Lone Wolf’n It In Caranavi (Or, “How I Met The Mayor”)

Yolosita is a tropical rest stop. A random checkpoint where officials snoop around for signs of narcotrafficking, around which local women ply their trade from a series of stalls offering fried chicken, fruits in a bag, soda, or perhaps, more fried chicken. Passengers in the waylaid flotillas shout their requests to the women who toss up lunch-in-a-bag through the windows of their customers’ idled vehicle. We left El Jiri Ecolodge on a balmy Monday afternoon and headed down to Yolosita with the hope of finding a couple of open seats on a north-bound bus. No sooner than we arrived, a bus had completed inspection and was readying for departure. Lex and I jumped out of our taxi, quickly tossed our bags in the steerage, and squeezed our way into the final two seats in the back of a Guanay-bound flotilla that would drop us four hours to the north in Caranavi. For better or for worse, without a moment to spare for a trip to the bathroom or extra water, we were on our way to the Capital De Los Cafeteleros.

After several months on the road, I am beginning to suspect there is something in human nature, some sort of inate need to maintain a rivalry. It is as though the flipside of expressing pride in one’s own home is a declaration of distaste for somebody else’s. So it goes with the Cafeteleros Yunguenas, as throughout the cantone (county) of Coroico, we were told that Caranavi was not a place worth visiting. Some said it was stricly a place for big business, devoid of artisenal, family plots. Others said the growers had no respect for the land and poisoned the water with agro-chemicals.  We’d been on the road long enough to sniff out a regional rivalry and decided we were going to Caranavi to see where the coffee action was, whether or not the folks near Coroico thought it was a rediculous, ill-advised move for a pair of foreign travelers.

In addition to Checkpoint Charlie, Yolisita marks the spot where the pavement ends and the road turns to all bumps and dust. The other passengers had been on board since La Paz and nobody seemed particularly pleased when our already baking-hot, dust-filled ride came to an extended halt upon encountering road crews at work. It was then that I began a four hour-long conversation with a geniunely awesome guy named Clemente. We talked about the randomness of gold as a commodity, life in New York City, Aymara community values, and, most of all, we talked coffee. Clemente, like almost everybody else on the bus, is a small plot coffee farmer in the hills outside Caranavi. In addition, he works pro-bono as a sort of community organizer and espouser of all things natural and good. As the bus slowly churned its way through the mountains, I began to realize there was much more to Caranavi than the Coroico folk were willing to admit.

For one, almost everybody’s farm in Caranavi is both organic and fair trade-certified and the region as a whole is a fine culmination of both the Morales administration’s and other non-governmental organization’s efforts to produce an ecologically and economically sustainable industry. The coffee industry in Caranavi is organized in a series of cooperatives representating small plot holders throughout the countryside. Working hand-in-hand with the cooperatives are federations and associations that provide technical and marketing assistance, along with political advocacy services to their members. Last, there is the local government that works with everybody in an effort to promote and grow the industry.

As with all other community organizing efforts, there is no shortage of infighting and division. However, during our time in Caranavi, we discovered there are also plenty of people like Clemente who work selflessly to assist others. By the time we disembarked our bus in Caranavi, Clemente had provided us with the name and contact info of a few people in town who might be willing to spend time with a couple curious travelers from New York looking to learn more about the Coffee Capital Of Bolivia. The Lone Wolf  had arrived, fully prepared for a series of random office visits.

After the bus dropped us off, we hauled our backpacks down toward the Rio Coroico, on the far side of town. As we walked the streets of Caranavi, we received an unusually high amount of prolonged “Who are they?!” type stares from the passersby. Soon, it became clear to us that we were the only two foreigners in the whole town. A few blocks from the town square towards the river, we encountered the somewhat rundown but seemingly clean and comfortable Hotel Mansion. The hotel was completely empty, so I chose to channel the energy of the world’s foremost bargain-master, my mother Audrey, and requested a discount off of their relatively steep 200 Boliviano nightly rate. Twenty percent discount granted, we checked in and settled into our surreal Hemingway-esque tropical retreat.

The next morning, we wandered aimlessly, staying true to the most classic and random Grade A Lone Wolf quixotic nature of our mission. Sitting outside the office of “FAPCCA,” a coffee grower’s association in town, we chanced upon our friend Clemente who was visiting town for the afternoon since his highland crop was not yet ready for harvest. He was accompanying an official from the federal government on some sort of organizing mission, but offered to meet us later in the town plaza for some personal introductions. From here, things started to turn up.

Clemente introduced us to Edgar from the municipal government office, who works as an assistant to the agricultural minister. We chatted for a while, discussing different varietals of coffee plants and the industry as a whole. Edgar offered to arrange a visit to a nearby processing facility and also to broker a meeting with the field representatives of FECAFEB, a national federation supporting small plot coffee farmers. Clemente took off for his place in the hills, while Edgar and I agreed to meet up later in the afternoon to chat some more.

When I returned as the Lone Wolf in the municipal office, I was quite surprised to learn that the chief minister of agriculture was waiting to meet with the visiting New Yorquino. While we were chatting about potential reforestation funding sources, the Mayor Teodocio Quillca Acarapi stopped in to say hello and shake hands. If any of my coworkers from the State Government in New York are reading this, should a guy named Daynor Villalobos stop by the office, it was I who sent him. Please show him to the “Apollo” meeting room and, above all else, make sure the coffee is fresh! My reputation is at stake.

The coffee from Caranavi comes to market in a variety of manners. Generally speaking, the “first shell,” or skin of the fruit, is removed locally at the farm and the initial fermentation process also occurs at source. The post-fermentation drying process varies, depending on whether or not the farmer is affiliated with a cooperative or federation. There are cooperatives which handle everything up to exportation; others, which produce a domestically marketed product; while still others hand a more raw product off to processing firms. In short, there is no single dominant business model and much depends on who you know and how much access to resources you have.

Some farmers sell their freshly harvested product to the Agricafe processing facility located about a 15 minute drive out of town. With the owner Pedro Rodriguez as our guide, we visited this large-scale processing facility that has clients in the specialty coffee trade throughout the world. In the gallery below, you’ll notice pictures of the facility, including an impressive gas-fired mechanical dryer. We arrived around 6pm, when the factory is largely dormant due to a peak demand variable pricing scheme set up by the government owned electric utility. Rodrigo demonstrated each piece of equipment and discussed his views on the industry as a whole and the challenges he faces trying to control quality for his foreign clients.

After returning to the municipal office, we met up with Ruben Castillo from FECAFEB to arrange our activities for the next morning. To put this in terms that perhaps only my coworkers will relate to, the guys at FECAFEB are sort of like Energy $mart Coordinators in New York, only they work with coffee, and in the jungle, and with small plot farmers. They are a traveling band of organizers who provide technical support and logistical assistance to the people in the hills.

The following morning, we traveled with Ruben and an agronomist from their office to visit two different parcels about an hour up into the hills where the coffee grows best. Our visits were highly informative from both a cultural and more academic perspective, and the farmers received us with great hospitality. As I write this, there is a rather large bag of oranges sitting in our room that one of the campesinas insisted we take, as a gift to her visitors. I suspect we shall juice them this evening and mix them with a dram a’ whisky in anticipation of the great folkloric dance exposition scheduled for this evening in town.

I suppose reading this rather long entry concerning Caranavi, you might be wondering what could possibly be next now that we have learned so much about coffee production in Bolivia? Well, there’s an easy answer to that question: chocolate! After returning to the FECAFEB office, we gathered contacts and lodging recommendations for our next stop, three hours further down the road to Sapacho. There, the elevation is lower, the river valley is broader, and all the elements are ideal for cultivating cacao. Emboldened by our Caranavi adventures, we shall seek out the counsel of the Ceibo Cooperative that handles all things chocolate in Sapacho. With the exception of a couple of names and a crude map on a scrap of paper, we do not know anything or anybody. In other words, it has all the makings of another Grade A Lone Wolf Adventure!

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About andesnotthemint

Alexis, Mark, 2 seasons, 1 continent, a very long mountain range.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Caranavi, Mark, The Yungas and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Lone Wolf’n It In Caranavi (Or, “How I Met The Mayor”)

  1. Dad just went upstairs to make a cup of Swiss Miss. He is so envious.
    These posts are fantastic, both so descriptive and informative. Thanks so much for sharing and for sending pics with each of you in them.

  2. mom wyman says:

    Mark, I am so proud of you for your “negotiating skills”……
    and here I thought you were never paying attention
    What an experience — for me a great cup of coffee is like
    a glass of wine to others so, YES, I would love to have a taste —
    and how wonderful that you and Lex were able to enter
    their world….and learn so much.
    I just love reading about your adventures.
    …..and especially the photos…
    love, mom w.
    tour of the old world of coffee.

  3. john s. says:

    Hahaha. I be sure to sit him in the Apollo room and make him a fantastic cup of Java Joe coffee using Cam’s pump. He’ll be waiting with all the other lone wolves and you can tell them about all the wonderful EE programs NYS has to offer.
    Speaking of lone wolves, that guy Ian from our BPI class called me yesterday. He started his company, got BPI accreditation and signed our PA. It’s official and I’m scared! He called to ask about the leads that we apparently provide to contractors, requested GJGNY audit applications be mailed to him, and if we can give him money for advertising. I told him we don’t do anything of the sort, you can print copies yourself and you can use coop funds once you complete your first job. My preferred response would have been to hang up. Dude the trip looks absolutely amazing and as I sit here watching 2nd avenue being torn to shreds and the garbage scattered everywhere after a summer Friday night, I must say that I am a teany bit envious.

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