• Laura Bachmann

The Sweeter Side of Guatemala

No, chocolate, “the food of the Gods”, was not created or discovered in Switzerland. You’ve got Guatemala, and the Mayans to thank for that! There’s a fundamental reason Antigua’s streets are lined with chocolate shops, bakery’s hosting cacao-filled masterpieces, coffee shops all boasting the best mocha latte, and of course the chocolate museum. Guatemala is the birthplace of this time-tested delight. From the kick of the traditional drinking chocolate to the sophistication of the modern chocolate truffle, there’s something for everyone when it comes to chocolate. So how did it all begin?

The History

The Mayas, one of the oldest civilizations on the American continent, were the first people to grow and utilize the cacao trees and their beans. The cocoa beans were used as a barter currency, exchanging beans for food or clothes. The beans were also used for preparing the bitter drink, known as Xocóatl. Xocóatl, not at all like our hot chocolate today, was made of ground, roasted cocoa beans mixed with hot water, vanilla, honey, chili, and other spices, and was used to promote health and vitality. With modern studies demonstrating the cacao bean’s benefits of reduced blood pressure, increased energy, diuretic properties, and the ability to treat some conditions such as asthma and respiratory issues. So yes, chocolate is good for you!

Xocóatl, pronounced shoh-KWAH-tul, means ‘bitter water’, and was actually not the Aztec name; it was the first Spanish name for the bitter spicy chocolate drink that was reserved for nobility and warriors. The original Náhuatl word was “cacáhuatl”, which is a combination of cacahua (cacao or cocoa) and atl (water or liquid). The Spanish decided to use the Mayan word chocol (meaning hot) to avoid the use of the word “caca” (meaning poo in Spanish), and combined it with the Náhuatl atl, giving birth to the modern word chocolate. But how did the Spanish get their hands on this precious bean?

First, the Aztecs, one of the most advanced nations in Central America, commandeered the land of the Mayan people along with their economy, which included trade using cocoa beans. This commodity currency became the most widespread manner of payment among the Pre-Columbian American people for daily transactions of low-value trade items.

Until the 16th century, chocolate was unknown on the European continent. It was not until 1519 when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés invaded the Aztecs’ land, which is now Mexico, that they discovered this special bean. When Cortés arrived in America, the Aztecs mistook him for the long awaited god-king Quetzalcoatl. With a promise of the god’s return to save his people, coincidently, Hernán Cortés was perceived as the Aztec’s savior. Quetzalcoatl, represented as a feathered snake, was the most exalted god of the Aztec culture. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma II in Quetzalcoatl’s honor prepared Xocoatl, as Quetzalcoatl (Hernán Cortés) was responsible for putting cacao trees on Earth.

The Spread of Chocolate

Cortés returned to Spain from Mexico in 1528 with his ships full of cocoa beans and Xocoatl making equipment. Although Cortés did not enjoy this bitter cocoa drink, the value the Aztecs bestowed on it allowed the drink to catch on. He noticed the beverage tasted better when it was warmed and “hot chocolate” made its debut.

Hot chocolate caught on and became a significant element in Spanish life. Similar to the Mayans and Aztecs, the Spanish consumed the cocoa drink for health and energy. And also enjoyed it during church and were permitted to have the drinking cocoa during Lent, since it was considered a necessity. The Spanish hid cocoa beans from the rest of Europe for a several decades.

Eventually, cocoa made its appearance in France during the wedding of King Louis Thirteenth to the Spanish princess Anne d’Autriche. Anne brought cocoa with her in her wedding basket, in addition to a servant trained in the art of making the special beverage. By 1657, chocolate houses started popping up in Great Britain as luxury shops only available to men as a place for political discussions and gambling.

The Chocolate Revolution

Finally, the Industrial Revolution made chocolate available for everyone. Until the mid 1700’s, chocolate was still being made similar to the way the Mayans made it. Through technological innovation chocolate was changed forever.

Doret, a Frenchman, created a hydraulic machine that ground cocoa beans mechanically rather than by hand into a paste. This made way for another Frenchman, Dubuisson, who designed a steam driven chocolate mill grinding large quantities of beans at once quickly and inexpensively. Thus, creating the first mass-produced chocolate, making chocolate available throughout Europe.

In 1829, Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist invented the cocoa press, which made it possible to separate the cocoa powder (the dry part of the cocoa bean) and the cocoa butter (the wet part of the bean).

The Chocolate Revolution occurred in 1847, when Bristol, England’s Fry Company created the first eating chocolate, which was followed by the very first chocolate bar one year later. Until then, chocolate was only consumed as a drink, and now, nearly a thousand years later, chocolate could be eaten. But that’s not the end.

Daniel Peter, Henri Nestlé’s son-in-law combined condensed milk with chocolate, giving birth to the first milk chocolate. Once a special Mayan brew fit for the gods, with only nobility and warriors consuming the spicy bitter beverage, sweet milk chocolate was now available globally to just about anyone.

Although you can purchase chocolate from just about anywhere, you will definitely want to try it during your trip to Guatemala. Cocoa beans are still grown, where they grow best, in many parts of the country. Many areas offer special classes, which demonstrate the chocolate-making process throughout the ages. These workshops are a fun-filled activity that the whole family can enjoy.

The chocolate workshop teaches each guest the process "from the cacao bean to the chocolate bar". You have the opportunity to learn the individual steps of the creation of the chocolate bar, from the very beginning of the cacao harvest from the plantation, to the end resulting chocolate bar to take home with you. Want more information about the Chocolate Workshop? Ready to add this to your itinerary? Contact one of our Tour Experts today!

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