Everyone loves chocolate but did you know that cacao was first grown in southeast Mexico or that the ancient Maya made offerings of the cacao pods and a drink to their gods and used it as currency in their trade negotiations? And did you know that Emperor Montezuma drank up to 50 goblets of xocolatl (chocolate) a day and that Hernan Cortez and his band of conquistadors had their first taste of it at the Aztec court in 1519? You didn’t, then, you are in for a sweet treat! On July 5, the Eco Museo del Cacao or Cacao Museum opened at Plantacion Tikul between the archaeological sites of Labná and Xlapak on the Puuc Route, near the famous ancient Maya capital and UNESCOWorld Heritage Site of Uxmal in southern Yucatan.
Entrance to the Cacao Museum in Ticul
In a tropical setting amidst cacao bushes, orchards and forest, and with the exhibits in traditional thatched Mayan huts, the eco museum is the brainchild of Belgian entrepreneur and chocolateur Eddy Van Belle. This is his fourth cacao museum; the others are in Prague, Bruges and Paris and all showcase the role of cacao in the Maya World and in Mexico. He teamed up with Merida-based chocolateur Mathieu Brees for his Yucatan Museum and says that the project started as all good things do “over dinner and a bottle of tequila.”
The museum galleries are located at regular intervals on a nature trail through the forest and wooden signs show native trees and shrubs exploited by the Maya for food, building materials, medicine and more. There are also outdoor displays showcasing the milpa or corn field and slash and burn agriculture, the raised seed bed or kanche used to grow herbs and delicate food plants and the traditional beehive made from a hollow tree trunk.
During your guided visit you’ll learn about cacao, the history of cultivation and the manufacture of chocolate.
The first gallery is dedicated to the origin of cacao in southeast Mexico and its role in Mayan culture. It explains the significance of the cacao pod, which resembles a human heart, and the drink a symbol for blood, its use in sacrificial ceremonies and its association with religion, kingship and everything divine. Examples of cacao plants depicted in Mayan art are displayed and there is an interesting introduction to Mayan trade. Cacao was a lucrative cash crop and the beans were the common currency throughout the Mesoamerica.
The second gallery is devoted to Mayan life. You’ll learn about the foods a Mayan family would consume – apart from the sweet flesh of the cacao pod – and how they obtained them from farming, hunting and gathering; their houses, social organization, festivals and more.
It’s on to the third gallery where there are exhibits on the origin of cacao in tropical America and the history of its cultivation from the early days of the Olmecs more than 3,000 years ago, to the court of Emperor Moctezuma in the 16th century. Discover how chocolate became all the rage in Europe after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico and when cacao plantations sprang up in other parts of the world such as Ivory Coast and Brazil. The different species of cacao are shown and there are displays on cultivation and the insect pests and diseases that farmers dread.
Mayan figurine in display - Cacao Museum
All the cacao and chocolate facts you absorb naturally makes you want the real thing and in the Tasting Hut you’ll take a break and watch as Mayan women roast cacao beans for 10 to 15 minutes. They then peel and then grind them on a metate (mortar), add water and prepare hot chocolate flavored with honey the way it is served in the Yucatan. You can experiment and sprinkle other spices such as pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and even chili into your chocolate. The ancient Maya used ground achiote seeds (annatto) for ritual purposes to give the drink a deep red color to resemble blood.
Mayan woman preparing fresh hot chocolate
Displays in the fifth and final hut touch on cacao processing process and chocolate making, with interesting facts such as the percentages of cacao – 70 to 90 percent – needed to produce the world’s finest chocolate. The Mexican Criollo variety of cacao is renowned for its quality and is deemed far superior to the Forastero variety grown by rival cacao producing nations.
At the end of the tour, after discovering some of the secrets of cacao, you will be craving a bite or two of rich, deliciously satisfying chocolate.
Reviving Cacao Cultivation in the Yucatan
The Tikul Cacao Plantation is the first of its kind in the state of Yucatan since the days of the ancient Maya. Cacao needs fertile, well drained soil with a depth of 1.5 meters and high humidity levels to flourish and you would think that it would be impossible for it to grow on the infertile rocky landscape of the Yucatan. Yet the Maya grew their cacao in rejolladas, the hollows filled with a thicker layer of moist soil and humus found in the forest, usually near cenotes. Evidence of cacao cultivation has been found around Chichen Itza and this strain of the plant is known as sacred cacao due to the fact that it would have been used by priests in sacrificial rites and was also consumed by the nobility.
The plantation will eventually have more than 100,000 cacao trees in 289 hectares, with an estimated annual yield of 1.2 tons of high quality Criollo cacao per hectare. Sixty thousand trees have already been planted on 60 hectares and the harvest from the first 30 hectares is expected in 18 months. Traditionally, it takes five to seven years for cacao trees to bear their first fruit but thanks to the use of a sophisticated irrigation system, the growth process has been speeded up.
Organic farming methods, including planting shade plants such as yuca and bananas are employed on the plantation, and it is staffed by local people from Ticul, Oxkutzcab and Tekax. It will soon be certified by the Rain Forest Alliance for its sustainable farming practices and the developers hope that more farmers in the area will plant cacao as their forefathers once did.
Tikul cacao plantation
The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed at Christmas and New Year) and has a small restaurant and chocolate shop. Admission is currently $80 pesos for adults and $40 pesos for children (6 – 12 years).
If you are thinking about renting a car in Cancun or the Riviera Maya and spending a couple of days in Yucatan, visiting Uxmal and exploring the other archaeological sites along the Puuc Route, Loltun Caves and the colonial churches in Mani and Oxkutzcab, do call in at the Cacao Museum. Remember that you can also organize private van trips with Thomas More Travelwhenever you want to go off the beaten track.
For more information about Uxmal, Labna and the other archaeologicial sites on the Puuc Route, check out our article “Uxmal & the Puuc Route”
• Did you know that in the days of the ancient Maya 10 cacao beans would buy you a rabbit?
• Did you know that Mayan traders had to be on the lookout for counterfeit cacao beans made of clay?
• Did you know that Mexico was once the world’s leading cacao producer but currently accounts for 0.3 percent of the global harvest?