Honduras/El Salvador Diaries, Part IV: Unlikely Terrain

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, traveled to Honduras and El Salvador earlier this month to meet with some of the farms we work with. This is the fourth in a series of his travel diaries.

El Salvador. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

El Salvador. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

I crossed the border on foot from Honduras to El Salvador. Luis Rodriguez and Alejandro Valiente picked me up in a pickup truck and we took off to Alejando’s farm. We had about a half-mile of paved road and then it turned to a rocky bumpy ride for the next few hours. After about 10 unmarked turns on dusty roads we ended up on the top of a mountain looking out over a section of Pacamara.

As we climbed slowly up the dusty, dry road, Alejandro told me the story of this place. His great grandfather was one of the founders of the area, and basically made the town. In my travels of the world, I almost always find coffee areas with green vegetation that see enough rain to keep the soil a dark shade of red or brown. This area was different. There were lots of pine trees and oaks—both signs of poor nutrient soils. The area looked like a drier version of the Honduras I had just left. The only signs of agriculture were cattle and the occasional plot of corn or veggie garden. I was totally perplexed. Why do I often pick his region off the cupping table as my favorite? If you follow these trip reports, I’ve said at least a dozen times: healthy trees produce quality fruit and delicious coffee. This place looks like a high, steep, dry, temperate forest. The soil is white and there are lots of visible rocks everywhere. How on earth does this place produce such lush, fantastic coffees?

Alejandro told me about the days of the past in this region called Metapan, where the soil is a white clay base. “They were all farmers, so they had cattle, corn, sugar cane, coffee and lime mines. When they went to plant coffee, it wasn’t like they just planted a whole mountainside. My great grandparents had to find the best spots that had the correct slope, aspect, moisture, soil and shade for coffee. The conditions were (and are) so harsh that they had to find these small micro climates that could support coffee.”

Dry season in Metapan. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Dry season in Metapan. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Sure it makes sense that this region has only a few places that could support great coffee, just look at it. But the fact that the coffee here is so spectacular (especially the Pacamaras)…didn’t make sense to me. To give it some credit, I was visiting Metapan during the driest season and just after the harvest. The soil was thirsty for rain. The horizon was brumoso—foggy (this happens a lot during the dry seasons because all the dust clouds the views, one good rain and the view becomes crystal clear). From way up El Pinal—Metapan, we should have been able to see three counties: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. We could only see the border of Guatemala marked by a big lake. If it weren’t for a mountain to the south, we could maybe have seen Nicaragua as well.

Some of the better-looking farms still looked rough. The wind last week had been really strong and cold. The soil on many of the farms was bare and exposed to the sun. The Pacamara trees looked like they had lived a hard life. They were nothing like the lush perfectly formed large droopy-leafed trees I expected. If you look at the coffee region map that shows growing regions, there is almost no coffee grown in this region. The regions look like little blotches of spilled green paint on the border with Honduras.

Now take the two departments (El Salvador has departments like the U.S. has States) in this region: Chaletenango and Metapan. Chaletenango has a red clay soil. Metapan has a white clay soil. On the whole there were lots of pine trees and lots of dust. The rocky roads made forward progress slow and never in a straight line. We spent the better part of three days on these roads twisting and winding our way between two major mountains at the northernmost corner of El Salvador.

Luis, Alejandro and I visited three farms: Finca Buenos Aires (not the one we usually buy from), Finca La Encantada and Finca Miraflores. None of the farms were close together. In a helicopter it would have been an easy trip. But we work in coffee and helicopters are mainly for people who work on Wall Street. The fog followed us around. There were some fantastic views—but they only let us see where we were the day before.

Stay tuned for Part five of Byron’s Honduras & El Salvador trip, coming soon.