A new crop of farming co-ops are finding ways to safely open up untouched landscapes and exotic wildlife to visitors – and grow superb coffee.

coffee farms

At the beginning I thought we were in a Bob Dylan song, one of his epic Latino ballads. We drove down gravel roads where the only other traffic was cowboys on horseback, across iron girder bridges covered in rust and the webs of giant spiders.

A caracara falcon stood in the centre of the road pulling a dead iguana apart. But then we left cattle country and crossed a desert made of pineapples.

Darkness fell. After the shop where a mule was tied up, there were no more lights and the track clambered into the jungled hills. Eventually we pulled up at a gateway marked by a weird metal sculpture. Jovino, the driver, shrugged: “This must be it.”

“You never brought anyone here before?”

He shook his head. This was Costa Rica, but outside the usual tourist areas, in an area called Biolley close to the Panamanian border.

We set off down a long winding drive, the sweeping headlights unleashing sudden random vignettes: a frog armada hopping across the road, an owl swooping into clouds snagged on a bamboo forest, waterfalls, more of the strange sculptures. This is not Dylan, I thought, it’s Dalí.

Costa Rica has a great tourism industry. It pulls in a lot of people – about 3 million a year pre-pandemic – with a strong message
on the environment. The country has a lot of protected land.

It has enlightened attitudes to wildlife: you won’t see monkeys on chains here, nor macaws in cages pretending to be “rescue” birds. The headline parks deliver: they have fantastic fauna and stunning scenery. Not only that, but this small demilitarised Central American state has free healthcare, honest police officers and high literacy rates.

So that’s all fine, is it? Well, not quite. Outside the main parks, there is another Costa Rica, one where intensive industrialised agriculture in bananas, sugar cane, palm oil, pineapples and coffee is the main source of income for many people.

And in these areas, any community that wants to protect its natural environment from the agrochemical intensity of monocultures can struggle to get noticed. Finding those projects and people could benefit the environment, and your trip.

Tropical fruit growing on a colossal scale is not a pretty sight. When the heavily sprayed fields are finally exhausted, they are blitzed with herbicides, ploughed up, then rebooted with artificial fertilisers and cloned plants.

Sadly, this is the business model of a lot of farming the world over, Britain included. But whereas we have grown used to our depleted countryside, even fond of it, in a region blessed with off-the-scale biodiversity it can be a shock. After all, this small country, half the size of Iceland, has about 5% of all the Earth’s known species; many visitors come just to see wildlife rarities such as the resplendent quetzal or harpy eagle.

Jovino and I come to the end of the long track. There are lights up above us on the hillside, and using our phones as torches we stumble up, pushing through bushes.

Then we emerge on a terrace where there is a perfect little coffee shop: a roasting oven behind a counter laden with cakes and packets of coffee and – I inspect closely – tea made from coffee flowers. And now, finally, I meet the couple at the heart of this dreamlike jungle empire, Gonzalo and Fanny Hernández.

“It’s late for coffee,” says Fanny, “but try some coffee blossom tea.” It proves to be delicately delicious.

Gonzalo pulls up chairs and we are soon into a debate on his favourite topic, coffee. “Most coffee grown on Earth is from a single variety of a single species,” he says.

“And like all monocultures, it is vulnerable. One pest can destroy an entire crop almost overnight. With climate change that danger increases. Monocultures must adapt. They need biodiversity. That’s what I’m trying to prove here.”

Gonzalo had a career in the coffee trade before deciding to buy land and build Coffea Diversa, a botanical collection of more than 600 coffee tree varieties from around the world. “We don’t rip out jungle and spray everything. We work with the forest. I’ll show you tomorrow.”

My bed, I discover, is inside one of the metal sculptures. It is one of the most bizarre hotels possible and unexpectedly comfortable. At dawn I wake to a magnificent panorama of jungle and agroforestry.

Toucans are swooping over my head and the hillside rings to the strange liquid song of oropendolas, a large crow-like bird. Hummingbirds cut past my ears like magical little strimming machines. Gonzalo is waiting.

“The toucans eat the coffee berries. Most coffee farmers hate them, but we welcome them.” He takes me to a line of coffee bushes laden with red berries, then points underneath. “See? We collect these.”

The toucans, he explains, select the most perfect coffee berries to eat, then poop out the beans. Gonzalo and his team collect them.

I ask if he will follow those south-east Asian coffee producers who cage civet cats to force-feed them coffee berries, creating the famed, and valuable, kopi luwak. He is appalled. “Never. Besides, treating wild creatures in such a way is totally forbidden in Costa Rica.”

On this remarkable farm, Gonzalo is proving that tourism, agriculture and diverse nature can coexist. I watch the toucans all morning. Today they are busy with the guarumo trees’ wild fruit; Gonzalo leaves them to grow among the coffee, the toucans’ heads turning and tipping slowly as they inspect the branches.

Then they delicately pick with that huge bill. No human could manage such a degree of harvest precision. Next day, I hike the area’s beautiful waterfalls with José from Asomobi, a cooperative society that helps local farmers develop projects in tourism, organics and agroforestry.

Days later and a few miles north, I discover another kind of coffee farming. San Jerónimo is a wild, hilly jungle area uninhabited until pioneer settlers arrived from Panama after the second world war. They cleared land and planted Coffea arabica trees. They scraped a living, but never a fortune. To this day, their coffee berries are sold cheaply.

I meet Ken Gallatin, who came here as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s and stayed. “There were no cars here when I arrived,” he tells me. “Only horses and mules.” Even today the presence of the outside world is lightly felt. “We don’t have a police station or a policeman.”

Most families farm coffee, but their style of small plantations dotted around the jungle is under pressure. “By the 1990s I could see people needed help,” says Ken. Together with a handful of farmers, he proposed tourism as a revenue source.

“People laughed. They couldn’t see that their home area would be interesting.’” But Ken’s group persisted. “We explored the jungle, discovering peaks no one had ever visited, new waterfalls and viewpoints.”

Twenty years later, Aturena is a cooperative that shares out tourism between 76 local families (two-thirds of the community). Visitors are sent to homestays, including me. I find myself with Don Freddy and family, occupying a wonderful cabin perched on a wooded ridge deep inside their coffee farm.

The birdlife is stunning, and so are the meals that I take in their kitchen. Aturena runs a fire service that protects the jungle areas – the region used to suffer badly from wildfires – and its members act as guides and porters, taking visitors up local mountains.

Ken accompanies me on a three-day hike through the cloud forest and páramo (moorland) to Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak. All the jobs and profits are shared, the value in preserving such a spectacular environment obvious. “Wildlife and forest have become a valuable source of income, rather than an impediment to more farming.”

Leaving San Jerónimo and crossing the Cerro de la Muerte, the mountain of death, I leave the Pan-American Highway and drop down on dirt tracks through the cloud forest. I have a rented electric car and cannot believe how well it is coping with mud, rain and gravel.

At about 2,000 metres altitude, having seen no sign of habitation, I suddenly arrive in Providencia. This idyllic little settlement is poised on a hillside inside a great swathe of virgin forest. Mass tourism doesn’t come here – the coaches cannot manage the roads – but for independent visitors the benefits are significant.

Eladio Salazar is my guide on the first morning. He used to be a farmer, but since becoming a wildlife guide has been an inspiration to local people. “Our forest is very special,” he tells me. “The community are starting to realise its value as an untouched environment.”

There is a lot here that is unknown. Eladio has been part of a team investigating a new type of wildcat. “Initial DNA tests make it likely we’ve found a new species.” Jaguars and pumas are common, though rarely seen. “We find footprints.”

We walk through the cloud forest to a cleared area, part of a small upland cattle farm. The steep pasture is dotted with wild avocado trees. Eladio inspects them carefully with binoculars and smiles. When we are a little closer, I also spot what he sees.

Sitting quietly on a high branch is a glittering cascade of feathers, a resplendent quetzal, a bird that ornithologists can spend weeks searching for. And now I look around, we have six. “They come for the aguacatillo fruits,” says Eladio. “I knew the fruits were ripe here.”

Back in 1545, when the first Mayans were paraded before Philip of Spain, they gave him a gift of 2,000 quetzal feathers, the greatest treasure they could imagine.

Back down in Providencia, I visit Armonia, a lovely organic coffee farm and hostel started by visionary couple Noire and Orlando Mora. “Back in the 80s,” says Noire, “I realised our diet had become processed food, our farming was becoming industrialised, the river was becoming dirty. Our quality of life was falling.” With incredible energy she set about inspiring others, then transforming the area. They cleaned the river, introduced recycling, and started organic farming.

“The community used to make three products: passion fruit, cheese and cheap coffee. Now we make 126 different things. And there is so much more wildlife.”

Her son Dario can attest to that. He is a keen naturalist, still buzzing from seeing a jaguar on a recent night walk. There are, however, new pressures. From their veranda, he points out a bird. “That is a yellow-throated toucan. They are new here. We think climate change is pushing them up the mountain. The problem is that they will kill quetzal chicks.”

As a keen birder, he is seeing other changes: species moving in, others retreating. Rainfall is getting less predictable and heavier. The family are doing what they can: planting trees and managing erosion.

We walk around the farm and I get my final, most wonderful, treat of this trip. Hidden in a patch of jungle on a steep hillside is a little wooden stage, the start of a zipline that zooms me out to a human-made crow’s nest 45-metres up a jungle giant, an oak tree that is decked in orchids and bromeliads.

And there I lie on a netted platform, face down, gazing into the dizzying depths of biodiversity: crimson flowers sprouting from tree trunks, a blur of hummingbirds, fruits and fungi, and I’m thanking the gods for people like Noire and Orlando.

Kevin was a guest of Sumak Travel (020 3642 4246) which organises tailor-made trips to eco projects and environmental organisations across Latin America. A private 10-day tour including Chirripó hike, Biolley and Providencia starts at £1,245pp, including accommodation, guides, transport and some meals. Excludes international flights.

(Article source: The Guardian)

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