Holy Cacao: How an Ancient Mayan Superfood Became a Centerpiece of Modern Hippie Culture

Cacao Fruit Costa Rica

Cacao is steeped in the right kind of ancient history that draws our attention and desire to connect with the wisdom of people’s past. In fact, there are now entire “ceremonies” that are built around the tropical crop, complete with shamanic guidance. If you’re a part of modern hippie culture, you already know all of this. For the rest of us, here’s a little background of how this ancient Mayan superfood has taken center stage in the world of wellness.

Cacao is a fruit that grows on a tree in the tropics. It looks something like a pointy-ended delicata squash. Depending upon the variety, the skin can be red, yellow, or green when ripe. Inside, the cacao fruit is filled with seeds covered in translucent white pulp. The pulp is juicy and sweet, delicious raw. Tasting it, you wouldn’t know that it was part of the same fruit that is used to make chocolate. And if you didn’t know how chocolate was made, you’d simply spit the seeds out onto the ground and think nothing of it.

That’s because the cacao seeds, or cocoa beans, also taste nothing like the chocolate that you’re used to. Almond-like in size and shape, they are bitter and nutty when raw; if you’ve had cacao nibs before, you’ve had raw or minimally processed cacao seeds, crushed up into crunchy little fragments. Roasted, the flavor of the seeds more closely resembles the flavor of dark chocolate that we are accustomed to. You probably won’t come across fresh cacao fruit at your local grocery store, but make sure to look out for it the next time you come across a fruit stand in the tropics. It is truly delicious.

Modern hippie culture perhaps hasn’t embraced the cacao fruit for its satisfying flavor.

City Slicker, Meet Cacao Ceremony

I naively didn’t realize that I’d been to a cacao ceremony until I read about it off my laptop in Brooklyn.

A couple years ago, I had been visiting friends at Punta Mona, a permaculture farm and educational center nestled in the jungle of southeastern, Caribbean Costa Rica. Permaculture is a type of system in which everything can be sustained within itself: food, water, shelter, waste. I got to Punta Mona the same day that a shamanic yoga training group had arrived. My friends, the directors of the place, said that I was welcome to join in with any of the group’s yoga activities, a program that was led by a stellar guru named Juan Pablo Barahona, Juanpa for short. The first activity was to take place at 6 o’clock in the evening the yoga shala, a large open-air structure that my friends had built from fallen, tropical timber on their property.

When the time came, we all met in the shala, arranging ourselves in a circle where we listened to Juanpa talk for awhile about things that I can’t recall. Enlightening things, I presume. I grew impatient, wondering when the “yoga” was going to happen; I was looking forward to doing some vinyasa flows surrounded by shamanic yogis, which is a movement that I still don’t quite understand. Little did I know, we weren’t gathered there to “do” anything. Merely, we were all there to take in, to listen, to contemplate.

At some point, someone passed around small cups that were then filled with a bitter and tasty brew of cacao, cinnamon, other unnamed herbs. We were to drink the warm liquid, and then the music would start. There was a basket of percussive instruments set up in the middle that we could access at our leisure. Juanpa began to lead a chant. The trainees began to improvise and add new sounds into the mix, clinking tambourines, stomping their feet, using their breath to create noise.

I held back, a “non-shamanic” city girl unused to improvised chants and music, a bit embarrassed that I did not have it in me to let myself go. There was never an announcement that this was a cacao ceremony, but looking back, it’s clear to me that that’s exactly what it was. At the time, I simply thought that my farm-nerd friends wanted to showcase the yummy crops that they had been able to grow at Punta Mona.

The music and dance rose and fell, and when all grew quiet, we were then directed to sit in our thoughts for a moment. Juanpa then encouraged us to say aloud whatever we had in our hearts, spontaneously. I remember one woman from Brazil expressing what seemed to me to be a cloying platitude about love, the kind of thing you would find written in hokey script on an unsightly refrigerator magnet. Clearly, the cacao ceremony had not magically unleashed the loving energy locked up in my heart chakra. I had had no revelations. The ceremony ended, and we were all dismissed to dinner.

A few months later, I was expressly invited to a cacao ceremony. I recall rolling my eyes and asking myself, “What the heck is a cacao ceremony?” Juanpa might have told me that the answer was within me already.

Cacao, Then and Now

Cacao was a sacred food in Olmec and Maya culture. It was also was a prominent feature of society and community. “You would have to get together to prepare the chocolate,” explained Joel Palka, an expert on Maya culture, to Smithsonian Magazine. The cacao seeds may even have been used as currency for a time, based on an examination of its depiction in Maya artwork.

Cacoa Ceremony

As a beverage prepared traditionally, cacao was reserved for special occasions or for people of high status. It did not resemble the sweetened, creamy hot cocoa that we drink by the fire on a cold winter’s night. Instead, the beverage was a frothy, bitter drink, perhaps spiced with chili peppers or flavored with vanilla. Not until the arrival of Spanish conquistadores did the cacao begin to undergo its sweet transformation.

Though no one knows exactly what ancient cacao ceremonies were like, modern cacao ceremonies are based on the idea that cacao had been used by pre-Columbian cultures as part of a sacred, heart-opening journey. At least, that’s according to most of the hippie-yogi resources out there. It’s become a given at consciousness festivals and is the subject of new age workshops. Raw cacao itself is a staple ingredient at healing, purifying elixir bars.

Modern hippie culture has embraced all kinds of these chakra-opening experiences; consider the relative popularity of ayahuasca, the purge-inducing psychedelic brew that takes you on an intense journey into inner and outer space, with the guidance of an experienced shaman. Cacao ceremonies, too, are considered to be shamanic healing experiences, though the bitter brew won’t cause you to trip. Drinking too much of it might make you vomit, but this is not part of the experience or a process of existential purging — you’ve merely had too much, and your stomach is upset.

The Health Benefits of Cacao

Though the anthropology of cacao is ambiguous in places, the science behind cacao isn’t. Modern research has revealed to us that cacao contains the bitter alkaloid theobromine, a vasodilator and bronchodilator. In other words, the active component in cacao opens up your blood vessels and helps you take in more oxygen. It can also relax your esophageal sphincter to the point that you’ll experience acid reflux (which may factor into why drinking too much cacao induces vomiting).

Theobromine also has mood-lifting, euphoric effects and stimulates your heart. It once was even used medicinally as a treatment for hypertension. For all of you etymological nerds out there, the word “theobromine” comes from the scientific name of cacao, Theobroma cacao, “theo” meaning god and “broma” meaning food in Greek: “Food of the gods.” Between the ancient, shamanic lore surrounding cacao in Mesoamerica and the current-day science on its medicinal benefits, the cacao fruit seems is well-poised to take its place among the exalted superfoods that modern hippie culture loves to embrace.

A Superfood Disclaimer

The health and wellness industry also has a hand in elevating foods like raw cacao to superfood status, and this is always done with profits in mind. With a growing demand and worsening climate conditions for cacao production, reports reveal that there’s a good chance that there will be a greater demand for cacao than there is a supply by 2020, meaning that the price of cacao products (including raw cacao and chocolate) will dictate that only the wealthier of us can afford to eat of this sacred fruit. In a strange twist of history, this brings us full circle to the fact that cacao was not historically available for the masses.  

Superfood Cacao

As of today though, there are literally hundreds of companies out there who are peddling raw cacao powder or nibs to customers looking to boost their smoothies and bowls of chia seed pudding. While superfoods are typically “real” foods with real benefits, it’s worth understanding that they have simply taken the place of the “magic pill” that people hope will cure them of their ills and imbalances. There are plenty of humble “normal” foods and herbs that can greatly improve your health, and you won’t need to import them from far-flung locales to consume them.

That being said, if you ever get invited to a cacao ceremony, accept the invitation! It’s a harmless and potentially heart-opening way to get your fix of this revered crop — and if you’re open, you might even tap into the very same sacredness that the ancients appreciated about the bitter, unassuming cacao seed.

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