Our inspiration and motivation for this innovative out of the tourist loop trip we owe to our bicycle friends Basil Yokarinis and Alixa who conduct superb Yucatan bicycle tours that happen to extend into far reaching ends of Mexico. http://www.bikemexico.com/
When it comes to researching their itinerary they are tops!
Computer savvy Basil combines GPS positions with Google-Earth to get the very best routes and studies mountainous quantities of research material to compile into itineraries especially tailor-made for excursions for their individual tour groups
Jane and I made our first of many trips through the state of Tabasco back in the mid-1980s when there were no bridges along the Gulf Coast…only rusty old ferry boats that sometimes were laid up for repairs or shut down for lack of fuel. We have driven the beach or ambled through coconut plantations when the road was washed away. We have put our faith in a string of wooden sticks extending out into a pond of floodwater extending off to the horizon across Tabasco’s wetlands supposedly marking the submerged road below.
Many innovative upgrades have been made over the years like all new bridges replacing the dilapidated old ferryboats but last year Mother Nature again played her trump card and submerged more than 80% of the entire state of Tabasco under hurricane season rainwater.
Basil and Alixa, our bicycle buddies, also put us on to a book that absolutely primed our inquisitive pump and whet our adventurous appetite for another dimension in Mexican travel.
The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. This must read compendium of historical fact coupled with intriguing well illustrated chronological stories begins here in our very own back yard…southern Mexico seven thousands years ago when the Olmec of the Tabasco region first cultivated and consumed “cacao”.
The Olmec melded into the Maya who continued with cacao and brought it to the Yucatan even using it as currency.
A few weeks ago Jane and I had the good fortune to make a bike and bus trip to the Mayan town of Sotuta and there we discovered the last pre-conquest Mayan link to cacao that was being cultivated at the time by the chieftain Nachi Cocom.
When the Spanish arrived with their cattle they completely changed the ecology and the agricultural habits of Yucatan and the indigenous Maya.
Ironically our next step in this adventure story led us to the furthest western Mayan settlement of Mexico in the state of Tabasco at Comalcalco.
To make this story even more interesting, this is the very spot where seven thousand years ago the first Olmec settled, “The cradle of American civilization”, and became the first to cultivate cacao.
To this day cacao continues to be produced in this same region!
Here is our bike and bus back-country tour story with captioned photos;
On the street of our first stop in tropical Tabasco, we are in the river city of Frontera.
South of Frontera along the mighty river Grijalva, this quiet road meanders through extraordinarily beautiful lush and exuberantly green tropical wetlands where bananas grow everywhere like wild weeds.
“Paletas”, are popsicles and here in the land of cacao chocolate is a standard item…the chocolate cream paletas are worth the effort of the trip.
Early morning on Frontera’s placid waterfront. This is the expansive delta country where numerous mighty meandering rivers flow down to drain the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala. This river system has countless tributaries dotted with isolated villages perched in small savannahs only accusable by boat in a prolific ever flowering wetland.
Frontera’s waterfront market puts out an ample breakfast of, “huevos a la Mexicana” or Mexican style eggs…beans and rice are standards with almost all meals.
Our first stop in Comalcalco is a restaurant and Ismael Suarez Rodriguez and his happy crew go overboard to please us with hospitality and elegant Tabasco style cuisine that beckons us to return.
In the world of chocolate this modest little candy store in the heart of Comalcalco’s downtown can’t begin to relate the intriguing story behind an eco-friendly family industry that has it roots in a several thousand year old area cacao production beginning with the ancient Olmec.
Ing. Vicente A. Gutiérrez Cacep is the director general and driving force behind “Cacep Chocolates” and he has dedicated his life to the highest standard of quality beginning with the seedlings and each and every step of production to the finished product you see here.
Jane and I bicycled out along a perfectly lovely country road, reminding us very much of Holland through lush green farmland for our early morning guided tour of the Cacep Chocolate Hacienda Jesús Maria and processing facility.
We began our tour at the root of the process in the nursery where several types of cacao plants are germinated and also grafted varieties are created that produce special fruit on specific sized and shaped plants.
The small plant on the left is a cacao started from seed and all the rest are the same age, but grafted and the difference is obvious. The seedling require up to seven years to produce and the grafted varieties begin in four years.
This is the beginning of the fruit, this tiny flower requires a certain insect, known as midges to interact in the germination process. A thick carpet of decaying leaves covering the ground is essential for this delicate process to be carried out.
For cacao production a thick canopy tropical jungle is required with natural composted leaf mulch to work in harmony with the insects and bacterias that make the cycle complete.
This is a completely eco-friendly plantation where no insecticides or herbicides are used, only naturally prepared plant substances are administered for nutrients and repellents.
Within the cacao fruit pod are located the seeds packed in a white creamy ooze that is wonderfully flavorful and it is a delight to suck that creamy covering.
I am surprised that nobody had made a market for this heavenly ambrosia that is only washed away in processing.
In the above photo of cacao being sun dried you will notice two different colors. The light brown beans in the foreground are called “lavabos” or washed. The darker brown beans in the background are known as “fermentados” or fermented, a process that takes up to seven days and causes sprouting to occur changing the flavor aspect completely.
Cacao beans smoking hot out of the roaster are done for a special order. This is but one of many steps in a very complicated process that transforms the cacao into various end products that range from candy bars to chocolate for drinks and various powdered foodstuffs.
Smiling, efficient and helpful production manager, Mariana Triano Cupil guided us through the hospital-clean final manufacturing facility, part of Cacep chocolate.
Learn more about this incredible operation at http://www.cacep.com/ in English or Spanish and see first hand the many types of eco-friendly one-hundred percent natural products produced here where it has been cultivated several thousand years.
After a wonderful time with a special friendship formed Jane and I pose with the owner of Cacep Chocolates Vicente A. Gutiérrez Cacep and his retired but still active father.
Here at Comalcalco in the land of the ancient Olmec Indians, “The cradle of American Civilization” is located the western most Mayan temples of the later Chontal Maya.
Third from the left in the above photo is archeologist José Jacobo Mugarte Moo, the director of these historically important ruins, the only Mayan ruins ever built of brick. View video of The Mayan ruins below:
Every afternoon on this downtown Comalcalco street corner this man sets up shop selling his collection of live land-crabs ready to take home and steam up.
We have also seen this fresh food business in the Bahamas Islands, but it only flourishes in tropical places with extensive unpopulated beaches.
Little investment is required, they are caught by hand and as you can see the no expensive merchandising is required to make the sale.
Fresh milk is still delivered on the streets of Comalcalco by bicycle and dispensed in a tin measuring cup by the smiling milkman.
Owner and operator, Victor Fuentes del Lizama of Hotel Pat Mal, where we enjoyed our clean, quiet, cool and convenient room where we were able to roll our bicycles right into our room.
We were frequent visitors to the clean municipal market in Comalcalco. Scenes from the market are below:
More information from the True History of Chocolate
THE TRUE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe
A few memorable quotes from this history/text/story book;
“As for the possibilities of raising cacao trees in Yucatán, there are major natural obstacles. Firstly, its rainfall is relatively scanty, and gets progressively more so as one moves to the northwestern part of the peninsula. Secondly, being a limestone karst plane, there are virtually no rivers, and the rich alluvial soils favorable to cacao growth are absent. Only in the lands bordering Chetumal bay in the southeast, and along the
In summery, given all the foregoing information, we should be convinced that the Aztecs rang many more changes on the chocolate theme than do we, who are so indissolubly tied to drinks that are sweet. The mere idea of chocolate without sugar seems incomprehensible to most of us.
Such was the context in which English men and women first took up the three great alkaloid-bearing drinks; tea, coffee, and chocolate. Although these drinks originated in three different continents- Asia, Africa, and America respectively-and came to England by different routes, they arrived virtually simultaneously (coffee being the earliest by only a few years).
So, in a market report of 1991,