advertisement

Coffee Republic

In 1856, 693 bags of coffee were first exported from El Salvador. A century later, it was 3.5 million. No other country in the region became so dependent on the golden grain for its income. In 1920, 90% of the country's export earnings came from coffee, earning it the sobriquet the Coffee Republic.

Such overdependence on one commodity has its obvious financial dangers, yet the repercussions of El Salvador's chronic coffee habit run deeper than one can imagine and have had a tortuous effect on its destiny. The coffee boom created a small elite of coffee barons who ruled huge tracts of land, the military, and the presidency for most of the 20th century. Coffee laws outlawed and expropriated communal Indian lands and criminalized vagrancy, ensuring an abundant, impoverished, and subsistent labor force. All infrastructure -- such as roads, rails, and ports -- was planned around the industry. Civil strife, such as La Matanza and the FMLN rising, all have roots in a dissatisfied rural workforce, so much so that the rebels often imposed wage controls and war taxes on farm owners to gain local support. Right-wing deaths squads retaliated by undermining attempted land reform in the 1980s and attacking cooperatives and small holders. It got so bad human rights groups campaigned against consuming Salvadoran coffee and labeled it Death Squad Coffee. Add to this the fact that El Salvador had a poor reputation for producing low-grade commercial beans, and you wonder how the industry survived at all.

But survive it has, and the green shoots of a coffee renaissance have been sprouting up in recent years. Forty percent of producers are now small holders or cooperatives, and many are producing higher-standard, organic coffees. Incentives such as the Fair Trade coffee mean the farmer may not be as exposed to the ravages of the market as before. Conditions such as soil, altitude, and climate are almost perfect, and highly regarded bean varietals such as Bourbon and Pacamara are attracting caffeine aficionados from around the world. The war's impediment to modernization has actually proved a good thing, with many plantations remaining as prized shade farms, rather than monocultured fields. As well as making better coffee, such forested plantations provide badly needed habitat for wildlife, and the fact that 15% of El Salvadoran land is coffee plantation somewhat mitigates the disastrous deforestation and soil erosion the country has suffered elsewhere.

Finally, such great beans and beautiful surroundings mean coffee farms are attracting the coffee tourist in search of the perfect cup and a glimpse of nature. Coffee farms are opening up and offering instructive tours of the facilities that finish with a delicious tasting. Many are also providing delightful coffee lodge accommodations. Some of the best such places can be found along the Ruta de las Flores. Santa Leticia Coffee Estate (www.hotelsantaleticia.com) is a pioneer in this respect. A large yellow truck takes guests and day-trippers around the property, where they pick the red berries and watch the drying process turn them into golden-brown nuts. El Carmen Estate (www.elcarmenestate.com) is another such coffee farm offering tours and a chance to stay in a beautiful country villa. La Escondida Lodge (www.akwaterra.com) is another coffee-themed guesthouse, part of Portozuelo coffee farm and a park close to Apaneca.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.