Something extraordinarily chocolatey happens every year deep in the rainforest of Belize about an hour south of Punta Gorda. Underneath its gigantic namesake tree nestled between the Moho River and lush rain forest, the Cotton Tree Lodge hosts Chocolate Week along with the Annual Toledo Chocolate Festival on the second to the last week in May. I’m making it a life goal to attend this one even if it breaks the bank! Here’s why:
Chocolate at the Source
Did you know that Cacao was used by the ancient Mayans as a unit of currency? It was ground into a warm, dark drink and seasoned with chili pepper. Today, cacao is enjoying a new popularity as a cash crop for Mayan farmers in southern Belize. This hearty tree can be grown organically, prevents erosion, provides habitat for wildlife, and offers an alternative to slash and burn farming.
With its tropical lowland climate, southern Belize has the ideal conditions for growing cacao. Here, chocolate isn’t merely an academic curiosity or simply an indulgence; it’s a bean to mouth experience in which you’ll get total immersion. You’ll start by learning the history, politics, and intricate process behind chocolate making. Daily hands-on workshops guide you through every step of the process, from picking cacao to molding and packaging bars. Workshops are complimented by excursions to cacao farms in the nearby villages of San Felipe and San Pedro Columbia.
The Toledo District of southern Belize is today home to numerous organic cacao orchards where the red, yellow, orange, and green pods pods are grown and harvested, and later transformed into chocolate. Each pod contains about 30 – 40 cacao seeds growing along a stem and covered in a sweet gooey white pulp. You’ll soon learn that farmers turn cacao into chocolate by cracking open the pods and separating the seeds allowing them to ferment. They are then dried, roasted, and ground up with sugar among other ingredients.
Here’s what a Chocolate Week itinerary usually looks like:
Day 1: Transfer to Cotton Tree Lodge by boat via the Moho River, check into your cabana, and attend a Welcome Dinner and Chocolate Tasting.
Day 2: Visit a local organic cacao farm. Learn about the cacao fruit and pick the pods that you will process into chocolate. Lunch and a Mayan Chocolate Making workshop at the farmer’s home. Return to the lodge, open the pods and begin the fermentation process.
Day 3: Visit the Punta Gorda Farmers Market where cacao is sold. Meet with members of the Toledo Cacao Growers
Association and learn about Fair Trade and the politics and economics of chocolate. Optional afternoon excursion to Rio Blanco waterfalls.
Day 4: Free day to spend any way you wish. Choose amongst the lodge’s regularly scheduled tours or enjoy free time on the grounds to go swimming, hiking, biking, kayaking, or horseback riding.
Day 5: Hands-On Chocolate Making Workshop: Introduction to roasting, winnowing, crushing, and conching. Discussion on ingredient storage and recipe formulation. Free afternoon on the grounds.
Day 6: Spend the morning on one of our guided jungle treks, cave explorations, or Mayan ruin tours. Afternoon tour of the Cotton Tree Lodge cacao plantation where you will plant and tag your own cacao tree.
Day 7: Hands-On Chocolate Making Workshop: Introduction to tempering, molding, and packaging. You will make your own chocolate bars to bring home! Farewell Dinner at the lodge.
Day 8: Transfer out, connections home.
Space is limited to 20 attendees. 8 days/7 nights double occupancy packages start at $1,365 per person and include meals, workshops, excursions, and airport transfers.
As much of an obsessed chocoholic that I am, the Cotton Tree Lodge itself is just as fascinating. Featuring 11 thatched cabanas in six different styles, 10 of them are gathered around a central boardwalk creating a village feel while the 11th is set back a mile into the jungle for more adventurous spirits. Many have private balconies with hammocks and river views.
Each cabana is hand-crafted with traditional bay leaf thatch roofs yet are fully screened and furnished with ceiling fans, louvered shutters, hand woven Mayan textiles, and private bathrooms with hot showers along with purified drinking water.
The Moho River cuts alongside the resort at 25 feet deep making it perfect for swimming. Borrow one of our kayaks or a traditional dugout canoe and paddle upstream for wildlife viewing. For avid anglers, machaca, tarpon, and snook can be caught right off the dock. Best of all….there are no alligators!
This place also has their own organic garden, supplying vegetables to the lodge kitchen. As a guest at Cotton Tree Lodge you are encouraged to visit the garden anytime. It’s located just behind the Main Lodge via the boardwalk to the Jungle House. Head gardener, Armando Sam is available to point out some of the unusual tropical vegetables like cho-cho and yampi.
Cotton Tree Lodge’s property is designed to showcase Belize’s culture and natural beauty while minimizing impact on the environment. The entire property is “off the grid” with power generated by a combination of solar panels, batteries, and a generator. Although there are flush toilets, waste water flows into large block vats, lined with several feet of halved plastic bottles, then covered with earth and banana trees. The banana roots form a dense mat absorbing the water and nutrients from the vat ensuring that the river remains waste free.
Cottonwood Tree is also actively reforesting land that was previously cleared for farming by planting teak, mahogany, and fruit trees around the property creating shade and nitrogen for under-story crops like my favorite…tasty cacao.
photos courtesy of Cotton Tree Lodge