Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You Better Belize it! My cacao adventures in the jungles of Belize.

After six years in the chocolate business, I finally had an opportunity to immerse myself in cacao, figuratively and literally, by joining Taza Chocolate’s annual chocolate week in Belize.  Held every March at the Cotton Tree Lodge outside of Punta Gorda, the trip is open to anyone who loves chocolate and the outdoors, and
Lauren and Mark at Maya Mtn Cacao
has a sense of adventure. My husband, Mark Kotzer, and I had a fantastic time. I highly recommend it!

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.

As our Delta redeye from LA approached the Belize City International airport, I could see many varied trees that formed a pin cushion of greens, each pin coming together to create a pattern of shades and textures. Lush forests were dotted with rivers, large and small. As the plane came closer to landing, individual trees became apparent. Some were tall and spindly and stood above the others. Many were palm trees. From the air, Belize takes on the look of a vast and untamed jungle. This trip was beginning to have “adventure” written all over it.

A street in Punta Gorda
Since I was finally making it to a cacao-growing country, and a Mayan one at that, I relaxed my ban on flying in small planes. Mark and I boarded a Tropic Air flight to Punta Gorda. We flew down the coast, giving us a birds-eye-view of the extensive coral reefs of the Caribbean on one side of the plane, and the endless jungle on the other. Our flight included a quick, bumpy stop on the dirt runway at the Belize Airport (not to be confused with the Philip S. Goldson International Airport where our Delta flight landed) to take on cargo such as flower wreaths, appliances and toilet paper. That was as close as we got to Belize City.

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
jungle and with our neighboring cabanas. Our beds were covered with mosquito nets, and the back porch offered two hammocks and some very comfortable Adirondack-like chairs. Like the roofs on the Maya homes we would see everywhere, ours was made of a significant thatch.

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.
Our Cabana

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
We met our fellow chocophiles at dinner the first night, where we feasted on snapper poached in banana leaves. It was a wonderful group of people that spanned interests and generations. In addition to industry types, such as Bryan and Dahlia Graham from Fruition Chocolate and the guys from Raaka Chocolate, the group included chocolate lovers who found the trip online, and loyal Taza customers. There were 22 of us, including two Taza employees, Shane (a cacao roaster) and Suhayl (a marketing/social media/events evangelist for 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
Our week was filled with group activities that included hanging out on cacao farms, swimming in dark Mayan caves and visiting Mayan ruins. I’m going to break down our adventures into multiple blog posts, focused on the cacao and chocolate-related parts of the trip. There’s just so much to tell!

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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Hearing the howler monkeys every day
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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,
Chief Chocophile


Geert Vercruysse said...

Thanks for sharing this nice report, I've spread the word of your adventures, greetings Geert Vercruysse (Belgium)

Discover a world of chocolate said...

Thanks, Geert! Perhaps we'll have a cacao adventure together in the future. I look forward to finally meeting you. - Lauren

Barbie Van Horn said...

I have to admit that I am a bit jealous of your adventure! Mark looks great in dreads and it would be completely acceptable in the Seattle area.