Women in traditional Mayan dresses

We are welcomed

I visited this new museum – el EcoMuseo del Cacao – with two friends one Sunday afternoon.  Approximately two hours south of Merida, the museum is located in an area of Yucatan among a number of recovered Mayan ruins.  After many stops along the way, for sightseeing, shopping, and eating, we arrived near closing time.  Unfortunately we didn’t get the entire experience or see the plantation.  But we did visit each of the casitas (little Mayan-style houses) and learn about the fascinating history, cultivation, processing, and uses of Mayan cacao.  We saw a demonstration of the way it was prepared traditionally.  Best of all, we got to taste the rich, foamy, unsweetened drink, to which we could add sugar and a variety of spices, if desired.  We also got to sample two of the delectable confections produced by the affiliated chocolate factory in Merida.

Mayan-style casa

One of the casitas

This is a beautiful new facility and well worth a visit.  According to the web site, it sits at the entrance to a 100-hectare plantation (247 acres) of organic creollo cacao.  Creollo cacao is known for its complex, fruity flavor.  The plantation is the first in Yucatan to grow cacao, which is typically grown in other parts of Mexico and Latin America that have a more abundant water supply.  The main building is built of stone with a thatched roof, natural wood furnishings, an outdoor cafe, and a playground for the kids.  Even the rest rooms are gorgeous.

sign describing chaya, a native plant

Chaya is important in Yucatecan cuisine

The grounds are immaculate and beautifully arranged.  Manicured paths curve through attractive plantings of a wide variety of native vegetation.  The trees and shrubs are labeled with signs explaining the significance of each plant and fruit.  The museum exhibits are well done, with informative and interesting displays and videos that lead you through the history of the Mayan relationship to cacao.  Cacao was not just an agricultural product to the Maya, it was central to their society and religion.

beans and pulp

We taste the beans and fruit

A nice surprise was meeting two of the principals who happened to be there: one of the owners, Mattheu Brees, and business partner/investor Eddy Van Belle from a Belgian chocolate company that imports the cacao for their chocolate.  They talked with us about the chocolate they are growing and producing for market and let us sample several kinds of beans.  The fruit surrounding the cocoa beans is a white gooey pulp that has a slightly sweet taste.  The cocoa beans are the seeds, which range in color from white to dark brown.   The white ones give the best flavor.   The raw beans taste slightly bitter and not a lot like cocoa.The beans are fermented outdoors on large platforms, dried in the sun, then roasted to develop the exquisite cocoa flavor.  The entire process of growing, harvesting, and fermenting is done with hand tools.  As a gardener, I found it interesting that the flowers and pods of cacao grow directly out of the tree trunk, not on branches.

Cacao pods

Pods are 7-10" long

The museum’s web site has lots of photos that will give you a good idea of what it looks like.  This article from Yucatan Today gives a more complete description.

More about the history of cacao

The exact origins of cacao aren’t known, but evidence suggests that it was first cultivated in pre-columbian mesoamerica.  According to allchocolate.com, the Olmecs of southern Mexico were the first to domesticate it, but the Mayans were the first to treasure it as a cure-all and an important element of society and religion. The Toltecs invaded Yucatan largely to control the cacao lands and trade.  The Aztecs prized cacao so highly that it was reserved for nobility and used as currency.  Although it was probably Columbus who first introduced cacao to Spain, it was Cortez who recognized its value to the Aztecs and later grew it himself, possibly also being the first to cultivate it in West Africa.