Once you visit a coffee farm you will never take your morning cup for granted again. Arabica coffee grows at high elevations in the tropics, where the temperature rarely drifts far from 75° F. Since the harvest season usually occurs during the coldest winter months for those of us in North America, you can combine an exotic getaway with your coffee quest.
But don't expect the same upscale comforts you might find on a Loire Valley excursion. Your stay at any of the three Nicaraguan coffee lodges I recommend here will be comfortably rustic. The food, while delicious, probably won't be cooked by a gourmet chef. But those of you who enjoy adventure, rainforests, birds, different cultures and especially great coffee will love Selva Negra, Finca Esperanza Verde and El Jaguar Reserve.
Why Nicaragua? Coffee farmers in other countries will host you, but the local "Nicas" are enthusiastically friendly, eager to share their knowledge and have established more coffee lodges than anywhere else. That's probably because Eddy and Mausi Kühl pioneered coffee ecotourism there, opening their farm north of Matagalpa to the public in 1975. The descendants of Germans who ventured to Central America in the late 19th century to grow coffee, Eddy and Mausi named their farm Selva Negra after the Black Forest of their ancestral homeland.
It's a two-hour drive north from the Managua airport to reach their 1,500-acre spread. Coffee cultivation takes up a third of the land; the hotel, lodging, lake and flowers another third; and the remainder is primary forest. The elevation ranges from 3,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level. As you climb the trails, you enter the misty cloud forest, with its orchids, howler monkeys and bellbirds. You may even spot a Resplendent Quetzal, so gaudily plumed that it's hard to believe it is real.
You can stay in private cottages tucked into the woods or in the hotel, where hearty country-style fare is served. Most of the food, including the beef, chicken, pork, goat and vegetables, is grown organically on the farm. Try the coffee-barbecue chicken. The Kühls make their own cheeses, and the bakery chef serves an extraordinary passion-fruit cheesecake.
Of course, you end the meal with freshly roasted Selva Negra organic coffee, with flavor notes of honey, orange and butterscotch. The specially processed "pulp natural" beans add an intense ripe cherry note.
A few miles to the northeast of Selva Negra lies Finca Esperanza Verde ("Green Hope Farm"), begun in 2000 by Lonna and Richard Harkrader, two former Peace Corps volunteers. In a typical weeklong visit, you will spend four days on the farm, with its spectacular views across the valley to the Dariense mountains, seeing hummingbirds, keel-billed toucans, and tree frogs as you walk past coffee trees along trails through the 240-acre preserve. There is also a butterfly farm. You'll stay comfortably "off the grid," with wood-fired hot showers, and power from photovoltaic panels and a microhydro turbine. Visitors rave about the Nica food, featuring homemade bread at breakfast. Excited schoolkids arrive for an arts-and-crafts day. Locals may teach you how to make tortillas, or necklaces from shiny red seeds. You'll pick, roast and sample coffee. (The Café San Ramón I tasted was redolent of honey, chocolate and toasted almond.)
Guests also have the option of sepnding three days with a local family. The Harkraders have just sold FEV to Deb and Rob Gregory, who plan to expand and improve the coffee holdings and make the lodging a bit less rustic. Farm manager Alex van der Zee, whose parents own a coffee farm nearby, is nurturing seedlings for the expansion.
Finally, farther north, is the organic coffee farm run by Georges and Lili Duriaux-Chavarría, ornithologists who research the nearly 300 species of birds that live amid the shade-grown coffee and the 240 acres of cloud forest. "We have opened the farm to visitors who are interested in nature, environmental protection, bird-watching and ecofriendly coffee production," Georges explains. Guests can help capture birds, including the rare golden-winged warbler, in mist nets in order to track their migration patterns. Like FEV, El Jaguar uses solar power. Food is served family-style, with fresh local produce, great grilled steaks and barbecued pork and chicken. Guests can arrange for a canopy tour or a boat trip on nearby Lake Apanás. The El Jaguar beans, grown in a perpetual mist, offer a rich taste of cocoa and black tea, perhaps most suitable with dessert.
Travelers who prefer to be escorted during an all-inclusive tour have two choices. Dave Davenport runs EcoQuest Travel. His tours include the farms featured here, plus several others, with a focus on birding. Kimberly Easson, who owns Java Ventures, caters to people in the coffee industry, touring coffee cooperatives while staying in hotels in Esteli and Jinotega. This is a great trip if you are a coffee fanatic. You'll travel with roasters from around the world and learn all about coffee cultivation, harvesting and processing.
Mark Pendergrast is author of Uncommon Grounds, a history of coffee.
IF YOU GO
Selva Negra: www.selvanegra.com
Rates: $85 per night for private cabin, $45 for double in hotel; food not included.
Finca Esperanza Verde: www.fincaesperanzaverde.org
Rates: $130 per night; includes all meals.
El Jaguar Reserve: www.jaguarreserve.org
Rates: $70 per night; includes all meals.
Ecoquest Tours: www.ecoquesttravel.net
Rates: $2,624 for 11-day trip; airfare not included.
Java Ventures: www.javaventures.com
Rates: $1,300 for nine-day trip; airfare not included.