|Lauren and Mark at Maya Mtn Cacao|
I’m embarrassed to say that I initially had visions of waking up to the waters of the Caribbean Sea lapping at our cabana doorstep. It didn’t take me long to realize that our lodge was 11 miles up the Moho River from Punta Gorda (“PG”) and the Caribbean Sea, situated in the middle of the Belizean jungle. Not to worry, just saying the word “jungle” turned this trip from the ordinary to the exotic.
|A street in Punta Gorda|
Upon arriving at the Cotton Tree Lodge, we moved into our cabana, which was a large, circular room on stilts that was wrapped with screens in place of windows. The screens left us feeling almost as one with the
|Our cabana at the Cotton Tree Lodge|
I took my first swim in the Moho River before the group met for our introductory dinner. The color of the river reminded me of the lakes I swam in as a child in Maine. Dark and murky, but cool and refreshing. One thing I learned about the jungle is that breezes are few and humidity is high. Swimming in the Moho is the best relief on a sticky, sweaty day. It’s also the best way to see the many, many colorful birds that live in the area and frequent the trees on the Moho. Parrots are everywhere, once you learn to recognize their awkward flying. There are tanagers, Laughing Falcons, hummingbirds, and many birds I’ve never heard of before. We saw large iguanas sunning themselves in the treetops (although none of them as large as the six-foot orange iguana we saw in Placencia). While the national bird of Belize is the Toucan, it’s one of the only birds I didn’t see during our stay. As an avid swimmer, I was glad to find out the Moho River is crocodile-free.
Jaguars are native to the area, but I knew the likelihood of seeing one was small. The owner of the lodge, Chris, has only seen two in 30 years, and both of those at night. Howler Monkeys, on the other hand, are frequent visitors, particularly at night. I’m not sure who named them “howler” monkeys, because it certainly doesn’t sound like they’re howling. Darth Vader monkeys would be more appropriate. A local told us that the noise used for T-Rex in Jurassic Park was a recording of Howler Monkeys slowed down. That made sense. When they come swinging into the jungle, you hear the heavy breathing of Darth Vader getting louder and louder, with an occasional bark in between. They don’t always stay for long, but you know they’re there. I never saw them, but Shane from Taza did. They’re not that large, they just sound big.
|Alex Whitmore, Taza Chocolate|
|Taza, Raaka & Fruition walking in PG|
After dinner, Alex Whitmore, the Founder of Taza Chocolate, welcomed us. In preparation for our activities the following morning, we watched a documentary about the cacao farmers of the Toledo district, which featured the farmer we’d be visiting, Eladio Pop (more about Eladio and the cacao farmers of Toledo in a blog post to come). Eladio is quite a character, and he’s an excellent example of an organic cacao farmer from a country that has farmed cacao and made chocolate for centuries. I recommend watching the documentary, “The Chocolate Farmer,” on Youtube.
In preparation for the rest of our evening, a very large bug landed on the screen while we were watching the documentary. I sketched a 3 inch version of the bug in my notebook and wrote “Bigger than this by 2x”. It was a HUGE flying bug. Its relatives awaited us back in our bathroom.
|Nim Li Punit w/Agapito|
Since I can’t cover everything, I’m leaving you with my top 10 memories of our week of adventure, not in any particular order.
Lauren's Chocolate Week Top 10
- Getting my arms into a pile of sticky, hot, fermenting cacao to help MMC employees Carlos, Francisco and Mordechai move it to the final bin to finish fermentation. I’m still picturing Carlos as he cut banana leaves with his machete so I could cover the fermenting cacao.
- A cold and dark swim through Blue Creek Cave with a life preserver and a headlamp, swimming and scrambling over rocks while providing moral support to those less comfortable in water.
- A nocturnal jungle walk with Armando (insert ABBA song here) where I realized that the jungle is made up of a lot of ants and spiders, and that spider eyes look like emeralds and sapphires in the dark with a flashlight.
- Swimming in the Moho River while birds of every kind and color flew just above my head and hung out on trees around me. I’m just glad I wasn’t in the water when a boa constrictor fell off a tree and swam past Julie, a fellow Chocophile.
- Doing the Cotton Tree triathlon, which consisted of a very short run followed by floating down the Moho River with the current and kayaking back for our shoes.
- Hearing the howler monkeys every day
- Meeting with the former Association Chair of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (a non-profit coop). Truly a geeky moment for me. More to come in another blog post.
- Visiting Eladio Pop’s jungle farm, eating lunch with his family and helping his wife and daughter make traditional drinking chocolate. More to come in another blog post.
- Touring Maya Mountain Cacao after a great presentation by Emily Stone, Managing Director. More to come on Maya Mountain Cacao and the great work it’s doing with the farmers of Belize.
- A day trip to Hummingbird Hershey, a former Hershey farm that Maya Mountain Cacao will be operating as an organic cacao farm for at least the next 10 years. This was probably my favorite day of the entire trip! More to come in another blog post.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about cacao in Belize and our trip. In the meantime, I leave you with a rare, goofy moment from my husband, Mark Kotzer.
|Mark in a light moment|
Happy chocolate tasting,