Our plan to converge at the Guatemala La Aurora Airport at 9:05 a.m. brought Jim Hazard in his four-wheel-drive Hyundai to the arrivals terminal to meet Bob Carr, fellow topographo of Tikal, me and Mike Glassow, who had flown in from Flores, Petén.
We were there to visit Hazard’s certified responsible coffee and organic tea farm, Los Andes, on the flank of Volcán Atitlán. Little did I know that this would be a major education in conscientious resource management. This remarkable finca, plantation or estate in Spanish, is not merely in coffee and tea production, but is the locus of multiple crop cultivation and significant social investments in the context of a government-authorized private forest reserve.
On the terrestrial leg of our trip to Los Andes, we turned off the main southern highway after Los Cocales, and drove up past the small town of, yes, Santa Barbara. As we entered the complex road system that connected Finca Panama to Los Andes, we were shown the complexities of rubber tapping as we wended our way to the new hydroelectric plant that was just at that moment being tested, ready to go online as a 2+ megawatt plant to produce electricity for the two fincas and sell to the national grid, as well.
Arriving in the fog at Casa Oliver, we were reminded that we were in the cloud forest where the famed and endangered Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) lives in the upper wild forests of the finca. The Los Andes forest reserves are also home to the rare endemic Cabanis Tanager (Tangara cabanisi). These bird habitats draw specialty birders to the finca, especially in the winter months when there are not only the local and endemic birds but also the migrants. Hazard’s daughter, Olga, manager of Los Andes, has developed the bird-watching angle, learning how to entice avid bird watchers as well as the “twitchers” to Los Andes.
In the evening at the main house, Casa Oliver, we learned about the history of the finca, how coffee, tea, and quinine had grown there for at least a century. Today, its coffee meets strict conservation and social standards and is prized by coffee purveyors around the world. You may have experienced its aromas with the Guatemala blends of Starbucks. The orchards of the finca are historic, diverse and eclectic. As our visit progressed, we were destined to learn more.
This is a model finca, located at the end of the road. With expansive views to the Pacific Ocean miles away, it is only a short day's hike to the peak of Volcán Atitlán looming above at a height of 11,400 feet high. A community of 40 families had generational ties to this land.
Hazard recognizes the symbiosis of the community and the finca. Since he acquired the place in 1985, he has promoted health care beginning with school children, established a community clinic, and instituted programs of hygiene at the household level. These early efforts have paid off. The community has supported higher education and many of the college bound have returned to participate in the community improvements.
We enjoyed a sunset and then dinner, a delicious spread of local foods presented at a buffet. We shared our delicious meal with Hazard's son-in-law, Jaime, who has been focused on the hydro plant, and were joined by a new summer recruit, Maria from Colorado, who is using her Spanish to help with the finca primary school. We discovered there are well-equipped classrooms for kindergarten through sixth grade that provide basics to all the children of finca employees. A community store was recently opened with a small savings and loan managed by the community. These are all outstanding endeavors, but nothing prepared us for the enchanting tour Hazard provided for us the next day.
Our full day at Los Andes was the equivalent to an amazing tour and crash course in conscientious finca management and development. We started early, before dawn accompanied by Don Chus, the local bird specialist. Driving a Land Rover north to the edge of the forest overlooking the tea gardens, we hoped to watch the sunrise (not too promising on this fog cloud-covered morning), and learn about the Quetzal and the historic tea crops of the finca. Tea is a tree that is managed like a bush. The top two leaves are all that are destined for the cup, plucked off a “table.” The tree is cut flat at plucking height for better access to new sprouts. Tea isn't the finca’s most important crop, but there are still a number of plots that are maintained.
Our bird expert took our attention away from the tea and on to the birds. Morning is an active time for the winged creatures and Chus wanted us to familiarize ourselves with them. Chus, short for Jesus, can imitate the different calls of the Quetzal: its mournful mating call, its flying chatter, and its cooing of contentment. He demonstrated one of the calls, and to our surprise, he got an answer. With a flash of movement in the branches, we caught a fleeting sight of a female Quetzal as she cackled away. Even Chus was astonished!
We then began our morning hike up an old read cut where fallen logs, mossy branches, towering trees and verdant ferns enveloped us in a magical world. We cut off the road down a winding path to a tree with a room inside, then continued down to the coffee plantation of the San Marcos area where the shaded as well as recently stumped bushes were aligned on contours along the hills. Stumping is a way to rejuvenate the bushes and get new branches from a mature bush. This reminds me of the milpa system in which many of the trees and bushes that are cut for the field resprout to regenerate the forest.
As we drove down, we stopped at a tea plot where avocados had been newly planted — another investment of Los Andes. While the avocados are new, the macadamias are in full production, with both blooms and nuts at the same time. Staged harvests on this day were focused on the abundant macadamia. We sampled the harvest, cracking the nuts' hard shell to get to the delicious meat.
With the sun up and the fog cleared, we returned to Casa Oliver, named for the former owners Hellen and Mark Oliver from England, and enjoyed our late breakfast that included traditional black beans and, naturally, Los Andes café. This respite prepared us for the next segment of our experience, the primary school.
As it turns out, every Thursday the children of each grade make a presentation on a subject they learned and conclude with a song. This primary school has two kindergarten classes and six primary classes. We were set up in chairs to witness the whole event. The children introduced themselves in preparation for their skit. We heard about empty and full, about sun and plants, human rights, and water, and each class sang a song. Noisy and exuberant, we gained an appreciation for the challenge and the promise of the community school!
Next we got to see the nurseries for all the plants that the finca grow. The major sprouts we saw were of coffee for transplanting and quinine for grafting. All the coffee was shaded with trees; they must have the same environment they will have in the fields otherwise they will not thrive.
Hazard explained how quinine is cropped. The entire tree is cut down, coppicing the tree to harvest the bark and stimulate new growth (this again reminds me of repsrouted trees cut in the milpa). The bark is pounded off and processed for shipment. Quinine is not now a profitable crop but produces good shade for the coffee so Hazard is happy to maintain it. He reminded us that, in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia, malaria was resistant to synthetics used at the time. Great interest in quinine surged and the price rose astronomically. Today, only two German companies are purchasing, but Hazard’s interests in the trees now are the benefits for coffee plants.
And that brings us to the processing plants for the tea and the coffee. We learned what we did not know of the production of these well-known beverages. The processing is its own endeavor, related to but separate from the plucking and picking. Other skills and knowledge are required for these arenas.
At Los Andes, tea withering and drying machinery have been imported from India via England. We found out that tea leaves get their preferred aroma not from the leaf infusion but from the oxidation in which compounds, as I understood it, coat the macerated tea leaf fragments to instill flavor. After the withering, a technical term, they are processed and finally dried in ovens in preparation for sale.
The coffee-processing plant, called beneficio in Guatemala, was the last place we visited. We got to see all of this while the rain was pounding down, forcing us to run between buildings and vistas that would have been easier to understand in other circumstances. We were, nonetheless, amazed at the stages and steps that the picked coffee bean must go through and the careful checks and quality controls that are required to bring the berry to a green seed.
Hazard is justifiably proud of Los Andes' coffee certification. The care Los Andes has taken in the field, the work it has done with the community, and its interest in conservation has paid off in the showcase coffee-production standards.
Our day concluded with a quiet drink on the veranda looking down the steep flanks of the volcano toward the coast. The clouds had parted, the view was spectacular and in the brief twilight of the tropics we witnessed a glamorous light show. Out offshore there were dramatic dark clouds electrified with lightning flashing, shooting across, down and up, filling the sky with illumination.
Before we left the next day, we shared an exciting breakfast with the hydroelectric team members, who announced that the new plant was online. The kinks noted at our stop two days before were ironed out, and electricity was already going into the grid! We enjoyed another cup of Los Andes café and prepared to depart the lovely Casa Oliver. The morning was brilliant. Clear skies and sunshine made for a remarkable view behind the house. This was the volcano, Atitlán.
20 Resources of Los Andes
» Robusta seed producing
» Arabica café development
» Specialty tea plucking
» Rubber taping
» Macadamia gathering
» Quinine cropping
» Avocado planting
» Banana harvesting
» Hardwood lumbering
» Kip palm leaf collecting
» Isote yucca growing
» Hydroelectric generating
» Tangara habitat managing
» Private forest protecting
» Future citizens educating
» Women empowering
» Youth vocational training
» Bird watching
— Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center and president of Exploring Solutions Past. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.