Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Coffee Plantations, Guatemala

It’s funny that San Pedro is so sleepy during the day, because it’s downright raucous at night!  We’ve adapted to “vacation time” and have been calling it a night relatively early after active days in the sun.  But it’s clear that somewhere in town, there’s a lot more action.  We can hear a mixture of local Spanish music and U.S./ British music (Black Eyed Peas, Killers, Lady Gaga) booming in the background at the backpacker bars.  Even more noisy is the chorus of barking dogs and yowling cats!  The dogs and cats continue all night, finally ceasing around dawn, at which point roosters take over.  I’m so glad I packed foam ear plugs!  Mohit is fine, since he can sleep through anything.

Today we headed up into the hills above the lake on horseback with our excellent guide, Francisco.  He seemed a bit shy about his English, which he says he started teaching himself a few years ago.  We reassured him that his English is much better than our Spanish!

Our horses were named Muchacha (a female) and Mujiego (a male, though “castrado”, as Francisco pointed out, to keep him calm).  The saddles were carved from wood and covered with rough woven cloth, which left us a bit sore after four and a half hours of riding, but it was well worth it.

First we set off into the hills above the nearby town of San Juan del Lago to see coffee plantations.  Francisco explained that about 70% of the town’s income is derived from the coffee trade.  The farmers pay a tax to use public land to grow coffee plants.  As we headed beyond the outskirts of town, the pavement ended and the path grew steeper.  Dark green coffee plants grew on both sides of the lane in the shade of tall avocado trees.  Most of the plants were heavy with red (Arabica) coffee berries, but a few had yellow (Robusto) berries.  This is the time of year that the coffee is harvested, and men and women were scattered among the bushes picking the berries by hand and filling tall burlap bags.  The full bags sat along the roadside waiting to be picked up by truck or lugged downhill on the backs of men.

Francisco explained that these plantations stopped using chemicals two years ago, and now the coffee is farmed organically.  The beans are laid out in the sun to dry on long sheets of black plastic, and then transported to Guatemala City, where they’re purchased by a large processing company that shells and roasts them for international distribution.  The shells are brought back to the fields, and we saw piles being spread under the coffee plants as fertilizer.

Sunlight filtered through the trees and we could see the hill known as “Indian’s Nose” in the background, and the sparkling lake below us.  It was incredibly beautiful.

The second half of our horseback outing was along the ridge above the lake on the other side of San Pedro, where the vegetation was quite different.  Dry brown grasses were as tall as the horses’ bellies, and the field beyond were planted with corn and cabbage.  As we continued, we entered beneath a canopy of trees and vines, and were thankful for the shade since the thermometer attached to Mohit’s bag read 85 degrees F.  I kept my eyes peeled for butterflies (I’ve been fascinated by butterflies since I was a kid!) and saw small black ones with blue-green stripes, and large butterflies with black and orange oblong wings tipped in yellow.  I also saw tons of bright yellow butterflies similar to the Sulphur Butterflies that are common back home in New England.

We returned to town around 2:30 p.m. and were starving.  We’ve been skipping lunch most days since our breakfasts have been pretty hearty, but we devoured big lunches today!  Tonight, we’ll probably select a light dinner from the stands along the roadside.

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