On some farms, the output has been less than stellar, but the tour itself made it worthwhile. In Antigua, Guatemala, I boarded a brightly painted former school bus many years ago with my wife and pre-K daughter as an afternoon field trip for our Spanish class. We missed a lot of what the guide rattled off, but it was our first big step in matching vocabulary to context on the long road to comprehension. It also provided me a benchmark of what a big industrial coffee production facility looks like. That early visit made the ones like Milagrosa seem more special later.
Factory Farms and Fair Trade
In Costa Rica I visited another coffee farm so large I couldn't see the end of it. I had some great coffee in that country at a few choice spots, but this stop didn't make the list. Perhaps it was the factory farm set-up, with almost no shade, no birds, no diversity of plants. Production is high this way, but there's a reason coffee marked as "shade grown" commands a higher price.
In Honduras I got a private tour of a coffee plantation that was the opposite. I was the only tourist around that day, so we took our time hiking up and down hills on trails winding through coffee plants shaded by big trees, a variety of birds chirping overhead and little lizards scurrying through the layers of leaves on the ground. As we sat down and sipped complex black coffee, I looked out over the views of western Honduras and enjoyed the moment, sipping what came from the land in front of me.
At the 128-year-old Combia farm of Colombia, the investment going into the plantation is not to increase yield or production: it's to bring in more tourists. In the Coffee Triangle of Colombia, tourism is a growing part of the economy. You can zip-line through a plantation at El Bosque del Saman or visit the Parque National de Cafe amusement park. Of course there are plenty of farms that provide tours to visitors, with a lovingly prepared cup of coffee served at the end.
Manuel Sabogal of Combia is taking the tour a step further, however, charging more but giving more in a true immersive experience. Your typical coffee tour takes a look at the plants, goes over the fermenting and drying process, and ends up amongst burlap sacks filled with green beans. The Combia tour, by contrast, starts with a shot at making the baskets the growers use for harvest, then traipses through the fields of plants to stations explaining the ties between nature and what you drink. You go through a tunnel under the ground, come to a water feature, and sit in a big covered swing fashioned in the shape of the birds' nests in trees around the farm. In the mix there's a coffee tasting, lunch, and a look at the beans being sorted and dried.
The aim is to show coffee as more than an industrial product, as something connected to nature. This is one of the few crops that can sit on the same plot of land for more than a century without depleting the soil or requiring tons of fertilizer. Farmers help the cause by redistributing coffee shells and discarded cherry parts that surround the seed back as compost, but without their intervention the cycle of nature from the plants, trees, and animals would still keep it all in balance.
So making organic coffee is not a big stretch. Fair trade is just an agreement process: it ensures that farmers producing good beans are not subject to the overall market fluctuations when supply of inferior beans is high. No big effort really.
The owners at Azahar are part of a new breed of importers taking it a step further, serious coffee fans that are transparent about the source of what you're drinking. Azahar is trying to hold the time from picking to drinking below three months. When you buy from them you know exactly where the beans came from, you know they were processed on site, and you know where they were roasted. You also know they went through a sorting process, as all coffee beans do, and you got the big ones that were shaped properly. The ones that were small, unripe, or irregular went to your local fast food joint or gas station. Or ended up in that can of cheap coffee on the supermarket shelf. That kind of coffee is not meant to be savored in a porcelain cup while enjoying good conversation or a stellar view. It's rocket fuel to keep you awake.
Earlier this year, Starbucks announced it was buying its own coffee farm in Costa Rica, the primary intention being to create micro-farms to grow experimental, more expensive beans. Some say this means we should watch for a $7.50 cup of coffee in their future. Hopefully it will be served in a manner befitting the price. What else can you do to ruin a cup of coffee? Serve it in a paper cup with a plastic lid on top.
If You Go:
You can visit a coffee farm in most any country that produces a lot, but you'll find a high concentration of them near popular tourist spots in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador. For how to prepare a perfect cup of coffee in a French press, see this video from Manuel Sabogal of Colombia.
Editor Tim Leffel has won dozens of travel writing awards and is the author of four books, including the new 4th edition of The World's Cheapest Destinations. See more at TimLeffel.com or his Cheapest Destinations Blog.
See other Mexico/Central America travel stories from the archives
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