Toledo’s Chocolate Trail
The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao or “food of the gods”) has gained renewed importance in the culture and economy of Mayans in southern Belize. Thousands of years ago, Maya kings and priests worshipped the cacao bean, using it as currency and drinking it in a sacred, spicy beverage.
Today, farmers sell their cacao crop to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA), a nonprofit coalition of about a thousand small farms which, in turn, sells the beans to acclaimed chocolatier Green & Black’s, a United Kingdom-based company specializing in fair trade and organic-certified chocolate bars.
Some beans remain in Belize, used by a few Maya families and small-batch chocolate makers to produce chocolate for the domestic market. Stop by the TCGA office (one block north of the town park on Main Street in Punta Gorda, tel. 501/722-2992, tcga [at] btl [dot] net) to see if they are offering any tours or products.
Sustainable Harvest International (SHI, tel. 501/722-2010, U.S. tel. 207/669-8254, www.sustainableharvest.org), a nonprofit organization working to alleviate poverty and deforestation throughout Central America, is active in Belize’s Toledo District.
The organization works with more than 100 cacao-growing families, helping them develop multistory forest plots that mimic the natural forest; this provides a diversity of food and marketable produce for the families, plus a home for threatened plants and animals. Coffee, plantains, and other shade-loving crops are planted alongside the cacao trees, under a hardwood canopy — sometimes along with spices like turmeric, black pepper, ginger, and vanilla.
Sustainable Harvest Belize estimates that for every acre converted to multistory cacao forest, five acres are saved from destructive slash-and-burn practices. The organization offers sustainable chocolate tours and other voluntourism opportunities at work sites in southern Belize. Accommodations range from rustic homestays to the stilted cabins of Cotton Tree Lodge, where SHI maintains a demo garden.
This revival of southern Belize’s cacao industry has also led to choco-tourism. A few area lodges and families have found ways to connect ancient cacao farming with the modern craze for high-quality fair-trade food and products. Cyrila Cho and her family, in the village of San Felipe (tel. 501/742-4050 or 501/660-2840, ixcacaochocolate [at] gmail [dot] com, www.ixcacaomayabelizeanchocolate.com), are one example, offering a five-hour chocolate tour beginning with a visit to an organic cacao farm and continuing with lunch in Cyrila’s home, where she and her daughter then lead a chocolate-making session. Sustainable Harvest Belize also offers half-day cacao trips; contact the organization through the website.
Ask your hotel hosts about other cacao day trips and tours. In addition to tours, Cotton Tree Lodge offers special weeklong chocolate packages and produces its own small-batch chocolate bars (call 501/621-8776 to visit the mini–chocolate factory in Punta Gorda). There’s also the annual Cacao Fest, held in late May, celebrating all things chocolate by offering a host of local products — from cupcakes and kisses to cacao wine and martinis — as well as numerous cultural events. For information, visit www.toledochocolate.com.
More Belizean Chocolate
In Placencia, the owners of the Blue Crab Resort make Goss Chocolate (www.gosschocolate.com) from 100 percent pure organic cocao, available only in Belize. In San Pedro, ”passionate chocolate lovers” Jo and Chris Beaumont created Kakaw Chocolates (tel. 501/610-4828 or 501/236-5759, www.belizechocolatecompany.com) to produce small batches of artisan chocolate to order; the beans are grown organically on small family farms in southern Belize and the sugar comes from the north of the country. Kakaw chocolate is available at Wine de Vine in San Pedro in deliciously dark flavors such as orange, cashew, ginger, and mango.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition