Guatemala: The Birthplace of Chocolate
The colonial city of Antigua is not only home to Spanish Academy, but it is also the best place in Guatemala to learn about chocolate! The locals have opened up gourmet chocolate shops on many esquinas where sweet-toothed travelers can try various forms of locally-made chocolates. Think spicy chili chocolate, authentic dark chocolate, cinnamon chocolate, and of course, coffee-flavored chocolate. With a few hours to spare for an adventure of a lifetime, you can even make your own chocolate from scratch at ChocoMuseo, the chocolate museum. Everyone knows what chocolate is, but what about where it comes from? and why is it referred to as the “food of the gods”? Read on to find out!
Food of the Gods
The Maya, whose vast empire covered southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, and Honduras, worshipped the cacao tree and its precious seed, the cacao bean. They called it the “food of the gods.” Chocolate even had its own goddess, Ixcacao, and she was often called upon alongside the corn and rain gods to help provide fertile land and support the harvests.
Guatemala is considered the birthplace of chocolate because of one of its most popular tourist destinations, Tikal, which was the capital of the Maya Civilization. The Mayas ruled for approximately 3,000 years from 1500 BCE to the early 1500’s CE. To put this into perspective, the United States has only been a country for 243 years. Wow.
During the Maya era, chocolate was mainly taken as a drink – and they liked their chocolate beverage bitter and spicy. Maya cacao was ground by hand, mixed with water, honey, vanilla, corn and chile. The beans were also eaten on long journeys to provide stamina. It was often reserved for the elite. Chocolate was used as an aphrodisiac, valued commodity and as a currency!
Who First Discovered Chocolate, the Mayas or the Olmecs?
We may never know who truly discovered chocolate. Little is known about the Olmec civilization, which was located in ancient Mexico from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE and foreshadowed all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya and Aztec.
The Olmecs are said to have cultivated the first variety of cacao, known as criollo, and brought it to Guatemala. The Olmecs did not have a written language. In contrast, the Maya had the most advanced written language in the ancient Americas. Due to the Maya documentation of chocolate, they have received credit for discovering and cultivating the first cacao plants.
Then the Aztecs Discover Chocolate
The Aztecs ended up conquering parts of the Maya civilization (Yucatán and Guatemala) and were hereby introduced to chocolate. They discovered a new set of health benefits from this valued plant.
For the Aztecs, cocoa was believed to be of divine origin and was a link between heaven and earth. The Aztecs sanctified human sacrifices by giving them chocolate, used the beans for elite children’s coming-of-age ceremonies, had couples drink chocolate from ceremonial cups during wedding ceremonies, and believed that drinking chocolate gave people wisdom from Quetzalcoatl (the god of learning and wind).
Then the Spanish arrived and conquered both the Mayas (1519 CE) and the Aztecs (1521 CE), bringing to Latin America the present-day Spanish language, among other traditions. In turn, they took chocolate with them back to Europe to serve first to royalty, then slowly introduced it to the commoners. Chocolate evolved to eventually be accessible to everyone.
Today we all know and love chocolate. Some may still consider it a gift from the gods.
Choco Museo – The Chocolate Museum
Today, you can learn all about traditional and conventional chocolate preparation methods at the Choco Museo in Antigua.
Did you know there is a huge difference in dark, milk and white chocolate? At Choco Museo, they make their chocolates with the following ratios:
- Dark chocolate is made up of 70% cacao and 30% sugar
- Milk chocolate is made up of 35% sugar, 23% cacao, 22% milk and 20% cacao liquor
- White chocolate doesn’t have any cacao at all! It is actually a sweet cream that is made up of sugar, water, and milk
Today, cacao and sugar are mixed for 22 hours by machine to turn it into chocolate. The Mayas did this process by hand. One of our own at Spanish Academy, Ashley, stopped by for a tour and tried this ancient method. She smashed cacao beans, grinding them with a hand grinder, and customized her flavor by adding jalapeño, caramel, salt, and orange pieces. YUM!
¿Cuál es tu tipo favorito de chocolate?
Chocolate has been a part of rituals, royalty and religion for centuries. The ancient tradition of growing cacao and making chocolate has impacted people around the world. When you learn another language, you also learn about how tradition influences culture.
Learn More Today!
Schedule a free class today and learn more about the local Maya culture that still thrives in Guatemala. You could also ask your teacher what their favorite chocolate is and if they’ve ever visited The Chocolate Museum!
I began studying Spanish at age 11 and have been interested in language and culture ever since! While at University, I studied abroad in Spain and Costa Rica and got a B.A. in Environmental Economics with a minor in Spanish. After spending over a decade in Corporate America, I now enjoy the simpler things in life.
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