Central America – April/May 2008
Only a month late! I may get a bit Gonzo here, so for detailed and certainly more accurate specifics, please read Grant Rattray’s report on the CoffeeHunter site. This is just my take on trip. Bear with me…
Friday 25th April – The Journey
When I was growing up, my family very much like everyone else’s at the time, and still I suppose, were holidaying on the Spanish isles, Minorca and Majorca, and during these trips I was fascinated with the journey itself – air travel and all its wonders. One of which to me at the time was the food. Hundreds of meals produced simultaneously, identical in size, shape, contents and taste, produced without, as far as I could tell then, a kitchen – just wheeled out and distributed politely among the passengers. Black magic, I thought. And as naive six-year-old boy, I really enjoyed the meals, even pocketing some of the cutlery as mementos, to continue the experience back at home. Yes. Very sad indeed.
I was clearly blinded by the romance of adventure and places new. A lesson that i am recalling at this moment. As I write this, i’m flying across the Atlantic. Like the filling of your lunchtime baguette, i have been stuffed in and forgotten by the moody cabin crew. This is my first trip to origin, and I’m very aware of my surroundings.
Saturday 26th April – Arrival
I am on my way to El Salvador, having spent last night in New York, milling around Times Square, with time to kill and looking for something to do. Due to the previous days flight mishaps, I’ve been bumped up to the front of the plane, First Class i think, though absolutely freezing – I haven’t seen my luggage for 24 hours as the initial flight was delayed, missing the connection. The cold air is blasting out from the vent above my massive chair. I could turn it off, but then I might get too warm, and risk sweating out. All my stuff – clothes, towels, wash bag (and deodorant!) are hopefully stowed away and have been since yesterday, when I left them in the trusted hands of Continental staff. So, on waking this morning and cleaning up, I headed of to duty free to freshen up, F.O.C. in Newark Liberty. No deodorant though, hence the forced-freeze I’m enduring. No one likes a smelly traveller, and I swear that won’t be me.
On arrival in San Salvador, the thick, moist air hits me and for a moment i seriously think someone has left the Country’s heating on. I find my bag sitting on the floor, waiting for me. It evidently made it on the flight I couldn’t, and had sat in San Salvador overnight. Once through customs I make a dash for the hotel shuttle and it’s a/c system.
After another tidy up and clean in the hotel, we meet and head off to the Consejo Salvadoreño del Café, cupping the top nine Cup of Excellence coffees, with some sweet and fruity pacamaras in the top places, though I was preferring some of the brighter ones on the table – #6 Finca La Laínez and #9 Finca El Jocotillo.
Sunday 27th April – Finca La Siberia & Finca La Fany
It’s the end of the dry season, and all the farms are hoping for rain in the next couple of weeks. The journey up to (and down from) La Siberia makes it clear why it was named so. A mission to get to. Very steep, hot and dusty, made easier with a ride in the pick-ups and 4x4s. It must be a nightmare when wet.
This is my first trip to a coffee producing country, and La Siberia is my first farm, so I’m a little unsure of what to expect. With hardly a flat piece of ground on the whole farm, working these bourbon and pacamara clad slopes must be hard work too. You can look at all the photos you like, but nothing can give you a feel of what is really going on until you see it for real. The passion our hosts, Rafael and Carmen, have for their product shows, in spades.
After a lovely lunch, we head off to La Fany and the difference between the two hits you straight away. Everything is so neat, tidy and well organised. This is, I guess, how you’d expect a farm to look. As we walk around, fog (or cloud) blows across the farm and up the rows of nurseries and plantation, divided by protective screens to shelter the plants from wind. There is a large area devoted to the production of lombricompost, where after the processing stage, the pulp from the coffee cherries is used to feed earthworms, which gorge themselves on the rotting fruit. The result is a wonderfully rich compost that is used across the whole farm. It seems that both the farmers, and worms can’t get enough of this stuff!
That evening, we ate and stayed at the Hotel Alicante, which is a series of log cabins in the hills. Good food and drinks…
Monday 28th April – Borbollon, El Cero & La Reforma
The mill at which La Siberia and La Fany’s coffee, together with many other speciality lots, are processed is El Borbollon, owned by Eduardo Alvarez. He and his son showed us around their mill before we headed indoors for a cupping. The two standout coffees here were the Bourbollon AAA and La Siberia Pacamara, which was very good, though I fear it may be a while before I get to try that again – if I remember correctly, only about 20% of La Siberia’s crop is pacamara, and all of this years is sold. Shortly after, we head off to the farms, El Cero and La Reforma.
On our way through the farm, we are shown the traditional Salvadoran approach to plant maintenance and pruning. As opposed to the hard cutting back of branches seen in neighbouring coffee producing countries, here the largest stems are bent horizontally and pinned down with steaks and twine. Naturally, the plant grows toward light, so new growth shoot vertically from the now horizontal branch. This process is repeated the following year, and the next, eventually exhausting the plants’ limb, when it is then removed and the process is begun with a new branch. To avoid overcrowding and excessive cultivation, every third row of coffee plants are completely removed every few years, despite the fact the volcanic earth of Santa Ana is incredibly fertile.
A short stop for lunch in the National Park on the slopes of the Santa Ana volcano (I’m stealing from Grant’s notes here) was much welcomed, as were the local speciality baguettes – turkey, salad and spicy gravy, a reduction of the turkey’s cooking liquor. Very tasty.
It was then back into the cars, Eduardo leading the way up to an abandoned hotel, nestled high on the edge of Cerro Verde, the premise of which was to provide unsurpassed views over the volcanic eruption Izalco. Ironically, the near clockwork eruptions of Izalco ceased the day the hotel was completed. The hotel itself now just sits there, time having taken something of a toll on this 1950’s design masterpiece – It almost feels like the set of an old Bond movie.
Dense cloud or fog, together with the swarms of mosquitoes and huge flies made viewing impossible, so we head down to Eduardo’s beautiful home on the shores of Lake Coatepeque. I don’t think I can really underestimate the beauty here. Absolutely stunning. Breathtaking in fact.
We return to San Salvador and a couple of us sneak round to Viva Espresso before dinner for a chat with the owner Federico and his wife Lily de Bolaños. Lily is the current El Salvador barista champ, and was keen to get some sage WBC advice from Gunnhild of Den Gyldne Bonne, Norway. As a previous WBC competitor, she is something of a celebrity and draws a crowd wherever there is an espresso machine!
Dinner that evening was at the Tucson, a grill/steak house very close to our hotel, the Marriot where we were joined by many of the wonderful people we’d met in the previous days’ visits.
Tuesday 29th April – The drive through Honduras
Starting the day feeling great, my wellbeing rapidly diminished once the gravity of our situation hit home: our minibus driver only knew three of the five gears the vehicle was equipped with. The following hours were painfully noisy, bumpy, dusty and hot.
From what I saw, Honduras is somewhat bleak and desolate. Baron dusty plains, reaching to the feet of the equally dehydrated hills. Thirsty cattle keeling over at the side of the road, each weak move monitored, by what I assume, are vultures circling overhead.
We arrive quite late in the day greeted by Erwin Mierisch, unfortunately missing the opportunity to visit Finca Linda Vista, though we are taken to Las Segovias mill and given a tour while there is still light. We are taken up to a fabulously equipped cupping lab and presented with a serious number of coffees to cup. Despite the Pepto Bismol, I’m still feeling ropey, and although I can handle meaty coffee aromas in the room, each time I try a cup, the sensation (if you can call it that) in my mouth is far from pleasant. My body doesn’t recognise this dark liquid. I feel a little upset with myself for being ill.
We return to the hotel, La Frontera where, with better hopes for tomorrow, I crash out.
Wednesday 30th April – La Pita & Limoncillo
An early start ensured most from the day, starting off at the Mierisch family mill La Pita, where the coffee was being sorted on the long conveyor belts. In the room above, a cupping session had been organised, and fortunatley I was feeling much better.
From the seven coffees on the table, two really leapt out as ones to look out for – topping it for me was the Limoncillo Java Lavado. I was got orange and citrus peel, coriander and spices from this fantastic cup. Second to this was Mama Mina Estate, which I felt had some of the elements from the previous cup, but just a more delicate/subtle balance. I remember Erwin saying that this coffee was actually called La Minita Estate, though he was prevented from using it due to the Costa Rican of the same name. As it turned out, buyers actually preferred Mama Mina and the story behind it (Mina is his Grandmother’s name).
Following the cupping, we head off to Erwin’s beautiful family home and stables for lunch and a quick drink, and were we also have the pleasure of meeting Erwin’s Father. We sit in the shade beside the pool, biting the tops from perfectly ripe mangoes and squeezing the soft, sweet flesh around the stone and out the top, as if we were kids on the beach in summer, slurping an ice-lolly. To the left of were we are sitting there is a small horse training circuit. When the chance to ride one of the wonderful animals is offered, few decline. Unsure of weather the trainer is giving instructions (in Spanish, of course) to the horse or me, I just nod in agreement, occasionally giving it the “Woh there boy” like you do, I guess? Ridden a horse – that’s another one crossed off the list!
We saddle up, and skin out. Sorry, getting carried away with the whole cowboy thing there. We load into the vans and head up to Limoncillo, passing newly planted, low altitude farms. I think I remember Erwin saying that the lower farms had been sold off to illycaffè, though I may have misheard, or have been mistaken. When the ground gets worse, we all jump into a huge military style Mercedes transporter, which it would seem, can cope with anything. Limoncillo is yet another beautiful place, the name meaning little lemons, which are what you notice growing all over the place. Originally, the farm had been heavily planted with the lemon trees to rid the ground of fire ants (I guess they prefer a slice of lime in their tonic?).
Throughout the farm, a serious effort is made to make use of all possible sources of energy and fuel – Erwin is currently looking at ways of creating a lighting system powered from the methane, a by-product of the sewage processing system. Water is used several times in the processing stages and a development of a hydroelectric power system is underway.
A member of the farm’s security leads us through the plantation and up the hills, coffee trees brushing across our faces as we negotiate the incredibly wet and steep ground. In places, it is almost bog-like, really not what you’d expect. At Limoncillo, you get the impression that water shortage is never an issue. In fact, I suspect its profusion may be more of a hindrance.
On our return from our exploration of the rainforest-esque hills, we once again load into the vans and head back, this time to Erwin’s cousin, Roberto Bendana’s place in the heart of his El Quetzal and Los Altos farms. The setup for the next couple of nights are four rooms, each equipped with two generous bunks, crafted from the farm’s coffee wood. The accommodation has only just been completed, so we all feel very privileged to be the first guests to crash out here.
Thursday 1st May – El Quetzal, Los Altos & El Paraiso
I was sleeping badly, so rose early, intending to do a bit of reading, to find Roberto and a handful of the other guys getting ready for an early look around the farms. Cool! Always up for adventure, I grab a fleece and head off, expecting a brisk early morning walk, so I was surprised, and excited to see we would be taking the mini 4x4s. Very cool!
The chances of seeing any of the dawn fauna was, I’m sure, significantly reduced due to the noise of these buggies zipping around the forest floor, but it was great to get to see the farms at this time in the day, fog clinging to the hillside. Throughout the farms, they preserve certain areas as natural forest, securing habitats for many species of birds, insects and howler monkeys, which we could now hear, calling in the distance. Roberto shows us a newly planted, and disease resistant maracatu hybrid, in an area previously cultivated with catimor. If I remember correctly, the catimor was resistant to chicken eye rust up to a specific altitude (<1200m I think), however, these slopes exceeded that limit and were subsequently affected.
We are also shown how one of the many natural springs on the estate has been used to power the hydroelectric system at the bottom of the hill. From what is just a steady little trickle emerging from the rock, the water builds in a network of sluices and reservoirs, creating a greater water pressure, before running 100m down the hill to the hydroelectric station, which generates electricity for the community.
We head back to meet the rest of the group and have breakfast. Then, back out to see more of the estate and further projects aimed at improving the workers’ community, including a much improved sanitation and waste management system. There is also a school and care centre, allowing children education and activities whilst their parents and families are out working on the farms.
A cupping session was laid on at the Café Don Paco mill, featuring some of the coffees Mercanta had bought, plus a selection of others, including the easy to identify maracatu hybrid. That evening, we ate, drank, and were merry.
Friday 2nd May – Lake Nicaragua & Cafe Don Paco HQ
With the schedule thoroughly exhausted, we head for Managua and drop our bags off at the hotel. A little trip to Lake Nicaragua seemed just the ticket. With Roberto as our combination chauffeur and tour guide, we drive through Granada and out toward the lake. Yet another example of the beauty this country has to offer – the emerald green waters of the lake are calm and still, broken only by the surfacing of small fish. That is of course, until we climb aboard a boat and start speeding across its surface. We moor up on a small island, which is actually a restaurant with a couple of salt-water pools cut into the rock. We sit to dine on the local fish, which is presented to us in three varying sizes, and described as like bass. Despite their large size, their meat is somewhat thin, and well cooked, though very tasty.
Back on the shores of the lake, we load back into the minibus and head back, stopping for a walk around Granada as we pass through, entertained by the street performers and their cheeky dances.
En route back to the Managua Intercontinental, we call in at Roberto’s offices, Café Don Paco HQ. If ever there was such a thing, then this surely is the coffee lounge of the gods. If you fancy a cup, there is a choice of Clover, Marzocco FB/80 or GS/3. If you choose to sit, it will be on one of the many Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Chairs, available for your comfort whilst you gaze out of the window, across the City’s skyline. Later that evening we meet for a final farewell dinner, where thanks and goodbyes are exchanged. I’m keeping an eye on the time as I’ve an early, stupid-o’clock flight in the morning.
Saturday 3rd May – Departure
Not wanting to risk a repeat of the journey out here, I’m dashing through each lot of customs and bag collections/check-ins to get to the gate. Fortunately the previous weeks delays haven’t gone unnoticed, as on each of the flights I have the row to myself, or a couple of seats at the least. Sleep.
I’d like to take this chance to say thanks, once again, to all the people and places we visited, Carmen Elena & Rafael Silva, Eduardo Alvarez, everyone at the Consejo Salvadoreño del Café, Erwin Mierisch & Ernesto and especially Roberto Bendana. Huge thanks for their amazing hospitality and seemingly limitless knowledge of coffee and its production. It has been a privilege and an honour to see all of the places above, and many more wonderful things I’ve failed to mention. Thanks also to Christian Schaps and Grant Rattray from Mercanta CA and UK, respectively, for organising this trip, translations, general problem solving and of course, being all round good guys. Finally, a shout to the whole group, without which travelling wouldn’t have been such fun, and a special than you to Anni and Peter for sending me on this trip.