Last year, desperately needing to recharge my batteries and reconnect my mind, body, and spirit, I took a gamble and signed up for a women’s retreat in Guatemala. Besides daily yoga, healthy food, and personal growth workshops, I didn’t really know what to expect once I got there. But after a long flight and bumpy five-hour bus ride, I arrived at sacred Lake Atitlan and began a life-changing journey with a magic plant at its core: cacao.
Cacao, the acorn squash-size fruit of the theobroma cacao tree, grows in tropical areas around the globe, including Brazil, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Guatemala. It was here in this Central American country that indigenous Mayans harvested, fermented, and roasted the seeds of the cacao fruit, transforming them into a hot elixir prepared and consumed as a ritual to mark special occasions—from religious ceremonies to weddings—as far back as the first millennium BC.
Three thousand years later, cacao has found a new legion of fans (myself among them) who appreciate its many beneficial properties that, when consumed respectfully and with care, can help us live better, happier lives. At my introductory retreat at Lake Atitlan, I discovered how cacao can open the heart and allow us to experience more joy, how it gives a natural lift reminiscent of coffee but without caffeine’s negative side-effects, and how integrating this potent plant medicine into our lives can support our emotional well-being with every sip.
It all begins with ceremonial cacao—cacao seeds that have been grown and harvested ethically and organically, and minimally processed according to traditional methods. This quality control ensures that beneficial bioactive compounds such as theobromine and anandamide are at their highest levels. A paste made from the dried and fermented seeds is then blended with hot water and whipped into a froth before sipping.
Cacao ceremonies like the ones I experienced at my retreat usually begin by sitting quietly in a circle with others and tuning into your breath. Next, a guide or shaman pours you a small cup of hot cacao, which you may be instructed to hold in your hands at heart level. You then set an intention—a wish, desire, or dream—and focus on that intention as you feel, smell, and sip. This simple but powerful exercise has become an almost-daily, self-care ritual that allows me to connect with myself and open my heart so I can connect with others more authentically. Who wouldn’t want to begin their day with that kind of magic?!
It’s not all woo-woo, either. Science clearly points to cacao’s therapeutic properties that include neurotransmitters and neuromodulators that can lift our moods, naturally. Unlike cocoa powder, which is highly processed and stripped of its health-supporting attributes, cacao retains all its beneficial compounds, including magnesium and iron. Its bitter qualities are believed to support liver health, too.
If you’d like to try integrating the unique pleasure of cacao into your wellness routine, a good place to begin is at your local cacao purveyor. I’m lucky that my homebase of Santa Cruz, CA boasts a café where I can buy a hot elixir made with ceremonial-grade cacao, but if you don’t have such an oasis in your town, you can easily find ceremonial cacao online. Some of my favorites include:
The trees that produce Keith’s ceremonial cacao are grown in Guatemala’s coastal rainforests, and harvested by women from indigenous local communities, working at their own pace. You can taste the love and attention in the final product!
Firefly’s ceremonial-grade cacao discs come in a variety of styles, including blends like Tantric Rose Blossom (made with fragrant rose petals) sourced from Tanzania, and the rich and inviting Guatemalan Glow.
Besides high-quality ceremonial cacao, Cacao Lab also offers a subscription service to deliver a kilo of cacao to your door each month, plus helpful instructions on how to best utilize this plant medicine to optimize your experience.
This no-frills brand keeps it simple with just a few ceremonial-grade cacao products, including raw cacao nibs that can be added to smoothies, acai bowls, and chia puddings for a healthy and delicious plant-based boost.
Preparing the cacao is part of the ritual experience, and requires just a couple of basic culinary tools: a bowl and a whisk. To prepare, add the cacao to a bowl and blend with a whisk or traditional wooden molinillo as you slowly pour in hot water (the traditional method) or your favorite plant-based milk. Once the cacao is melted and your elixir is frothy and fragrant, you can add sweetener (I like date syrup or maple syrup), spices (cayenne, cardamom, and vanilla are my favorites), and even essences like rose, peppermint, or orange. Use your intuition and enjoy the process of experimentation!
Plants continue to amaze me with their incredible ability to support my healthy living goals, whether feeding my body with potent phytonutrients or nourishing my spirit with their special healing properties. Integrating cacao into your life will open a portal to new and exciting horizons, and elevate your spirit in gentle, non-addictive ways. I hope it brings you as much joy as it has for me!
P.S. I love my cacao nice and foamy, so I use my handy countertop frother to create my morning cup.