An early morning start begins with a dark morning and embarkment on the road travelling three hours north. Through the car window, I watch as the sun begins to traverse from behind the mountains and across the cloudless sky. Our journey takes us through swathes of protected forests that contain the habitat of the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala that few have seen. Eventually, our voyage comes to a halt as we reach the municipality of Cobán and navigate into the mountainous town of San Cristóbal Verapaz, home to Mercanta’s partner and friend, father and son duo Don Luis and Wicho Valdes. This region is truly spectacular, the mountains alone are enough to entice you to stay for a while.
As we emerge from the car and stretched off the long hours of travel, the Valdes’ kindly greet and welcome us to what looks like a tropical oasis, as sounds of chirping birds surround us and coffee trees gentle bristle hello. This family has been working with Mercanta for several years, placing in the Cup of Excellence several times. The good-natured spirit of the father-son team is evident in the quality of the coffee and the pristineness of the vibrant farm.
Wicho, the son and mastermind behind much of the beautiful organization and innovative agronomic ideas leads us to the drying facility, where large guardiolas tumble dry this year’s harvested coffee. The precision of the drying process is carefully orchestrated to ensure only the highest quality of coffee harvested remains in designated lots.
The adventure continues as we cross the road that slices through Finca Santa Isabel to visit the wet mill and see how the coffee is washed and sorted. Signs indicate the measures being taken on the farm to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, and Wicho mentions to me that some members of his staff contracted the virus, which alerted him to the seriousness of safety and sanitation on his farm.
Down a steep slope of steps (where I nearly tumbled down a few times), we gaze out at the glistening-white tiled washing station and fermentation tanks that hold and sort the coffee before being dried. After the coffee is pulped and left to ferment in the tanks for up to 48 hours. Once complete, the coffee is then soaked in clean water for an additional 24 hours to remove any remaining mucilage.
Suspended in water, the coffee rushes down another tiled canal system, whereby workers use wooden paddles to push the coffee downstream, all the while removing any floating coffee to maintain consistency in quality. I was amazed at the efficient system and the vast expanse of patios dedicated to the drying of coffee, which were utilized more during the dry season to initiate the first 24 hours of drying. Women were sitting on these patios and hand sorting the coffee, locating any defects and tossing the darkened beans into a basket. I was then astonished to see the massive greenhouses constructed to dry the coffee with protection from the rain. The coffee resides here for another 15 – 30 days to attain at least a 30% humidity level. Wicho also showed me the detailed descriptive tags on each crate of coffee drying on the shelves – a truly traceable and perfected method. From here, the coffee is shipped to the guardiolas to be completely dried.
It is a warm and sunny day here at Finca Santa Isabel, and it feels great to meet such a dedicated and diligent producer, working to improve not only the quality of his coffee but also reducing his impact on the environment.
As we clamber into his truck, Wicho takes us to the neighbouring brother farm known as Finca San Lorenzo where we truly witness the importance of nature conservation to the family. Plots of old coffee have been removed and replanted with native Inga and macadamia trees to provide nutrients to the soil, promote water conservation, and diversify crops. Young coffee trees welcome us on our drive, new varietals that are more resilient to Coffee Leaf Rust, or Roya as it is known in Guatemala. We reach a summit and gaze out at the waxy-green coated mountains, filled with coffee and perfectly situated shade trees.
Wicho teaches me about the macadamia tree, its importance, and talks about the need to prune the coffee and the shade trees in order to attain high quality and yield. He understands the land, what it needs, and how he can reap the natural benefits of the surrounding ecosystems to grow high quality coffee. As clouds gently drift across the sky, and I take in the view, I am immediately aware of the hard work that goes into not only producing coffee in the steep, terraced regions of Guatemala, but the battle with Roya, preserving native species and restoring forests that were removed due to monoculture agriculture. Coffee is a powerful tool, and Wicho has taken advantage of his land to grow coffee and reforest – bringing biodiversity and life back to this area of Guatemala.
As we return down the rugged path, warm tortillas and cooked vegetables await us accompanied by fruit juice and a well-needed rest on a hammock. Finca Santa Isabel and San Lorenzo are both special coffee farms, run by Wicho and Don Luis, two compassionate and knowledgeable producers in Guatemala.