Lago di Atilan appears so vast from the window of our weather-beaten Jeep that it almost resembles an ocean. An easy mistake, given that this is Central America’s deepest lake, and houses several active volcanoes and a handful of indigenous Mayan villages which are only accessible by local, expertly maneuvered fisherman boats. Billowing smoke streams appear from Volcanic tips that fade into clouds and look like a set piece straight out of Jurassic Park. After an intense month solo backpacking around Mexico, Belize and Northern Guatemala on a shoestring budget, I finally feel like I’ll be able to lose myself here in something otherworldly, before returning to a less ancient source of smoke in London.
The nineteenth-century traveler and chronicler John L Stephens called Lago de Atitlán “the most magnificent spectacle we ever saw”, whilst Aldous Huxley compared it to “Lake Como, with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” These guys got around — and they definitely didn’t get it wrong. On the traveller's trail, many speak of The Lake’s magnetic energy and healing waters. I’m reluctant to indulge in New Agism, but when I board the water taxi which travels clockwise to the many villages around the lake, each with their own personality and individual ruins, I feel hypnotised by the magical spectacle of it all.
San Marcos is a tiny village located to the North-West of the Lake, and within a second of landing at the port you feel transported back in time. Some people wear no clothing (apart from a few obligatory shell necklaces of course), and stalls are dazzled with crystals and offer esoteric healing practices. The labyrinthine streets appear to curve into nowhere, then surprise you with an offering of a sound bath or vegan street food— but it’s the fact that there’s not a mobile or laptop in sight that really captures my attention.
I wasn’t here particularly looking for spiritual enlightenment, or a naked dance under the full moon, however the extraordinary natural beauty of the place overwhelmed me. Gardens adorned every nook, each a complex and heavenly tapestry of exotic flowers and singing birds. I found a cheap dormitory room for $8 night at a botanic hotel called La Paz and instantly got swapping travel stories with my new roommates.
Words of ‘The Cacao Shaman’ had already reached my ears from the backpacker trail in Belize from travellers doing the opposite route. I had completely forgotten about these tales and by sheer coincidence had arrived in the exact village in which he had been residing for the last forty years. I call myself an open-minded sceptic, but I was intrigued to see whether the stories were all hear’say or if there was any science behind this traditional medicine.
After a painful 6am hike to the Yoga Forest (I am so very inflexible), I returned to my dorm to follow the others to one of Keith's twice weekly Cacao Ceremonies. Outside Keith’s house, perched on a hilltop twenty minutes hike from the main town, overlooking the halcyon waters of the lake, I find old and young, western and mayan, wealthy tourists, tired backpackers and local shopkeepers sitting side by side outside his door — patiently waiting for it to open.
Keith unlocks the door and cuts a Dumbledorean figure in the frame — his long, white beard tailing down to his chest, round thin-wired spectacles hanging off the end of his nose — but wearing loose and thread-worn garments that he’s seemed not to have taken off since Woodstock 69. He lets us enter through his botanical garden — dreamcatchers and cacti adorn the sills and balcony of his old house — and we sit on well worn velvet cushions on the porch, while his life partner Barbara prepares the raw cacao with hot water, contained in wooden trays of multi-coloured beakers.
Barbara hands the cacao around and Keith asks us to wait until everyone receives it so we can drink together. On the table we are offered the option of adding a mexican chili powder to magnify the effects of it, and a local sweetener to temper the bitterness. I stare at the mud-like mixture in my beaker: if this is a cult and we are all about to die, at least it would be an interesting way to go. I go for it — and try sipping it at first but it tastes earthy and astringent— nothing like hot chocolate, so decide to shot it back. While we wait for the effects to appear, which Keith says can take anywhere from twenty to forty minutes, he tells us about the specific qualities of Cacao which has led to its medicinal use by the Mayans for centuries.
Cacao is roughly translated as ‘food of the gods’ and grows as a pod on the Cacao Plant — believed to be magical due to its evergreen nature —and is indigenous to Central and South America. The purest form is said to be found in Guatemala, where Keith has travelled far and wide for decades to locate a premier source. The Raw cacao in our drinks is derived straight from the cacao bean in these pods whereas the cocoa used in traditional western chocolate is processed under high heat, destroying many of the beneficial and apparently spiritual nutrients that the cacao contains.
While scientific studies have shown that raw cacao can lower the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, it is the chemical phenylethylamine found in the raw state which is proven to elevate mood levels naturally. No wonder we reach for chocolate during an emotional crisis. In between Keith’s speeches about Alien occupation of the Earth thousands of years ago, and how a Mayan Goddess visited him as a youth in his travels by the Lake to show him the secrets of Cacao, which slightly loses me, Keith also talks science. He claims that the stimulant in the raw cacao, called Theobromine, works in a different way to the most commonly used drug in the world — caffeine, by raising the heart rate while relaxing the muscles to open up your deepest emotional wounds to allow healing to begin.
As the minutes passed, Keith declared that the Cacao was starting to work and that the Mayan Gods would now be sitting with us to show us the door to spiritual advancement — but we would have to be fearless in walking through it. His arms waved over to a group of girls on the far side of the porch and suggested that they were ‘empaths’ , taking on the troubles of other people and bearing the burden of their problems. He points a long finger at the backpacker next to me and asks her to reveal what she is hiding under her scarf. She clasps onto a locket and he mentions that the love from her lost family members are with her. I’m not sure if i’ve walked into an authentic Guatemalan experience or group therapy.
I’m thinking of surreptitiously leaving when Keith shifts the focus on me. He looks deeply into my eyes and I fearlessly gaze back into his. After what seems to be an eternity of silence he starts crying. Long streams of tears wind their way down his wizened face. I can’t help but feel the intensity of his sorrow.
‘Who are you?’ he croaks.
‘I’m a nobody,’ I reply.
He takes my hands and asks me what I feel. I’m not sure whether it’s the cacao or my nerves, but I say ‘electricity’ and he nods in agreement. He asks me to never forget that I contain ‘magic’. My mind goes blank and confused — all eyes on the porch pointing to me, so I say very little (quite unlike me) but Keith reassures me that there is no doubt that I will affect the world and that my hands will do great work. Pressure indeed. A few more things are said which I’d rather keep personal than post here, but forgive me for not divulging.
The ceremony goes on for hours as Keith works the room — dealing with a girl who has cancer and a young yoga teacher who is having relationship trouble — but I leave halfway through growing tired of the individual analyses to sit by the lake alone and contemplate the scenes of the afternoon.
Whether I truly believe that Cacao has spiritual properties or not — these people gather regularly to sit in front of Keith to hear uplifting words, and no harm can be done if this improves self-esteem, lends guidance or assists with emotional healing. I’m not sure whether the Cacao is simply a catalyst for this — feeding a suggestion to put our hearts and desires on the line — or whether suggestive people attend because they are searching for a solution to their problems — or simply whether Keith is an incredibly charismatic and empathetic man. Perhaps it is a mixture of all of the above, or I’m just another cynical Western backpacker trying to unpack a completely foreign cultural experience. As I say goodbye to the Lake to board a Boeing Jet back to London, the question of whether I tasted the food of the Gods became irrelevant — it gave me food for thought to look back on something completely accidental, but absolutely unforgettable.
I stayed at the La Paz Hotel with Shared Dormitories:
Keith runs weekly Cacao Ceremonies at San Marcos La Laguna, Lago di Atilan — Guatemala. Details here:
You can buy Keith’s Pure Guatemalan Cacao here: