Choco Story Uxmal
Combine a walk in this delightful jungle garden with the Maya chocolate story, taste a cocoa drink, experience a Maya ceremony, and spend time with the animals at the fauna refuge.
Choco story Uxmal is an antidote to the nearby Uxmal ruins, if you are here with small children. Think of it as a special treat for them as it is a sensory museum. I came to Choco story in March 2018, with a group of Slovak visitors. I had already been to the Cacao Museum in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas but here you get a bonus: the walk in the jungle garden.
All trees are labelled, including the cocoa trees (they were in fruit, having the cocoa pods on them). We admired yaxché (ceiba, the sacred tree for the Maya), kuyché (cedar, that keeps bugs away), tzalam (wild tamarind used even today by the Maya for soft drinks), achiote (annatto: its red fruit is used for food colouring), ox (breadnut: the Maya survived the times of drought thanks to this tree as it gave edible nuts from which they learnt to make tortillas), sakyá (zapota or sapodilla: the Maya made chewing gum from its 'chicle sap'), balché (lonchocarpus: the Maya fermented it for alcohol), chaká (known as gumbo-limbo or copperwood, also known as the tourist tree because the tree's bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists), jabín (known as Florida fish-poison tree because extracts from the tree could sedate fish, allowing them to be caught by hand).
We also admired the traditional beehives, as the Maya used to make since ancient times. There are also animal pavilions along the jungle walk, for spider monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, deer and birds. I found this part sad because the animals are in cages. As it happens, one visitor was also making a spider monkey 'mad' by making fun of it and I find that behaviour truly sad.
There are six exhibition houses, built as traditional Mayan houses (with a palapa: the roof made of palm leaves). Here you will learn the role of cocoa through time since the pre-Hispanic era until its arrival in Europe where it was the drink of the Spanish court, as well as the chocolate industry of our times.
Choco-story is part of a network of chocolate museums. There’s one in Brussels, Paris, and also Prague. The museums were created by Eddy Van Belle, a Belgian chocolate businessman. Choco-Story Uxmal is special, because it is the only one located in a jungle garden, with several varieties of cacao trees growing there. An original hacienda once stood on this site, owned by the famous Peón family. The new Belgian owner wanted to rewrite hacienda history through the creation of this cacao plantation and museum. The descendants of the Peón family built the luxury Hotel Uxmal Hacienda next door, on the remainder of the former plantation, and they still grow lemons and chillis in its gardens and fields.
There is a wonderful mix of both indoor and outdoor displays. There are six exhibition halls: The Maya and Cocoa, Cocoa, The Mayan House and Cuisine, The Demonstration and Drinking Chocolate, The Arrival of Chocolate in Europe, and The Manufacture of Chocolate. I will not describe each room. Instead, I will report in my usual structure: The People, The Focus, The Mystery and Don't Miss.
The people: The Maya and Cocoa
The Maya are believed to be the first to have discovered cocoa. Well, we do know that the Olmecs discovered everything before the Maya and they were likely to have been the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruel, possibly as early as 1500 BC. In fact their word, kakawa (kakaua) gave us our word 'cacao'.
In its earliest forms, the Maya also used cocoa to create a ritual beverage that was shared during marriage ceremonies. Fermented beverages made from cocoa date back to 350 BC. They considered cocoa a medicine and an aphrodisiac. They also used cocoa butter as a cosmetic for their faces. Ancient paintings show cacao in mythological scenes and even court proceedings. Cacao pots were also buried with people, for example the ruler of Ek' Balam, Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', who ruled the Ek' Balam kingdom between 770-801 AD, had a pottery vase for drinking chocolate next to his head in his burial chamber. King Jaguar Claw from Calakmul was also buried with his chocolate vase (697 AD). There is also a burial in the first room at Choco Story in Uxmal and the deceased is buried with his drinking vessels. The Maya considered cocoa the 'food of the gods'. It was not a drink for everybody, only for the rulers and the noblemen.
In the early 12th century, cacao made its way to the Mixtec and Zapotec tribes of the Oaxacan region of Mexico. The Codex Zouche-Nuttall states that chocolate was used to seal a marriage of the Mixtec ruler 'Eight Deer' at Monte Albán. The word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs: xocólatl (shokolatl), which means 'bitter water'. Why bitter? Because there was no sugar in Central America. Xocólatl was a liquid made from crushed cacao beans, chilli peppers, and water. The Maya liked to add honey to it, or vanilla. They poured the liquid from one cup to another to create a frothy foam. They also used frothers, which can be seen at this museum. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, cocoa was on general sale and was drunk not just by the nobles.
The Focus: chocolate production
For me the focus of the visit was the jungle walk, combined with the exhibition 'huts'. The 'hut' not to miss is the second one, which deals with the cultivation of the fruit.
Cacao is indigenous to Mesoamerica, just like maize, beans and squash, and has been cultivated from wild species. But unlike these other species, cacao is not a staple crop that provides nutrients necessary for basic survival; rather it is a luxury crop.
At some point, cocoa beans became a currency. For example, you could buy a rabbit for 10 cocoa beans and a slave for 100 beans.
The Cocoa exhibition hall deals with the cultivation of the fruit, planting, harvesting to fermentation. Here you will learn that cocoa trees grow in hot, rainy tropical areas. A harvest typically occurs over several months. A cocoa pod (fruit) has a rough, leathery rind filled with sweet pulp and soft seeds. A typical pod contains 30 to 40 beans. The harvested pods are opened, typically with a machete, to expose the beans. The pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps and laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo "sweating", where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments.
The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving the cacao beans behind to be collected. Due to heat buildup in the fermentation process, cacao beans lose most of their purplish hue and become mostly brown in colour. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans. If sweating is interrupted, the resulting cocoa may be ruined. The wet beans are then fermented and dried. The beans are removed from the pods and covered with banana leaves for three to seven days to dry. Once the cacao beans are dried, the outer membrane (a fibrous husk) becomes hard and is referred to as a shell. The shell has to be removed (to prevent 'off' flavour) and this step is called the winnowing process (the same process applies to wheat and rice). In the past this was done by hand; today machines are used. Hand winnowing uses a basket and the cacao beans are tossed into the air. As the beans are repeatedly tossed, the brittle shells break apart and separate from the beans. To be effective, winnowing must be done outside in windy conditions (the wind blows away the lighter shells).
The cacao tree requires delicate care. It needs plenty of water and shade. There are three main varieties of cacao: Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero. The most delicate variety is cacao criollo, also greatly desired for its taste and texture. This variety makes up only 5% of the cacao cultivated worldwide and is grown mainly in Mexico.
Mystery: The rain ceremony
The Maya ceremony is performed regularly, as soon as there are enough visitors. The ceremony is called Chá Chaac ('ask for rain'). Chaac is the God of Rain (also spelt as Chac, Chaak, Chaák or Chaakh). I have spelt him throughout my blog as Chac so I will stick to that.
This is an ancient ritual, which remains a part of everyday life among the Maya people. It is not something re-enacted just for the tourists. Chac is the benefactor and provider of rain and life and still has a huge importance for today’s Maya (in the past they had times of severe drought that brought their civilisation to an end, so they continue to pray for rain).
The Maya shaman's presence is required in this ritual to call forth the god Chac and ask him that in exchange for the tribute that is offered (in this place chocolate beverage and some leaves), the blessing of rain is granted to them. The rain ceremony starts when the priest begins to pray (in the Mayan language) and makes offerings to Chac. He asks his helpers to stand at each corner to throw the offering into the wind. The ceremony also ends with each rainmaker going away to the four cardinal directions. This is because each world direction was connected with one aspect of Chac and with a specific colour:
- Chaak Xib Chaac, was the Red Chaac of the East
- Sak Xib Chaac, the White Chaac of the North
- Ex Xib Chaac, the Black Chaac of the West
- Kan Xib Chaac, the Yellow Chaac of the South.
While the main shaman prays to the rain god, the other rainmakers make music, by blowing conch shells and using percussive instruments. To blow a conch shell is a pretty difficult task; I tried it but can't produce the sound. Clay whistles and wooden trumpets were also used in the past, and the kayum was used as a percussive instrument: an upright single-headed cylindrical or kettle-shaped drum, played barehanded. The arms were covered by a tied hide, and the base joining the two arms is filled with water, enabling the player to adjust the pitch of the drum. At the Uxmal ceremony one cylindrical drum was used and the other type of drum that was used is called tunkul. It is also an ancient instrument and it continues to be popular in Yucatán. It emits a dry sound similar to a box hit with drumsticks. Made from cedar, mahogany, and zapote wood, it can be carved with decorative figures like frets and other designs. If you ever see a show of Mayan folk dances in Yucatán, you are likely to encounter this instrument.
The rain ceremony sometimes also involves four men (one at each world direction) making sounds like frogs. The local Maya that I met in Yucatán villages told me that as children they were asked by their parents to sit under the table and imitate the frog sounds. This ritual is still practised today even within families.
If the rain ceremony is held in a village, all the people participate in this ceremony and in the end the offerings are consumed by the residents themselves.
First the hens are slaughtered and put to boil to prepare cóol (a broth of vegetables and boiled chicken); then people shape the 13 tamales, symbolising the 13 layers of the Mayan skies. At the end of the ceremony the remains of the offerings (leaves and vegetables) are buried under the altar to preserve the request. The people who attend the ritual receive a cleansing from the shaman, to be cured of bad spirits.
Don't miss: Chocolate tasting
The demonstration of preparing the chocolate drink is in Pavilion 4, starting with grinding the beans on a metate (a mealing stone), adding water and boiling the drink over a hot stove. The drink is served hot and is slightly bitter (but delicious). You can add cinnamon, chilli, allspice or sugar to your drink. It is certainly very interesting to try it with chilli; you can balance it off with cinnamon. Note the traditional tools for stirring the chocolate (frothers), to make the foam (on the demonstration table).
There is also a chocolate store where visitors can buy a great variety of artisan chocolates and spa products. Last but not least, there is a ceramic shop with beautiful sculptures of Maya figurines. Not cheap but they are not cheap trinkets either; this is proper art of good quality.
The cost is 140 pesos per person, discounts for the locals, local students and pensioners.
Open Monday to Sunday 9am to 7pm (on their website page they claim to be open till 8pm in the winter. This was not the case when we were there in March 2018).
How to get there:
Choco Story is located at km 78 on the Mérida-Campeche highway, next to Hotel Hacienda Uxmal.
It is a two-minute ride from the ruins of Uxmal. You can get there from TAME bus terminal in Mérida, located on 69th street between 68th and 70th in Mérida downtown. By car, use the highway to Uxmal. From Playa del Carmen or Cancún the fastest way is to go along highway 180, pass Mérida and turn off at the village of Uman. The road is signposted well but in Uman the trick is to turn off under the bridge. If you go over the bridge, you have missed the turning point.
Mix & Match:
Definitely visit after the ruins of Uxmal, located a 2-minute drive from the museum.