Cacao Jungle Farm

I’m not a tourist, this must be said before anything else. I am entirely uninterested in following the customary gringo trails and flogging to tired and uninspired traveler traps that can be found in any guide book. Traditionally on my journey I will settle down for a few weeks or a couple months in each country and learn the culture, volunteer my work, stay with a family, and live on the land, off the grid, with the world as my oyster. I have made this a signature style of my travels, and have partaken in some amazing experiences, and written many chapters in the saga of my life. Lately I have found myself in the Guatemala cloud forests of Alta Verapaz, co-living on a 1000 acre wilderness farm  next to the largest national park in the country and a biosphere for quetzals, other rare jungle avifauna, and primeval creature life. Here I have been trading what I know in permaculture, sustainable living, and bushcraft, whilst living and working with the local Keq’chi Mayan culture.

Owned by a Belgian/Canadian man known as Lorenzo to his friends, who bought this land eight years ago, and has been living between San Marcos la Laguna on Lake Atitlan and the mountains of Teleman in Coban county. Spread across this vast landscape are many cultivated areas of profitable fruit, and spice farming. Lorenzo deals primarily in cacao and cardamom, with local merchants in the nearby town, and a brand new chocolate factory on the plantation itself. He also sells premium chocolate on Lake Atitlan, at several of the healthy food bars, and his treehouse. Part of my job here has been pouring the 1 kilo bricks of raw cacao from the metal drums into molds so they may be cooled or frozen for preservation. I’ve also been privy to the paste grinding, and bean fermenting process, but as a witness only. The work in the chocolate factory is intoxicating as the wafting aroma of theobroma humidifies the air. In the time I have not been working with the chocolate itself, I choose to study into the ethnobotany, history and alchemy of cacao, and read about the
Keq’chi culture, or take plant walks which usually bring great foraging missions. Bananas, plantains, pineapples, zapotes, figs, jackfruit, coffee, cardamom, and macuy are some of the offerings of the land. Next to the cacao work, there has been time to try my hand at curing, stretching, and tanning the large hides of bull cows. This is a difficult undertaking which require many processes of cleaning, defleshing the underside of the skin of gristle and fat, shooing away flies and bees from laying their eggs, brushing off ticks from the fur side, using lime to desicate the skin to dry, and either brain or pig lard for the tanning process. There are other steps besides this which are very difficult in all to engage with in the jungle heat.

This particular exchange is the precursor to future projects and hospitality for international backpackers to volunteer in the future, and there has been some work to renovate the dormitories, adding a Guatemalan uniqueness to the bedrooms, and humbly giving up my own bedspace for a tent spot in the forest. The plantation brings an army of over 60 workers from the local village who sweat and bear the weight of the cacao and cardamom harvesting and most of the labor intensive tasks. The perspicacity of the Keq’chi workers in admirable in their sheer willingness, and strength of ability, they are trained from a young age to work the land.

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Abundant avifauna like the quetzal, several species of parrot, toucan, and songbirds reside here, and the volunteer casa has served double as a bird hide to watch these plumed dragons drift through the skies and between the canopy of the jungle. On a short tramp out on the roads or trails, one may come to meet hundreds of psychedelically colored moths and butterflies, their patterns become enmeshed in the visual mind. I was lucky to see on several occasions the tepescuintle, a kind of stout mammal with a square head the resembles the capybara of Australia, as well as the opossum, a silver goshawk, small pigmy like deer, a large Bufo toad, tarantulas, serpents, scorpions, and a host of glowing insects, some with chemical filled thorax that bioluminesce when they fly and others like a cockroach with two headlights that guide it through jungle detritus, and a small centipede like worm with lighted chambers at its front and back. The abundance and variety of Life is astounding in this place.

At night the moonsoon rolls in and encloaks the forest with a wet mantle, while all the green things soak up its cleansing downpour. Vegetation is lush and fractal, life growing on life, each microclimate reflecting the larger ecology.  Hanging fibrous moss clings to gnarled branches, while vines of heart shaped leaves like ropes drape down from the tallest arboreal reaches like vintage curtains. Several medicines and edibles can be found on the land, including macuy, a kind of spinach, a smokeable tobacco substitute leaf resembling a large animal paw, and a jungle vine with similar psychoactive properties as ayahuasca. During my stay at the plantation, we have eaten the meat of some of the free ranging
ducks, cows, chickens and pig, as well as tilapia from an in-built pond, and the diet has remained primarily paleo based.

As my time hear draws to its close, it is easy to recall all the felt moments of experience in which I was compelled to make a choice, to stand my ground, and ultimately learn something. Next to this was my evolution and personal growth that draws down all the influence of the day into a single focus of energy and charges me with life. The scars on my body, the relationships made, the memories hologrammed into my brain are all testaments to my time in this part of the world, and now I look forward to returning to the familiar sights of home.

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