The cacao farm was not our first choice for an excursion but Ian, our host at Hickatee Cottages in Punta Gorda, Belize, brought it up a few times on the evening we arrived, as we were planning our activities for the next three days, and so I finally asked him exactly what tours he recommended. He quickly said, “The cacao farm, Blue Creek Cave, the Mayan ruins of Lubaantum, and Rio Bianco waterfall. You can do all that in two days and I’ll get you the best guide. Then you can take a day to explore Punta Gorda itself.”
We already trusted Ian’s judgment, just from the beauty of the little B&B he ran with his wife, Kate, on the edge of the jungle at the southern tip of Belize, so we said OK and Ian sprang into action and set it up. It all turned out fabulously.
The next morning Best Guide Jose showed up promptly at 8:45. Jose looked about 20 but turned out to be 34 and the father of six children. We learned this and more about Jose because he told us his life story and much about contemporary Mayan culture as he took us on a sedate drive (handling us like fragile glass over the bumps) into the lovely countryside.
There was a sweet intelligence about Jose, and kindness, and energy. He was one of a series of extraordinary people we would encounter during our 10-day vacation, including a Garifuna drummer named Ronald Raymond McDonald (yes, named after the clown), and the cacao farmer Jose took us to meet on that first day, Eladio Pop. (Later, in the snorkeling part of our vacation, we would meet many amazing marine residents of the reef off of Pelican Beach Resort in South Water Caye, but I don’t know their names.)
Halfway into our tour of Eladio Pop’s 35-acre cacao farm I realized we were on holy ground. Eladio certainly thinks of his farm that way. He described how he started out when he was 14 years old by asking the land and God how to farm in an entirely natural way, and how, over the next 40 years, he followed the guidance of the plants and insects and the Spirit hovering over his shoulder as he went about planting, composting, introducing and observing other plants that made themselves at home in this little ecosystem. He said it was a matter not only of hard work but of “being awake,” noticing everything that happened, how things worked together, what made the plants and insects and soil happy, who liked to live with whom, the time things needed to happen, the prayers that needed to be offered and who should offer them.
For example, he said he had noticed the day before that a certain shrub had been holding its flowers in a position that was “praying for rain.” And then the rain came–a downpour as we were driving to the farm that let up just before our tour. All because a plant prayed, although by then I was coming to think of Eladio as a kind of priest. When I suggested that he did not deny it.
Eladio is in love with his farm, his work, and chocolate but his food forest offers many other goodies as well. We sampled raw cacao beans (taste like lemony edamame), hearts of palm, sugarcane, sesame, and allspice as we wandered through his hilly groves and then, at his home, we were treated to a fine lunch prepared by his wife and several daughters. We bought baskets made by more daughters and, of course, lots of chocolate bars made by yet another daughter (he has eight, and seven sons) and sipped honey-sweetened hot chocolate from calabash cups. The Pop family chocolate tastes earthy and smoky and blessed.
Eladio is a pioneer in permaculture, a sophisticated farming method that creates self-sustaining, closed-cycle, food-producing ecosystems. People pay a lot of money to learn permaculture these days but Eladio is entirely self-taught, Spirit-taught, taught by the earth. A beautiful human being in a beautiful country.