At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks

GloboTreks is reader-supported through affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support! – Norbert

I love chocolate.  I enjoy tasting it every now and then, and as I write this post I have an organic chocolate bar sitting next to my laptop.

But, other than eating it, I knew nothing about chocolate nor how it’s made.

Here in Belize, I had the opportunity to learn how chocolate is made from raw cacao to the final product.  But what’s even more interesting is that I learned how to make chocolate as the Mayas did for over a thousand years.

The word cacao originated from the Maya word Ka’kau’, as well as the word chocolate from Chocol’ha and the verb chokola’j – “to drink chocolate together”.

The Maya believed that the ka’kau’ was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya.

Since the cacao was revered as the drink of the gods, only the elite in the Maya society could afford to drink it. In addition, the cacao seeds were used as a form of currency, so only the wealthy had the pleasure of enjoying the delightful taste of chocolate.

The Mayas passed on their knowledge of cacao through oral history and even in writing, documenting the use and importance of cacao in their daily life and rituals.

Today, in Cyrila’s Chocolate Farm –owned and operated by Juan and Abelina Cho, a Maya couple– we can see firsthand how their ancestors used to make chocolate. (Update: Cyrila is now known as the IXCACAO Maya Belizean Chocolate)

The Process of Making Chocolate Like The Mayas

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
Cacao comes from the seeds of a fruit pod that sprouts directly from the trunk or main branches of the Madre Cacao tree. When the fruit turns green-ish to yellow, it is ripe and ready to be harvested.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
Inside the ripe pods are cocoa beans. These are covered with a soft white flesh that can be sucked. It has a sweet taste.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
The beans are collected and put in a wooden box for fermenting – for a period of 5 to 6 days. Then, they are spread in a flat exterior surface to be sundried. When dry, they can be stored in bags or used as needed.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
Before cracking the shell of the beans, they are roasted in the comal (a heating pan). The shells are thrown away.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
Juan Cho shows his skills in winnowing – the process used to separate the small pieces of shell from the beans.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
The beans can be crushed with a stone to create cocoa nibs. Or…
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
The beans are placed in a Matate, a volcanic basalt stone where they are grinded by hand. The beans have a percentage of butter inside them. When heated with the friction of the grinding process, they turn the crushed beans into a paste.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
Here, Abelina Cho is grinding the beans until they become a soft paste.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
This is the result of grinding the seeds for just a few minutes. It can take 3 to 6 hours of grinding to achieve a smooth paste, depending on the smoothness desired.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
At this point, since the cocoa paste is in its raw form, 100% cocoa, its taste is bitter. Spices and flavors –butter, chile, black pepper, honey, and others– can be added to create a different taste and to reduce the percentage of cocoa.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize
Pour the cocoa paste in molds (shown behind the cocoa products) and let dry at ambient temperature.
Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Add a few machines, bells, and whistles, and you’ll have the modern chocolate-making technique that other local Belizean companies like Kakaw Chocolate and Cotton Tree Chocolate use, but overall, the process is still similar to what the Mayas did for hundreds of years.

READ ALSO:  5 Major Archaeological Sites To Visit In Toledo, Belize
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  1. I didn’t know how chocolate was made either. Makes you kind of appreciate it a little bit more knowing the hard work that is put into making it. Great pictures too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Tanya. I didn’t know anything about chocolate, but looking at the process it makes you appreciate it a bit more.

      1. I thought the Mayans took the chocolate in a drink and that it wasn’t until the 1900’s that chocolate was turned into a solid from by the swiss?

        1. The chocolate dries in “room temperature,” so while it is possible that they consumed it mostly as a drink, it would eventually turn solid though evaporation. I believe, that if it was drank, it would have been much more liquid than the pasty one pictured here. Probably they used more honey or maybe even water? The one pictured above is nothing but cocoa and honey.

  2. Well the finished product certainly looks delicious! It’s interesting how the seeds were used as currency by the Mayas.

    1. Delicious indeed! I find that interesting too… how something so simple and organic once was a form of currency, and highly valued by the Mayas.

  3. I knew a little about the cocoa seeds being used as currency in the past and that chocolate was a luxury that not many could afford, but didn’t know much about the manual grinding process – looking at the final result, I think I could do that all day long, everyday! 🙂

    1. Seeing the process made me realize why chocolate was so valued back then… that grinding process takes hours to do a few pounds of chocolate. Hard work, eh?!

  4. I lived in Belize and visited Lamanai and Altun’ha, but never experienced Maya chocolate making. Looks very interesting. Does Belize export chocolate?

    1. Hey Sonia! I know Cyrila’s exports chocolate but only on special orders, not on bulk a regular basis. I believe Belize only produces a small amount of chocolate that is mostly consumed in the country.

  5. I had no idea how chocolate was made, or what it’s like in its original form. Sure gives you a greater appreciation for what goes into the process!

    1. Once I saw this I did gain a better appreciation of chocolate. It is a lot of work to produce just a small amount of chocolate, with the smoothest and best quality possible. But wow, that chocolate is purely delicious!

  6. I too love chocolate. I knew all about the history and the process but I have never seen it. Your post and the great pictures are a brilliant illustration.Would like to write more, but my hot chocolate is waiting!!

  7. Very interesting! Six hours of grinding!?! My arms are tired just thinking about. I think I’ll stick to buying it in the store 🙂

    1. haha! It takes a lot of effort, but hey, it’s so worth it when you taste it. But, I don’t think I’ll be able to grind for six hours either… haha.

  8. Brilliantly written thanks! I love learning new things, and now will look at chocolate with the respect it deserves.

    1. Thanks John! Oh yes, the way the Mayas used to do their chocolate deserves a lot of respect. Look at all the work involved in it!

  9. I have to say that I really don’t know much about how any chocolate is made, much less how the Mayans have done it for 1000 yrs. Did it taste as good as it looks? Very interesting, Norbert.

    1. Cathy, their chocolate tasted soooo good! I tasted a few different chocolates: orange flavored (love it!), honey flavored, 100%, 70%, and 40% chocolate. I personally loved the most the orange and the 40% since the other ones are really strong for my taste. But still really good.

  10. I love that you were able to learn how they make chocolate. I’m with you, I love chocolate so trying new types of chocolate would be fun.

    1. Lisa, whenever you come to Belize, make your way down to Toledo and try the different types of chocolate they prepare here… you will love it!! 🙂

  11. Oh man, learning how chocolate is made over there sounds immense!

    Pictures look brilliant and really gives you a vision on the process!

    Was it the best chocolate you ever had? Beating Dairy Milk?

    1. Ed, I have to say this chocolate tasted like none other I had tasted before, in a good sense! I got to appreciate the darker chocolates and its organic taste. It does beat the commercial milk chocolate! 🙂

  12. Yum! What an incredible experience! I love that you learn both about the history and culture and well as participating in the process! Exciting! Thank you!

  13. This really helped my son with his homework! and taught me!. Looking forward to having a good read and look at the other topics too.