If New Orleans is a town with a Drinking Problem, Antigua is a town with a Chocolate Problem. It is sold in every form, everywhere, until you think it must have been invented here. Well, it was, in a way. But that was long ago and in another culture. The annual world prodution of cacao beans is now about 3 million tons, of which Guatemala produces a hardly noticable 1000 tons- not even enough to supply its national consumption.
The choclate tree is a minor bush, just taller than a man, living in the shady underbrush of the jungle. It is easy to spot because of the large bright yellow or orange cacao pods hanging directly off the trunk. Botanists believe it is indigenous to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, and was brought to Central America in early Maya times. In the Yucatan, it was raised in the shady cool cenotes that dot the landscape. It was too rare and expensive for commoners in those days, and was consumed mainly by royalty. In fact, one of the great rulers of Tikal was named Akh Kakao, Lord Chocolate..
Today the hub of traditional chocolate production is in the little town of San Juan Obispo, located just up the hill from Antigua, on the slopes of the Volcan de Agua, clearly visible from everywhere in town. Here numerous small family factories have been producing homemade drinking chocolate for generations. Bar chocolate is a European invention, and was never produced in Guatemala until the Danta factory started up in 2008. Google it.
I have been enjoying my morning coffee with a few pieces of a 90% cacao bar melted into it, just by the heat of the coffee. Everyone says it is a vaso-relaxer, very good for the blood pressure. I believe this myself, though I have not abandoned my morning b.p. pills.
Valentine's Day is just passed and the chocolate mania peaked out. The little spa down the street advertised a chocolate massage for couples, one solid hour for two, $72. We passed it up.
THE JADE MARIMBA
There is also a great preoccupation here with jade. The Maya mined it and worked as best they could, using hand tools. Guatemala jadeite is extremely dense and hard. It was slow work, but the beautiful results may be seen in museums, more precious to the Maya than gold. Mayan jade working skills were stamped out by the Spanish inquisition (little figures in jade were idolatry!) and were totally lost for 500 years. Even the location of the jade mines was lost.
We went to the Jade Maya company, which manufactures and sells jade items and maintains a small jade museum. The Maya cut jade using garnets glued into a wooden handle. Very slow. There is lots of jade in the riverbeds of Guatemala just waiting to be picked up. Jade working was reintroduced by an archaeologist as his wife only about 50 years ago. All the jade for sale nowadays comes from this revival. Today, they cut it with diamond blades and polish it on diamond-containing abrasive disks cooled by water. It is still held by hand against the polishing tools.
The most fantastic things we saw were two marimbas made of jade, with gourds underneath for resonators. Beautiful sound; more singing than a wooden marimbe and less pingy than a metallic marimba. If Anthony were running this outfit they would be famous for noontime concerts and dancing with the Jade Marimbe. But no, like all these unimaginative Latin businesses, they do nothing with it. For a marimba player this would be a Stradivarius.
Also saw samples of violet jade. It looked like an off-white by reflected light, but had beautiful true violet veins in it by transmitted light. This is the most valuable color of jade, even more than the Imperial Green jade.
Carol liked a small necklace with three black jade ax blades hanging on a silver chain. We bought it for $100. It is very pretty. Picture to follow in due course.
Here is a little blurb on the heroes of Guatemalan jade industry :
"JADES, S.A is a totally integrated jade company founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Rindinger and her husband Jay Ridinger. We mine fine jadeite jade whith is found mainly in Guatemala and Burma, but valued throughout the world. The source discovered and used by JADES, S.A, is the same used by the Maya people of Mesoamerica (rediscovered by the Rindingers). The jade is cut and polished in our factory by native Guatemalaln workers who follow the carving traditions of their ancestors."
Actually, with modern diamond cutting equipment, they do a ot better than their qncestors. You can watch a little video of Mary Lou herself, interviewed by the BBC :
On the WordPress blog I was The Old Gringo, but somebody took that name before me on TravelBlog, so I have translated it into Spanish as El Gringo Viejo. Actually, that's an improvement. I was a Chemistry Professor at Wayne State University until 2010. Now I am retired, and with my wife Carol I travel a bit every year. She loves the Spanish speaking countries, while I prefer countries that don't really exist any more: ancient Rome and Greece and the Greek colonies of Sicily, Italy, and Turkey; maybe also Tolstoy's Russia. I promise not to write up the boring parts. Travel always shows me... full info