A banner in the town square proclaims that the tiny village of Pluma Hidalgo, high up in the Sierra Madre del Sur, is home to the "World's best Coffee." I first sampled the "world's best coffee" on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, it was later served to me in the Monteverde highlands of Costa Rica and again in Vietnam. In fact wherever coffee is grown the local plantations claim to produce only the "world's best" and Mexico is no exception. The truth is good coffee, like fine wine, takes on a mystic of its own and early in the morning it's meant to be savored, not rated.
About an hour before arriving in Pluma Hidalgo I tossed back my first cup of the day and set out with eight other sleepy travelers to visit one of Mexico's working coffee plantations. We began our tour in Las Brisas, a resort hotel on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. We headed inland in a van driven by guide/interpreter Albeirto. "It's about a 50 km drive from here to the farm," he explains as we swing onto highway 200 and begin our long, bumpy ride into the mountains.
As we roll through the town of Santa Maria Huatulco, where many of the tourist resort workers live, Albeirto points to a discarded pair of shoes hanging from a wire across the road. "An omen to bring good luck to those who pass under them," he tells us. And if anyone could use a bit of good luck it is the people of Santa Maria. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in all of Mexico. Isolated by mountains from the rest of the country, the communities along the south coast are largely self-governing. According to Albeirto they receive only a small stipend from the central government and the local council controls work, law and taxes. Unemployment is rampant, and with a minimum wage of 60 pesos (about $6) a day even those with jobs have to scratch to survive. Here in Santa Maria the choice is either a long commute to a low-paid job in one of the coastal tourist resorts or seasonal piecework on one of the plantations.
The wet season is drawing to a close and the trees and shrubs on the lower slopes of the Sierra Madre have begun to shed their leaves to conserve precious moisture through the long hot drought of summer. But as we move higher into the mountains the forest is lush and green. Morning mists and high humidity last throughout the year and the native trees and vines share the forest with almond, mango and papaya trees, banana palms and vanilla vines. This is the environment where coffee grows best. "There are two distinct types of coffee," Albeirto tells us. "Low coffee grown near sea level and high coffee grown above 600 metres. High coffee is denser, contains more oil and produces a richer brew. It also takes fewer cherries to produce the same weight of beans."