Producer Diary: The Two Month Journey to a Perfect Cup of Coffee
It’s a nine-hour flight from Newark Airport to Lima, Peru, then a connecting flight to Tarapoto, the gateway to Peru’s coffee region in the North. We fly over the Andes Mountains, but heavy rains force our plane to turn back to Lima.
The delay is a minor inconvenience to our schedule, but it won’t be long before we see what the major flooding does to the jungle trail we need to follow to get to our final destination: a coffee farm high in the Peruvian hills.
It takes us more than an hour to load all our gear into the van and head north, passing hundreds of small three-wheel moto taxis zig zagging the windy mountain roads through coffee country. This year’s coffee harvest has come in early and come in strong. All along the route, we notice coffee beans drying on tarps spread out in front of homes. Mothers sit their young children on the ground as they carefully rake coffee beans to dry evenly under the hot Peruvian sun.
The soccer fields we pass were filled with young men just a few weeks ago. Now, they are busy with the harvest, their feet skillfully moving coffee beans around on giant drying mats rather than kicking a soccer ball. In Naranjas, population 10,000, 90 percent of the people work in the local coffee business, growing, processing or harvesting.
At an intersection in the town of Bagua, each corner has the sign, Compro Café, or “we buy coffee” in English. When we are there, coffee prices are at a 34-year high. Last year, a 120-pound bag of green, un-roasted coffee called parchment sold for 350 soles — a bit more than $100. This year, it fetches twice that price. You can feel the coffee buzz in town as a small band plays on the street corner. Across a dusty field is a circus tent, the folks in Naranjas have a little extra money to spend this harvest season.
After eight hours in the van, we finally arrive at the river crossing that is the start of what will become the truly difficult part of our journey. Our boat is a long, slender motorized craft. We form an assembly line, passing 250 pounds of camera equipment, backpacks and tents from one person to the next and into the boat to cross the Rio Mayo, a tributary of the Amazon. Waiting on the other side, is Señor Guzman Inga Julica, a 47-year-old, second generation coffee farmer in the hills of Naranjas, Peru. With machete in hand and five mules waiting, he is ready to help lug our equipment through the jungle and up to his family coffee farm.
This is an excellent coffee growing region. The microclimate has the perfect conditions — temperate, humid, good soil and plenty of rain. The trail, however, isn’t so excellent. It is a mosquito infested gritty, grimy slog. The torrential rains the day before make left a treacherous thick mud all along the trail. We slip, slide and get sink into the mud with our heavy backpacks weighing us down. Our cameramen, Gerry and Oscar, carefully videotape the journey, mindful to protect their fragile cameras as they maneuver over deep streams, climb rocks and navigate through the mud.
The trek into the high altitude is so rigorous that the locals carry a little plastic bag filled with coca leaves that they chew for an added energy boost. On the trail, Guzman uses his machete to cut down a branch of bananas for a snack. Our guides also point to the vine they call Agua de Gato – it contains a sweet nectar which they cut open with their machetes to give us a thirst-quenching swig. After nearly five hours on the trail, we arrive at Guzman’s farm in darkness and, with flash lights as our only source of light, pitch our tents for the two nights we will stay there.