A region in south-eastern Mexico conquered by the Aztecs.
It was in this region that grew the cocoa that was consumed in large quantities by the Aztec nobles and priests.
The quality of Soconusco cocoa was reputed as excellent, even the Spanish in a later period had high esteem for it.
Even today people still talk about “cacao real”.
The beans must have been criollo beans, this is to say white inside.
I was eager to check on the spot.
Soconusco is part of the Mexican state of Chiapas and is a vast region starting in the north near Palenque and spreading south to the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.
As Soconusco is located near the sea, I was expecting a level plantation of cocoa, easy to cultivate and to visit: far from it.
Indeed many plantations can be found in the mountains, sometimes mixed with coffee trees.
An early morning visit when the coffee trees are in bloom is an unforgettable experience.
A pleasant fragrance fills the air, it is not too warm and the crickets are still silent, a beautiful blue bird flew over us and we could hear others singing and calling.
Our guests told us how the Mayas cultivated their crops on different levels.
On the ground level flowers or “chipilin” and “hierba mora” were grown.
On the next level were cocoa trees, “guanabana” and citrus fruits.
Followed by banana trees and avocado trees.
Higher still mamey sapote and chico zapote were grown
And on the highest level "Ceiba" and "Guanacastle"
"Real cocoa" has suffered from the vicissitudes of world prices, diseases and especially competition from other agricultural products.
While cocoa has long been the product that gave life to the region, it was gradually replaced by the cultivation of flowers, maize, bananas, soya beans and palm oil and also by grazing for livestock.
Today 40% of the area is dedicated to rearing livestock, 30% to corn, bananas, soya beans and palm trees and 30% is covered by forests.
Cocoa is now grown in about 14,000 hectares of the region of Soconusco and output is low per ha.
In a few years time the region lost nearly 12,000 ha of cocoa plantations.
And production has dropped sharply in the plantations that were left due to “monilla”, a type of mould.
The ancient peoples were known as the Mokayas and 4,000 years ago they mixed cocoa with their spicy drinks.
The Mayan civilization came later, with for example the MAM people who spoke Maya Mam.
Water = há
Hot water = shká
The habit of drinking cocoa beverages remained.
- Atole: made with unsweetened cooked maize, to which chilli and/or sapote was sometimes added
- Pinole: made with toasted, ground maize and sweetened
- Pozole: maize prepared by nixtamalization, ground and mixed with roasted cocoa beans.
Some people add the toasted kernel of the sapote fruit.
- Tascalate: made with cooked maize, cocoa and achiote with water or milk.
The villages have names dating from the Nahuatl Aztec domination
Example: Huehuetan: old town
Cacaotan: cocoa town
A local specialty is "Michelada"; it is a mixture of mussel juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Maggi sauce, chilli and beer.
Tourists are best advised to abstain!
As you can see from the pictures, what we saw in fact were white beans.
In some cases the whole pod was white, in others only a few beans were white.
It is this original cocoa, known as "real cocoa" that should be produced in quantity.
An association called the Red Maya is trying to do this by promoting
- the cultivation of criollo cocoa
- organic farming
- using the Maya farming method on different levels.
sunrise seen through the banana trees
coffee tree blossom
on the way to the plantation
food within hand’s reach
drinks within hand’s reach
farmer showing us cocoa pods with a mixture of seeds
flowers and palm trees are replacing cocoa crops
stopping off along the way, eating prawn cocktail in 35°C heat and a “michelada” made from mussel juice
a stone table on which the fire is burnt
roasting corn to make pinole
preparing atole and pozol
tascalate made with milk and water
IZAPA, the only ruins in Mexico where you can find cocoa