As Jorge’s and my time winds down here in Cusco, we thought we’d trigger the transition phase between “Mostly-Settled & Living Somewhere Mode” and “Full-Time Backpacking Mode” with a little trip into the Peruvian jungle.
Our friends Chevi and Audrey, a married couple with two beautiful young daughters, own a coffee farm in Quillabamba. Audrey’s mother, Magda, grew up in Peru and bought this property from her sister many years ago. In about 2007, Audrey and her mother came to visit it, after having spent nearly a lifetime in the USA — and they found not only a gorgeous 15-acre plot of heaven in the heart of the jungle, but also a ready-made coffee farm.
With the help of family members and hired workers, they’ve been working to reinvigorate production of coffee beans on the land, as well as bring other sources of income to light: things like selling the fruits that grow plentiful and abundant on the property, such as bananas, oranges, papaya, and more.
When Audrey and Chevi offered to take us on a three-day whirlwind trip into the jungle to see this property, Jorge and I said HELL YES.
So off we went — in a more-than-necessary 4×4 truck. Without it, you’d have no hope of maneuvering the perilous mountain roads, crossing stream beds that look more like white-water rapids, or navigating the often-unpaved paths that still exist in place of city-maintained roads.
The road to Quillabamba is the same one we took to get to Machu Picchu — the one that crosses so high into the mountains that stopping is a generally bad idea, since altitude sickness sets in swiftly. Jorge and I knew what awaited us, and the road is not easy. 6 hours of curves, constant jostling, and a distinct sensation that you might just fly off the next unexpected twist in the road. Crosses and flower arrangements dot the side of the highway, a testament to the difficulty of this road.
But all journeys come to an end; and despite many stops for nausea and motion sickness, we did in fact make it to Quillabamba. Passengers, grill and pool floaties intact.
Once you cross the mountains, the air changes from dry and cold to hot and humid. Mosquitoes instantly devoured us in Quillabamba. Suddenly, I realized the brightly colored alpaca socks were the worst decision I had made; perhaps in life. It wasn’t until after the upward jungle climb that I could take them off. I hadn’t realized ankles could sweat so much.
Let me be clear on something: I consume a lot of coffee. You’d think that for consuming so much of the dark nectar that I’d have some inkling of the story behind it. But I had no idea, prior to this trip, where coffee even came from. For being such a slave to the bean, my idea was that it grew on some sort of tree (sort of correct), looking mostly like it did in the form we purchase from places like Starbucks or Krogers (very wrong).
As we began a long, uphill climb from the dirt road to their coffee farm, Audrey began to point out different varieties of coffee plants. And they didn’t look anything like I expected.
Each coffee bean matures at different times, meaning that machine-picking is impossible. You need a human hand to discern which beans are ready, and which ones need to stay on to mature. Once the ripe and ready red beans are picked, the green ones then begin to turn over. Several visits to the same coffee plant are needed throughout the season.
But picking the bean doesn’t mean it’s ready to roast. Oh, no, fellow coffee drinker. Hold your frappuchino horses. Once picked, the beans need to dry for up to a week. You’ll know they’re dry, Chevi told me, when you squeeze the bean between your teeth and the inside cracks instantly. Once dry, a sugary shell is formed on the outside, which is then shucked away to reveal the raw (and ready) coffee bean.
From there, the beans are perhaps sold to an interested party, or roasted and then packaged to sell at a storefront, like what Audrey and Chevi do back in Cusco. Their farm in Quillabamba employs various local growers and workers who help with the entire process. This is “direct trade” coffee.
The life of a coffee plant is not eternal, despite what our coffee addiction in the USA might suggest. After about 5 to 7 years, the plants need to be hacked to the roots. However, they regenerate on their own, sprouting (perhaps magically?) new seedlings nearby that will grow into a fully functioning coffee plant. One plant can yield about a kilo of beans in a season. Multiply that by 15 acres? Those are some sexy stats for someone thinking about raising coffee plants in a lush, humid jungle somewhere *cough*.
But the journey from mostly-wild jungle property to a fully functioning farm is a long one. Though their farm was producing coffee long before Audrey and her mother got there, it’s been years of work to get it to where they are today. Even just a few weeks of slacking means the jungle reclaims its land; vigilance and hard work is not only necessary but mandatory. Life on a coffee farm is no small feat, especially way out there in the depths of Quillabamba.
The vision that Audrey and her family have for the coffee farm is exciting, admirable, and fascinating. Much work remains to be done, and ideas for improvement and expansion are never-ending. With 15 acres of gorgeous, fertile land, it seems that nearly anything could become a reality.
But more than that, the jungle of Quillabamba left Jorge and I completely enchanted. On our second day back in Cusco, we are already pining for the sweet sting of humidity, the crunch of banana leaves beneath our feet, the pleasant hum of unknown creatures in the distance.
Everything, pretty much, except the 1,472 mosquito bites that serve as the last reminder of our whirlwind trip to the Peruvian jungle.