Part 5 featured our arrival and first day in Antigua. The next day, Tuesday, was jam-packed with activity. We spent the morning exploring the abundant shops and buying souvenirs for friends & family. Antigua would take days to explore thoroughly, so we only got to see all the shops on basically one of the really long central streets (Calle Cuatro). We found all kinds of neat things like Guatemalan clothes, crafts and ceramics.
Finally it was time to grab lunch before our scheduled afternoon activity - a tour of a coffee plantation. We had trouble finding the lunch spot I had picked, so we wandered around for awhile before stumbling upon a wonderful place called Los Tres Tiempos. It served Mexican style cuisine but with a more interesting local flair. Since we had not had any good Mexican food our entire trip, we were delighted with our meal. The fresh handmade tortillas, spicy salsas and delicious carnitas were beyond perfect.
After this fantastic meal it was time to catch a taxi over to a nearby town called San Miguel Escobar where we would meet our tour guides for our coffee plantation tour. This proved to be more of an adventure than I had bargained for. Before our trip I had researched the various coffee farm tours online and found an interesting option from De La Gente that promised to be more realistic and hands-on than the typical tourist trap excursions. De La Gente is a co-op that helps Guatemalan farmers and artisans sell their products to a wider audience, and they offer a variety of tours and excursions, from coffee to honey to metalworking. The reviews were great and the price was right, so I booked through them.
Our tour began in the plaza in front of an centuries-old church. We were met by a De La Gente translator and a local coffee farmer. I expected us to hop in a truck and drive to a coffee farm nearby, but no, we were walking the whole way. We simply started hiking up a dusty path near the plaza which quickly turned into a mountain trail, winding up the side of a volcano where the farmer's plantation was.
Along the way the farmer told us about the growing conditions and other crops he grew. Eventually we saw his sons working in a field of frijoles - beans they had harvested and were now beating out of their stalks in the hot midday sun. As bad as I felt for them, I felt worse for Jess, who, not knowing the rugged nature of the tour, had worn white slacks and flip-flip sandals instead of shoes. The dusty, steep trail was bad enough on her feet, but things got much worse when we went off-trail and had to hike through furrows of loose, sandy soil to finally reach the coffee plants. Despite the difficulties, Jess was a trooper and didn't complain a bit!
As we caught our breath, we listened to the farmer as he told us about how to grow coffee, the various types of plants and how they are affected by altitude, weather, sunlight, disease, insects and even other crops. We learned that they often grow other trees like oranges or other citrus fruits very close to the coffee bushes, which provides critical shade and can even influence the flavor. It was fascinating and educational -- but standing in the blazing direct sunlight while he talked at length began to wear on us a bit. Finally, we reached the first "hands on" portion of the excursion, which was to help the farmer pick the fresh coffee fruit off the tree.
I started out dutifully picking berry after berry and dropping them into the basket the farmer helped tie to my waist. After a few minutes of this, I had a good feel for what the work was like -- not hard, really, but not the most exciting way to spend a warm afternoon. I assumed this would be a brief hands on experience, but no, we continued to pick... and pick... and pick! Finally, when we had cleared the entire bush of the red ripe berries, I assumed we were finished, and was thankful for the break. But no! The farmer just moved on to a second bush and started anew. At this point Jess joined in the work, realizing that the sooner we finished this bush the sooner we were done. Eventually we finished our labor, and to my great delight the farmer asked us if we were ready to go see how the beans are harvested from the raw fruit. Yes, please!
We took a different path to return down the mountain, a steep dusty trail that emptied into a slum-like corner of the town. Following our guides through row after row of concrete block and tin-walled houses, we finally ended up at our destination: The very home in which the farmer lived, and which doubled as his coffee processing, roasting and bagging site. We passed through the entrance gate into an open air courtyard of sorts, where old equipment, tables, baskets and bags of coffee were littered. The farmer, whose name was Don Filiberto, first drew our attention to an ancient rusty contraption that was half bicycle, half grain hopper. Raw coffee berries were dumped in the hopper and after pedaling to turn a grinding wheel, the whole coffee beans were extracted and separated from the husks. The pulpy remains were sweet like honey and used for fertilizer or other applications.
Raw "green" coffee beans were gathered and reviewed for quality, often by a local widow or single mother who could find no better employment. Any beans that were deformed, discolored or otherwise unusual in appearance were separated and sometimes sold to lower-quality coffee distributors to make inferior products. The best beans were gathered for roasting or export. Most of this farms' beans were designated for export to America, thanks to the efforts of the De La Gente co-op program. But some beans were roasted on site and bagged for distribution locally in Antigua or for sale directly through De La Gente's website.
We got to experience the old, traditional roasting and grinding method: Beans were poured on a large ceramic plate over an open fire, where Don Filiberto's wife would steadily turn and stir them to prevent burning. Finally they were moved to a stone grinding plate where his daughter hand-ground them. Jess and I each took turns at these activities -- she, as usual, did a better job than me.
Don Filiberto then showed us the more "modern" roasting process, in a small room to the side of is house that contained two small but professional roasters, able to roast about 10-15 pounds of coffee at a time. The smaller roaster was donated by an American, the other was bought by all the farmers in the co-op together, and was quite an investment for them. The resulting roasted beans were then ground in a simple restaurant-style coffee grinder, one of which was recovered from a trashcan outside an American restaurant.
Finally, after all of this very hands-on education, we sat to enjoy the fruits of our labor -- freshly roasted cups of coffee poured by the farmer's daughter. We spent awhile talking and relaxing, enjoying the coffee while we listened to Don Filiberto tell us about his life. His daughter was trying to get into cosmetics production, and we bought some small containers of lip balm she made from scratch using local ingredients. The entire experience was so real and raw. We learned so much, and worked too -- but more than anything, we got to know more about where a cup of coffee really comes from, and the people whose lives are are affected by its production.
At this point we parted ways with Don Filiberto and returned with our translator to the De La Gente office, where we waited for a Tuk-Tuk to drive us back to Antigua. While we waited, we got to see another rooftop view, in a decidedly less picturesque area than central Antigua. The slums and drainage ditch that surrounded the building were a little saddening, but the view beyond was, as always, breathtaking.
Eventually our Tuk-Tuk arrived and we began our bumpy ride back to Antigua. The tiny, suspensionless cart slammed over each and every little cobblestone in the road, nearly rattling the fillings from our head, but I was more concerned for the welfare of the nearby pedestrians as we careened around corners and split through crowds at breakneck speeds.
When we arrived back in Antigua we had just enough time to grab a few more souveniers before it got too dark to safely walk the town. We returned to our hotel and picked up a Dominos pizza (I like to think that we are cultured diners!) and a bottle of wine, and crashed to some Spanish-dubbed cable TV shows (think A Wedding Story but about millionaire Mexican families with insanely lavish tastes).
Wednesday we awoke early to pack up and enjoy the last of our perfect Antiguan mornings. Each day we ate breakfast on the rooftop terrace at our hotel. We were treated to perfect coffee, fresh fruit, delicious bread and fantastic omelettes, filled with ham and creamy cheese and topped with a delightful tomato sauce. This was the kind of morning routine one could really get used to! But alas, our time was up and it was time to catch our shuttle back to Guatemala City for our flight home.
Leaving Guatemala was sad in a way, but we were so content with our week's experience. We spent our last breakfast talking about our time there -- we had gotten to do, see and experience so many things, and step outside our comfort zone in a way that would have seemed unthinkable a year prior. We felt blessed to have such a remarkable experience, and realized that we would not have changed a single aspect of our trip.
No, our vacation was not some pleasure cruise, nor a relaxing week at a beach house -- it was better. We got to preach to and teach people in real need. We got to experience a wonderful culture and make friends with genuinely sweet, kindhearted people. We got to see the natural beauty of an ancient city. We got to experience The Torture Rack, dehydration and manual laundry. And we got to pick coffee beans in the hot sun until our fingers were raw. But like I said, we wouldn't have changed a thing.