Saturday, March 16, 2019

Puerto Rican Coffee - Coming Back

The history of coffee production in Puerto Rico is long and fascinating.  My love of the stuff has brought me to appreciate the struggles of the suppliers after near devastation by Hurricane Maria in 2017.  One of the few working Haciendas currently giving tours was our destination for this family vacation day as we set out early for the drive into the mountainous interior of the island to visit the Pomarrosa Coffee Lodge.

My daughter took this photo of my son-in-law and I picking through rubble...
No fossils found... DRATS!
The Hacienda Pomarrosa
Tours are by appointment only and we received instructions for the drive up into the highest mountains of the island's west/central interior.  Driving up highway 10, Google tried to send us the shortest route, which is evidently quite treacherous.  If you take 503 as Google Maps suggest, you will experience a road so steep and winding that even the locals won't go there.  We were happy to heed the warning and continue a couple of miles further on Highway 10 and take 143 all the way to the Hacienda.  Even this was spectacular with expansive vistas of the mountains and the Caribbean Sea.  The final mile or so was hair-raising enough, I hate to think how 503 could be worse... but after a quick stop to look for fossils... we made it to the Hacienda with time to spare before our tour began.

Bees Hard at Work

Sugar Apples
As I had hoped, there were treats waiting for us.  A delicious cup of island-grown coffee brewed by the grower himself, AND fresh-from-the-oven banana bread, also from local bananas, was passed out to the group.  Mmm delicious!

While we enjoyed one cup, or maybe two... Kurt, the coffee farmer himself, led us through the history of coffee from its very beginning in Ethiopia and then moved to Arabia, which grew the beans now known as Arabica.

Kurt giving us the low-down on the history of coffee in the world!
It is truly fascinating and worth the time if you're a coffee lover like me.  Kurt described how coffee came into popularity in the many different countries, and why.

There's no "wrong" way to enjoy banana bread dipped in fresh coffee!

After the history lesson, and a Q&A session, we were done with our coffee and ready to take a stroll among the coffee and banana trees.  Bottom line is this: Hurricane Maria nearly wiped out the coffee industry in Puerto Rico.  But prior to that, the growers were already in a bit of trouble with government regulations and price caps.  The workers needed to work the plantations, harvest and process the beans just are not here, for any wage.

One of the few healthy adult coffee trees left after Maria
The coffee trees are susceptible to disease and changes in climate that have left the farmers struggling to make a living and frankly, the only thing that could help them at this point is not the free, rather sickly trees given to them by the government, but public acceptance of higher prices in exchange for a labor-intensive tree-to-cup process that produces a heavenly-tasting product.  For myself, I'm no coffee snob and I love the mid-priced coffee we've found in Puerto Rico and other islands... and I defile it with creamer ~ something I was embarrassed to admit to Kurt the Coffee Farmer.

Coffee trees of various ages grow on the manicured slopes in the high altitudes
This nursery represents the future for this farmer.  He has sprouted new trees from the seeds of his former crops.
We were invited to taste these bananas, grown amongst the coffee bushes.  Delicious!
Some of the new trees provided by the government
Flowering bushes mean coffee beans in the future!
There were no beans on the bushes because harvest season begins around October and runs through the winter months.
I swear we were being stalked by this rooster!
Kurt's comment:  The good thing about the Maria is that with the trees all gone, we have a view of the Caribbean!
Nice view of Cerro de Punta - the highest point in Puerto Rico at 3,494 ft elevation

Kurt was kind in answering all of our many questions.
This is another of a small group of trees that survived Maria.  Lots of flowers here!

Wild Orchid!
Concluding our stroll through the sloping coffee farm, we ended with a look at a bunch of the "free" trees given to the growers in hopes of reviving the industry.

Kurt told us that it has been so dry lately that many of the trees are still waiting to be planted.  They can't dig holes through the hard, dry soil.

The trees are somewhat sickly looking and many of those already planted have sickened and died.  It's not looking great for the coffee industry in Puerto Rico.

We moved into the production buildings where Kurt described the process.  He had only a few beans from past crops to use since it's not harvest season currently.  The processing of coffee is very similar to that of chocolate, so we were familiar with the drill.

The final sorting of beans is still done by hand here.

Roasting is the last step!  We bought a half pound and can't wait to try it!

There is a rich history in the production of this nectar of the gods that I enjoy every morning.  This is the first tour we've taken that has encompassed the entire history from its very inception.  It was interesting to learn about how coffee came to be a part of our everyday lives, and for the sake of our new home island, we hope that the farmer's soon recover from the blow that Nature dealt them... I for one... will do my best to support them by drinking Puerto Rican Coffee whenever we can get it!

Friday, March 15, 2019

El Yunque Rainforest - Battered But Not Beaten

During our stay here in 2016, we visited portions of the El Yunque Rainforest by way of the southern entrance on 191.  The gates were closed so we entered the park on foot, and the small part of the park we experienced left us in awe and wanting more.

The first of what we hope will be a long line of visitors have arrived. My daughter and her husband were eager to see more of the rainforest beginning at the north entrance.

The website provides all of the information needed to make our visit easy.  There are vast portions of the park that remain closed after hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island in 2017, but the park services have worked tirelessly, along with Mother Nature, to get some trails and attractions open and ready for visitors.

The park advises that visitors come early to avoid congestion at the popular attractions.  We arrived at about 10am and found the crowds to be manageable, but beginning to build.  We had several items to see on our list and after finding parking areas full, we decided to try starting at the top and working our way down.  This worked out well!  First stop: Mt. Britton Tower!

The trail was well planned and beautifully maintained!  Kudos to the park rangers for what must be backbreaking work.   Narrow rock and cement walkways wind through the mountainside to take you almost painlessly to the top where the viewing tower stands.

Along the way we took many rest breaks Photo Stops as we drank in the beauty of both the panoramic views, the tall trees and the tiny signs of new life that will bring the forest back to her full glory in the years to come.

An actual break area!  Several are provided along the way!
Bees are hard at work doing their part!

New life unfolds.

Near the top, you can still witness the devastation from Maria

There was a brief moment in which we considered stopping short of the top... But we're almost there! A couple of young girls told us it was just another "two minutes"... Well, maybe if you're 20 years old!!!  But they spurred us on and we were so glad we made the last effort to arrive at the beautiful Britton Tower to claim our reward!

So much of what is unique about this rainforest has been destroyed by hurricane Maria... But these landmarks made it through and remain stalwart for us to enjoy.

Looking up at the next level of spiral stairs

The thickness of the walls have kept the tower standing
Damp and dark, perfect for mossy growth inside
And suddenly you break out into the sun and open air!

Bruce waiting patiently with the bags on the doorstep below
I was a little wobbly on these shallow, damp steps, but I didn't fall!

After our climb, we were ready for a lunch break.  We sat on the shady stoop and enjoyed our sandwiches while congratulating ourselves for our decision to continue on to the top!

Then back down we go!  Much easier and quicker than the hike up!

The whole way, I've been amazed at the huge rocks in these mountains.  I LOVE rocks!  A favorite mantra is "If you loved me, you would get me that rock!"... My son-in-law was listening!

The hike to the top was a challenge, but it was well worth the effort.  We made some great memories and had many laughs along the way.

From further down, we looked back up at the tower and it seems so far away!
We passed several tiny babbling brooks on our trek!
We loaded back into the car and finished the loop to make our way back down the mountain in hopes of finding parking at the Yokahu Tower.  All thoughts of hiking to the waterfall were vetoed by our shaking leg muscles.  We had one more climb left in us and we were saving it for this!

This tower was larger and more easy to climb.

I'm afraid to look down from these heights but the camera is not!

The views from the top were equally stunning.  We had a lovely clear day and it seemed that we could see for ever!  It would be nice to hike to a waterfall and take a dip, but we have to save some sights for the next visit! After all... we do LIVE HERE!

Don't have to mow that spot!
The lunch we had just a short hike ago was already a distant memory.  We were suddenly ravenous and it's a good thing... I recently found this website called Ofertones, that sells discount deals - similar to Groupon in the States - and there was a family meal waiting for us in a little town called Juncos.

Casaj├║ was high up on the ridge of another mountain and the drive to it was an event unto itself!  So many rocks on this mountain and the homes are just built in around them! Upon arrival the place looked very unassuming, but as we made our way down the stairs to the dining area, the panoramic view opened up and we knew we were in for a treat!

It was about 3:30 in the afternoon, so not crowded, but the parking areas led us to believe that this place could get really packed!  We were seated right on the balcony overlooking the valley and the mountain range beyond.  The breeze was cool and the atmosphere relaxing.  Once again I wondered what I ever did to deserve this lucky streak!

The looks on their faces are priceless!
My fears that this meal-for-four would not really be enough food proved to be ridiculous.  Silly me!  The portions were huge and even after eating as much as we dared... we ended up taking enough home for another dinner!  Feeling magnanimous after receiving this amazing deal... we decided to splurge and order a couple of desserts.  How could we really pass up FRIED CHEESECAKE anyway???

I was not prepared for this!  The dessert tasted even better than it looked... What a complete surprise!  That's a cup of whip cream covered ice-cream with Churros to go along with that fried cheesecake!  If we had known about this, we would have ordered dessert first!  I think I've died and gone to heaven!  We will be back!

So we finally made it to El Yunque Rainforest Park.  Seeing it in the condition it's in after Maria really makes me wish I had made the effort to visit these spots before... But seeing it rise from ruin and begin to flourish again gives me a feeling that we are a part of this new beginning for Puerto Rico and we are excited about that.  I know that the Island of Enchantment is going to come back better than before and we can't wait to see it all!