My Tropical Chocolate Adventure

I’m in the jungle, and a beautiful young woman approaches me and bows. Her name is Asti, and she tells me to sit on a soft cushion and gives me a gentle footbath with lemongrass and clove oil.

Next Asti invites me to lie face down on a table draped in chocolate-colored sheets. She begins covering me, systematically, limb by limb, with a mixture of chocolate and honey, followed by a sugar scrub—soft, silky, scratchy, and wonderful. Did I forget to say sticky?

I turn over and Asti continues to slather my body, and soon I am covered neck to toes in a gooey mess. A purifying steam bath melts the chocolate away and detoxifies at the same time. My skin feels transformed: firm all over yet buttery to the touch.

Then the massage begins. Again I lie face down, and Asti asks permission to add some Balinese techniques. What follows is completely new. Asti climbs up on the table and, using her body weight, applies pressure to my back, arms, and legs. At one point Asti pounds her fist on the bottom of my feet. Smack, smack. The pressure is deep, and the work she does on my spine and lower back is revelatory. When I turn over, Asti works on my skull and head, again using a kind of smacking technique to my forehead. As a finale, she massages my face.

Afterwards, I am enveloped in the scent of chocolate and I feel 10 years younger. Welcome to choco-heaven.

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A RAINBOW OF FLAVORS

Sometimes the universe aligns in indescribably perfect ways. Peter and I have come to this beautiful resort called Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Riviera Maya, Mexico, to begin a choco-vacation through Mexico and Belize. We are on a quest to learn as much as we can about the cacao bean, its history and traditions, as well as culinary and medicinal uses. Who knew chocolate could be so healthy?

We’re in choco-paradise, thanks to a chance meeting last summer with the editor of Destination Weddings and Honeymoons, who asked me to write a story about chocolate-themed honeymoons in Mexico and Belize. Yes, I can do that. Fast forward, and here we are listening to waves crashing, palm fronds rustling, and birds singing in the Maya jungle on the shores of the Caribbean Sea. The autumn temperature is ideal, around 75°F.

Banyan Tree Mayakoba, part of a collection of international luxury resorts based in Singapore, is the first of three destinations we’ll visit as we research this assignment. The resort is a stunner—with Far-East architecture and décor, lots of water features, and attentive staff. Our spacious villa offers peaceful privacy, a splash pool perfect for a morning swim, a Jacuzzi, and an outdoor bathtub under the stars, where Peter and I are treated to a Romantic Bath one evening—complete with dozens of candles, hundreds of rose petals, and delicious chocolate and honey goo for a sensual treat. Did someone say honeymoon?

One night we dine at Saffron, the resort’s signature Thai restaurant. We sit on a terrace under a starry sky studded with puffy clouds radiant in the moonlight. We try the tasting menu, a rainbow of colors and flavors: spicy, tangy dishes with coconut and citrus notes. Back at the villa, a lovely chocolate sculpture awaits, surrounded by raspberries and bonbons. I want to stay here forever.

The next day, our choco-adventure continues at Xcaret, an eco-archaeological park, where Peter and I indulge in the Chocolate Xperience at Xpa. A tiny boat decorated with flowers ferries us across a peaceful lagoon to a cave, where we are scrubbed with cacao powder and then doused in a chocolate spread. I peek at Peter part way through, and he’s coated in chocolate. Even our faces are covered. I have chocolate in my nose, between my toes, under my nails, even in my belly button. After the final layer, we rinse off under a waterfall, and then the therapists massage us with silky oil. It’s a chocolate adventure.

Next we attend a chocolate workshop at Xcaret, where we meet Pablo, a friendly 20-year-old, whom Leo, our guide, calls an “old soul.” Pablo shows us how to make chocolate paste using a metate or stone to crush the cacao beans. In an adjoining area, we get down on our hands and knees to make the paste ourselves. It’s surprisingly hard to do, but Pablo helps me and then adds sugar, dried vanilla, pepper, and chili. The result is a yummy, mud-like concoction that will harden into a tablet to be melted in hot milk for authentic Maya hot chocolate. Pablo says the people from his region of Mexico use chocolate in many healing remedies. I wish I had time to find out more.

Later we dine in Playa del Carmen at Yaxché Cuisine, a cozy restaurant on Fifth Avenue with outdoor seating. We relish a special chocolate tasting menu featuring chocolate-inspired dishes including shrimp bathed in a choco-mole sauce. At meal’s end the chef prepares Yaxché’s signature dessert tableside— a Mezcal flambé crepe topped with—wait for it—yummy dark chocolate.

The next day in nearby Cozumel, Peter and I snorkel in turquoise water and see a huge lobster, speckled rays, elegant coral, and fluorescent fish in colorful hues. In town we join a tour of KaoKao Chocolate Factory and learn to make chocolate using grinders. I can’t stop eating the chocolate goo that comes out of the grinder.

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 A RAINFOREST PARADISE

Our next destination is an eco-resort in the jungles of Belize. We drive south in our rental car, crossing the border with ease, to The Lodge at Chaa Creek, located just east of the Guatemalan border. It’s paradise, a destination resort in a sub-tropical rainforest with lush vegetation, exotic birds (we see a toucan moments after we arrive), monkeys and iguanas, luxurious villas (ours is in the treetops overlooking the river), outdoor activities, tours, incredible cuisine, an infinity pool, friendly staff—you get the picture—like I said paradise. When you add chocolate to the mix, look out. You’ll never want to leave.

Our first night we dine in the open-air, thatched-roof restaurant decorated with beautiful mahogany furniture made on site. We hungrily devour our delicious pork chops and a delicate eggplant caponata. Every meal we have here is excellent. The owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, are a lovely couple who have spent their lives carving this unique eco-resort out of the jungle. From its early days as Chaa Creek Cottages, which opened in 1981, it’s grown into a full-featured resort and welcomes guests from around the world. We spend three days here and love every minute.

Yucatan Rosas Xocolate 0434

One of my favorite activities is our horseback ride—2 1/2 hours of muddy fun. After some trotting and cantering, we stop for a rest in an ancient overgrown Maya square. As we walk around, the site feels peaceful and holy—even the horses seem calmer. There are so many secrets under this ground.

What better way to relax after an exhilarating horseback ride than at the Spa at Chaa Creek? The Chocolatissimo Package features five choco-licious spa treatments:  a cocoa scrub, cocoa massage, soothing facial, chocolate pedicure, and a chocolate fondue body wrap. My favorite is the cocoa massage, which I enjoy on the veranda of the spa surrounded by the sounds of nature. It feels like a dream.

One evening Peter and I experience a romantic dinner in the poolside tiki hut lit with glowing candles—just the two of us. A tropical rain shower adds ambiance.

We begin with chocolate-laced cocktails—choco-martini anyone? Everything on the menu except the soup features chocolate. A salad of chicken, pineapple, and chocolate bits is next. For my entrée I try lobster with chocolate mole sauce—yum. Peter loves his beef tenderloin cooked in cocoa butter. It’s an exquisite meal in a fairytale setting. And I’m still not tired of eating chocolate!

One morning we wake up early to meet Goldborn, a staff member who takes us on a bird-watching tour. Goldborn (don’t you just love that name?) says there are 300 species of birds in Belize, and 21 percent are migratory birds from North America. We spot a number of birds including a hummingbird, kiskadee, tityra, chachalaca, motmot, and woodrail. We also meet an ancient black iguana that lives in a hole in a tree.

Another morning Goldborn teaches us about herbal plants and ancient remedies as we stroll along the Rainforest Medicinal Trail. Goldborn tells us about a renowned Maya healer named Dr. Eligio Panti, who lived nearby. Before he died (at age 103!), Dr. Panti shared his knowledge with an apprentice, Dr. Rosita Arvigo, who moved to Belize from Chicago to learn from him. She still lives here and provides medicine to local residents.

A sunset canoe ride is planned for our last evening. Alain, our guide, hands Peter a paddle and tells me to sit in the middle and look pretty. OK, I like having two handsome men paddling me upriver. We pass by cattle egrets roosting in a tree and bats swooping around in the twilight. The men paddle us over a rapid, but decide to turn around at the next one. The float downstream goes by quickly, and we walk back to the lodge in the dark serenaded by jungle sounds. Three days is not enough time to enjoy all there to do at this fabulous eco-resort—but another choco-hotel beckons.

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A CHOCOLATE TRANCE

Our last destination is Merida, the capital of Yucatan. We stop about an hour south of the city at a new attraction beside the ancient ruins of Uxmal. Choco-Story is an interactive museum that explores—you guessed it—chocolate. After arriving, we join a small group to experience a Maya ceremony honoring Chaac, the rain god. Priests gather around an altar, beat on drums, blow conch shells, chant in ancient Mayan languages, and parade around in a somber ceremony. 

Afterwards we view exhibits in tiki huts about ancient rituals performed on Maya temples, many of which involve human sacrifices. One exhibit describes how people would go into a trance after eating chocolate and volunteer to be sacrificed.  Hmm, a chocolate trance sounds pretty good, but not the other part.

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After our Choco-Story tour, we walk next door to the ancient Maya city of Uxmal. We’ve timed our visit perfectly. It’s mid-afternoon and all the tour buses have left.  As Peter and I walkaround, we realize how little we know about Maya culture. How did they build such monumental structures? I try to climb one of the steep pyramid-shaped temples, get dizzy, and have to turn around and scoot down step-by-step on my bottom. Peter bounds up and down without any problems.

After roaming around Uxmal, we head north to Merida and find our way to Rosas & Xocolate, a beautiful, romantic boutique hotel housed in two restored Colonial mansions. High ceilings, authentic architectural touches, a cozy restaurant with a courtyard, even a rooftop bar—all combine to create a unique fusion of historic and modern, traditional and contemporary. Best of all, Rosas & Xocolate is painted pink!  Our room is spacious and featured a “topless” bathtub, as in outdoors under the sky.

Our first evening, we walk a few blocks to Merida’s main square, where a festival is underway. People dance in the street, families stroll about, and kids carry dripping ice cream cones. It’s a lively scene.

Back at Rosas & Xocolate, we sit on the terrace facing Paseo de Montejo, one of Merida’s most beautiful streets. We choose a nice Spanish Crianza to enjoy with our lovely meal: grouper ceviche in a lime marinade with cilantro; arugula salad with roasted figs and strawberries and cacao nibs; finally, a decadent chicken dish with melted brie. This would be the first of many gourmet meals at Rosas & Xocolate.

The next morning after our delicious (and spicy) Mexican breakfast in the courtyard, Peter and I borrow the hotel’s pink bikes for a ride down the Paseo de Montejo, which is lined with elegant mansions and upscale businesses. Traffic on Montejo is heavy, so Peter and I turn down a side street and cycle through a peaceful neighborhood instead.

After our bike ride, it’s time for my Rosas & Xocolate Experience at the hotel’s cozy spa. When I arrive, the receptionist offers tea and a dish of nuts and dried fruit covered in gooey chocolate. Yum! Next I’m taken to a darkened room, where dozens of candles glow and exotic scents fill the air. My choco-journey begins.

After a sensual cacao and oil scrub, I am toweled off. Then the fun begins. Two therapists start covering me in chocolate goo, and they don’t just smear me with chocolate. They sling it all over my naked body: a storm of chocolate rain. I feel like a Jasper Johns painting. It’s wild. Next I’m wrapped up in a chocolate cocoon while my therapist gives me the most amazing head massage. After being unwrapped, I take a shower and then a different therapist appears to give me a massage with cocoa oil, of course. I am definitely  in a  chocolate trance at this point. The massage is excellent. All told, the Rosas & Xocolate Experience is one of the best spa treatments I’ve ever had. I only wish I could remember it better.

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SMILING EYES

One day we head out of town to do some exploring. We visit a remote beach and collect a few shells. We spot pink flamingos in a wildlife refuge. We stop by another Maya ruin and have the whole place to ourselves. It feels spiritual and peaceful. I bravely climb to the top of a pyramid, where stunning jungle views await.

In the nearby town of Progreso, a cruise ship is docked, and the sidewalks teem with tourists. Massages are offered on the beach, tanned young folks play volleyball, and loud music bellows from a beachfront bar. We sit at a terrace and drink a cold beer. Peter buys a hat from an old Mexican with smiling eyes, and I take a photo of them.

Our last night at Rosas & Xocolate, we indulge in a special chocolate dinner featuring a duck breast in a chocolate mole sauce with lovely peach slices. After dinner, we dive into a chocolate flourless cake served with cardamom ice cream and a dusting of fruit powder. I am speechless with delight.

All good things must end, however, so after packing up the next morning, we relish one last spicy breakfast at Rosas & Xocolate. On the way out of town, we stop in the Grand Museum of the Maya World, a state-of-the-art attraction that tells the story of the Maya culture. There’s so much to learn, and we only have time for a taste.

I leave wanting to know more—more about chocolate, about the Maya culture, about Mexico and Belize. These countries—so close to us—have so many tales to tell. They are rich in culture and warm, friendly people. I can’t wait to go back.

 

The chocolate destinations:

www.banyantree.com

www.chaacreek.com

www.rosasandxocolate.com

 

For more information, go to:

www.rivieramaya.com/en/

www.visitmexico.com

www.travelbelize.org

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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