My first trek to Guatemala happened to also be one of my very first adventures at the age of 15 to build cement houses for widows of the long drawn out Guatemalan civil war that finally came to a halt after 40 years.
It blew my sheltered mind. It was my first time out of the United States, and the people, the land, the spirituality and grace overwhelmed me and told me that I would return someday. I had no conception of what was to lead me back almost a decade later…
Ten years go by, I’m in a Los Angeles based Cirque Company and my fellow comrades and I had organized a volunteer trip to Guatemala. We were a circus troupe that had the privilege to travel around the world performing and causing ruckus and it was time to give back. The circus was flying in a week after I had got there to travel, parade, play and laugh with kids living at the orphanages. It was called Cuddle the World, and this was our first attempt. It was amongst all this, that my dear friend Nova, and I decided that we must find the elusive chocolate maker…
This adventure starts as a hunt. A hunt to find a chocolate lady. I had tasted a piece of chocolate while in Guatemala like nothing I have ever tasted before. I was already a chocolate addict and loved to try local chocolate wherever I go, but this tasted like something from another planet. After being in Guatemala for the past 13 days, where all cooking is traditionally done by women cooking over open fires and where I had joined mayan women behind their stoves to learn…
I was convinced that I had to find the women who created this chocolate. I just wanted to be in the presence of someone capable of making something so special.
Situated in an extremely small village on La Laguna Atitlan, a lake sits in the crater of a mountain topped with three rising volcanoes with terrain best explained as tropical forest. San Marcos, is the tiniest village I have ever experienced.
No roads, only walking paths…and at that only two. A walking path means enough room for your feet and width of shoulders. No hot water, very limited electricity and limited food supply, and a lifestyle that was mainly lived out in the elements. There are little huts that provide sleeping arrangements, but most nights I found myself sleeping wherever you landed when the sun went down. Without electricity, any light sources, you tend to stay where you are once the moon rises. By the thirteenth day, I was very excited about traveling back to the transitory San Pedro (another slightly bigger village) for a stay at a hostel with a shower, private bathroom, and restaurants. I also had an ulterior agenda to follow the clues left on the tissue paper packaging of this exotic chocolate.
Whomever was creating this chocolate was making it in San Pedro.
I also felt my amazing friend Nova, would be just as excited about this chocolate and had her try. She agreed that we must meet this human. In a country where I don’t speak the language and where small villages slip into thick unidentifiable jungle forest without notice, we knew this might be a slight challenge.
The best way to travel from village to village is a boat. There are not many roads linking the villages and all natives and locals travel by community boats that can transport around twelve people at a time back and forth through the surrounding villages along the lakes shores. These boat rides are beyond breathtaking as you speed through such foreign terrain, surrounded by local Mayans, dressed in their traditional hand-woven garments. In the rainy season when it pours, all passengers help clutch to a large piece of plastic and with arms up for the whole trip collectively try to keep everyone dry.
As soon as we land and climb the case of steps leading to San Pedro’s main road (dirt) we start asking strangers on the street if they know of Diego’s chocolate.
I got a lot of blank stares, embarrassed giggles, and shrugged shoulders. No leads. I then saw a man leaning up against his tuktuk. I thought perhaps if his job was to transport people back and forth around town, he’d know of this chocolate. Without verbally responding he beckons us into his tuktuk and points up a really steep hill.
Lisa and I shrug our shoulders and hop in. With everything happening so fast, thank goddess there was a back wall to the tuktuk. The hill was so steep I would have slipped off the back before I could blink. Within a minute we were leaving behind the liveliness of the village and surrounded on all sides with views of sweeping mountain plains, lush fruit and coffee growing, beautiful women with ancient wisdom carrying fruit and breads on their heads and a dirt road that continued to get smaller until it winded to a subtle foot path.
He stopped the tuktuk and again just pointed in a particular direction. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust with all the long grasses blowing to see a path. My first thought was, when he leaves I have no idea how to get back. I have a bad habit of not paying attention when other people are driving. The view and the land and the wind told me this was home and I was safe, and from that point forward their were no more questions in my head. We started down this path that had no end in sight. Just volcanoes in the distance and the buzzing of exotic bugs. No to long down we started to see a house roof. We had found the chocolate lady!!
Only, it wasn’t a lady. It was Diego! Diego, and his beautiful family who graciously invited their unexpected visitors right into their home.
A cement building in two sections divided by a floored court space that had a fire pit with a huge roasting pan sitting on top. One half is where they lived the other half was three rooms completely bear with a table in each. Everyone else was off and busy and Diego sat with us .and started to describe his whole operation. All local ingredients from farmers he knows. He roasts the beans over the fire, his two hired girls take the roasts to the corn meal press about a mile away, and return with shiny cacao paste.
We took the walk with the girls that day. They were the first in their town to be planning to go to higher education and were working with Diego to acquire their tuition money. His children take the chocolate mounds and roll them into log rolls which stick to brightly colored tissue paper. They are also in charge of hand coloring the labels with crayons.
His wife came out with steamy pots of food and we were graciously invited to lunch. We kept talking about his business that sells to all the small villages along the lake and is the whole families occupation and means of survival. He relays that in Guatemala the main consumers of chocolate are the men. This stuck out to me so clearly, because I had grown up in a culture where women are known to be the chocoholics.
As the sun started to wane, Nova and I had confirmed our suspicions that we wanted to work with Diego and take his chocolates to the states. These were to this day, are the most amazing thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. It was more of a selfish procurement to make sure I would always have these in my life, but I also wanted to share with friends and community what chocolate tasted like when it could still be identified as cacao.
Nova and I put in our first order of five hundred. This was equal the amount of chocolate they would make for the entire lake region.
We made Diego truly smile for the first time that day. It was an amazing moment. Handshakes and hugs were given, and we were to return in three days when all the chocolate would be done. We gave him all of our combined money including change and saved only enough to get us back to the airport seven hours away.
As that trip came to an end I truly never wanted to leave. I could have slipped into tropical volcano life very easily. The only comforting thought I could muster about leaving, is that I’d be back to gather more chocolate, and that made it ok. We would return when we had experimented and sold our lot. I was ecstatic that I had set a path that would bring me back to this heartland. I was already dreaming of having a home there someday.
Adventure takes trust and we certainly were trusting that we could fit 500 rolls into our one bag each and carry on-s. We also were trusting that our bags wouldn’t get searched at either airport leaving Guatemala or upon entering the states. Not wanting to draw attention to our luggage we also had to make sure we were not overweight. We could only fit enough in what we could carry in and out of San Pedro. Our only plan if our luggage was searched, was to say we were carrying it all back as gifts and souvenirs for family and friends….all 100 plus pounds! Trusting that these logs of chocolate that uncannily resemble drug rolls,
wouldn’t be picked up in the luggage x-rays. We made it back and did a really obnoxious celebratory dance a few steps past the US customs desk as we were officially cleared…
This was only the fist chapter of the escapade. Next week the smuggling chocolate story continues…the return trip to Lake Atitlan for more…