Visiting the Cora

Visiting the Cora by Andy Cronin, a coffee travelog

Tuesday, February 19th 2008

I woke up around 5:00am to clear skies and mild temps. The rest of the group—Jaime, Juan, and Jose were going to pick me up at six from the hotel in Tepic (the capital and largest city of the Mexican State of Nayarit). The lady at the front desk gave me a couple packets of Nescafe and a cup of hot water. That, and a few granola bars from my bag became breakfast. We bumped along the roads out of Tepic onto bare highways similar to those in the Midwest, but enhanced with hills. A nervous quiet hung in the car, as nobody knew quite what the day held. We just knew it would not be as easy and smooth as the highway.

AlbertoBefore long, we left the highway and ventured along more neglected roads. We drove through one of the Cora’s small towns of ramshackle buildings advertising Corona. A small fire blazed to the side of the road and a few stray dogs scavenged across the cobbled street. With the next blink, we began climbing into the foothills of the Sierra del Nayar, part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. We eventually came to the community of Presidio de los Reyes, which seemed like two small towns divided by a river. We pulled up to a lot that was surrounded by a brick wall and were flagged inside to park. Alberto, the president of the Cora growers co-operative, and some other men from the group came to greet us.

A big red pickup arrived and everyone loaded their stuff into the back. We brought a couple boxes of food, our backpacks, sleeping bags, and lots of tequila. I was directed to sit in the middle of the cab with Alberto and the driver. Alberto pulled out a six pack of warm Tecate and very excitedly offered me one. Who could refuse? So far I’d had a granola bar, a cup of Nescafe, and then a warm beer. And it was only 8:30!

Presidio de los Reyes is east of Ruiz, between El Zopilote and El Naranjo.
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We bounced around in the truck for a few minutes until we came to the end of the road at the base of the mountain. We parked and unloaded our goods then walked along the river dividing the Presidio. We sat beneath the leafy trees and had another warm beer while we waited for the mules to come down. There were ten of us, including six Cora. The men wore jeans, t-shirts, and loose, western-style shirts and some had cowboy hats. They carried typical Cora bags of black or white woven with vibrant floral patterns. Most of the men, as well as the women we met later, stood no taller than my shoulders.

We started hiking up the mountain. The men took turns carrying the eighty-pound boxes of food as if they weighed nothing. We climbed for about forty-five minutes and came to a clearing where we could see the trail coming down another mountain. The morning started to steam with the day’s heat. We finished off another Tecate in the shade of the trees until we heard whistles from the men leading the mules. A few cheers rose to the relief of handing off the weight of the food to the mules. There were only six mules, though. One carried all the food, Alberto rode one and the four others were left for our group. The remaining Cora people continued the trails on foot. We spent the next four hours zig-zagging up and down very steep slopes made up of volcanic rocks and sparse vegetation. It was clear that the mules had done this many times—there was no need to lead them. I was given a stick to keep my mule moving when he stopped to eat. But, looking down at the slow and steep climb we’d made, I didn’t really feel like I was in a position to make him do anything. When he was hungry, I let him stop to eat.

The climb seemed to take hours, with the trail crumbling like stone ruins. There were very few level areas where the mules could get moving a little faster. Several of the men made whistles and grunts to keep the mules moving. And occasionally they threw a small rock to keep them alert. I even took one in the leg.

Eventually, we came to pockets in the hills where some of the newest coffee plants were growing. The coffee is planted where two ridges come together in a V in order to trap the moisture coming in from the ocean. I instantly felt the air humidify and noticed the vegetation became more lush. When we came out of the trees, there was an area that looked like a shelf sticking out of the side of the hill. This is where the wet mill was located. The depulping machine was run by a small generator on a cement patio. There were two long, raised drying beds where the coffee was being dried in parchment. The bed frames were made of trees from the area and a native type of bamboo was laid across the frame to support the screens. Everything was held together by rope and a few nails. On the frames were long sheets of black plastic screens to allow better airflow to the coffee. It was amazing how they had constructed most of this system solely with the materials they had growing around them.

The pickers brought their baskets to this area to be sorted. First, the beans went through the wet mill, where all of the useless beans and debris were skimmed from the top of the water. Then the name, date, time, and quantity of cherries were recorded in a small notebook. That information would later be put into a computer by one of the growers in Presidio. All the data would eventually make it to San Cristobal Coffee back in Tepic.

Pulping the CoffeeOne batch of beans was being put into the pulp machine when we arrived, so we were fortunate enough to see that process. The rest of the coffee was spread throughout the area at varying stages of drying. Some of the coffee was bagged and ready to come down the mountain, though much of it was still on the beds. A few women in bright shirts and skirts turned the coffee with rakes and sorted out the defects.

Shelf areaWe sat under the trees for a lunch of quesadillas, beans, and homemade cheese. Then we got back on the mules and rode for about another hour to Alberto’s home. At the top of a hill was a flat area that looked like it had been cut into the side of the mountain. There were four structures that were pieced together from the same types of materials that they had used to make the raised beds at the mill. One building was the cooking/dining area, another was the sleeping quarters, then there was an elevated platform, and a barn. Chickens and pigs wandered the yard and they may have had goats or cows somewhere, as they made all their own cheese.

kidsThe eating area had an adobe-like grill, a single light bulb that was powered by a small solar panel (which was provided by the government), and a table with a few chairs. There were four women, a couple younger guys, and Alberto’s brother. There were also three children: one infant boy, another that was probably three, and a beautiful little girl named Miriam.

The women all wore colorful blouses and skirts that they made by hand. They prepared a dinner of quesadillas, beans, cheese, and a fried egg. Maybe it was too-early start to the day, the lulls of waiting and drinking warm beer, or the terrifying mule ride, but that was one of the best meals I’d ever had in my life. The women served the men while the kids wandered around with fistfuls of tortilla. The women didn’t eat until we were finished and went outside to sit around the fire. As the sun went down the wind disappeared. The air was cool, but not cold. We receded into the night around the small fire and had a healthy amount of tequila.

Jaime, Juan, and I climbed into the storage hut and put down our sleeping bags on the bamboo floors. I tried to find a comfortable position inside my bag on the uneven floor. Once I rested my head on my backpack, I let the Tequila sway me off to sleep, with haunting little jerks of the mule ride.

Next Chapter: Wednesday, February 20th 2008     

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