A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Switzerland.
“Cacao likes it when we sing for her,” says Maywa. She smiles as she whispers the words into the microphone in front of her. She isn’t the only one with that blissful expression on her face. Everyone here, lying on their blankets spread throughout the room, is smiling in a state of bliss. Up until this point I think they’re doing this arbitrarily. As someone who’s generally a grumpy person, I’m suspicious.
Maywa is leading a cacao ceremony followed by a rave where participants try, with the help of cacao and meditation, to enter higher states of consciousness. I’m one of these participants—and incredibly nervous. The cacao bean has been viewed for centuries as a godly superfood. It’s not entirely arbitrary that the Latin name of the cacao tree, Theobrama cacao, translates to “food of the gods.” But does the stuff actually get us mere mortals high? That’s what I want to find out. Even if that means singing a tune into a cup of cacao.
From a scientific perspective, the natural high you get from cacao actually seems to be a thing—at least in part—if you dig into a study published by a Swiss team of psychologists at the Universities of Zurich and Bern. Through 65 male test subjects it was revealed that “dark chocolate, due to the flavonoids present in cacao, prevents physical reactions to stress by blocking stress-hormone transmitters in the adrenal glands,” according to Petra Wirtz, the head of the study. Or put more simply: cacao-rich chocolate calms the nerves.
Furthermore, the British physiologist Ian Macdonald discovered that brain bloodflow increased significantly through cacao. “That could help in solving certain tasks and increase alertness for a short period of time.” So there might actually be some science behind the “ditching cocaine for cacao” trend in Berlin clubs that took hold two years ago.
But despite scientific evidence that cacao isn’t merely sweet and delicious, I’m still convinced that drinking cacao and meditating won’t get me faded like a proper joint would.
All that aside, I’m not a very spiritual person. I don’t believe in God and it’s tough for me to place my fate in the hands of a higher power. But despite that, I’m here, sitting on a blanket on the ground, looking around at 20 faces I don’t know, all smiling.
I strategically chose to place my blanket near the exit. I tell myself that I have a good view of my surroundings from here and can therefore report the event with journalistic objectivity. But I know that’s bullshit; in truth, I’m scared of being called out as a non-believer and chased out of the room.
The fact that indigenous cultures, such as the Aztecs and Maya, used cacao in their ceremonies to put their future human sacrifices into a sort of trance before they were “allowed” to be taken to the slaughterhouse doesn’t really still the queasy feeling in my stomach.
At one end of the room there’s a sort of altar. DJ equipment was set up on top of it beforehand. There are blinking lights in the corners and there are blankets, drums and claves lying in front of the altar. Soothing music is playing in the background.
Religious events once took place here, says Christian, one of the hosts. It used to be an evangelical church. Today it’s used by the community known as Echoes from Venus. “It’s actually pretty nice that spiritual stuff went on here before. You just have to put your own energy into this place and then you’ll feel right at home.”
The participants are sitting with perfectly straight backs and look entirely relaxed—almost as if they’d just returned from a yoga retreat. Meanwhile, I’m struggling with the fact that my leg has fallen asleep, which began to bug me minutes into sitting in lotus position. Here I stand out like some Berghain chick at a Goa rave. At least that’s what I imagine as I begin feeling increasingly uncomfortable. People here also hug a lot. I like hugs. Maybe things won’t be as weird as I anticipated?
“It’s a warm feeling that flows through my body, and the area around my heart always begins to tingle a bit.”
My hopes are put to the test; the ceremony begins, which is led by ALUNA, a performance duo made up of Steffen Kirchhoff and his wife, who calls herself Maywa. The two met in 2016 at a festival in Colombia and have been spreading cacao among people ever since.
Maywa, who lived for two years in the Peruvian jungle with the Shipibo tribe, is deeply rooted in the plant world, says Steffen. She also calls cacao “medicine of love” and downright gushes about it: “When I drink cacao, I feel a warmth in my heart. I feel honored, excited, thankful and at the same time, cacao allows me to connect with the earth.”
Steffen is also completely enthusiastic about the natural high of cacao. “It’s a warm feeling that flows through my body, and the area around my heart always begins to tingle a bit. Plus, cacao helps me open up more to other people and be more loving toward them.”
Before “Mama Cacao,” as Maywa calls the brown liquid in our cups, can unfold her full power, we sing a little bit. I anticipate the worst, but am surprised: Maywa’s voice may not immediately put me in a trance, but I the first notes relax me.
Despite my skepticism, I have the feeling that neither Steffen nor Maywa are imposters set on making bank with a bunch of hippie nonsense. I buy their spiritual connection to each other and to the cacao and let myself get lulled by the indigenous song, taking another whiff of the cup of cacao, which smells delightfully like chocolate.
Finally Steffen and Maywa give the starting signal—we can drink the cacao. Surprisingly, the very thing that smells like chocolate tastes like condoms. I can pick up only a few subtle notes of chocolate. The rest of the raw cacao steeped in hot water that came from Bali and Peru tastes fatty, nutty, a little bitter and—well, like condoms.
I manage to down half the cup, after which my stomach starts to feel a bit sluggish. Maywa asks us to lie back down on our blankets. She’s going to take us on a meditative journey, she says. But I’ve clearly missed the departure. As Maywa tells us how we, gliding through the air, dive into an ocean in which we’re able to breathe, one of the participants coughs so loudly it’s as if he’d swallowed a gulp of meditative water. I can’t help but laugh. Am I already high?
I have no clue how much time has passed during this meditative journey, but now Maywa brings us back to reality—somewhere I’ve been all along. And I’m disappointed. Not by the ceremony, but about myself. Clearly I was caught up too much in my head to reach the same transcendental plane where everyone else seemed to be.
Holding hands and singing one last song together, I feel an unbelievable sense of community in the group. But a community I don’t belong to. Which makes me sad. I drink the rest of my cacao and try again to open myself up to the music, which has now shifted from the ground to DJ altar. The movement part of the evening has begun.
Steffen plays some downtempo rave tracks while Maywa sings along with her fabulous voice. The effects of the cacao seem now to really unfold in everyone (just not in me). A woman runs in a circle. Another woman takes off her shirt. A couple makes out on one of the blankets. People are petting and hugging each other. A middle-aged man stands alone and claps a little bit to the beat.
As one man gives his companion a back massage, I remember that cacao can also act as an aphrodisiac. Even Casanova is alleged to have been a fan of the bean, and in one forum there are warnings that cacao could turn you into a downright “sex monster.” But aside from a bit of tingling in my head and dizziness, I feel nothing.
While one of the participants dances around the room with a childlike expression, I take the time to chat with Christian. “There is no right or wrong with meditation,” he tells me. He suggests that next time I shouldn’t focus too much on “whether it worked or not.” He says I should just let myself live out every silent moment I experience.
“Meditation is entirely different for every person. You don’t have to force yourself to sit in lotus position and frantically hope for enlightenment,” he says reassuringly. For him, free climbing is the best meditation. “I can completely tune out and clear my head.”
My neighbor feels the cacao. He says, smiling, that he has to try to move a bit. “I feel my eyes get heavy when I dance, which in any other situation doesn’t happen to me.” It’s a peculiar feeling, he says. “I know that something’s going on in my body, but I can’t really pinpoint what.” He can hardly compare it to any other drug high.
Observing how the others dance, laugh and make out, I also can’t seem to stop laughing. But I don’t know if it’s the cacao or simply the joy given off by all these people around me. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Even if I’m completely sober on my way home, I had a damn nice time here.
Editor's note: The German translator who worked on this article is a fan of cacao himself and writes, "You can absolutely [get high on cacao]. The compound in cacao (we're talking raw beans or nibs) is called Theobromine, or "food of the gods", which produces tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. In short: it's the healthier version of MDMA without lasting as long and without the intense comedown. If you take enough cacao in a short period of time and drink a bunch of maté and are surrounded by feel-good music, you'll start to smile uncontrollably within minutes and want to dance. Everyone's skeptical when I tell them, but I've already successfully converted three of my good friends."