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Travel: Coffee Mexican style

Beans grown in the Sierra Madre Mountains of southern Mexico are among the world’s best

A banner in the town square proclaims that the tiny village of Pluma Hidalgo, high up in the Sierra Madre del Sur, is home to the "World's best Coffee." I first sampled the "world's best coffee" on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, it was later served to me in the Monteverde highlands of Costa Rica and again in Vietnam. In fact wherever coffee is grown the local plantations claim to produce only the "world's best" and Mexico is no exception. The truth is good coffee, like fine wine, takes on a mystic of its own and early in the morning it's meant to be savored, not rated.

About an hour before arriving in Pluma Hidalgo I tossed back my first cup of the day and set out with eight other sleepy travelers to visit one of Mexico's working coffee plantations. We began our tour in Las Brisas, a resort hotel on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. We headed inland in a van driven by guide/interpreter Albeirto. "It's about a 50 km drive from here to the farm," he explains as we swing onto highway 200 and begin our long, bumpy ride into the mountains.

As we roll through the town of Santa Maria Huatulco, where many of the tourist resort workers live, Albeirto points to a discarded pair of shoes hanging from a wire across the road. "An omen to bring good luck to those who pass under them," he tells us. And if anyone could use a bit of good luck it is the people of Santa Maria. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in all of Mexico. Isolated by mountains from the rest of the country, the communities along the south coast are largely self-governing. According to Albeirto they receive only a small stipend from the central government and the local council controls work, law and taxes. Unemployment is rampant, and with a minimum wage of 60 pesos (about $6) a day even those with jobs have to scratch to survive. Here in Santa Maria the choice is either a long commute to a low-paid job in one of the coastal tourist resorts or seasonal piecework on one of the plantations.

The wet season is drawing to a close and the trees and shrubs on the lower slopes of the Sierra Madre have begun to shed their leaves to conserve precious moisture through the long hot drought of summer. But as we move higher into the mountains the forest is lush and green. Morning mists and high humidity last throughout the year and the native trees and vines share the forest with almond, mango and papaya trees, banana palms and vanilla vines. This is the environment where coffee grows best. "There are two distinct types of coffee," Albeirto tells us. "Low coffee grown near sea level and high coffee grown above 600 metres.  High coffee is denser, contains more oil and produces a richer brew. It also takes fewer cherries to produce the same weight of beans."

At the end of a steep, bumpy dirt track Albeirto pulls up in front of a low, wooden building with the traditional roof of a Mexican farmhouse - thatch and corrugated iron. We are greeted by Juan Rodriegiez, a handsome middle aged Mexican who carries himself with the confidence of a man who has found his place in the world and is justly proud of his calling. Juan is both the owner and the manager of the San Raffiel coffee farm - the man who makes the tricky time-sensitive decisions in the art and science of producing the perfect coffee bean. We are fortunate to have him as our guide.

Juan leads us through the farmhouse and down a flight of stairs to a large, open area where some of the current crop is spread on concrete pads to dry in the sun. Others are stacked in conical piles awaiting final cleaning and bagging. Two young women pushing wooden "turning rakes" wave a friendly "hola" as we walk carefully between the fields of drying beans to the processing area on the far side. Juan stops beside a large water reservoir high above the drying area and, with Albierto translating, gives us a brief run-down on the process.

This, he explains, is where the pickers bring the cherries to be measured and dumped into a holding tank below the reservoir. Water is used to flush them down into the pulping machine, which removes the red outer skin and pulp from the two beans inside. From there the beans go to a fermentation tank for about 36 hours before being spread out to dry. In order to maintain good quality through all of this, the picking, pulping and fermentation must be done without a pause. Drying usually takes another five days, during which time they are regularly turned. After drying the beans go through a final stripping machine to remove any trace of pulp before being bagged for market.

Before starting on our walking tour of the plantation Juan explains that coffee plants need three things to produce healthy beans, rich soil, shade and moisture. "Here in San Raffiel," he tells us "the trees and morning mists of the Sierra Madre rain forest provide the shade and moisture and the composted waste from the pulping mill replenishes the soil." San Raffiel is a strictly organic coffee farm, no insecticides and no chemical fertilizers. Unlike many plantations where the coffee plants are lined up in neat rows and shaded by netting, Juan's plants are scattered across the forest floor and screened from direct sunlight by the canopy of trees.

It is Sunday, a day of rest for the pickers, so our presence does not interrupt their work. A maze of trails leads us high up the steep slope, across several ravines, and finally, after two solid hours of hiking, down a series of switchbacks leading back to the farmhouse. Our tour has been more like a strenuous, two-hour hike in the mountains than a visit to a farm and I ask Juan how the pickers are able to cope with the steep terrain. "It is very hard work," he admits "but they are very strong." A man using a tumpline across his forehead can carry between 70 and 100 kg of cherries and donkeys, used on the longer hauls, can carry slightly more. Pickers are paid 40 pesos per five-gallon can and a good picker can fill six cans a day, earning him about $20. That is almost four times what he could make at one of the tourist hotels, but the coffee harvest lasts only two or three months.

Back at the farmhouse, Juan's family has a traditional lunch waiting for us, chapattis, refried beans, bowls of blisteringly hot salsa and, of course, coffee. We are joined by Juan and Albeirto who are eager to talk about Oaxaca's coffee industry. "This farm produces from 10 to 15 tons of beans a year," says Juan. "We roast a little for the local market but most of our beans are shipped green to roasting companies in North America and Europe."

Compared to tourism, which accounts for 80 per cent of Oaxaca's economy, the coffee industry is a distant second. But for people living in rural villages and on subsistence farms in the mountains seasonal earnings from the coffee plantations are all that keep many families from severe poverty. And having seen how much backbreaking labour and fastidious care go into the growing, harvesting and processing of those little red coffee cherries, I'll never again take my morning cup of brew for granted.