Adventures

The Mystery of Vanilla
Why Coke and Pepsi are Different
Found in Papantla, Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

The Cathedral of Sevilla
Seville, Spain is Spectacular!
Spain is spectacular! That's about all you can say. And Seville is not the exception.

Seville seems to be a monument to the discovery of America, and the Cathedral is nothing short of a spectacular monument to the image of America from the point of view of the Spaniards.

A Celebration of America
For many years, centuries, in fact, the many treasure fleets to Mexico started and ended in Seville.

The Cathedral in Seville is also spectacular in the monument and beautiful displays of the old religious treasures in gold and silver.

They even have the grave of Christopher Columbus.
San Fernando Rey de España
Grave of Christopher Columbus
Tomb of Columbus
Close to the Archive of the Indies
Seville is also home to the Archive of the Indies where many documents about Mexico before Independence can be found.

There are also many documents about the early years of Veracruz after 1519.

La Giralda Tower
Old Documents about Veracruz in Spain
Several years ago, I was doing some exciting research at the Archive of the Indies in Spain where I'd found some of the original documents written in Antigua, Veracruz in 1545.

It is impressive to hold these documents from so long ago in your own white gloved hands! They were probably written in the Casa de Cortes in Antigua!

It was also good to take a break to see the sights in Seville.

A couple of blocks from the Archives, and next to the magnificent cathedral is the Giralda, the old watch tower that kept watch for marauding Moors in the middle ages.

It's stairs are wide enough for horses, and it's worth the climb up the stairs.

The view of old Seville from La Giralda is spectacular! But, tiring.
A Coke at 4 Euros with Style, in Seville, Spain
A Coke in Spain is Almost the Same
One day, walking back through the winding streets of the old downtown area to the hotel, I stopped at one of the many sidewalk cafes in Seville.

It had been a mild day, and it was late in the afternoon and after all the walking, I had a hankering for a Coke.

It would be interesting, even at a cost of 4 Euros, to see if they tasted like the Cokes in the USA.

This particular one tasted good, like it was made with real cane sugar from America! After a sip of the Coke, I became a little nostalgic for Mexico, and Veracruz.
A Mexican Coke Aids Digestion
The Origins of Coke is in Mexico
In Mexico, Cokes are different, and people even have them for breakfast!

It's because they taste different, and are rather soothing to the stomach,

A Coke is especially good when you eat a lot of spicy food.

In Mexico, I've seen doctors recommend a Coke for an upset stomach.

The taste of the Coke that afternoon awakened old memories about the origins of Coca Cola in Mexico and how it started in a small town about 3 hours north of the port of Veracruz.

Vanilla: A Forgotten Story
It was the forgotten story about Papantla, which at one time was the vanilla center of the world.

Most people don't know it, but vanilla is one of the important ingredients in Coke.
The Almost Near Thing in the USA
Even though vanilla for Europeans has been around since before the days of Hernan Cortes, the only place it would grow was in Papantla, Veracruz.

The Spices of Mexico
Mexico assaults the senses. It is a country of strong smells. Pungent aromas fill the coffee shops of Veracruz or the stalls in the mercado, and virtually dominate the nearby atmosphere.

Another is the full strong, wonderful aroma of real vanilla. It is as penetrating as coffee or hot chocolate cooking on the stove.

The aromatic spice was first discovered by the Spanish conquistadores in Papantla in 1524. It had been cultivated by the Totonaco Indians for centuries. Its flower is an orchid.

The Spanish were at a loss as to what to call this wonderful new spice.

The word vanilla in Spanish is "vainilla". A "vaina" is a pod or a sheath. So, "vainilla" is a little pod.

Pollination Problems
Hernán Cortés took several of the new "vainilla" plants back to Spain. Although the plants grew, the Spaniards couldn´t get the vines to produce in Spain. The flowers wouldn´t pollinate.

After breakfast one morning in April in the 1850´s, a man was drinking his morning coffee on his patio at his home in Papantla. He noticed the harmless local bees flying around the yellow vanilla flowers in the patio next to his table.
Then he closely observed as one of the bees landed on the flower, and gently pulled back a flap inside the flower, then transferred pollen from the stamen to the pistil of the flower.

He began to watch other bees doing the same thing. Within hours the flowers closed. And, several days later he noticed the long vanilla pods beginning to form.

A Toothpick that Started an Empire
He had a toothpick and wondered if he could repeat the same pollination process as the bee.
Orchid
Gentle Hands with a Vanilla Orchid

He gently pulled back the flap covering the pistil, found a bit of pollen, and carefully transferred it to the pistil of the flower. He watched his flower. It closed after several hours, and a couple of days later, long vanilla pods began to form, and the normal vanilla production process began.

The special bees of Papantla were no longer needed!

After the discovery of artificial pollination, everyone began to artificially pollinate their plants and the vanilla boom began in Papantla.

Later in the 20th Century artificial vanilla was developed and replaced real organic vanilla, and the economy of Papantla has stagnated ever since. This year they told us there was a scarcity of vanilla and prices were high. I didn´t know it but vanilla is one of the main ingredients in Coca-Cola.

Papantla is about a 3 hour drive north from Veracruz.

Tortillas
How to Get There
April in Papantla
Each year during the month of April, the yellow vanilla orchids bloom and are pollinated. Papantla, Veracruz is the origin of vanilla.

The Elusive Melipona Bee
Seveal years ago, I was with a guy who was doing a documentary about the elusive melipona bee. It only lives in Papantla, Veracruz.

In Spanish, it´s called the "abeja de monte", and is a black wild sting-less vanilla bee. It is the key to the pollination of vanilla plant.

I know the Gulf Coast well, and was his guide and interpreter for the day.

On the way, we stopped at Boca Andrea to do a short clip of sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico.
Boca Andrea
Boca Andrea at Dawn
Setting Up
Setting Up for the Documentary
Plaza King
Vanilla for Sale on the Plaza
The Vanilla Shop
Inside the kiosk on the main plaza in Papantla is a stand with everything imaginable about vanilla.

The fragrant aromatic vanilla pods can be worked into all kinds of shapes, for all tastes.

Framing the little stand was a vanilla vine with its large green leaves. Then we saw the vanilla flower above his head. It was an orchid in bloom.

The man said each flower blooms only once a year. For one day only.

We are on the right track. Now to find the bee.

He also told us he had a "rancho" where his son is now pollinating the vanilla plants and offered to take us to see how it´s done, but right now he doesn´t have anyone to watch his stand.

More about Coke and Vanilla
Another man in the market told us a little more about vanilla and Coca Cola. It seems that after artificial pollination was discovered in the 1850's, it was found that vanilla could be produced without the help of the melipona bee in Madagascar, Bora Bora, and Hawaii.

Around the turn of the 20th century Coca Cola introduced vanilla into its secret formula and it was a hit. Instead of Mexico, Coke found it would be cheaper to produce vanilla in Madagascar, and many plantations were built to supply this demand.

However, in the early 1990's Coke changed it's formula eliminating vanilla from its formula. They called it the "New Coke". This was a disaster for the plantations in Madagascar and the island spiraled into an economic depression.

Well, the "New Coke" tasted flat, and didn't sell well. So, a short while later, Coke reintroduced vanilla into their formula, and it was now called "The Real Thing". Life went back to normal in Madagascar. Later, Coke changed the name to the "Classic Coke", and left vanilla in the formula.

The Difference between Coke and Pepsi
In the 1950's, synthetic vanilla was introduced, and this was a disaster for the vanilla producers.

But the true devotees stayed with real vanilla, and the industry survived.

"Do you know the difference between Coke and Pepsi?", the man asked us.

"Pepsi uses the synthetic vanilla, and Coke uses the "Real Thing", he laughed.

I don't know whether what the man in the market in Papantla told us is true or not but it makes a good story.

Scorpion
Vanilla Up Close
Vanilla Shapes and Uses
Continuing our walk through the market, we saw that real vanilla doesn´t look like much.

What you can´t detect from the photo is it´s wonderful aromatic smell.

The two long pods at either side are 4 to 5 inches long. Dried vanilla smells great!

In the form of a cross, vanilla can be hung from the rearview mirror of your car as a deodorant, filling your car with an almost romantic scent.

Scorpion
Vanilla Shapes

Flower
Vanilla Orchid
Market
Papantla Market
The Market
In the market we found fresh aromatic coffee beans. We bought a kilo and paid $56 pesos. About $2.50 a lb. for fresh coffee.

The man ground up the coffee, poured it into a paper bag, then put the bag inside a plastic bag and stapled it shut.

Close to the entrance we found another stand with all kinds of vanilla.

We talked with different people in the market about sights to see around Papantla.
Virgen
La Virgen and a Girl with Some Sticks
Sightseeing in Papantla
One lady suggested we visit the Parque Ecológico Xanath, just outside town.

His instructions were to wind through the streets and look for the "virgencita". That´s the entrance to the park. Perhaps we had expected a version of Disneyland.

Looking for the Virgin
We went back to the car and took off looking for a statue of the Virgin.

I thought it might be at the top of the town, and we followed the road which lead out of town toward El Tajín.

When we got to the valley on the other side, we realized we had gone too far and doubled back.

Then we saw a small stop with people waiting for the bus.
Valley
The Valley
Next to it was a small roadside shrine dedicated to the Virgen of Guadalupe.

Then we saw a small sign with an arrow pointing up a rough dirt road. "Parque Ecologico Xanath". We were getting closer.

Once off the beaten path it seemed like we had left the 21th Century. It was both primitive and beautiful.

Lost Valley
When we crossed over the hill, it was like entering a lost world, a lush forest, then a green valley, perhaps a 100 meters from the main road from Papantla to El Tajín.
Stix
Totonacan Indian
El Parque Ecológico Xanath
Up ahead through the forest we saw a small house and pulled into the driveway.

A man, who kind of looked like a serious version of Cheech from a Cheech and Chong movie, was standing there with two large friendly dogs, a Dalmatian and a part Doberman.

We introduced ourselves, and a little nervously asked if would be possible to see some vanilla flowers, and perhaps find out how they are pollinated.

José Luis Hernandez
He gave us a friendly handshake and introduced himself as José Luis Hernandez.
Jose Luis
José Luis Hernández
"I am the owner of the park and would welcome the opportunity to show you my life´s work", he said.

We had come to the right place.

The property has been in his family since 1872, and he has spent the last 22 years developing the hacienda into a citrus grove and vanilla plantation.

The Former City Dump
It´s hard to believe that this was once the Papantla city dump!

He is proud of his hard work and welcomes the opportunity to show everyone his hacienda which he calls an ecological park.

We felt right at home!
Tape
Come This Way
Xanath
Vanilla Orchid
Pods
Pollinated Pods
A Demonstration of Pollination
Most of the flowers had been pollinated several weeks ago and are taking on the form of the vanilla pods. We are at the very end of the pollination season.

Then he chose a flower and showed us how to pollinate the vanilla flower with a toothpick.

First, firmly grab the flower.

With the toothpick, peel back the little flap, and nip a little pollen on the tip of the toothpick.

Gently place the pollen on the pistil of the flower. And bingo the flower is pollinated! A very simple operation that had eluded the Spaniards for 300 years.
Pollinating
Grasping the Flower
Pollinating
Peel Back the Petal
Pollinating
Insert the Pollen
Pollinating
Pollinated Several Days Ago
Orchids
Orchids with Baby Vanilla Pods
Pollinated Orchids
Once the orchid is pollinated, in about 30 minutes the flower closes.

A few days later, it eventually withers up leaving what used to be the stem as a pod.

This is the future vanilla pod which grows through the rest of the year from April to harvest time in December.

Below you can see a brown vanilla pod!

The flower blooms only one day a year in the morning, so you have to pollinate them quickly.
Orchids
Orchids
Orchids
Orchids
The Base
Organic Fertilizer is Important
The End of the Pollination Season
José Luis said we are at the very end of the pollination season.

The vanilla pods are harvested in December and when they are sold to a "beneficio", or processor who dries, selects and sells the vanilla all over the world.

The plant first needs a strong host, like a citrus tree. Orange groves are abundant 50 miles around Papantla. Next it needs a good organic fertilizer that surrounds the base of the orange tree and the roots of the vanilla vine.

The plants are first started from a sprig about 18 inches long, stuck in the dirt. The first year it grows about 5 meters. The second year, about 15 meters. And the third year production begins.

Cabin
José Luis´s Cabin
Time for a Break
After showing us how the vanilla flowers are pollinated, it was time for a break.

José Luis invited us into his one room house. It was fully furnished like a mountain cabin.

It had traditional local items, as well as conveniences and tools of the era, just as in the days of his great grandfather, with real furniture and accessories from the 1880´s.

It was like a little museum. You could see that José had really put his heart into this project.
Cabin
José Luis´s Cabin
Cabin
Masacoate Snake Skin
Cabin
The Basic Tools
The Basic Tools
The cabin was complete with all the tools needed to live well in the countryside in the 1890´s in the area around Papantla.

Spurs, a machete, water gourd, and leather chaparreras, or "chaps", as we call them in Texas.

You probably know they came from Mexico.

I noticed a bird nest hanging from the ceiling. José Luis said it was last year´s nest of a calandria, which is kind of like an oriole. It lives in a tree outside the front door, and is busy building a new nest this year.

José Luis found it on the ground a couple of weeks ago and brought in the house to hang from the ceiling.
Cabin
Last Year´s Calandria Nest
Cabin
Hunting Rifles
Cabin
Strapping on a machete
The New Section
José Luis began strapping on his machete and asked us if we had time to see more of his hacienda.

It´s a new section he´s working on.
Cabin
An Indian Home
Another Surprise
José Luis had reconstructed a two timeless Totonaco Indian huts complete with all the furnishings in a families daily life.

A Trip Back to the Past
José Luis took us on a walk down the dirt road to the other end of his hacienda where he had painstakingly reconstructed a Totonaco "rancho".
Cabin
Man´s Tools
Cabin
The Bed and Cradle
Cabin
Dining Room
Cabin
Kitchen with Stove
Cabin
"Ant Proof" Basket Hanger Hook
A Totonac Home
It´s a fascinating look at how the Totonaco Indians have always lived, and the way that many still live today.

He even had a bottle of a homemade snake antivenom made from local seeds, hanging on the wall.

After a snake bite, "you drink the stuff to avoid the venoms effect on the nervous system," he explained.

Early Pollination Techniques
On the way to the huts, José Luis pointed to a cane pole with little sticks on the side. A primitive homemade ladder.

Climbing the tree was a vanilla vine, with a couple of flowers left.

He climbed the "ladder" and gave us a demonstration of how vanilla plants were artificially pollinated in the early years by the Totonaco Indian workers.
Hanging Baskets
"What are those baskets hanging from the ceiling?," I asked.

"They are fresh water shrimp traps. The shrimp climb in from the bottom looking for the bait, and can´t find their way out," José Luis explained.

Cabin
Shrimp Traps
Cabin
Shrimp Traps
Cabin
Temascal or Sweat Lodge
Cabin
Cold Water for Hot Rocks
Ladder
Ladder Made from Cane
Ladder
Early Artificial Pollination Techniques

Bees
Melipona Bee Hive
The Melipona Bee Found!
When we finished touring the little village of thatched huts, José Luis said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."

We followed him past the playground down a back trail through the thick jungle undergrowth.

José Luis said this is where the old city garbage dump used to be.

His Grandfather´s Well
Down below was an old well. José Luis said it was built by his great grandfather.

The electric pump and pump shelter were added later, and he uses the water for the bathrooms at the park.

Up in the rafters, there they were.
Bees
Interviewing the Bees
Interviewing the Bees
In two of the columns were hives of little black harmless, melipona bees.

He said the honey they produce is very good.

Mexico is the largest producer of honey in the world.

The honey sold in the roadside stands around Papantla has a slight orangelike flavor, kind of like orange blossoms.

Before artificial pollination began 150 years ago, these were the ancient pollinators of the vanilla orchid.

The End of our Quest
Steve got out his equipment and began filming the bees.

"Silencio!", he said.

"Well, for a moment at least, please", he added laughing.
Bees
A Closer Look
Capturing the Sound
He wanted to capture the sound of the wind in the trees and the sound of the bees.

It was almost like he was interviewing the bees he had come so far to see.

After the filming, José Luis told us the bees are harmless and love sugar.

When you are drinking a coke, they try to land on the coke can, and you kind of brush them away like flies.

They don´t sting.
Bees
José Luis Watching
The Wrap Up
We trudged back through the playground José Luis had built for exuberant children and tired parents.

He said this also used to be part of the city garbage dump.

When we got to where we´d parked the car and sat down at the picnic table next to the 19th century cabin.

"Esperame un momento", said José Luis as he went into the cabin. "I want you to try something."
Playground
Kid´s Playground
Xanath
He brought out a bottle of Vanilla Liqueur with some small gourd cups.

He explained that Xanath is the Totonaco word for the Vanilla Flower.

Steve took a sip, and said, "Wow this is delicious!"
Cabin
Xanath, A Vanilla Liqueur Served in Clay Cups
I don´t drink anymore but did take a whiff, and it kind of smelled like Kahlua, the rich heavy coffee liqueur, an after dinner drink.

We sat around the table as Steve did a final interview with José Luis.

José Luis said the problem here in Mexico is deforestation.

People need to replant trees to prevent erosion.

He especially enjoys the groups of school children who come here, so they can learn the importance of good ecological practices.

The Lord gave us this beautiful land and it is our responsibility to take care of his gift to us.

The Drive Back to Veracruz
Unfortunately it was time to drive back to Veracruz and leave our new friend, José Luis.

We shook hands for the last time, and José Luis told us it was a real pleasure to show us his hacienda, and to please come back to visit him any time.

We drove back to town, and made a last stop at the market. I bought one of the rosaries, and a couple of rich smelling vanilla beans as souvenirs. They told us the smell lasts 7 years.

Disaster Strikes
About an hour before reaching Veracruz we decided to stop at Quiahuiztlán, the first Veracruz where Hernán Cortes lived.

Just as we pulled off the black top the rental car died. Something electrical. Although we had current, the starter wouldn´t crank. It was 5 o´clock and it would be dark by 7. We didn´t want to be stuck out in the middle of the country side.

Taxi
Stuck at Don Victor´s House at Villa Rica
A Fortunate Coincidence
We stopped at the corner house and talked to the people there. I was surprised to see a guy I have known for a couple of years.

It was don Victor, one of the INAH caretakers at Quiahuiztlán, lives in the house.

He let us use his cell phone to call the car rental company. We could leave the car and keys with Victor, and either take a bus or rural taxi (for 3 pesos more) to Cardel and take the Autobuses Unidos, or the AU or "Ah ooh", as it´s called locally, a shuttle to Veracruz. It has departures every 8 minutes.

Taxi
Several Rosaries
From the Back Seat of a Rural Taxi
A Ride in a Rural Taxi
About 5 minutes later, a taxi came along. It barely had room for two tall gringos.

We piled in, and the president of a film production company and his interpreter were off on wild drive in a rickety taxi down a Mexican highway under construction.

Our lives were in the hands of a crazy man! It was like something out of a Tom Hanks or Michael Douglas movie.

Oh, groan! Why does this always happen to me, I thought to myself, knees together, squeezed into the middle of the back seat.

As we entered the heavy traffic of Cardel, our normally quiet taxi driver came to life. It was like he had another personality!

It seemed like he knew everyone in town. He honked at other taxistas, and waved, or shouted greetings out the window to people on the street. The Man had arrived!

We were happy just to get out of there. It had been a long day.

At El AU in Cardel
It was about 7:00 when we arrived at the AU bus terminal in Cardel. The AU is a second class bus service which I had always looked down on, but at this point it was luxury!

It had clean seats, and most of all, air conditioning and even a driver wearing a white shirt and neck tie. At last we could relax

We got to the main bus terminal in Veracruz and got a taxi to take Steve back to his hotel.

On the way back we talked about how we had set out at 6 AM in the morning not knowing what to expect, or even if we could find any vanilla flowers, and how we had the good fortune to meet José Luis at the Parque Ecologico Xanath.

And to witness the pollination of vanilla orchids and find the elusive, one of a kind, melipona bee were the unexpected bonuses.

I remarked that after this trip, Steve had earned the right be called the Vanilla King!

But, even though Steve is the president of a company, he is modest, and kind of laughed, and shrugged it off as tired humor after a very long day. We were both physically tired, but satisfied with a great trip to Papantla. We had accomplished what we were looking for.

Even today sitting here in my small office, with the pungent aroma of little souvenirs I bought in Papantla, wafting past the computer like fresh roasted coffee or chocolate, I remember our adventure in looking for the elusive wild melipona bees of Papantla.

It´s strange, but every time I see a tooth pick, I am reminded how a tooth pick created a million dollar industry.

Post Script
José Luis welcomes visitors and tour groups and personally conducts tours of his hacienda. He asks that you call ahead to be sure he is there to meet you and would appreciate a day or two advance notice. His phone number and address in Papantla are found below.

Here´s more information how to get there.

Cabin
Park Map (Click on Map to Enlarge)
How to Get There
Papantla is an ancient Indian town with lots of narrow streets. When you find the church, follow the signs to El Tajin. Watch the one way streets.

At the edge of town, start watching for a little highway shrine to the Virgen of Guadalupe. It also serves as a bus stop. Next to the shrine is a rugged dirt road.

That´s the entrance.
Cabin
Inside the Park(Click on Map to Enlarge)
Map of the Park
José Luis did this map himself.

Once inside the park follow the signs. There is a small turn around area for tour buses.

José Luis offers an interesting tour of the hacienda which lasts about an hour.

He also asks for a $35 peso per person donation.

The Near Thing
Back in Seville, Spain
Back in Seville it was getting close to dark.

I'd finished my Spanish Coke and it was time to walk back to the hotel.

Seville has so much and it's impossible to see everything.

Unfortunately, my time and budget didn´t allow much more on this trip.

The Near Thing
Now, having a coke, sitting in a cubicle working my laptop at the office in Houston, sometimes I remember meeting José Luis Hernandez and his the Parque Ecológico Xanath in Papantla, Veracruz and the story of the vanilla orchids of April.

Sorry, but I still prefer the Near Thing over Pepsi.

It tastes like they might be using real vanilla.

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