The Role of Cacao in Guatemala

The Role of Cacao in Guatemala

Maybe Guatemala isn’t the birthplace of cacao but, it certainly is the cradle of the divine fruit. The first written documents about cacao were found in Guatemala. They take us back 3000 years in the history of Guatemala …

Then as today, the „Food of the Gods“ play a key role for the country and its inhabitants.

The Olmecs

Archeologists can trace the history of cacao back to the times of the Olmecs, the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization. The people of this ancient tribe were probably the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans – possibly as early as 1500 B.C. In South Mexico, archeologists uncovered pots and vessels from the Olmecs that show evidence of the cacao chemical theobromine.

And it wasn't just cacao they cultivated, it was a specific cacao called Criollo! This type is deliciously sweet and known worldwide for its superior quality as well as health benefits. At Utopia Cacao Farm we follow in this tradition and grow 98 percent Criollo cacao. 

Utopia Eco Hotel at Rio Cahabón

The Olmecs weren’t big writers though, that is why only little is known about how they used the plant. What we do know though: The Olmecs brought cacao to Guatemala and to the the Maya. Luckily they were the most advanced writers in the ancient Americas.

The Mayas

The Maya not only adopted the word cacao from the Olmecs. The Maya incorporated cacao into their lives and religion. They believed in a cacao god named "Ek Chuah", who was worshiped with animal sacrifices and gifts. Cacao was used in all types of ceremonies. Furthermore paintings from these times show cacao in mythological scenes and even court proceedings.

Scientists also believe that cacao once became so valuable because it is harder to grow compared to plants like maize and cactus. Cacao requires a certain kind of soil, amount of rainfall, and shade because the little flies that pollinate the cacao trees have to live in shade. As a result, cacao requires an area of limited sun and plenty of humidity. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they reported that the Maya planted cacao trees right on the riverbanks.

Just like in the old days, here at Utopia Cacao Farm the trees  grow along Rio Cahabón and the cacao finds perfect conditions to develop its best taste and aromas.

Cacao in Guatemala today

Cacao is present everywhere in Guatemala. For Mayan families cacao is one of the most important ingredients in the kitchen. Also it is valued as medicine. And as a ceremonial drink it again becomes more and more popular. But it is not only an element of great cultural value, economically it is a precious commodity for the country.

Fortunately Guatemala has a good base for growing it. In fact Guatemala is on the way to establish itself as an exporter of high quality beans that attract the gourmet markets.

Already the worlds interest in cacao grown by indigenous Mayan people has increased. Especially to rural areas, the cacao sector brings development. But still, Guatemalan farmers don’t harvest enough to supply the niches on the international markets to the fullest possible extent.

Guatemala Land of Cacao

But the government and communities are working on it! Since 2017 Guatemala follows a national strategy to improve the quality as well as the production of cacao. With success! In 2019 Guatemala ranked 19th in global cacao production. And: cacao from Guatemala was selected as one of the 50 best samples in the world and has been rewarded with the International Cacao Award in 2017 and 2019.

 Photo by Utopia & Michaela Morrison