What’s in a name? The word “cacao” derives from “kakawa,” likely from the Olmec language—an ancient Mesoamerican precursor to Maya. And “chocolate” is said to come from the word “xocolatl,” or “bitter water,” in reference to the bitter sipping chocolate revered during the golden age of the Maya people in Belize. Even the scientific name for the cacao tree honors this ancient fervor for all things chocolate: Theobroma cacao means, roughly, “food of the gods.”
Worth beans: Esteemed as the ancient world’s most advanced horticulturalists, the Maya cultivated cacao trees and traded the valuable seeds (often called beans) as currency throughout Mesoamerica.
Top crop: Indigenous to the tropical forests of Central America, cacao trees have grown wild in Belize for some 3,000 years—flourishing in the humid microclimates of cenotes—and farmed since around 250 B.C. Today Belize’s cacao farmers, mostly in the country’s southern Toledo District, cultivate the native Criollo plant, which is considered to be the highest quality cacao bean native to Central America.
Ancient leftovers: Archaeologists have excavated spouted pots from the Maya ruins of Colha, Belize, that contained chocolate residue dating to circa 600 B.C.
Touchdown! Cacao trees bear fruit that resemble footballs, with each pod weighing about a pound and containing around 40 seeds, aka cacao beans, enveloped in sweet white pulp. In the wild, trees sometimes tower 60 feet or taller, but cultivated trees max out around 20 feet in order to ease the harvesting process.
Back to the grind: Following ancient Maya traditions, chocolate makers in Belize still grind cacao beans with a tool called a metate, made of volcanic stone.
Head’s up: Accounts from 16th-century Spanish invaders detail ancient chocolate traditions of the Maya people, including how they stood up to pour the rich, spicy chocolate from one vessel to another on the ground, in the process creating a thick chocolate foam on top—the most coveted sip of the drink. Hieroglyphics on Maya murals and ceramics depict this ritualistic pouring of chocolate for rulers and gods.
Chocolate is life: According to ancient Maya beliefs, cacao predates human history. As the creation myth goes, after people were created from maize, they received precious foods including cacao that the gods discovered at “Sustenance Mountain.”
Corporate sponsor: In the 1980s, the Hershey Corporation partnered with Belize’s Ministry of Agriculture to boost the country’s cacao production, setting up a large cacao farm along the Toledo District’s Hummingbird Highway in southern Belize. A few years into the project, world chocolate prices began to drop, and Hershey pulled out. Subsequently the bottom fell out from the local chocolate market, and many farmers turned to other crops such as oranges.
All’s fair: The Toledo Cacao Growers Association formed to revive cacao production, encourage organic and shade-grown processes, and increase market share on the global stage. Today more than 1,100 subsistence farmers, mostly in the Toledo and South Stann Creek Districts of southern Belize, produce some 50 tons of cacao beans annually. In the 1990s, the TCGA became the world’s first cacao cooperative to become Fair Trade Certified. In partnership with Green & Black’s, a British chocolate company, the association introduced its signature Maya Gold, an organic Belize-sourced chocolate-and-orange bar.
On National Geographic's Belize and Tikal Private Expedition, you can trace the history of chocolate in Belize from bean to bar at a hands-on lesson in chocolate making, offered during your stay at Copal Tree Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World.