South of Belize, by nature, has a remote feel. The small villages and towns rarely have paved streets, except for the main roads. Nevertheless the greenery is more predominant than the residents.
Our location: Punta Gorda, Toledo District (neighboring Guatemala and Honduras).
You would think that an hour-and-a-half trek into the jungles of Belize, where 95 degrees Fahrenheit is the typical midday temperature, would be an unbearable task but it proved more therapeutic.
“The land provides” is the local phrase in this region, and we learnt the meaning first-hand. From cool shaded areas for resting to nutritious fruits for a needed energy boost, we enjoyed it all with no complaints!
A lack of exercise can mean that the terrain may be a bit more challenging. However if you are well equipped, dressed in jeans, tennis a polo blouse and carrying a bag of jungle must-haves it may turn out to be a enjoyable hike!
- Candy bar
- Bug spray
The Guide who Made all the Difference:
It was as if we were on another planet. The route was covered in rich vegetation and wildlife. I along with five other tourists and our tour guide, the well-known, Eladio Pop (a slender Maya descendant standing no more than 4feet 9inches) had countless laughs along the way.
Eladio moved with such grace and speed through the jungle detailing the health benefits of a few plants, and particularly the cacao tree and fruit.
His strides became more and more rapid, and the excitement in his voice was infectious.
You see, welcoming visitors to his “backyard” was a treat for him after all.
The (preserved) jungles of Belize were unlike any I’ve backpacked before, knowing that thousands of years ago, there were ancient communities of Mayas thriving on its very vegetation and using cacao seeds for gold (trading purposes).
The Ancient Maya Civilization:
- Consumed cacao in various forms as part of their daily diet.
- Cacao was believed to improve fertility and improve health.
- Traded with cacao (it was their “old”).
About the Cacao fruit:
Cacao trees, bearing the tasty life-sustaining fruits can be found at every turn.
It has a slightly sweetened taste. It grows to about 5 to 12 inches long and about 5 inches wide. The exterior of this fruit is orange or brown in color, with a white and meaty interior filled with cacao seeds.
These jungles provide endless discoveries. One such discovery was a pristine fresh water stream which provided a cool break from the trail. The water was drinkable, and at an almost refrigerated temperature, the taste was more refreshing that the purified water sold over-the-counter.
A Surprise Visit:
Before we knew it, the trail was over and Pop’s home was atop the hill. He invited us to meet his family, who were all outside to greet us, along with a rich and captivating aroma.
Courtesy Mrs. Pop, the aroma was due to the roasting cacao seeds on a makeshift stove (known as a fire hearth), cemented to the ground in the open yard. A flat iron over the flames served as the bed for the cacao seeds.
How to Make Hot Cocoa…from Scratch!
Step #1. Roast the seeds that are extracted from the edible cacao fruit.
Step #2. Crack open the roasted nuts’ outer shell with a grinder/lime stone to reveal the nut inside.
Step #3. Place the seed in a grinder or manually grate on a stone plate with a stone masher. This produces a raw and smooth dark paste.
Step #4. Add hot water for a fresh cup of chocolate/cacao drink. Add honey for chocolate treats.
Eladio added that due to their daily cacao diet, he and his wife are healthy and very fertile, hinting to the large family setting, who were all keenly and quietly present during this conversation.
We also had the opportunity to sample numerous herbal drinks that were on the outside (center) table.
Time seemed to have slipped by as we had to say our goodbyes and head back home. The visit lasted a little over 2 hours from start to finish. Upon leaving Eladio said, “I hope that you all had a great time learning about our home, and it is my hope that you share your knowledge with everyone about the beauty of these jungles and the importance of preserving it for generations to come, make sure to visit us again!”
He didn’t have to ask. This experience would remain with me forever.