If Willy Wonka was a Hippie: Spirituality and the Cacao Connection (by S. Bedford)

The view from the dock in San Marcos

The view from the dock in San Marcos

“So, what exactly happens at this cacao workshop?” I ask, picking absently at a loose splinter on the wooden plank beneath me. Tranquil waves lap at the creaky pier where I am sitting while wispy clouds snag on the trio of blue volcanos rising on the distant shore. “We drink the cacao… and then what?”

“Then the drugs kick in and we wake up without our wallets,” jokes Michael from Australia. Edith from Germany rolls her eyes.

Michael, Edith, and I are in San Marcos, a puebla (village) on the banks of Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala. Each puebla maintains its own notoriety. San Pedro is where party seekers chug Gallo beer and Mayan women sell marijuana and banana bread from the baskets balanced on their heads (okay, some of them just sell banana bread). San Juan is the base for many of the indigenous peoples’ weaving and natural medicine co-operatives. San Marcos is a haven for crystal-wielding hippies blissing out via spiritual practices such as Kundalini yoga, ayahuasca meditation (though apparently no actual ayahuasca is involved), and cacao workshops.

Temporarily residing in San Pedro, it is the latter that has drawn us here—though admittedly we have no idea what to expect. We lounge on the dock amidst heavily-tattooed New Agers breathing deeply and hung-over backpackers snoring gently until the signal is given for us to migrate to Keith’s house. Keith is the American ex-pat that hosts these cacao workshops. We navigate his ambrosial garden and arrange ourselves crossed-legged on his porch. Keith boasts brightly-coloured pants, socks with sandals, and a ZZ Top-esque beard. He welcomes us cordially and distributes plastic cups of hot cacao—to which we add pepper sauce, raw sugar, and some sort of vitamin-enriched green goop. The taste is not unpleasant.

Keith describes how, unlike ayahuasca or peyote, cacao is not an aggressive “male-energy” substance that invokes a dramatic psychedelic experience. In fact, other than a speedier heart rate and an increase of blood-flow to the brain, cacao produces little physical effect. Rather, it is a “female-energy” constituent that the mind partners with to achieve spiritual or creative goals.

“If you don’t work with it, nothing’s going to happen,” says Keith. Some people seem relieved at this while others sigh disappointedly.

After briefly explaining the cacao harvesting and preparation process, he summarizes what brought him to the puebla:

“I used to be an asshole,” he confesses, and we laugh. “Now, I communicate directly with spiritual beings.”

Edith catches my eye and frowns.

It takes approximately 40 minutes for the cacao to kick in. Keith is right: the change is subtle, although I do feel more relaxed, and the altitude-induced dizziness that I’d been experiencing over the last few days subsides. We close our eyes and the guided meditation begins.

“Focus on your heart-smile, and allow it to creep up to your face,” Keith directs. I crack open one eye to see the others grinning uncertainly. “Now, concentrate on the chakra on the crown of your head and imagine a triangle of white light expanding upwards to the heavens…”

Edith is gone within 15 minutes.

During the next four hours, we alternate between meditation and discussion. Topics include the consequences of absorbing the negative energy of others, the effect of positive thought on the external world, and various concepts popularized by The Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle. As an atheist and skeptic, it is impossible for me to accept many of these notions literally. However, when interpreted allegorically, some do prove to be logical. For instance, a bad mood can be “contagious,” and it is henceforth beneficial to insulate oneself against another’s pessimism.

Keith suggests imagining your body radiating peaceful light. “Go to glow,” he cites jovially.

Then he says that we are all trans-dimensional beings and can rectify water pollution simply by meditating, and consequently loses me. Nevertheless, it is a relaxing atmosphere and I enjoy watching those who are emphatically into their practice—rolling their eyes and squeezing their semi-precious stones. One young man with a long skirt and an indeterminable accent plays an unusual wind instrument that resembles a double-shafted recorder.

The ceremony is still going on when Michael and I leave to catch the launcha (boat) to San Pedro before the evening rain begins. Payment for the ceremony is donation-based, and I drop 50 quetzals into the woven basket on my way out. Back on the dock, Michael and I joke about the experience with a couple of other San Pedro-bound backpackers, who ducked out early to get a pizza. We agree that while the workshop isn’t exactly our cup of tea—or hot chocolate—it would be a shame to visit Lago de Atitlán and not delve into the enigmatic curiosities of San Marcos.

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S. Bedford (Sue) is a travel writer from Toronto. She is a Vagabond Travel columnist and the host of our web series. Twitter: @SBedford86


  1. Great article! Love that opening photo.

  2. Spirituality and the soul crushing guilt I feel whenever I eat chocolate?!?! May not be the ideal choice of retreats for me.

  3. Sally, it was a highly concentrated raw cacao. Not something which you can buy in the supermarket. Sue, I like your article. It describes honestly how you experienced the situation. Did you really like the taste of the cacao? For me, it was horrible. I love the picture of the lake, too.

    • Edith, thanks for the clarification, but that makes it worse for me. At least if it was chocolate it would taste good. That would be something pleasant. But if it tastes bad and contains added calories (raw sugar) I’m looking at 2 negatives weighed against whatever spiritual benefit I’d be gaining, which according to Sue is minimal at best.

  4. Sally, raw chocolate is bitter. The good taste from Sugar or spices. I did ‘t like the taste, but Sue Wrote it wasn’t That Bad. After while I felt like Chili, but I couldn’t get the Meditation.

  5. Wieder in Deutschland

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