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On the Chocolate Trail in Belize

By Joshua Berman
September 17, 2008
0809_belizechocolate
Mayan kings once traded cacao seeds as currency and drank them in a spicy, sacred beverage. Now, Mayan farmers are cashing in, thanks to the world's growing appetite for specialty chocolate.

Belize's remote southern Toledo region doesn't make it onto many tourist itineraries, but it was at the top of mine this summer. The guidebook I write was due for an update, and I was eager to check out reports of chocolate tours and hands-on lessons offered at farms spread across Toledo's lush hills and valleys. My wife and mother-in-law didn't take much persuading.

In San Felipe, a village of about 65 homes, we meet up with Cyrila Cho, whose family has been farming chocolate for generations. She quickly disappears among the cacao trees and emerges with an oblong yellow pod from a trunk. She splits it open with the whack of a club and presents me with the goo-covered seeds. I imitate her by removing one, placing it in my mouth, sucking off the sweet-tart pulp, then spitting the seed to the ground. The pulp doesn't taste at all like chocolate, which is made from the seed.

Cyrila leads us into her cramped concrete kitchen, where a pile of dried, roasted, and peeled cacao beans lies on an old grinding stone. "With this matate I raised six children," she says, as she leans into the stone with all her weight. The beans shatter and mix with the wild vanilla, allspice, and sugar she has added. A savory odor lingers in the air.

The Chos have found a way to connect ancient cacao farming with the modern craze for quality, fair-trade products. Their five-hour chocolate tour begins with a visit to son Juan's organic cacao farm. He sells to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, a nonprofit coalition of about a thousand small farms that sells to acclaimed chocolatier Green & Black's. The tour then moves to Cyrila's home, where she and her daughter lead a Mayan chocolate-making session.

Just down the road, on the banks of the Moho River, the Cotton Tree Lodge produces its own brand of chocolate. The one-room, 100-bar-a-day operation has refrigerators and special chocolate-blending ("conching") machines powered in part by solar panels. Cotton Tree runs weeklong chocolate packages and day trips that give guests a chance to tour a nearby cacao farm before heading to Cyrila's to peel toasted cacao beans while sipping on pinnul, a traditional cacao-and-corn drink.

The work is slow going. My wife, my mother-in-law, and I need more than 30 minutes to peel enough beans to be ground into a single bar of chocolate. Afterwards, we take turns on Cyrila's matate until the oil of the seeds adds a shiny luster to the brown paste. When it's sufficiently creamy, she will pour the thick substance into molds and set the bars out to harden. But we've got to press on. We buy some previously made chocolate and cocoa powder, say goodbye to Cyrila and her family, and continue down the trail.

Chocoholics, Take Note
Toledo is about a 50-minute plane ride from Belize City. The alternative, a roughly five-hour drive, isn't bad now that the Southern Highway has been improved. The final nine-mile stretch of dirt is being paved, and daily express bus service is offered on school buses painted with Rasta colors based in Punta Gorda.

The Third Annual Cacao Fest, May 22-24, 2009, will celebrate all things chocolate by offering a host of local products—from cupcakes and kisses to cacao wine and chocolate cocktails—as well as numerous cultural events.

The Chocolate Tour at Cyrila Cho's includes a traditional caldo (stew) lunch and hot chocolate (011-501/663-9632, juan@theorganicchocolatemaster.com, five-hour tour $60).

Nature's Way Guest House offers eclectic wooden rooms with a fan and shared bath (one room has a private bath). This is Punta Gorda's best backpacker option, with its own links to cacao farmers and Mayan villages (011-501/702-2119, natureswayguesthouse@hotmail.com, double from $17).

Hickatee Cottages is an award-winning, green bed-and-breakfast almost two miles outside Punta Gorda, right up against the jungle (hickatee.com, cottage from $75).

Coral House Inn, on the highest point of Punta Gorda's shoreline, has four rooms overlooking the Caribbean, a small pool, and a bar area (coralhouseinn.net, double from $83).

Cotton Tree Lodge hosts day tours year-round ($79) and two Chocolate Week packages annually—one coinciding with Valentine's Day, the other with Cacao Fest in May. The weeklong packages cover accommodations, meals, cooking classes, dessert making, background on the Fair Trade certification process, and airport transfers (cottontreelodge.com, $1,365). The tree house-like accommodations start at $170 per person per night, with a day tour, all meals, and airport transfers included.

Joshua Berman is the author of Moon Handbooks Belize.

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Mexico, Old and New

We want to inspire you and share practical trip-planning advice. Check back later this fall for "Nonstop Mexico," a new article and flash map detailing all the nonstop routes between cities in the U.S. and Mexico—because nothing kills the fun like a layover. Photo captions 1 The 16th-century Santo Domingo church, five blocks north of Oaxaca's zocalo (town square). From "25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca" PHOTO 2 Swing by Amate Books for its extraordinary selection of English titles on Oaxacan history and Mexican street art, but also for the one-of-a-kind doorway lined with a foot-wide border of red, orange, yellow, and white marigolds. From "25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca" PHOTO 3 Monte Albán, a city built more than 1,000 years ago. From "25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca" PHOTO 4 There's no rush on chairs at the Gala Beach Resort. It's the southernmost resort in the lush gated community of Playacar. From "The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya" PHOTO 5 The popular Las Olas swim-up bar at Riu Playacar. From "The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya" PHOTO 6 At Barceló Maya, guests learn a mix of Latin and line-dance moves to show off at Captain Morgan's disco later. From "The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya" PHOTO 7 Tables at La Galeria in Yelapa overlook Yelapa Bay. From "Got Stress? Get to Puerto Vallarta" PHOTO 8 The beach, as seen from the path to La Punta. From "Why Haven't You Heard of Yelapa, Mexico?" PHOTO 9 Petra Puente, owner of El Mesón de la Abundancia, a hotel in the center of Real de Catorce. From "Ghosts of the Sierra Madre" PHOTO 10 Souvenirs near La Parroquia de la Concepción Purísima, Real de Catorce's main church. From "Ghosts of the Sierra Madre" PHOTO 11 The Mayan ruins at Tulúm. From "I Married a Non-Traveler" PHOTO

Trip Coach: September 16, 2008

John Rambow: Hi everyone, I updated and edited portions of Fodor's Guide to India while living there for most of 2006 and 2007 with my partner. Although I lived mainly in the south, especially Bangalore and Chennai, I did my best to see as much as possible. Given the size and the variety of the country, I did little more than scratch the surface, but I'll do my best to answer your questions. For more on me, you can head to the blog I wrote while in India, Bangalore Monkey. So let me get started... _______________________ Brisbane, Australia: Hi, How good is the subway in New Delhi? Cheers John Rambow: Delhi's subway is clean and reliable, and it'll be even more impressive once it covers more of this sprawling city (for instance, a special line is scheduled to connect with Delhi's airport in a few years). One current route that's likely to be useful to you is the yellow line, which goes north-south and connects Connaught Place with Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk, near the Red Fort. _______________________ Lawrenceburg, Ky.: We like to travel independently, but are afraid to try independent travel in India. What do you think? John Rambow: That's impossible to answer completely without knowing you and the places you've traveled to already. Lots of people travel to India independently, and the ones that are successful tend to do a lot of reading-up (including on online forums) ahead of time so that they know what to expect. You might want to consider traveling "semi-independently." Have a travel agent book hotels and get you a car and driver for at least part of the time, for instance, but leave lots of time for your own exploring. In my experience most travel agents are willing to be flexible and give you exactly what you want. If you find yourself being pushed around or pressured, start looking for another. _______________________ Washington, D.C.: Which city do you suggest for a first trip to India—New Dehli or Mumbai? John Rambow: I've spent more time in New Delhi than Mumbai, so I'm biased, but I think that the capital's sheer amount of living history and monuments makes it a better choice for first-time travelers, especially since most of them will want to head to nearby Agr, site of the Taj Mahal. Bombay/Mumbai is amazing—I'd love to live there in another life—but its astonishing sprawl and traffic make it rough to get around. Delhi has sprawl too, but the roads are much better. (I think we can thank all the politicians who live there for that!) _______________________ Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi John! I'm a 38 year old female and be spending a month alone in India later this year. I depart from the U.S. on Dec. 20 and return on Jan. 17, flying in & out of Delhi. I'm doing a tour of the Rajasthan area for the first 3 weeks, but will then have 1 week to travel on my own from Jan. 11 until I depart on Jan. 17. I'm thinking about heading down to Kerala during that last week. First, I'd be curious if you had any suggestions for any other "don't miss" places to spend a week other than Kerala. Second, if I do stick with Kerala, do you know of any festivals worth checking out in the area at that time? Thanks much! Sara John Rambow: Hi Sara, Kerala is beautiful, and its lushness would be a good complement to Rajasthan's dusty desert. It might be that after three weeks of palaces, forts, and camels up north, you'll want to schedule a few days of lying by the sea or a pool. If you do head to Kerala, I'd firm up hotel plans soon -- the place is very popular, and many of the nicest hotels (whether luxury or cheaper) are small. I don't think there are any major festivals going on at that time, but certainly you should keep an eye open for any local celebrations that might be occurring... _______________________ Los Angeles, Calif.: I am going to Delhi to work for a few weeks. What are a few places close by that I should not miss? John Rambow: Not sure if you'll have more than the weekends to play with, but you'll obviously want to plan at least a couple days in and around Agra to see the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, and other sites. I'd also make sure to not neglect Delhi itself: the Red Fort and Old Delhi have more than enough for another weekend, and so does South Delhi, the location of a 12th century mosque with the impressive Qutub Minar (a huge minaret). A good day trip would be to the Swaminarayan Akshardham, a monumental modern Hindu temple in the eastern suburbs. It's full of awesome. And if you're a shopper, Delhi has lots of great options. _______________________ Napavine, Wash.: My husband and I are on a tour with Friendly Planet leaving New York Sept. 23 to New Delhi, India. We visit two other cities and then return Sept. 30th. In light of the recent bombings, do you have any advice for us? John Rambow: The Delhi bomb blasts on 13 September emphasized the unfortunate fact that modern India has and has always had a problem with terrorism -- most of it homegrown and directed at her own citizens rather than tourists. Although such violence is rare given the large population of India, it's wrong to ignore it, and people planning a visit should pay attention to the current situation of the areas they're heading to. Good sources? I'd recommend reading local editions of English-language newspapers online, including the Hindu and the Times of India as well as the U.S. State Department's page on India, which has links to updated notices from the local embassy. _______________________ Sacramento, Calif.: I'm traveling to India end of October. And I just found out that I need a Visa to get in and out of India. Do you know how long it takes to get a Visa? Also, is it safe for a single female to travel in India? John Rambow: You have time to get a visa, but apply ASAP. The Indian Government now outsources its visa process to an outside company. It's possible to get a visa in person in a day, but the nearest location is San Francisco. Getting one via mail takes about 5 business days, but I'd allow lots more time just in case. It is safe for a single female to travel in India, and lots of my friends have done just that. You will want to read up a bit on what to expect and common-sense precautions you can take: one common piece of advice is to consider wearing a wedding ring to fend off questions about why you're not married, when you think you'll be married, do you like Indian men etc. etc. _______________________ Washington, D.C.: Hi John, My dream is to visit India, and I plan to do so within the next few years. How plausible is it to try to hit up Mumbai, Calcutta, and New Delhi (along with a few must-see cities in each corresponding region) in a span of 3 to 4 weeks? Thanks! Jill John Rambow: I think you'll be tired out at the end of your visit. That itinerary only leaves you about 5-6 days in each place, once you count travel time and travel delays. Traveling in India is frequently tiring, and things rarely go exactly according to plan. I'd try to pare down the list and add more rural locations that are reachable from one of the major cities on your list—perhaps a nature park or just a small village. That'll give you a chance to see another side of India without traveling so much. _______________________ Guanajuato, Mexico: How is the oceanside state of GOA these days? My wife and I are considering a visit there after we spend sometime in Calcutta in late January 2009. Thanks for the input, Digger 35. John Rambow: Goa's great, and it can be a huge party as well as a relaxed, peaceful place. Personally, I like the extreme southern part, which is much less hectic. _______________________ Key West, Fla.: I am 75 years old, have seen all the remaining wonders of ancient world except the Taj Mahal, which I want to see before I die. Please tell me who gives a short week tour of Northern India for a single person, and the best time of year to go. Thank you very much. Lou John Rambow: The weather in December and Jan. is the best, but that's when the Taj is most crowded (it's astonishing, and not in a good way). You could wait until mid-March or so, but after that it will be scorching until the monsoons hit in mid-July. So go in winter. There are lots of good tour companies. I used Four Wheel Drive India to put together my own tour of the area, and they were very responsive. _______________________ Naperville, Ill.: John, We will be traveling to India for a wedding. We will be leaving Chicago on December 12th traveling to New Dehli, Jaipur and the wedding is in Jodipur(sp). What should be worn to a Indian wedding. It will be a 3 day event. What will the weather be like I have checked and it appears to be comforatable this time of year. I read that you should not wear black to a wedding. What about gifts? What is the accepted gift for the married couple? Cash? Thanks so much for your help. Nancy John Rambow: I think you'll find people wearing a variety of clothes to an Indian wedding. I'd wear a nice dress shirt and pants—for women, something equally "business casual." As for a gift, I think that cash is a good present. As for how much, relentlessly ask everyone you know who's going to find out how much they think is an appropriate amount. If you know the couple somewhat well, then maybe something cool from the US would also be a good option. _______________________ Newark, N.J.: What can I do around Hyderabad for 4 days? I am a woman alone awaiting my spouse to be done with his business dealings. Is it safe? John Rambow: I love Hyderabad, which combines some amazing Muslim monuments and fortresses with the dash of modern India. The main don't-misses here are Golconda Fort, a small former city-fortress a few miles west of the city; and the Old City of Hyderabad, where many things haven't changed since it was first settled in the 1600s. Also, if you have a weakness for malls, there are some good ones, including the Hyderabad Central. Although lots of tourists and local cringe at the hyper-capitalism on display in such places, I think they're as much India as the most ancient monuments. Uglier, perhaps, but still India! The city is very spread out, and aside from the oldest areas, it's can be a hard city to walk through. Major growth in recent years has led to serious problems with sprawl. I'd suggest getting a car and driver for sightseeing. Hyderabad is generally safe, but there were some serious bombings there last year. See the safety warnings I mentioned above. ______________________ John Rambow: Thanks for all the questions, and I hope the answers were helpful. Check out the Fodor's Guide to India for more help; I also recommend my former colleague Diane Mehta's Trip Coach from 2007.

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