Toledo Cacao Fest

Maya ritual reenactment Toledo Cacao Fest in southern Belize
Maya princess from the Palenque Rojo Dance Company of Chiapas, Mexico, re-enacting mythical story of Maya Ruler Kan Joy Chitam II at Lubaantun Maya Temple in southern Belize.

The Toledo Cacao Fest is held every year during the third week of May to coincide with the long holiday weekend that is Sovereign’s Day in Belize 24 May. The day not being terribly politically sensitive, it is usually moved to the Monday before or after the official public and bank holiday, whichever is nearest.

The festival is really pitched at tourists, foreign and local and receives support from the government’s PR machinery through the Belize  Tourism Board and ancillary tax supported departments such as the National Institute for Culture and History. Yes, the festival teems with tourists.

Originally developed to promote the fledgling cacao industry that is becoming a mainstay of the poverty-stricken Toledo district, the festival has morphed into a regular fair featuring local Belize cuisine, Belize and Maya arts, music and cultural presentations.

Mercifully, at least for now, the low rent mechanical rides and gambling that are de rigor at all Belize municipal fairs, are not featured at the Toledo Cacao Fest. This after all is supposed to be about Maya Culture and Cacao.

The first day runs on a Saturday and is held in Punta Gorda Town, capital of the Toledo District. Useful for townies and folks not wanting to venture out of the relative comforts of life offered by Belize’s southernmost municipality.

Street stall and commercial exhibits with music are within easy reach and since P.G. is so small, accessible within walking distance from most any part of town. The PG portion of the festival is more run-of-the-mill with commercial stands, drumming and dancing classes for tourists, barbeques and partying. But for the real Maya experience nothing can compare to the festival’s second day when it picks up its tents and moves to a real Maya Temple – Lubaantun.

Now Lubaantun is no Xunantunich or Caracol and does even approach Tikal in the pantheon of Maya Ruins in Central America. It is small, It looks dilapidated and broken up. It is after all a RUIN. But even for a ruin it looks really ruined. It’s name means Place Of Fallen Stones.

The folks who built this site over two thousand years ago did not use cement or mortar like their cousins a few miles away at Nim Li Punit, or further down the interior like at Xunantunich. Which is why most all the stones and slabs used to build the city, pyramids and surrounding structures have fallen down.  They are all over the place and look like a lovelorn Maya god visited a massive earthquake on the ancient city. And no one bothered to rebuild. But for a festival setting, Lubaantun lends itself quite grandly.

Lubaantun is about 5 miles out of Punta Gorda town and the road is mostly good  up to San Pedro Colombia which overlooks the ruin. The road into the ruin itself, about one mile, is ruined and poorly maintained. Narrow, only one place to turn around (private property), and really bad in the rainy season. If you are in great shape you can walk and get a good work out with several hills along the way. For this writer the treacherous and slippery slope that is the final hill – a steep descent and ascent into Lubaantun sufficed.

The Toledo Cacao Fest at Lubaantun is really worth any visitor’s attention. For the day the central plaza is decked out with a dozen tents intrusively advertising foreign and local brews. A D.J. plays rap music blasting through loudspeakers mounted on one of the pyramids. As tacky a Belizean spin on a cultural festival as you will find but the rest of the event is fine.

organic cacao and chocolate display Toledo Belize
Organic cacao and chocolate exhibit at Belize Toledo Cacao Festival

Cacao producers converge on the event to offer their products, samples and brochures. Visitors can view demonstrations of how cacao is processed into the organic and otherwise Maya chocolate that is putting Belize on the world chocolate map. Several ladies from nearby villages run food stands offering the requisite Caldo, Tamales, Empanadas, coconut water and of course – genuine Maya chocolate the way their ancestors, well at least the elite, used to drink.

The cultural presentations are well prepared and feature invited dance groups from neighboring Guatemala and Mexico. The presentations use music and dance to tell a story emblematic of the Maya culture – usually a love story or an important event in the life and history of the Maya civilization – the creation, an important battle, the ascension of a new king – are favorite themes.

On a scale of 1 to 5, we give the Toledo Cacao Fest at Lubaantun 4 stars.  Points are lost for the sorry condition of the last mile of road, the kitsch that is the trashy beer tents and the rap music.  Points gained for the exciting and well choreographed dances and rituals, especially those by visiting groups from Guatemala and Mexico. Additional points for converting an underrated Maya site into a top cultural attraction that benefits the surrounding Maya communities – if only for one day in the year. This a must see folks. Be prepared for rain. Toledo is the district with highest annual rainfall in Belize. Unadvertised rain showers come out of nowhere and will have you slipping and sliding for the nearest beer tents.