Monthly Archives: March 2012

First Cacao Farm Tour

Last week I had my first tour of a cacao farm.  I loved it.   I visited Cyrila’s Chocolate, a local chocolate producing farm approximately 10 miles or so outside Punta Gorda.  Juan Cho is the current manager, proprietor, operator of Cyrila’s Chocolate.  Together with his wife Abelina and their two children, Henry and Lucresha, they run the only Maya Chocolate producing operation in the area.

Listening to Juan speak of his heritage, his culture, his family, it was easy to see the pride this individual holds for his Maya roots.  Juan introduced me to  the Maya as he used the words to tell me about his family  history.  One of the first words he spoke to me was K`ulu’ba`ambilat, which means “welcome” in Maya Kekchi.

During the first hour or so while Juan Cho was explaining his vision of the business, his wife Abelina Cho  was performing hostess duties.  She brought out 2 plates of chocolate with different varieties on each plate.  The first plate had chocolate pieces that were 80% cacao.  Tasty, not bitter, sweetened with natural cane sugar, which is grown on another farm owned by the Cho family.  The second plate had samples that were 75% cacao, mixed with cane sugar, cacao nibs and milk.  The nibs add a crunchy texture and contributes additionally to the chocolate flavour.  (On a side note, Juan referred to his wife as “The Chocolate Princess.”)

Also, while we were chatting about the history of Cyrila’s Chocolate, Abelina brought us a pot of chocolate drink.  The mixture was just cacao and water, unsweetened.  The traditional method for serving is to use a calabash cup.  The flavour was quite interesting as the calabash cup seemed to infuse an earthy taste to the chocolate.  Sugar is not generally added as the traditional chocolate drink included hot red pepper for additional flavour.  The Mayan word for the chili pepper drink is Ku-ku.

Next came time for the demonstration of making chocolate using the traditional tools.  The Mano and Metate are used to grind the fermented, roasted partially ground cacao beans into a chocolate paste.  These tools can be compared to a mortar and pestle in function.  The form is different as the metate is a horizontal tray upon which, through a specific technique, the beans and nibs are crushed to make the chocolate paste.  At Cyrila’s Farm the mano and metate is made from basalt, a volcanic stone material that has been handed down through the generations.

Three miles from the farm down more interestingly mother nature carved roads are the cacao fields.  Cyrila’s Chocolate owns 60 acres of jungle with 5 acres used for cacao.  When we arrived at the cacao field, Juan proceeded to explain the 3 main types of cacao pods that are in production. He picked a pod from a tree, and against a second pod picked by myself, he smacked them together to open one.  Cacao does not end up the way it starts and the way it looks is so completely different from what you would expect.  Juan encouraged me to sample one of the beans from inside the pods.  All I can say is interesting.  Doesn’t taste much like chocolate at all.  There is a white milky substance surrounding each bean and this substance has a citrusy, or mango-like flavour.  Not chocolate at all.  The cacao beans are approximately the size of an almond.  After sucking on the cacao bean Juan encouraged me to bite it.  Again, the bean doesn’t taste like chocolate at all.  It is obviously the manufacturing process of fermenting, and roasting the beans that produces the flavour we have come to know and love.

After the tour of the fields was complete we went back to the farm where The Chocolate Princess was preparing lunch for us.  While we waited for the main dish she served fresh pineapple.  Lunch consisted of Chicken Mole (pronounced molay), coleslaw and flour tortillas.  Chicken Mole translates into Chocolate Chicken and it was delicious.  A combination of garlic, onion, red and green sweet pepper, chili pepper, chicken and chocolate.  One minute my mouth was on fire, the next minute it was saying this is sweet and the next it was saying give me more.

We talked a bit more about life in general, enjoyed some fresh-squeezed orange juice and soon it was time to leave.  My impression of the 1/2 day I spent with Juan and his family—WOW!

You can find Cyrila’s Chocolate online at

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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in Toledo District at Work


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Underwater Maya

This week I had an opportunity to attend a public talk about underwater Maya.  IDr. McKillop Speaking Animatedly at BTIA was invited by the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) to attend a kick-off meeting about an archaeological find called Underwater Maya.  The meeting on the morning of March 15 was to provide the BTIA with materials that can be used to inform the public, as well as to invite us all to the formal public talk given at Garbutt’s Marina on the edge of town later in the evening at 7:00 p.m. on the 15th.  The presenter was Dr. Heather McKillop, who is a noted scholar on Mayan archaeology.  She specializes in ancient Maya coastal trade routes and the long-distance exchange of commodities.  She is also, originally, from Stratford, Ontario.

The title of the public talk was “Underwater Maya: Archaeological Tourism to Preserve Paynes Creek National Park Sites, Belize”.   In essence, the subject matter was that of an archaeological find in Paynes Creek.  As many of you know, Belize is riddled with archaeological sites, at least 14, with some of the sites being quite large.  Paynes Creek is another in this long list, but it is with one difference.  It is the only archaeological site where wooden ruins have been preserved and found.

According to Dr. McKillop, the Maya set up a factory to create and trade in salt in the Paynes Creek lagoon and were quite successful for several hundred years.  In the process of their activities they removed the mangrove trees from the waters’ edge and along with rising seas, the landmasses ended up submerged in the Caribbean Sea.   Dr. McKillop and her team were searching for any ruins they could find, (not sure how they picked this particular location) but during their search they came across wooden structures.  TheseAdditional Artifacts wooden structures were buried in the silt and because of this were protected from the natural degradation process that must take place in nature.  Upon removing a piece or two of the wooden structure you could see that these beams were man-made – the ends were chopped to a point.  I wish I had a picture to show of that.

Interestingly, because the wood is subject to degradation, Dr. McKillop used technology.  The artifacts along with some of the wooden beams were recovered and scanned into a computer.  The scanned 3D image was then taken to a 3D printer where replicas of the artifacts were generated.  The wooden pieces were then put back into the water where they will remain protected for several hundred more years.  The clay artifacts have been sent to the government of Belize for addition to its national archives.  The replicas will be placed throughout the Toledo District with various businesses as well as at the BTIA.Mayan Woman Figurine

It is thought that the Maya villagers took sea water, in some cases filtered it to concentrate the salt even further and then boiled the concentrated brine solution over fire.  The salt was then used in trade.  Artifacts were found that were known to be from Guatemala at this Paynes Creek site possibly indicating a barter system for salt.

Ancient Mayan Fact SheetDr. McKillop received a research grant from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and one of the goals of the team is to set up a sustainable archaeological tourism site.  The site, with an information board at the BTIA, as well as a learning platform built at Paynes Creek, will be dedicated to providing ongoing information about the history of this particular Mayan find.  With this goal in mind, Dr. McKillop created fact sheets to be given to tour guides and school teachers.  Fact sheets have been given to a number of businesses in the area to provide information about this find.

It will be interesting to follow this discovery and the tourism outcome.  I learned that it may be possible to participate in the archaeological “dig” with Dr. McKillop’s team and I am going to try and go along.  (The reason the word “dig” is in quotations is because it really isn’t a dig.  The archaeological team floats ,and wearing masks and snorkels, they look for the wooden structures in the water.)

I definitely came away from the evening presentation smarter than when I went in.


Posted by on March 16, 2012 in Toledo District at Work


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My Daily Life in Punta Gorda

One thing I don’t think I have written about is my daily life here in Punta Gorda.   I know I have indicated that people say hello to you when walking down the street.  And I know I have mentioned that people pick me out and talk to me, especially after I hurt my ankle, and I get stopped and asked if I am the RE/MAX lady but I haven’t really described a lot of the other elements that make up my day here.  So that will be the subject of this week’s entry.

Punta Gorda is a small town of approximately 6000 people, made up of 50% Mayan, and the rest are Chinese, East Indian, American, Canadian, British, German, Garifuna, Creole (not necessarily in this order of percentage).  And I am sure there are other groups that are here but I just haven’t identified them.  The interesting thing is that all the grocery stores are run by the Chinese, with the exception of 2 of them, which are run by East Indians.  The Mayans run the little craft shops, several clothing stores and the rest of the businesses are run by the rest.

Down on Front Street is the market.  Front Street is right along the coast so some of the buildings block the view of the water from the market attendees.

None of the so-called grocery stores carry a big selection of fruits and vegetables.  Because electricity is relatively expensive – at almost $0.41 per kilowatt hour – the stores don’t have refrigeration units like we do back home.  So if you want fresh fruits and vegetables you go to the market.  The market is part of my rounds every few days or so.  I buy fresh tomato, potato, onions, carrots, celery, cabbage, zucchini, cucumber, oranges, pineapple.  Mangoes aren’t in season yet.  We can get apples but they are imported and cost $1.00 BZ each.  A Belizean dollar is equal to fifty cents American.  I sometimes buy bananas at the market but this is a rarity because the people I am staying with run a small business called WannaBanana and the product is chocolate covered frozen bananas rolled in coconut.  So she, being Brandie, gets crates of bananas a week.  A crate of bananas containing approximately 100 bananas costs $10.00 BZ.  Thank goodness I love bananas.

So going to the market is a constant activity.  I am sure my brother would love this as he really likes going to the market and gets up at the crack of stupid to get there before the crowds show up.  Here that isn’t such a big deal because the market runs 6 out of 7 days.

Getting groceries is another matter.  Remember those Chinese grocery stores I mentioned?  Well, they are no larger than our convenience stores back home.  And what you can get in one store you can’t get in another.  There are 6 grocery stores in a 1 mile (I am being generous on distance because I am not quite sure) stretch of street.  The staff don’t speak very good english and they don’t put signs out with the name of the store.  So we have come to identify the store as peach chinese, green chinese, lilly’s chinese (named after one of the ladies that works there), chinese beside the chinese restaurant, clean chinese, and it goes on.  You can see how it might be confusing to find your way back to the store where you found product “A”.  I have started a matrix so that I can locate what I want, at the best price, and at the size I want.  One of the stores carries the small bottles of ketchup, while the next one carries the family size of ketchup.  And it is like this for most items.  Some stores carry only soy milk, while others carry both soy and regular cow’s milk.  So, which one is which?  It takes a long time to do the groceries when you want specific items and can’t remember which store carried it.

Some of the grocery stores also carry small apartment size washers and stoves.  Others carry chairs and clothing.  Others carry bicycles.  There is no such things as a store being dedicated to a particular line of goods like there is back home.  You can’t get raisin bran in each store.  You can’t get a 1 litre size of yogurt in each store.   So grocery shopping takes a while too.  Hence, the matrix.

And then all the other little shops – you just have to go into each one to see what is sold in that store.  In one store you can get sewing notions along with clothes and music cds.  In another store you can get wedding dresses, first communion clothing and material to make clothes.

Some days I go to the Fi (fu) Wi (wee) Chikin store where I purchase our meat, chicken mostly.  Which, by the way, is a really good price.  This is one store that does carry some fruits and vegetables.  Today I also picked up stew beef to make stew, so I also picked up 2 potatoes, 2 carrots, and 1 small red pepper.  I can also get grapes here – at $10.00 BZ per pound.  Every now and then I just want some grapes.

I make my purchase and walk back to my place via Front Street. Many of the streets are unpaved which makes for interesting navigation because the potholes and ruts are often filled with water.  Fortunately, the vehicles move slowly so getting splashed doesn’t really happen.

The kids ride their bicycles freely on the streets, people are out walking all the time and generally this is a community of people.  People aren’t stuck in their air-conditioned vehicles or in their air-conditioned homes.  Instead, they are out, getting what they need, and being friendly on the street.  It doesn’t quite make up for missing family members back home, but I think my days would be less bearable if people here weren’t as friendly as they are.

Even with the ex-pat community – we have all come here for some personal reason, shared or not, and because of this we form bonds a little easier with each other.  We are all outsiders together sharing one common element – our desire to start a new life someplace where life is not quite so hectic, where you can stop and sit on the dock of the bay, and watch the tide roll away, (Otis Redding) and then take pictures of crabs at the seashore.  (It really is there, top corner of the rock).


Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Fresh in Belize


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Hanging Out My Shingle

It’s Saturday, the end of a warm, breezy day.  After the frustration of working to get my work permit, I haven’t even begun the process of getting my social security card.  That will come in the next week.  No, this past week, after Monday’s high of finally achieving official employment status here in Belize, I just stopped thinking about the governmental requirements and started thinking about getting going with the actual work. 

Time to get business cards, signage, advertising – ready to open the new RE/MAX Belize Property Center South franchise here in Punta Gorda.  I have been waiting for this and now the time is upon me.  I am anxious to get moving.

Various people here have already heard that there was a new agent in town – believe it or not they have been stopping me in the street asking if I was the new RE/MAX agent.  I walk down the street and people stop me to tell me they have properties they want to list.  I have been into the banks to obtain mortgage information and while there I have been asked what the process is for listing.  It has been quite an interesting time, and on some days it is quite hard to believe this is happening, especially after working real estate back in Canada and how tough it can be to get going.  Listings are coming to me, almost out of the woodwork.

And this actually added to the frustration while waiting for my work permit – because as long as I didn’t have the official stamp in my passport I didn’t want to pass myself off as a working agent. I am now a working realtor instead of a holidaying one.

This area of Belize is about to undergo a transformation from being the last undeveloped area of the country to being the belle of the ball, so to speak.  Belize as a whole is becoming much more well-known to the world and the Toledo District is at the tail end of this recognition.  A few more years and this area will catch up.  Right now, it is still largely undeveloped, people are wanting the tourist traffic, they want people to come in and share this beautiful, wild area.

Over the coming weeks and months I am going to try to introduce you to the Belize that is Punta Gorda and the Toledo District.  It is not a tourist trap, we don’t have a lot of sandy beaches and it is still somewhat third worldish in appearance and maintenance.  But what it lacks in good roads, it more than makes up for in character of the people, heart of the people and love for their home area.   Life isn’t easy for a lot of the people but you can hear the pride in their words and voice when they talk about their home.  The introduction of tourism and the selling of property is one way that the local people can have easier lives.  The introduction of new businesses to the area through eco-development, eco-tourism, sustainable industry – these are all ways to make life easier for the local people of Toledo District, Belize.

In the meantime, I am going to do what I can to promote the area, the tell you about this area.  Yes, I am trying to entice you here.  I would love to be surrounded by other people who feel the same way I do about this area.


Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Starting to Work


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