Words and photos by Zack Burnett
We entered Guatemala by bus from El Salvador. The border crossing is uneventful, we sit on the bus on the Salvadoran side for an hour or so while our paperwork is taken care of passing time watching money changers, stray dogs and idle members of the military border police. Once everything is in order and the bus is searched, we cross the Rio de Paz and just like that we are in Guatemala.
There's not an immediate change in scenery upon crossing the border. The hilly, semi-arid countryside flows seamlessly together and the biggest noticeable change is the pupusa* stands begin advertising their prices in Quetzales rather than Dollars.
*Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador and are popular throughout Guatemala and Honduras as well. Similar to an arepa, corn masa is filled with meat, cheese, vegetables or a combination of all and then hand formed into a thin patty and cooked on a griddle. Pupusas are topped with pickled cabbage slaw and homemade hot sauce. So good, and they go great with beer!
It’s a few hours drive from the Salvadoran border to Guatemala city where we are headed. The altitude gradually increases and the hills become greener. The countryside gives way pretty quickly to higher populated urban areas. The city sits in a valley and as we approach it after dark the entire valley is lit with civilization. Once we arrive to the city, we meet with Samuel Coto, our "Guy in Guatemala" for a dinner of pupusas and beer and discuss our plans for the week. We will drive to Huehuetanango the next afternoon.
Huehuetenengo (Huehue for short) is the capitol of the department of the same name. It’s a busy town of 81,000 in the northwestern part of the country. This part of the country supports itself almost entirely through agriculture and coffees from Huehuetenango are considered as some of the best in the world. Much of the support for the coffee industry in this part of the country is located in the town of Huehuetenango.
The drive to Huehuetenengo is long but the scenery is beautiful. We pass through countless tiny, picturesque mountain towns, past highland lakes and numerous volcanos. At points the altitude increases enough that the landscape becomes somewhat lunar and the vegetation becomes sparse and shrublike. We arrive in Huehue after dark, it’s cold and we called it an early night. In the morning we will drive a couple of hours to the north, within view of the Mexican border, to visit a few farms in the area.
We awake to cold fog in Huehue, have a traditional everyday breakfast of eggs, sweet plantains, tortilla, white cheese, super-rich refried black beans cooked with lard and a thick sour cream just called crema. This is called Desayuno Chapin and everyone in the country serves it the same. Full, we set off for the farms.
Unfortunately we are unable to make it to the Huehue farms. An hour and half down the road we hit a standstill. We get out of the car to find a protest and a road block and learn that a large group of farmers from around Guatemala have grouped together to block all of the major roads in the country. They were protesting against the government for, among other things, allowing multi-national mining companies to operate without regard for the environment. For about 30 minutes we try to map out a way around the roadblock. In that time, the crowd grows to over 100 people and we can’t find a way around so we head back towards Huehue.
We get to the entrance of the town before we hit the next roadblock. We are forced to stash the truck and walk through the roadblock/protest to get back into town. All logistics in the country are temporarily stopped. The protesters seem pretty angry. People trying to travel the road are posted up not knowing how long this will last. The roadside vendors, bars and restaurants are having their best day of the year.
A couple of the farmers we were planning to visit got caught on the Huehue side of the roadblock so luckily the day is not lost and after checking out the Mayan ruins at Zaculeu we have a chance to meet with them in town.
The first farmer we were able to meet with is named Rogelio Aguirre Ovalle. He manages Finca El Limonar which sits between 4,300 and 6,100 feet above sea level near the town of La Libertad. Rogelio grows mainly Bourbon varietal with some Caturra, Pacamara and Maragoype in the mix. His farm has placed very well in the Cup of Excellence the past two years.
Rogelio is excited about speciality coffee. We share a common vision for the advancement of the entire supply chain through the production of better coffee and trade that values coffee as a specialty product rather than a commodity. We believe that increasing transparency in trade and paying fair prices based on quality and cost of input will ensure the sustainability of the speciality industry and help guarantee that we all continue to have the option to consume a special, traceable, sustainable product.
Rogelio, like many of the farmers we meet, puts a lot of faith in the speciality coffee industry as a means to finally earn a fair wage for the coffee he grows. His land has great terroir and he is detailed in his methods starting with proper planting and agricultural practices and continuing to selective harvesting, meticulous wet processing and proper drying. The attention to detail pays off and his coffee cups great.
We are excited to bring you Rogelio’s coffee early this fall. Finca El Limonar is a sweet and juicy coffee with notes of pulpy orange and hard candy.
After meeting with Rogelio, we next meet Aurelio Villatorro. Aurelio manages Finca La Esperanza. He has been producing high quality coffee for years on the 35 hectare (88 acre) farm that sits between 4,500 and 6,000 feet above sea level near La Libertad, Huehuetanango.
La Esperanza was purchased by Aurelio's father, Heleodoro Villatoro, in 1956. Mr. Villatoro, an honest, dedicated and hard working-man has been a great example for his children, grand children and the rest of his family. He implemented a culture of support, which his family greatly honor. They are all proud to be part of the farm, which produces outstanding quality coffee for coffee drinkers around the world.
Talking with Aurelio it is clear how passionate he is about his coffee, his farm and his family's history as coffee producers. Their farm is situated beautifully for growing speciality coffee and the family is knowledgable and takes care in what they do. As a result, they have been awarded the Cup of Excellence 5 out of the past 6 years in Guatemala. The farm took 7th place in this years Guatemalan Cup of Excellence.
This is our first year working with Aurelio and Finca La Esperanza. We look forward to sharing their coffee with you later this fall and are excited about the potential of this newly formed relationship. Look for Finca La Esperanza to be released October 2015.
Armando Gomez was the next producer we were able to meet. Armondo met us with samples of parchment coffee from the ASODIETT cooperative. ASODIETT is made up of 30 producer families near Todos Santos, Huehuetenango. Their production is very manual but they produce nice coffees despite their lack of infrastructure. No members of the ASODIETT cooperative use automatic processing machinery. A few of them have hand cranked de-pulpers while other members of the cooperative de-plup their coffee by squeezing individual coffee cherries by hand. This type of processing is not only labor intensive but it can also lead to drastic inconsistencies in the final cup. However, the lot we purchased is sweet ad balanced with notes of chocolate and molasses and it has proven to be very consistent from bag to bag.
We worked with three producers in the cooperative whose coffee cupped great on the table in Guatemala. We are excited to work with the producers of ASODIETT because in addition to their coffee being very nice presently, we also see a lot of potential to work with them on steadily increasing their quality year after year.
After our meeting with Armando we tried our luck at heading back to the hotel just outside of Huehuetenango city. The protests proved to be short lived and the streets were clear. We ended the night with dinner and a couple glasses of 23 year old Ron Zacapa. The next morning we had desayuno Chapin before heading to the airstrip to catch a plane to Cobán.
Check back soon for part 2!