the Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia, Eladio Pop cultivates a hilly, organic jungle farm. This trip is part hike and part farm tour, and guests tend to love the wild and adventurous feeling of this excursion. Follow Eladio through his cacao and exotic fruit trees, up steep hillside patches of corn, and down into stream beds.Along the path, taste unusual plants like jipijapa and wild ginger as Eladio cuts samples with his machete for you to try.You will hear about his unique philosophies on organic farming, and learn about the animals, insects, and plants that coexist on his property with little interference from Eladio.
After the farm tour, hike back to Eladio's home in the village and share a traditional lunch of caldo, corn tortillas, a spiced hot chocolate drink, and plenty of tropical fruit. After lunch Eladio's wife will lead you through a chocolate making demonstration, starting with roasting the beans on a comal (round iron griddle), crushing them, winnowing away the shells, grinding them on a matate (volcanic grinding stone), and sampling what you've made. All the while, enjoy a taste of Mayan family life as the children come home from school for lunch and the household buzzes around you.
Please note: The farm portion of this tour can be physically challenging, especially if the ground is wet. This tour is not recommended for guests who have difficulty walking.