While cacao is most commonly associated with being the key ingredient in chocolate, a journey to Costa Rica reveals surprising alternate uses of the plant, which have nothing to do with snacking. Find out how exploring ritualistic cacao ceremonies is for some adventurers the way to rid oneself of madness or isolation, and to find one’s truth...
For anyone who grew up in the west, they’ll likely have a relationship with the cacao that departs strongly from its Central and South American roots, and the extensive history that accompanies this. While cacao beans account for less than half of the ingredients used to create chocolate, mixed in amongst milk and sugar, in its purer essence the plant holds huge cultural significance throughout Latin America, where it has served medicinal, spiritual and ceremonial purposes for thousands of years.
Use in a ritualistic context dates to the Olmec people, the ancestors of Central America, with Mayan and Aztec cultures also included it in their communal ceremonies. The cacao plant features an active ingredient called theobromine, which translates in Greek to ‘Food of the Gods’, a stimulant that impacts the nervous system less than caffeine while having a much stronger and more positive effect on the heart.
When cacao is prepared for a ceremonial context, instead of the sugary taste of chocolate, it takes the form of a rich, bitter brew that is drunk by those taking part. A powerful element is anandamide, known as the “bliss molecule”, the same thing produced in your body during exercise as you feel a rush of good energy. It’s also high in magnesium, which helps relax the muscles and ease tension in the body.
The cacao plant has held grand spiritual importance over the centuries, and according to Mayan texts, as well as those who continue to practice, consuming cacao leads to a “heart-opening”. Its benefits are also more cerebral and involve consuming cacao with mindfulness and intention.
While cacao advocates insist it can be enjoyed alone, even as a daily stimulant that is superior to caffeine in many ways, deeper benefits can be enjoyed in a group setting. There are many different variations on a ceremony, some involving a journey of dance, others on meditation and inner reflection. However, the common aspect is setting an intention. What you’d like to manifest in your life, or what you’d like to let go.
Cacao Ceremonies in Costa Rica
Costa Rican history with cacao ceremonies stretches back to those practised by the Chorotega tribe, the most significant American Indian tribe of the country’s northwest prior to Spanish conquest. The tradition remains strong to this day, with many drawn from around the world to take part.
Elizabeth Amara Rose was one such individual drawn to the practice, born in the US though relocating to Costa Rica where she began Sage and Saints, through which she now hosts ceremonies.
“I just feel really grateful to be able to present and work with this medicine, because for me it certainly has been life-changing,” Elizabeth tells S:Mag. “I’ve also seen for other people just how much this simple ceremony has clicked for them and brought realisations. And then they return to their lives and something is different.”
First discovering the practice in New York, Elizabeth was deeply moved by these early experiences, enough to encourage her to move to Costa Rica to be closer to its source. While she helps others discover its benefits through her own ceremonies, she says many of the learnings come purely through the practice and simply taking part in the ceremony is enough to educate.
“For many reasons, the cacao really does affect us when we drink it,” she presses. “This interweaves with the kind of work that you choose to partake in during the ceremony. I gravitate towards group work, involving breathing exercises and guided meditation, to lead participants on a journey during the ritual.
“I use the medicine to hopefully get them in touch with at least one truth. For me, the entire night leads up to that. It’s important to tie into whether we’re setting an intention, or whether we’re letting something go; and why we’re doing that. Astrologically speaking, each cycle is different and there’s different archetypes or themes that are coming into play. It’s important to call this to attention because it unifies us. People don’t feel that sense of isolation anymore, in their own madness, let's say, when they’re sitting together and hearing from someone, yes this is happening right now. You might find certain things are coming up related to friends or family. It’s things that are deep down there in the collective consciousness as well.”
Prior to consuming the cacao brew, one of the ceremonies conducted by Elizabeth begins with her providing an introduction of what she perceives to be the astrological energies at play.
“It might resonate a little with people, and what’s happening in their own life. I then explain a little about the historical background of cacao and its medicinal uses. And then I move into the ceremony, which first consists of a guided meditation led by drumming. This really helps people get out of their minds and into the present moment. It reawakens cellular memory, vibrating with your body and shaking loose stagnant or stuffy energy. Just the sound, they almost can’t resist dropping into a deeply meditative state.
“Once I can see that they are in the room, they are into the moment, then we begin with the cacao. As I serve it, we’re doing a heart-centred meditation where we’re setting an intention and bringing it into our cup of cacao, and then drinking it. Or, we’re expressing what it is that we want to release - that which no longer serves us. In a sense, it’s almost like you’re drinking that in, you’re passing this through your body and then releasing it. So, people are very much participating in their own healing.”
“Next we move to an eye-gazing exercise, and people always feel very touched by this exchange because they discover that the person sitting with them resonates with them for a certain reason. These are the sort of things that I include to get people participating very much in their own lives.
Whether it is an intention or release, Elizabeth asks at the start to consider what it might be.
“Often, believe it or not, they know right away what it is. But I’m nudging them in a direction, encouraging them to search out what it might be and to pay attention to what’s going on. It’s often only one thing.”
“It’s important to tie into whether we’re setting an intention, or whether we’re letting something go; and why we’re doing that. In a sense, it’s almost like you’re drinking that in, you’re passing this through your body and then releasing it.” - Elizabeth Amara Rose, master of cacao ceremonies at Sage and Saints in Costa Rica.