Costa Rica

Food of the Gods

The Indigenous roots of chocolate

Cacao pods. Photo courtesy of

Chocolate, long a symbol of love and a favorite of Valentines, is a relatively new invention. It was developed in Spain in the 1500s, where cacao was mixed with sugar and milk to create the popular sweet treat. But the use of the cacao fruit and seeds dates back thousands of years to an ancient holy ritual in Mesoamerican cultures. Cacao drinks, created by fermenting the seeds of the fruit, roasting them and preparing them into a bitter drink, have long been used as a heart-opening medicine and channel to connect to the divine by Indigenous Americans. “Cacao,” says India Mayorga, a Costa Rican woman with roots in the Indigenous BriBri Cabecar community of the Talamanca mountains, “is a means to connect to each other, to culture, to ourselves, to love, to family, to ancestry.”

The word cacao comes from the Mayan words “Ka’kau,” or “heart blood,” and “Chokola’j,” which means “to drink together.” The direct translation of the fruit’s scientific name, theobroma cacao, is “food of the gods” in Greek. Mayorga expresses the importance of consuming cacao, both as a daily and ceremonial ritual, to reconnect us to our heart space. 

Cacao is a means to connect to each other, to culture, to ourselves, to love, to family, to ancestry.

“The spirit of the cacao medicine is all about reminding us that we are to connect with our heart and connect with our inner beauty and to recognize the inner beauty in others,” she says. “It’s about the recognition of the internal rather than the external. And that’s why the medicine was left behind for us to always remember that. It’s called the food of the gods for a reason.”

In recent years, dark chocolate has been popularized as a “superfood,” echoing the beliefs of Indigenous shamans, who recongize the power of cacao to rebalance our society.

India Mayorga. Photo courtesy of Mayorga.

Mayorga, nevertheless, highlights the distinction between cacao and chocolate. “Cacao and chocolate are completely different. That’s the mistake people make thinking that if you eat chocolate, you’re eating cacao,” she says. “Instead you’re eating preservatives, milk and sugar. Whereas when you consume cacao, the traditional and only cacao, it comes from the pod and there is no alteration of the product. People are not aware of how they’re treating and consuming the food of the gods. In this new age of consumption big corporations have taken advantage of the indigenous and the plant and started mixing it with other things… so if you are giving chocolate as a gift you’re not gifting the true essence of the story, the spiritual and physical benefits of the plant.”

Mayorga urges travelers in the Americas to make an effort to connect with Indigenous people, and witness the ceremonial aspect and traditional way of cooking cacao. And she recommends that everyone purchase 100% organic, ethically sourced cacao, found online or in health stores, and to “create your own little ceremony, with which you can even replace your daily coffee, since it offers more energy and many more benefits.” She suggests preparing it at home: “sit with it, get to know it and drink it consciously. Get to know the sweetness of it but also the bitterness, that’s the whole journey of it, and it represents life itself. We live in the matrix of the polarities, of the dualities, and the cacao reminds us of that.” 

Tune into where it comes from. Tune into the land where it was cultivated.

Mayorga’s personal cacao drink recipe varies depending on her mood and intention. Sometimes she drinks it in the BriBri traditional way, which involves only boiling water and adding the cacao, “and of course, your love and songs to it,” she says. But sometimes she enjoys it with mucuna and achiote, as served traditionally by the Mayans, or with cayenne pepper to give the drink an extra kick. She encourages those who want to connect to this medicine, to find their own rituals in consuming the drink, but to make sure to honor the lineage. “Sit down and just taste how different it is from the sugary chocolate drink you can get anywhere else. Tune into where it comes from. Tune into the land where it was cultivated and then deep dive a little bit into the history and the ancestry of where the cacao is from and where you’ve taken it from.”


Sharon Kleiman

Sharon Kleiman is a storyteller and artist from San Jose, Costa Rica. She is in her senior year at Northwestern University where she majors in Journalism and International Relations, and minors in Art Theory and Practice.

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