Guatemala – The Rainbow
Guatemala has long cultivated a sense of mystique and intrigue within me. Whether it be the multi-colored ‘trademark’ textiles, the variety of historical and modern architecture, legend and life of the ancient Maya and colonial Spanish or the rich and varied cups of coffee to be enjoyed, Guatemala is truly the rainbow of Central America.
Often I am asked what the “best” coffee in the world is. Because the answer to this question is purely subjective, my reply is always seasonally contingent. Coffee quality is parallel to that of wine, relying on soil mineral content and annual rainfall amounts to be the predominant criteria in flavor make-up.
Guatemala’s history with coffee dates back to 1700 and is greatly influenced by the influx of European immigrants and their detail-oriented ways of life. Because of the well-established quality stock of fine arabica species coffee trees, attaining ages of up to 100 years, the nine producing regions in Guatemala offer a rainbow of flavors. The rich and fertile soil of the many still active volcanoes in the land is the foundation of the coffees’ favorable characteristics, which are described as spicy, chocolaty, floral and winy. The “European Preparation” processing used in creating the deep-emerald colored beans ensures coffees of bright and clean cup. Having recently been an honored guest of a major producing coffee family in Guatemala and witnessing all facets of their coffee producing culture, I can confidently state that Guatemala is one of the premier specialty coffee producers in the world today.
Following decades of often corrupt and oppressive military rule, which culminated with the civil war of the early 1980’s, Guatemalans are letting their guard down, breathing a cautious sigh of relief and happily opening their arms to welcome travelers to their colorful land.
As part of my goal to participate in and support sustainable business practices, through the direct purchasing of coffees from the farmers in countries of origin, it was an honor to tour several of the premier coffee regions and estates in Guatemala and forge new relationships and understanding of the lives of the farmers and families so intricately responsible for satisfying the huge demand of world-wide coffee drinkers.
Finca (Estate) El Bosque is a coffee farm of rich heritage. Hosted by the third generation of this estate, Sr. Jose Eladio Flores and family were very gracious with their time, providing us with a full tour of the farm and mill, which is located near Lake Amatitlan, between Guatemala City to the north and the ever-active Pacaya Volcano to the south.
The steep mountainsides of Aldea Loma Larga, Amatitlan, is where the Flores family cultivates the heartiest of all coffee subspecies stocks, arabica bourbon. Traveling in the back of one of the ever-present, classic original Toyota Land Cruisers, the most common work vehicle throughout the Guatemalan farmlands, we navigated the heavily fruit-ladened, ninety year old coffee orchards. Many of the pickers, being of Mayan descent, working barefoot, lower themselves on safety tethers along the rows of trees, focusing to maintain balance while picking only the ripe, ruby-red cherries. Hopping off the bank to get a closer look at the trees and do some picking myself provided an instant realization of the arduous work involved just getting the cherry off the tree, let alone to the mill.
Having purchased from this farm for the past year, it was an invaluable experience to see the small wet mill, with its handful of workers, de-pulping the coffee cherries and channeling the “nuts” or pits, which are the coffee beans, into the primary fermentation tanks, where they will ferment from 12 to 48 hours, enhancing the flavor within the bean. From there the coffees are channeled further along, rolling in water, which “washes” the coffee of an enzymatic mucilage surrounding the beans, arresting primary fermentation. Guatemala utilizes a secondary soaking of the coffee for an additional 24 hours, which further dissolves the mucilage, sharpening the beans’ flavors to laser intensity and deep blue-emerald colors. The final stage in the hand-crafted processing our humble supplier incorporates is a patio drying of the coffee pergamino. Pergamino is a thin, nut-like shell encasing the beans. Patio sun drying of coffee results in sweeter flavor in the cup and can take up to two days to complete. Finally the pergamino is stored in breathable sacks of 150 pounds inside warehouses for a three month curing, or reposo period, completing the last stage of preparation before the coffee is husked and bagged for export.
Throughout our week long tour we visited the renowned Antigua region, which produces Guatemala’s flagship coffee, Guatemala Antigua. This coffee is full in body, chocolaty-sweet and spicy in the cup with a balanced and bright finish. The colonial city of La Antigua, lying below the Agua Volcano, located southwest of Guatemala City, is a “must-visit” classic Spanish colonial city, where time stands still. The cobbled streets and meticulously groomed shop-fronts welcome the international traveler to a warm and genuine Guatemala, brimming with color and historical architecture.
Board any one of the intricately painted, mucho-colorful buses running at seemingly crazy pace throughout the country and head east to another one of Guatemala’s national landmarks, Lago (Lake) Atitlan. Rimmed by Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro volcanoes, the towns of Santiago Atitlan and Panajachel, along the southern and eastern shores respectively, provide authentic Mayan cultural experience with contemporary flair. Crossing the lake by ferry is a scenic journey, akin to a crossing of Tahoe or Interlaken in Switzerland. Proceed with caution!; the afternoon wind, known as Chocomil, can run-up a tempest, providing adventure and danger in a short period of time. This region is best for sourcing and buying the trademark multi-colored textiles of the Maya Indians, which has, as of 2003, along with tourism, supplanted coffee as Guatemala’s number one export. Jade, especially the rare white and black varieties, are mined in this region and attract a world-class following.
The highlight of our tour came on the final day with a helicopter flight up into the northern highlands of Guatemala, which, by automobile would have taken a few days’ journey. Lifting above the dense smog of Guatemala City to be greeted by the morning sun and a host of volcanoes in every direction, we flew over many hectares of corn, coffee and sugar cane fields, planted high upon steep hillsides, cascading into deep ravines, very often swollen with well-fed creeks and rivers.
Huehuetenango (pronounced whey-whey ten-ang-go), lies at the base of a series of deep gorges just south of the Mexican border. The Finca El-Injerto hosted us for a morning breakfast and tour of their farm and mill, which rank high on the scale of cleanliness, optimally reflected in their shining coffees. The coffee trees ranged 2000 vertical feet up on slopes as steep as 45 degrees, intermixed with old-growth mesquite and oak as shade trees. This farm also cultivated yucca commercially, which is sold to the Japanese market. Huehuetenango is another of Guatemala’s well-known coffee origins, producing coffees with assertive citrus and floral notes in the cup, brightly finished by bold acidity.
Finca La Perla was the crux of our tour. This relatively small farm occupies a famous place in recent history and provided an experience at origin second to none, as all of my professional colleagues, who joined me that week, will attest to. It was during the leftist rebel insurgency in the early 1980’s that this multi generation coffee estate found itself in the middle of the heat of the battle. Leftist guerrillas wanted to prevent any coffee leaving, or, for that matter, any interaction outside of Guatemala. They sought to halt the flow of coffee from mill to export, which was and still is the lifeblood for the Maya peoples of the northern department of El Quiche. In 1981 and ’82 thousands of Indians fled from the higher elevations to take welcomed refuge on the estate. It was the Patron of the family at La Perla that stood firm and committed to resisting control by the insurgents. For this he did pay dearly, being assassinated in his home a short time thereafter by a woman leftist guerrilla, posing as a local come to visit.
La Perla is a community of approximately 2000 Indians, who speak one of the twelve native dialects of the Maya, known as Quiche. It is eight hours isolated from the nearest main road by steep mountains and valleys. The airstrip is cut into the side of the mountain and promises excitement for anyone arriving by small plane, landing on a grassy strip that runs up the mountain. Finca La Perla supports a small village, which is typical of most all coffee farms in Central America, comprised of a church at the center, school next door and medical clinic nearby. As we hovered around and over the farm in two brightly-painted Bell Long Ranger helicopters, a swarm of small figures, resembling a stream of ants from our vantage point, poured out of the school and down toward the airstrip to where we were soon to touch down. A feeling of warmth and genuine fascination on both the behalf of us gringo coffee professionals and the 200 or so Maya children running to greet us pervaded the air.
Although being quite isolated, Finca La Perla produces some very fine organic specialty coffee, along with cardamom, of which Guatemala happens to be the world’s largest producer. Having cupped the first round of coffee produced at La Perla, we patiently await export samples and final purchase negotiations to complete one of our primary objectives of creating a “relationship” coffee we can offer direct from the humble farmers at La Perla to the coffee lovers of Lake Tahoe.
This story painted a relatively rosy picture of life and traveling in Guatemala. Unfortunately, this is not the predominant scenario. The U.S. Department of State continues to maintain a very cautious travel advisory for the country. Guatemala’s new president is ushering in an administration prepared to respond to the country’s dire needs of improving education, clean water, reducing income disparity, increasing jobs and bridging the cultural differences between the Maya and the Ladinos, and working to reduce rampant violent crime and build a more cohesive country.
Living and working conditions for the coffee pickers are in many areas deplorable. Through buying direct we can better trace where our money is going and make wiser, more informed purchasing decisions. All of the estates we do business with engage in improved and sustainable employment and social practices, offering incentives to get the workers to send their children to school, seek consistent and preventative personal hygiene and health care, through building clinics on the farm or within the local communities, staffed regularly with doctors and dentists, and improving local water supply with new and improved infrastructure. They pay thirty to fifty percent higher wages over the minimum required by the government.
However, many of the Mayan pickers and their families find the transition from their traditional lifestyle to be a difficult one.
As a traveler from the U.S., one must be wary of pick-pocket petty thieves, avoiding bad neighborhoods in any part of the country and becoming accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of firearms. In other words, get a good cup of coffee and keep your head about you. Respect local customs, speak and walk quietly and smile a whole bunch. Traveling with an open, understanding and loving heart is essential.
This article was reprinted from our 2004 Guatemala travel log. CW