El Calambre

El calambre. It translates to “cramp” in Spanish. It might as well have become my nickname after the first day on the farm.

It was our first day heading into the mountains, and we woke up early to get a head start. We left the city of Jaen and drove north on the highway into the mountains. The roads were peppered with little villages all along the way, and the truck would have to suddenly slow down to go over small dirt speed-bumps built by the villagers. It was explained to me that the locals would build these to force the cars to slow down to serve several purposes. It would protect the children and chickens from being hit by speeding vehicles, and it gave the townspeople a great opportunity to try and sell the tourists their food and gifts.

After the first half hour, we suddenly turned off the pavement onto a dirt road and headed directly into the mountains. It would be another three hours of one-lane dirt roads and razor sharp turns on switchback paths to the remote regions where some of the country’s best coffee grows. It was common to see farm animals being herded along these steep inclines, and farming families in the fields of farms picking the current harvest.

After several hours of enjoying all the beautiful scenery, we arrived in the small town of Chirinos. Orlando Guerrero of Finca Flor de Zapote warmly greeted us and we left the village for a quick 10 minute drive further into the mountain to reach the farm, where the rest of the family was actively working to harvest and process the current crop.

We were between 1700-1800 meters above sea level (masl), and the views were breathtaking. As we descended the mountain, we were surrounded by yellow and red Caturra varietals. Orlando would stop to show us the different plants, and how to pick the ripe cherries that would produce the highest quality cup. We met up with the family halfway down their property at their washing station, which was actively being used to de-pulp that day’s picking, in preparation of fermentation and washing.

After brief introductions and greetings, we were given a tour of the farm. The family has eight different members who all own sections of the whole farm. They all pitch in to help during harvest, but each shareholder decides how to farm their section. This allows them to test different varietals and farming methods while still sharing all the knowledge and equipment between them all.

The farm name comes from the Zapote tree which grows on the land. It is a tall tree, which bears “monkey fruit” that feeds the monkeys at night. The large trees provide a natural canopy for the coffee plants below, allowing for shade from the hot mid-day sun. Alongside these trees are many different fruit bearing plants which help to feed the family during the harvest, as well as provide ecological diversity for the wildlife.

We made it to the lower elevation of the farm (1700masl) when it dawned on me: we needed to climb back up the steep mountain in 95 degree heat. To add to the challenge, we were effectively 1640m above the elevation of Youngstown, and the air was a lot thinner. Orlando was a pro, he made this trek several times every day (while carrying 100lbs of coffee). He shot right up the side of the mountain, and we did the best we could to keep up.

We reached the halfway point in the farm, and stopped to take pictures with the family at the washing station. It was a quick 10 minute break before we had to go up the rest of the mountain to our truck. This time, we had to take a break 80% of the way up. Pouring sweat and sucking wind, we finally made it to the top, and we headed back to Orlando’s house to eat lunch with the family.


El Calambre

Midway through lunch, something strange happened. My hands and feet started tingling, and I became extremely light-headed. I excused myself to walk outside and get some water and fresh air. Within a few minutes my hands and feet began to involuntarily clench. They were a strange splotchy shade of red and I felt like I was burning up.

Our guide, Elmer, came out to check on me and explained the problem. El calambre is Spanish for “cramp”. It was a combination of dehydration, the altitude, and our pace up the mountain that caused it. The lack of oxygen forced my muscles to contract and cramp up.  A few minutes later I was able to rejoin the family and finish lunch, and we said our final goodbyes, and Chris surprised the family with several gifts from his company to help the family on the farm. They were excited to get a brand new depulping machine, as well as a large commercial string trimmer.

After saying our final goodbyes, we enjoyed the 4 hour drive back taking in the views while the crew had some good laughs about El Calambre.