Touching down in Bolivia is always a little disorienting...
never easy to get there from San Diego and with the elevation at La Paz at almost 12000 feet, the altitude sickness usually hits you while you are in the customs line — a headache and slight dizziness until your first cup of coca tea at the hotel.
On my second sourcing trip to Bolivia, I again met up with my friends and guides from 2010 Mariela and Ackbar from ARCO, a USaid funded group that works to connect Bolivian Farmers (coffee, bananas, pineapples) with buyers. This group also helped organized the national Cup of Excellence competition when it was held in Bolivia so they have good relations with excellent coffee farmers in the country. The goal of this trip was again to hook up with Carmelo Yurja and buy more of his coffee and to meet new farmers with the same quality-forward approach to coffee growing. Some of you may remember his coffee from last year, rated 93 on Coffee Review and one of the highest scoring Bolivian coffees on their site.
The day after I arrived in Bolivia...
we headed off by car to Caranavai region, a long journey on a tiny road full of tricky turns (but not the Road of Death – yet). Once in Palmar Colama we cupped coffee at Carmelo’s farm. In 2010, I was unable to visit his farm because a cocoa farmers’ strike sealed off a section of the country so I was looking forward to visiting during this trip. As fate would have it, many of Carmelo’s neighbors grow fantastic coffee as well so this turned out to be the best cupping table on the trip. We are buying all the coffee, from 4 different farms, we cupped here. It was nice to spend some time with Carmelo and learn more about his farm and the process he goes through to produce exceptional coffee.
From there we traveled a couple hours to visit Finca Golondrina in Copacalfiana; one of the more impressive farms I have seen; their organic coffee plants were beautiful and full of perfect deep red cherries. We did cup some wonderful coffee from this farm but we could not bring any in this year. Sometimes, though, these trips help us to lay a foundation for future partnerships so we hope that is the case for Finca Golondrina.
From there, we were off to meet farmers...
and cup in Typiplaya and Amor de Dios before heading back to La Paz. Once back in La Paz, we hooked up with Marcial Huanca, one of our featured farmers from last year. Marcial set up a cupping for us from farmers at the Mejillones Cooperative. Again, all good cups but the standout, again, was coffee from Marcial, with which he had just won a Mejillones cupping competition. While a very small lot, we purchased this coffee from him as well.
That night, we met Carmelo and his farming partner Rene at Rene’s coffee house in La Paz. After a long negotiation, we came to a great sustainable agreement to purchase all of Carmelo’s coffee for the next three seasons. We are proud to feature his coffee this year and in the future and very excited to have a deal in place that will give Carmelo a good price for his coffee and stabilize a supple of great Bolivian coffee for us.
This write up would be incomplete without mention of the Road of Death. Yes, we did travel on this notorious road en route back to La Paz. Often referred to as the most dangerous road in the world, I can tell you I have been on worse, and hairier road trips on origin – a drive in Ecuador with a crazed Italian driver comes to mine–but I have been on few with the dramatic views and scenery we experienced on this day. The Road of Death is not as dangerous as it used to because other routes have been constructed connecting La Paz with Coroico. Prior to the construction of a “safer” alternative route a couple years ago, 200-300 people would die every year on this road.
Luckily, we did not see much traffic the day we traveled it so the driver was enjoyable.
Actually, most of the traffic we saw were support vans for biking tours. I am sure, btw, biking the El Camino de la Muerte seems like a good idea when you are planning a trip to Bolivia using a guidebook and checking out cool pictures on the internet. I can tell you, though, the look on some of the faces of the tourists who where careening past on mountain bikes in the opposite direction certainly did not seem to say, “Wow, this was a great idea. I am so glad I am risking my life right now. ”
And a write up of Bolivia would not be complete without at least a mention of the Cocoa industry. As many are aware, cocoa production is legal for tea and for chew. But, cocoa production in Bolivia is currently out of control and much is going towards illegal cocaine production. This is the first time I had seen an abundance of cocoa farms –everywhere we went. Unfortunately, the increased cocoa production is having an impact of the coffee industry. Many coffee farms are now having difficulty finding labor during the harvest season as the cocoa farmers are paying more money and offering an easier job to those needing work, leading to poor harvesting of coffee and higher costs for the farmer.
Bolivia is not an easy country when it comes to establishing direct relationships with farmers. Unlike, Guatemala, for example, the infa-structure for coffee is not as advanced. Add that Bolivia is land-locked without a port, and moving coffee out of the country can be difficult and more expensive as well. This year, it took a bit longer to actually get our coffee here. But, we think it is worth the investment on our part. Great coffee from Bolivia can be as good as any of the major coffee-growing countries and things will get easier. Each origin trip is a learning experience and we hope to feature coffee from Bolivia for years to come. The shipment of coffee arrived today at BRCR and we will be roasting it next week.