February 20, 2012

A Mayan Odyssey

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Written by: Susana Cárdenas Overstall

Overlooking the ruins of Copan and surrounding landscape


t was early in the morning when we went to Copan to visit Don José Arita´s Mayan Red cacao plantation. Most of us had arrived in San Pedro Sula the night before, after long-haul journeys, crossing the Atlantic, the United States and the Latin American continent.

For some, such as Art Pollard of Amano, Gary Guittard of E. Guittard Chocolate and Franck Morin of Morin Chocolate, maybe this expedition was part of a normal cacao routine, after so many years in the search of fine cacao in Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. For others, this was the first encounter with the soul of a cacao plantation. But for most of us, it was the very first time that we stepped into a Mayan Red cacao plantation, in the valleys surrounding Copan, Honduras.

Mayan Red cacao pods

Red eyes and sleep depravation were the general feelings of the day, but not for Don José Arita. There he was, with a fresh mind just like an open cacao pod, his eyes emanating wisdom, his smile depicting a likeable shyness. His loyal dog, followed his every step.  He also looked ageless. Perhaps the pure air, the simple life in the countryside, unpolluted by blackberries and stress, along with the Mayan energy had become his elixir of youth.

While Frank Homann and Dr Zoe Papalexandratou of Xoco Fine Cocoa explained us their ambitious vision – to be the first company in the world to embark on a large-scale reproduction that produce fine flavour cacao – I walked alongside Don José.

“Look at the beautiful pods”, he said softly. His ten-hectare farm is producing an average of 25 Mayan Red pods per tree per year.

Along with his brother, he used to grow coffee, beans, pineapple and corn, but he decided to switch to cacao. He expresses that it is more profitable and beneficial for his land. “Cacao suffers from less diseases and requires less human labour,” he continues.

All of a sudden, I felt the urge to open a shining pod in order to taste the gloopy pulp that covers the cacao beans. The taste felt like an explosion of fruity notes and I immediately understood why British chocolatier, Duffy Sheardown, had selected these cacao beans to create his delicious chocolate bars available in the UK.

“What about pesticides?” I inquire. “We don’t use them. If we were to use them, they would kill off the beneficial insects which help the tree to grow”, says Don José.

Don José Arita at his cacao farm

He believes that working on this project with Xoco gives him more stability for the future. He explains that the fact that they have an on-going contract to grow Mayan Red cacao guarantees that his cacao will be bought. The price is fixed at 50% more than the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) price. Most farmers, even on Fair Trade schemes, receive much less than the NYSE price. At the moment, there are 500 farmers working on this project in Honduras. And, Xoco has already expanded to Nicaragua and is about to start a new project in Guatemala.

In Central America, these types of trees are almost extinct and only encountered in very limited quantities on remote and isolated farms. Frank Homann expresses that they have segmented the tree types and carefully tested their beans for the superior flavour attributes used by manufacturers to make award-winning gourmet chocolate.

The trees that meet Xoco’s painstaking selection criteria are then naturally reproduced by grafting in large nurseries, in the three countries were Xoco operates.

The next day, we visited the nursery near San Pedro Sula to witness the tedious but dedicated job carried out mainly by women.

 In Guatemala

Frank Homann shows visitors Xoco nursey in Izabal, Guatemala

We then had the opportunity to visit another cacao grafting operation at a nursery in the region of Izabal, Guatemala.

“This is the largest grafting operation in history,” says Frank, as we overlooked the harmonious nursery of four million Mayan Red trees.

For chocolate experts like Martin Christy, the main concern is that the world of fine cacao will disappear. But according to Frank, “with this project and such a vast volume of fine Mayan Red trees, the world of fine chocolate will change.”

We cross the Rio Dulce river and we are simply mesmerised by the spectacular scenery.  The river takes you to Livingston in one direction and to Lake Izabal in the other. Our Mayan journey continues and it is impossible not to admire the beauty of the elegant women parading through the local market.

Driving towards the ancient ruins of Tikal, the conversation on the topic of fine cacao flows inspirationally. “It is good to see how this project is bringing cacao to areas where it has practically disappeared,” says writer, Maricel Presilla.

As I gaze dreamily at the landscape, I marvel at the fact that the lives of farmers, like Don José Arita, can be transformed by growing Mayan Red cacao trees.

Monica Meschini, Alex Rast, Lourdes Delgado, amongst others, visiting the Mayan Red plantations in Honduras

About the Author

Susana Cárdenas Overstall
Susana Cárdenas Overstall is a freelance journalist who left behind the tropics of Ecuador for misty London where she has been living for the last six years. Deep inside, she misses the sound of the Pacific Ocean and walking among the cacao trees at her father’s farm in the province of Manabí. Her first encounter with fine cacao began at the age of 10, when her father taught her how to select and roast Arriba Nacional cacao beans in order to make homemade chocolate. Before entering the world of cacao, Susana came from a communications background and is a frequent contributor to Latin American and Spanish publications.


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  1. Liz

    Excellent! Keep the good work!

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