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Who does not love to eat chocolate! But have you ever wondered where and how they are made? If this has been your quest for long, in your next trip to Belize, satisfy your quest for knowledge regarding everything chocolate by visiting Punta Gorda town in Toledo district of Belize. Here you will find the Chocolate Center of the universe; also known as Cotton Tree Chocolate. As you draw near to the place, your nose will be the first one to know that you are near chocolate country; a pungent sweet smell, which is a bit tangy and mixed with the salty sea breeze, will whiff into your nose as you come near the palm-thatched patio of this Chocolate Center.
Toledo will soon teach you why your chocolate taste and smell the way it normally does; and soon your nose will be so trained that with just a whiff of the smell described above, you can picture in your mind an iced mocha melting on your tongue!
The biggest export of Toledo District is Cacao and here you can see this item in all stages of production. If you want to learn it from a first hand basis, then be sure to stay in a Mayan village which can be arranged through Toledo Ecotourism Association guest house program. While there in San Antonio Village, don't forget to take a tour of Reyes Chun's cacao farm. Take a hike with Reyes and his team to see how large a cacao pod is! They are literally football sized which hang from the trunk for the trees. The farmers whack them with machete and then chop into half; and immediately you can taste the cottony flesh of the seed. But be warned; it won't taste like chocolate that you know of. Rather the taste is tangy-sweet. You will be surprised to know that the second part of the process includes fermenting these seeds by placing them in wooden boxes wrapped in banana leaves for seven days. The taste that you know comes only after this fermenting process is over.
If you are staying with a local family, you will be lucky enough to see how a chocolate drink is made in the traditional way, like their ancient Mayan ancestors used to do. First, a ground-level wood stove is fired and on it, a flat cooking sheet is placed. The fermented seeds are then toasted; if you taste the seed at this point, it is very sour, just like the tangy taste of a dark chocolate. The seeds are constantly stirred to see that they are toasted but not burned. The toasted seeds now have the distinct taste of chocolate, if you taste one now. The seeds are then crushed into a crumble with “metate”, a kind of grinding stone which Mesoamerican women have been using for centuries for this purpose. The crumbled seeds are then tossed to separate the chaff from the cocoa. The cocoa are then again placed back into the “metate” and naturally grown allspice seeds as well peppercorns are mixed with it. Water, in which tortillas are soaked, is used for turning all of it into a mushy ball. The tortillas are then also grinded in the same fashion into a pulp.
This is just the preparation, to have it as the ancient Mayans used to have; you have to drink your chocolate from a calabash. Calabashes are gourds that are grown and then dried just to become a cup for drinking chocolate! Even today, Mayan household may serve a guest tea, orange Fanta or Coco-Cola in a modern day coffee cups; but when it comes to chocolate drinks, it has to be calabashes!
To prepare the drink, a big dab of the cacao paste described above is added to the calabash followed by little dab of corn masa or tortilla paste. Boiling water from a tea kettle is added next along with a good helping of sugar. Your steaming calabash is ready and the taste you have, will no doubt be the best you ever had.
If you prefer to have this wonderful drink in its modern version, the best place to go for in Punta Gorda Town is Cotton Tree Chocolate. This establishment is a mini Willy Wonka Chocolate factory, pizza parlor as well as a distinctive coffeehouse, all rolled into one. Established by Chris Crowell, who is also the owner of Cotton Tree Lodge, this shop is more than just a place to drink chocolate. You can see the whole process thanks to the tour they organize. Of course metate is not used here; instead there is a homemade grinder that is run by an electric drill. For the separation of chaff from cacao, an electric hair dryer is used. The ingredients are also different; in place of allspice, black pepper and tortilla, vanilla and powdered milk is used. A sophisticated mixing device stirs the mixture all through the night which is then placed in moulds to harden, after the right consistency is reached.
When you visit the place, don't forget to taste their iced mocha. The taste is just out of the world, but still you will feel that it does not match up to the traditional Mayan way of drinking chocolate!
The best way to go to Punta Gorda is to book a flight from Belize City and use regional carrier Maya Island Air to come to Punta Gorda. There is also a cheaper way to travel to this place, and is more adventurous as well. For that, fly to Cancun in Mexico and from there take a rental car or hop into a bus and reach the town. On the way, don't forget to visit the Mayan ruins on that are there along this road.
Where to stay
You will find accommodation for all kinds of budget here in Punte Gorda. For those with modest budget, Nature's Way Guesthouse in 82 Front St is a good choice. The phone number of the place is 011-501-702-2119 or you can mail your queries to [email protected] . It is great place for backpackers and the property is waterfront with a homely atmosphere.
For those with higher budget, Cotton Tree Lodge, www.cottontreelodge.com is a great option to stay. This is an eco-friendly and beautiful resort located at the heart of the jungle beside a crystalline river.
Where to eat
The town of Punte Gorda may be small, but you will find wide variety of eateries and restaurant in it. If you are vegan, you will just love Gomier's Vegetarian Restaurant ( www.gomiers.com ) and get a chance to taste some exotic creation of the Rastafarian poet-chef. For an East Indian-Creole type buffet try Marian's just opposite to Nature's Way. Also worth mentioning are Bukut Bar ( www.earthrunnins.com ) and Earth Runnins Café.
What to do
Besides enjoying the local beauty, there are many activities that can fill your day while vacationing in this part of Belize. They include,