Tripping balls on chocolate in the forests of Guatemala
I was cruising Guatemala indulging in the kicks of vagabonding when I caught word of the Chocolate Shaman. Apparently, travelers would gather on his deck in San Marcos La Laguna — a coastal town of Lake Atitlán — and through his mystical hot chocolate, trip balls.
I knew I had to check it out.
It was a sunny day when I decided to go, accompanied by an Australian companion. He and I joined a dozen other travelers sitting in a circle on mats and cushions around the Shaman's deck. We sat silently overlooking a quaint yard, volcanoes towering in the distance. Then, out of the small house, the Chocolate Shaman appeared.
His name was Keith. He was an old white American dude with a Gandalf beard and electric eyes. Keith welcomed us and related his origin story, when years back, sitting on Atitlán’s shore, he was visited by the Chocolate Spirit.
“I’d been invited by the Cacao Spirit to reintroduce one of this planet’s major teachers/facilitators/magic plants to a world that had mostly forgotten about it,” Keith said. The spirit informed him cacao — the “Food for the Shift” — could reignite humanity’s capacity to love themselves and one another, effectively initiating mass healing.
But Keith’s cacao wasn’t Hershey’s or Cadbury, which he says processes away 99 percent of the plant’s medicinal compounds. His is “shaman-propagated local wild rain-forest variety cacao,” which facilitates healing journeys. Ancient Mayans used such “ceremonial-grade” cacao millennia ago. The Cacao Spirit was among the most powerful deities of Mayan cosmology; even today, Indigenous cultures of Central and South America use cacao shamanically, despite local availability of hot-button stuff like ayahuasca and huachuma.
Cacao was so sacred to Mayans, in fact, they reserved it for Emperors and Nobility who apparently drank more chocolate than ole Augustus Gloop. (Lazy cultural references aside, Englanders call Keith the “Real Willy Wonka.”)
Once Keith had initiated us, the time came to drink. A stocky Mayan woman laid a steaming pot of thick brown liquid at our center. One by one we filled our cups. I sat beside my Australian companion and sipped the brew as Keith starting talking about The Void.
Chocolate ceremonies aren’t just a ploy to grab cash from ignorant tourists, there’s actual science behind it. Cacao is a stimulant that opens the circulatory system via the vasodilator theobromine. To chocolate voyagers, theobromine is among cacao’s primary healing compounds. But theobromine is also super bitter, and because bitterness must be stifled to keep sugar addicts buying, it’s basically obliterated in anything found in the checkout line.
The extent of Keith’s processing? Plucking cacao beans from the pod, fermenting them, and melting them down. Gotta embrace the bitter to experience the good, he says.
Yet much to some users’ dismay, cacao increases heart rate. It also yields a gassy, bloated feeling that makes people burp and fart. It can cause lightheadedness and headaches. If someone is anxious, they might feel more anxious. It doesn’t mix well with antidepressants, and would be dumb to consume for someone with heart problems.
It can also kill your pets if they eat it.
But my dear friend Rebecca Palak lists many benefits of it as well. I met her at a San Marcos spiritual retreat center the day before visiting Keith down the road. Rebecca approached her first ceremony seeking groundedness.
Upon drinking, she experienced “a lot of really green light and then suddenly becoming this lily pad and my roots going deep into the water.” Afterwards, she did feel grounded, as she had hoped. But she’d also experienced something “heart-opening, blissful, mind-expanding, and beautiful.”
Rebecca was so powerfully affected that she went on to travel the U.S. for six months to lead cacao ceremonies with her partner.
Regarding its healing effects, Rebecca says cacao facilitates “a pure connection to the heart” allowing drinkers to “take down walls, in a very gentle way.” She calls it “an invitation to surrender… to dive deeper and see what’s there.”
She’s seen cacao help people with relationship issues, opening partners to conversations more easily avoided. She’s seen it help people through trauma without having to go all Freudian in some office. Also, it’s an aphrodisiac, so it can lead to awesome sex. (Heck, even our processed stuff is associated with intimacy, as exemplified by that annual marketing event known as Valentine’s Day.)
But cacao’s different than hallucinogens. “With LSD or mushrooms, you don’t have a choice,” Rebecca says. “With cacao, you can not have visions, not dive deeper.”
Skepticism or anticipation of some magic journey can kill possibilities, leaving one disappointed.
As Keith says, “It does not take you on its trip, but facilitates your own.” He claims cacao can transport drinkers through dimensions if you want it to. He says contemporary Indigenous people use cacao to “facilitate a collective lucid dream” — meaning they’ve learned to travel inter-dimensionally together.
Whether I internalized any of this on Keith’s deck, I can’t say. In that moment, I just wanted to experience something cool.
It tasted god-awful. Intensely bitter. Hot from chili powder added to expedite effects. The liquid churned in my stomach. My Australian companion chugged his, burped, and silently stared at his big Australian hands.
Keith moved around our circle, crouching before us one by one, addressing what was arising. An American woman said she despised her masculinity; Keith placed his hands on her knees and guided her to speak positively about herself. A guy nearby was burping, weeping, and farting interchangeably. Keith crouched before my Australian companion, who to this point had presented himself solely as a traveler-badass of limitless bravado. I couldn’t hear what he and Keith were whispering, but I sensed my companion’s vulnerability.
I had a headache and felt confused. I wanted something cool to happen.
Keith crouched in front of me and said, “What’s up, guy?” I responded with a stream of thought that surprised me. I poured out shit about how I always feel inadequate, how I feel I’m fated to suffer cause I deserve it cause I suck.
Far from a soft embrace, Keith brushed his hand through the air, looked me in the eye, and said, “That’s bullshit. Enough with that. You don’t need it.” Then he moved on.
It was the first time I saw that something I’d solidified as fundamental, was actually a load of turds. I didn’t experience some magic “let it go” moment, but I still wanted more. I wanted the chocolate to solve my problems. I left with a unique experience, but a healing journey? A portal through dimensions?
Hogwash. Nothing more.
Afterwards, my Australian companion was silent. He bid farewell with an uncharacteristically long hug, and I never saw him again.
Two weeks later, when the spiritual retreat I shared with Rebecca was nearly finished, some folks brewed Keith’s cacao before our evening meditation. I drank with them, expecting nothing, and we entered the pyramidal temple, sat on our cushions, and closed our eyes.
Our leader, a wise Guatemalan woman, was teaching us astral traveling — willfully leaving our bodies in a lucid-dreamish state — and had us imagine ourselves traveling through a telescope and plunging out the lens. My head felt hot, stomach churning, and suddenly my mind was traveling through a visual realm more vivid than any I’d known before. I was floating above Lake Atitlán trying to, as our leader instructed, “Find the Temple.”
I plunged into the water and spiraled around a Mayan Temple rising from the depths, a vision so clear it may as well have been physical. Our leader’s face entered my mind, and a moment later, she started speaking in tongues. Each strange syllable seemed to communicate and clarify my vision. I felt profound peace.
I shared my experience with our leader. She smiled and said, “Interesting. Before I spoke, I saw your face in my mind.”
Two days later, I learned that in 2009, scuba divers had discovered actual Mayan Ruins at the bottom of Lake Atitlán.
I’d slaughtered the type of skepticism I held at Keith’s abode. Now, that interdimensional shit wasn’t feeling so far-fetched.
Rebecca later related a powerful memory of a ceremony she led to me. She once locked eyes with a stranger across the room and remained that way for almost an hour. She felt the stranger “shedding layers of past trauma” and ethereally she invited his struggles to flow outward through tears of sadness and joy.
“I felt like I completely understood what he was releasing,” Rebecca told me. “And he was a total stranger.” Afterwards, they spoke, and their interaction affirmed he’d experienced what she’d felt.
“Opening the heart” is a vague adage, oft-appropriated via wellness blogs and Happy-Life Instagram Gurus. But in the context of cacao, it means clearing accumulated cognitive crap and experiencing interconnectedness our egos can't eclipse. Surely, that can benefit us all.