There’s a chocolate belt across the Americas and perhaps appropriately, it’s a wide belt. It stretches from Tabasco state on the Gulf Coast of Mexico—the birthplace of the bean in the B.C. era—down to Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.
Just as introduced crops like bananas and coffee spread quickly across countries where the conditions were right, once Europe developed a taste for chocolate, the cacao bean made its way across a vast territory. (If you’re interested in the history of “The Colombian Exchange” after the Spaniards then others invaded the new world, check out the book 1493 by Charles Mann.)
The characteristics of the cacao though, like coffee beans, tend to morph and develop in different ways depending on soil, altitude, and weather conditions. If you want to get a wide array of tastings at the source, check out one of these chocolate festivals happening throughout the year in different countries.
Belize Chocolate Festival
Taking place in the town of Toledo, near Punta Gorda, this is the one of the best-organized of the bunch, happening each year around the third week of May. (In 2015 it’s May 22-24.) There are lots of opportunities to see the process in action of getting from bean to bar, and of course you can sample the output in many different ways. There’s one high-end hotel in Punta Gorda that gets booked up well in advance, so if you have a vehicle or a driver, it can be worthwhile to stay in Placencia instead, like at Chabil Mar, and drive down the scenic highway to the festival. See more about it on their blog, where there are links to the festival site as well. This being Belize, everything at the festival is explained and written in English.
Tabasco Chocolate Festival
In the USA, Tabasco is a brand of hot sauce, but in Mexico the state with this name is known for another taste sensation: it’s cacao beans. This is generally acknowledged to be the birthplace of the product, consumed by the Olmecs then Aztecs, and Maya (without sugar) as a drink for nobles. The festival takes place in November each year, though you might want to brush up on your Spanish or hire a good guide if attending: very few foreign tourists make it to this part of the country. See the Mexico Tourism site for Tabasco for more info.
Cacao and Chocolate Festival of Peru
Not to be confused with the more industry-focused “Salon de Cacao y Chocolate” in Lima each July, this festival open to consumers had its first appearance the day after Christmas in 2014, in the Barranco area of the capital city. Six of the ten varieties of cacao that exist in the world are grown in Peru. Combine that with some of the best chefs and artisans in Latin America and you can expect some refined and envelope-pushing products to try.
This annual event in Gramado celebrates all things cocoa and made news in 2014 when a local company built the world’s largest edible Easter bunny: it weighed 3,856 kilograms (more than 8,500 pounds). It supposedly takes place each year in mid-April, but the website was down at the time of writing. If you can read Portuguese, here’s their Facebook page.
Note that there was a grand festival planned in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica last year, but after months of planning, the local health ministry shut the event down on the opening day. Maybe in the future it will appear again.
Even if there’s not a festival going on, check with your travel specialist or tour company about working a chocolate production, farm, or tasting event into your itinerary. Throughout the Americas, there are lots of opportunities all year round to learn more via your taste buds, on location.