Who doesn’t love chocolate? If you want to learn all about the history and cultivation of this prized treat, a chocolate tour in Belize is the way to go!
AJAW Chocolate in San Ignacio is just the place to learn all about this incredible food. Learn the history and its use in Mayan ceremonies. Learn about its cultivation and how it was prepared traditionally from a family of Mayan descendants.
Then, and this is the best part, taste it! Toss out all you thought you knew about chocolate and learn from those who first discovered it—the Maya people.
Here is everything you need to know about visiting Ajaw Chocolate in San Ignacio to learn all you need to know about chocolate. You may never look at this common food in the same way again!
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The Mayan Origin of Chocolate
The Mayans first discovered and created ground chocolate between 1,500 and 1,000 BC. They were the first in the world to do so after seeing birds eating it in the jungle.
It was eaten and drunk unsweetened, typically as part of religious ceremonies, as a treat, or a special occasion food. It was consumed only by kids of age eight or nine or older.
Chocolate was used in specific ceremonies with the common people. When kids turned nine years of age, corresponding with the months in utero, there was a group ceremony with chocolate if the parents allowed it.
Then, when children turned 13 and entered adulthood, they were allowed to drink it. At 13, they were able to own property and marry.
Chocolate was also consumed during pregnancy, the only non-ceremonial time when it was allowed. It was known as “chocolatunity,” used for cleansing and purification. It has folic acid and other beneficial ingredients for the baby.
The Health Benefits of Chocolate and Mayan Chocolate
The Mayan people knew about the health benefits of cacao. They found the fruit with the bean inside and ground it into a paste. Then, they would mix it with hot water.
Now, we may know a bit more scientifically about the health benefits. Chocolate has antioxidants that help to slow the aging process. It has B vitamins, helps to lower blood pressure, regulates cholesterol, and helps with diabetes, among other things.
There’s a long list of health benefits that we now know. The Maya may not have had as many of the specifics, but they knew it was beneficial.
Our guide shared that the addition of chile and allspice was a “pleasant accident.” They used their mano and metate (Mayan grinding stone) to make their food, and they consumed chile and allspice with their meals. As a result, some left on the grinder was ground into the cocoa.
The Spanish later introduced sugar in the 18th century, as well as cinnamon. So, the “Mexican chocolate” you know of, including chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, and chile, is actually Mayan chocolate.
The Spanish later started baking with chocolate. Until then, only the Mayans consumed chocolate, and it was drunk with hot water only.
About AJAW Chocolate
Ajaw is a Mayan word that means elite or royal rulers. They are considered almost like a Mayan group or sect. According to our guide, Adrian, the elite class was allowed to eat chocolate, but the common people were limited to special ceremonial and religious occasions.
The owners, Adrian and Elida Choco, are of Mayan descent. They established this business in 2014 to provide a historical experience that educates and promotes the Mayan culture.
This family-owned and run business offers tours to all ages. They want people to learn about and appreciate the original flavors and the history of chocolate and chocolate-making.
It’s a small building right on one of the main roads near the center of town and easy to get to. There is also a nearby farm where they offer tours for those interested.
Chocolate Tour Belize—AJAW Chocolate
You’ll find a lot of different Belize chocolate tours. This one was convenient as we stayed several days in San Ignacio, but that wasn’t the only reason we went with them.
Ajaw chocolate teaches the traditional Mayan ways and the associated history. It’s also a small, local business, and I love supporting them!
Additionally, it’s a very affordable tour, and they are quite flexible, offering them hourly throughout the day. We booked a couple of tours and were able to fit this one in at our convenience.
There is a waiting room with some interesting exhibits showing the history and timeline of chocolate consumption, consumption by country, and more.
This room also has a small shop. More on that later!
AJAW Chocolate Tour
AJAW offers a one-hour session where they cover everything in a large and comfortable classroom setting. Chairs are widely spaced in a large circle, so everyone gets a good seat. In the center is a small cacao plant.
Our guide was Adrian, the owner. First, he introduced himself and then he introduced us to the name Ajaw and how to pronounce this Mayan word. (It’s pronounced like “show.”)
There were originally three types of cacao pods: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario, which was a hybrid of the first two created by the Spanish, I believe. Now, you’ll find 27 species of cacao.
The species all grow in certain climates, with some growing in this area and different types growing in the southern part of the country.
It takes around six months to go from flowers to a pad. Then six more weeks to process them into chocolate.
This pod that Adrian showed us was a bright yellow, indicating it was ripe. He cut into it and showed us the cocoa seeds inside. What was surprising is that when we tasted them, they tasted of tart citrus! That was until we bit into the center, and it was a very bitter, deep cocoa.
Once the fruit (the white seeds) are picked, they are stored for fermentation. They are heated at a high temperature and mixed daily with the liquid created from the process for around five to fourteen days.
Then, they are washed, spread, and dried, becoming cocoa beans. If you break open the skin and crumble them, they become cocoa nibs (similar to what we can get in the store).
AJAW Chocolate Tour Details
If you’re interested in taking an AJAW chocolate tour, here is the information you’ll need:
- Ajaw offers one-hour tours from 9 to 6, Monday to Saturday, every hour. Walk-ins are welcome, though if you’re in a group, you might want to make a reservation to ensure they can take you at the time you’d like. You can make a reservation here: https://www.ajawchocolate.com/book-now/.
- There is room for around eight people on each tour.
- The tour costs $14 USD.
- Anyone age eight or older is welcome to join the tour.
- AJAW Chocolate is located at Benque Viejo Road, San Ignacio, Belize. It’s just outside the center of town, within a ten-minute walk, if that.
- They also offer a chocolate farm tour in addition to the chocolate-making tour. This one is from 2-3 hours. Reservations are required, and there must be at least two people. It does entail a short, 3-mile drive to the family farm of cacao trees to learn about cacao farming in the area. Then, you return to the shop for the chocolate-making part of the tour.
Shop at AJAW Chocolate
AJAW Chocolate has a small shop packed with lots of cacao products. They sell dried cacao beans, cocoa tea, cacao nibs (sweetened and unsweetened), cocoa powder, and more!
AJAW Chocolate also sells these small chocolate items that look like small lollipops. They come in three to a pack and are flavored with allspice and cinnamon. Put them in with milk, and you get rich Mayan hot chocolate!
They also have chocolate liqueur (where was this when we were there??), chili and ginger chocolate bars, tee shirts, and some souvenirs.
I purchased a sprinkling of their items to try and share. The cacao beans are, as one friend put it, “a complex explosion of flavor in your mouth.” The flavor seems to change as you chew them, ranging from bitter to a rich, deep cocoa flavor.
The cocoa tea was interesting. It has a light cocoa flavor that is quite pleasant.
It’s fun to take these items home to share, and they pack well (except for the chocolate bars). You get to share the experience with others and educate them! But you also get to relive the experience through the conversation, and who can beat that?
Should You Take the AJAW Chocolate Tour?
We had a really great time taking this San Ignacio chocolate tour with the Ajaw Chocolate Belize chocolate company. It was one of the highlights of our time in San Ignacio and well worth it.
Not only did we learn more about one of my favorite foods, but Adrian is very interesting, knowledgeable, and engaging. Since it’s such an immersive experience, the time flew by!
We got to taste every step of the process. And we even got to grind the cocoa on Adrian’s mano and metate. Participating in the process was so much fun, and he was so great about answering our questions about traditional Mayan chocolate.
This is one of those culturally immersive experiences that are so much fun when traveling. I’ll tell you—I’ll never look at chocolate in the same way again! And now, I’ll be calling it Mayan chocolate when I mix it with cinnamon and chile! Yum!
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