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.
By the time we set up camp, we’re starving. Having no idea what we would find in the way of food at our destination, we had packed cans of tuna fish, sardines, crackers, nuts and dried fruit, power bars, even baby wipes. Yes, baby wipes. We weren’t taking chances with the water, either, so we all had canteens and brought a few liters for each of us. But our hosts, have prepared for their first-ever visit from a TV crew, are ready to pour on the hospitality.
Waiting for us is an amazing dinner of rice, beans, and chicken that his Guzman’s wife, Nellie, prepared on a wood burning fire in her simple kitchen. They were amazed at all our camera equipment and the tent city we set up in front of their modest wooden home with no electricity. We were amazed at their proud but simple life; hard work and kindness and generosity.
Exhausted and with full bellies, we settle into our tents early. At first light, the zipper from the neighboring tent wakes us up and breaks the morning silence of the Amazon jungle. Sunrise is the first chance we have to take in our surroundings. The sun is just coming up over the lush, deep green jungle vistas that go on forever. We take turns at the outhouse and wooden stall shower that uses the cold water running down from the mountains above.
Guzman wants to show off his crop so, after breakfast we trek another 1,000 yards up into the hills where coffee trees, about five feet tall, are filled with ripe, red cherries. Guzman’s family, friends and day laborers are there carefully picking only the ripe, red sweet ones, dropping them into metal tins. The green ones are given a few more days to ripen.
As their tins fill up, they transfer them into large, black, plastic sacks which, at the end of the day, they carry down in 100-pound bags on their backs to the washing station. Guzman has built a makeshift aqueduct that diverts mountain water into a wooden vat where the cherries are soaked, washed, and then de-pulped. Once de-pulped, Guzman’s son, Kleyder, sets the beans out under a covered drying bed so they don’t get soaked when it rains and can dry slowly in the sun. After three days, the beans are put into strong plastic sacks, and made ready to be taken down the mountain by mule.
It’s a bit sad saying goodbye to Nellie. As we leave, she gives her husband some money to purchase supplies down in the village and we all start down the mountain as Guzman and his son escort his coffee down the trail. It rained again the night before and the route is even muddier and more grueling than it was when we hiked up just two days before. To help ease the trip, we use walking sticks made from tree branches. When we hear the river, we know we’re nearing the bottom. We follow the mules across the river on a makeshift barge, then watch the coffee loaded onto trucks to be taken to the co-op. Our driver shows up with what have turned out to be some of the best beers we’ve had in a very long time – chilled in the river while they were waiting for us.
We follow a blue pick-up truck across the dusty roads to the co-op that helps small family farmers like Guzman with technical advice, logistical support and forging relationships with buyers. Guzman waits anxiously as his beans are checked, first as a stainless steel dowel called a tryer is jabbed into each bag of coffee to collect a sample, then as the beans are checked for moisture and consistency (even tiny stones in the bag can affect the price.) Guzman has delivered high-quality coffee and he nets about $2.70 a pound. A coffee buyer from Dillanos Coffee Roasters, Phil Beatie, pays a premium for Guzman’s organically grown specialty coffee beans. Guzman tells us, “we now have some money left at the end of the crop year. It’s not like it used to be, when at the end of the crop year we had nothing left in our pockets. Now my family is able to eat more nutritious food.”
After a two-month wait, La Familia Guzman coffee finally arrives at Dillanos Coffee Roasters in Sumner, Wash., and we’re there to see the roasting and production of Guzman’s beans. They are put in a bag that actually has his picture on it. In Naranjas, he was just another coffee farmer growing really good coffee – in Sumner, he’s a bit of a celebrity. Phil Beatie grinds some up, and prepares it in a French press. We have our first delicious cup. A long way to go for a cup of coffee, yes…but a journey, and a cup of coffee, that will always be remembered.