I had my first cup of coffee at 25. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? In a world of hedonistic late nights and early mornings, of a university degree and the life of a young professional in London I’d never caught the coffee bug. I’d never developed a taste for hot drinks overall, come to think of it. Us Brits usually love our cuppas, my apathy for a brew could be considered sacrilegious amongst my people…. But all that would change when I joined the ‘Antigua by the Bean’ Urban Adventure in Guatemala’s cobblestone-lined streets.
Meeting beneath the famous arch, we met our guide Andres who exemplified the ‘slasher’ mentality of running a city tour; he owns the tour business / runs a restaurant / and DJs in the evenings. A lifestyle that lends itself well to a caffeine injection every now and again, I’d imagine. We began with a pleasant, historical walk through Antigua to detail its 500-year history and to give us a flavour of local life. To say it’s a beautiful place would be an understatement. Its position, nestled between three volcanoes, offers a stunning natural backdrop in contrast to the sun-tinged pastel shaded buildings of the city. Ongoing restoration projects for some of the city’s opulent religious landmarks and other architectural delights serve as a reminder that these volcanoes are very much alive – Antigua has the scars to prove it. If you were to hike the volcanoes, the rocks feel hot underfoot and ash regularly rains down on the city.
It’s beneath these volcanoes where the coffee plantations lie. After taking a local bus through the scenic area we met Virgilia, a coffee farmer. As one of the country’s biggest exports, the humble coffee bean offers a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people like Virgilia. It’s a labour intensive job that she has been doing since she was a child with little reward or rest. After hiking from her family’s simple home to the plantation, she picks the beans all day and carries them to be processed. Along for the ride, we helped pick the beans from the plants as she began telling her humble story, detailing the physical demands of farming coffee since she was a child, a world apart from my own relatively privileged Western upbringing.
Due to the conditions in Guatemala, its coffee is regarded amongst the best in the world. In 2006, the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative of Guatemala, a not for profit organization, arrived in the village promising to connect farmers to buyers in the USA. Understandably, the farmers were skeptical. Of 300 farmers in the local area, only 7 agreed to sign up and buy into this mysterious project. The project was a success. The farmers were able to increase their prices to a fair amount, purchase more farming land, take ownership of their distribution channels, start selling in Europe, and quadruple the number of farmers buying into the cooperative. Virgilia was one of the original members, and now plays an important part in shaping its future.
Virgilia delighted in telling us this story with a sense of earned pride as we walked back to the family home with a basket of beans in hand. You could sense the empowerment in her words as she excitedly spoke of coffee shops in the far-flung lands of Europe that she was now supplying. Back at her home, after we’d walked past a horse in the front garden/yard (regrettably, I didn’t get the chance to ask about it) we took to the kitchen to roast the coffee by hand over a wooden fire. We then grinding the roasted beans by rolling them against local volcano rock to create the granules to make the final product. We huddled around her coffee table to do what people do the world over. Sit down, with a cup of coffee, and talk about life. And that was my first cup of coffee, the culmination of a farm to table experience interwoven into Virgilia’s personal story of progress. Grateful to Virgilia for welcoming us into her home, sharing her story (as well as her coffee!) and teaching us about the graft it takes to make a simple cup of coffee.
Adapting to tourism and offering experiences to customers to provide insight into the life of a coffee farmer, and the graft it takes to produce a cup of joe, is just one of the ways that the cooperative is growing to generate more money and opportunities for their community. Whereas before children used to be out in the fields as a necessity, the extra income from tourism means that they can afford be bettering themselves in school and university. This is the first generation to be receiving a proper education, all as a result of enabling the entrepreneurial spark within the community to sell more coffee and deliver experiences to travellers from all over the world. A great example of how tourism can be a force for good and have a positive impact on communities, with travellers receiving an authentic local experience in return.
For me personally, it changed the way I saw a simple cup of coffee. A cup of coffee is more than just a caffeinated hot drink. It can anchor a deep conversation. It can represent a brief moment of solitude and peace in a crazy world. A sense of purity first thing in the morning. It’s incredibly personal. Every cup of coffee you drink has a story behind it, and the story of the people who make it.