Former National Geographic Traveler researcher Emily Haile reports from a coffee farm/ecolodge in Central America:
Halfway up a mountain in northern Nicaragua, between the steep streets of Matagalpa and the deep valley of Jinotega, lies a 1,500-acre organic coffee farm called Selva Negra. It’s a place where the trees hang heavy with giant lemons, papayas, and passion fruit. Roosters crow, hawks ride the breeze over the hills, hummingbirds flit, and the cows are milked by hand every morning. Oh yeah, and the shade-grown coffee tastes like chocolate.
The farm was established in the 1880s by a German immigrant who sailed to Central America looking for a new life in the coffee fields. Eddy and Mausi Kuhl, both descendants of the group of Germans who planted the first coffee seeds in these mountains, purchased the land in 1975, and have been finding a new life for themselves here, too.
On any given day, the family-owned farm is home to 200 workers and their children (including the Kuhls’ four daughters), but during harvest time, that population more than triples. Everyone is given housing, three meals a day, access to a clinic, and schooling for their children.
The Kuhls rely on solar and hydro-electric energy to power a full-service ecolodge and restaurant, use methane from manure to power the stove in the central kitchen, and fertilize more than a million coffee plants with organic compost each year. Forget carbon neutral; this place is carbon negative: Each week the waste generated by the farm and hotel — a community of more than 600 people — fills a single trash can. The rest is recycled, composted,or fed to the pigs.
One visit to this finca and you’ll never take your morning cup of Joe for granted again. The best time to visit is during the harvest (November – mid-February) when the farm is buzzing with activity. Over a period of three months, the coffee beans are hand-picked, de-pulped, dried, and closely inspected before being shipped off for export. You’ll learn the nuances of shade and how coffee plants sheltered under banana trees have a richer flavor than those grown in full sun.
It’s not just coffee, either. You’ll taste cheese made with buckets of raw milk, smear fresh butter onto homemade bread, and feast on German delicacies like sauerkraut and farm-raised sausage.
In the afternoons, explore 12 miles of trails in a virgin cloud forest and keep your eyes peeled for the bright beaks of toucans, exotic orchids, mellow sloths, groups of scurrying short-haired rodents called agouti, elusive puma or the ubiquitous howler monkeys (their other-worldly roar sounds like distant thunder). The forest is truly primeval — the wind rustles the trees, birds call out to one another, and the sun shines through the canopy at odd angles, making it a friendly, if wild, place.
Watch as the bright red coffee cherries make their way from the picker’s woven baskets to the machines humming in the mill each day. Or do nothing at all, and read a book on the cafe’s outdoor patio overlooking the lake as geese swim by in pairs. Depending on your budget, you can stay in a hostel (US $10 per night), in a renovated cabana that smells of cedar wood (US $85), or somewhere in between.
Here in the mountains, it’s a pleasure to wake up to the sound of birdsong and look up to see the misty forest shrouded in low-hanging clouds. This is a place out of time, where plants grow unfettered and nothing goes to waste. It’s Eden in the clouds. And you’re invited.
Selva Negra is located outside the city of Matagalpa, two hours by car or bus from Managua. In lieu of a visit to the farm, you can purchase their organic shade-grown coffee at their daughter’s coffee shop in Atlanta called JavaVino, or at select Whole Foods stores.