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Coffee with a Cause, Guatemala & Honduras

As long term tourists we do our best to travel in a considerate way. It seems obvious that being polite, having a go at the local lingo and leaving a place as you find it are basically good ideas. Sadly it seems more travellers than ever have packed one more bottle of tanning oil in favour of their manners.

Take, for example, the tightly Speedo’d gent in Caye Cualker who considered it acceptable to get a nurse shark in a choke hold for the purposes of his GoPro album (presumably entitled ‘Proof I Wasn’t Brought Up Correctly, 2015’); how about the personification of a hangover in Antigua who left a trail of cigarette butts in his path while watching the cleaners trying to get her job done? There are the ubiquitous ‘shout-louder-and-they’ll-understand-mes’, always, unfailingly baffled when their approach is met with a blank look, as well as those with personalities set to ‘Arse’ when it comes to dealing with anyone unfortunate enough to have to serve said numpty in a country they’re not familiar with.

Of course, not all tourists forget to be human beings, just as not everyone will treat tourists with respect. It can be a minefield – a combination of traveller’s guilt, cash-poor countries and an amorphous tourist ‘industry’ often leaves those looking to have a positive impact – or at the very least, not leave a negative one – somewhat lost. So it’s lucky that there are people out there ready to show us one very small step in the right direction, and in one of our favourite ways – with a cup of coffee.

Cafe Armonia, Xela, Guatemala

Guatemala is famous for its coffee, and rightly so: with 8 regions to pick from, there’s a blend to suit every taste. Xela is a mid-sized town somewhere near the middle, a few hours from the better known Lake Atitlan. It wasn’t to be our favourite place (though this was no doubt tainted by the disappearance of my mobile on the infamous chicken bus), but we did find some very excellent coffee at Cafe Armonia, a Mayan-owned and run place with its own on-site coffee roaster.

It’s a popular spot for Spanish students and freelancers, playing surprisingly excellent electro and offering the ever-obligatory Wi-Fi. Best of all, the cafe only works with local smallholders, ensuring the profits go back into the mountain communities that painstakingly grew the coffee in the first place.

CECAP, Santa Cruz, Guatemala

Santa Cruz must surely be the town with the most defined calf muscles, perched as it is on the side of one of the steep volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. Having heaved ourselves uphill, we headed straight for CECAP, a training kitchen and carpentry workshop built for the local adolescents to hone their skills for working life; off-site, there were also courses in sexual health and childcare and a nursery, tackling head-on the challenges of unemployment and teenage pregnancies that are prevalent in the area.

Back at CECAP, chefs in crisp white aprons bustled to and from the kitchen, serving simple coffees, fresh juices and excellent lunches. Lucky diners were left to take in the views and stretch weary legs, before tackling the descent home.

Tazazul Coffee, La Ceiba, Honduras

After a long journey across the border we found ourselves in Honduras as the sun was setting. Things didn’t start well – the ATMs refused to hand over any cash so our taxi driver tried to charge us double to take us to one that did; when we arrived at our hostel, the setting was somewhat depressing (broken doors, stained walls, ripped bedsheets), though the decor was to become a moot point as the power went off. We managed to find some food then set about sweating quietly into the night – at least until the power came back on at 3am, switching on lights, air-conditioning, radios and fast-flowing showers all at the same time.

The next morning we debated our way via another taxi to the ferry dock in La Ceiba and were ready for an uninspiring wait for the boat that would take us to Utila (famous for its excellent scuba diving and generous tourist-to-local ratio). We didn’t hold much hope for our breakfast options, with only a handful of stalls selling Cokes and SIM cards in sight. And then, from nowhere – Tazazul. A small coffee caravan with its own pine-covered deck, it boasts excellent espresso, cakes and, incongruously, WiFi, all part of a not-for-profit scheme to bring funds to schools in the local area. The staff are friendly and keen to share tips on the surrounding islands – things were starting to look up.

Rio Coco Cafe, Utila, Honduras

Utila is probably the least Honduran place in Honduras, full as it is with salty-haired, tattoo’d tourists looking to learn, or teach, scuba diving. Like Caye Caulker in Belize, golf carts are the transport of choice, and there’s a laid back air to almost everything.

The slow pace also envelops Rio Coco Cafe, only open Mondays to Fridays between 7am and 12pm – but you forgive their langurous attitude when the coffee’s as good as this. There are smoothies, bagels and muffins on offer and they have their own private pier for a dip in the crisp Caribbean seas. And, to reduce the guilt of doing nothing but navel gaze all morning, the profits go towards two major education projects in Honduras and Nicaragua.

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3 Day Hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Xela had been described as “the perfect Guatemalan town”,  but as far as we could see it was just a town, in Guatemala. We weren’t overly keen to stay, but did so for a few days before we could set off on a three day hike east to Lake Atitlan, organised by a company called Quetzaltrekkers.

There are plenty of companies in Xela offering the same three day hike, but none can make quite the same altruistic claim as Quetzaltrekkers: run entirely by volunteers, the treks fund two projects for abandoned and orphaned children, with 90% of the money going towards a school and shelter in town.

The volunteers are a rag tag bunch who come and go as responsibilities allow, all passionate about the project (less so about cleaning). Our guides would be Tyler, an 18-year old American wise for his years except when mooning the camera, and Ofer, a wandering Israeli with excellent Spanish and a good line in sarcasm. Throughout the trip they’d inform us about the local flora and fauna, offer good stories and first aid kits for feet rubbed raw. They’d also ensure we ate well, with an emphasis on breakfast each day to see us through our 37 kilometre hike.

Day 1: Queztaltrekker Office, Xela

We started early on Saturday, hoeing down great plates of eggs and toast prepared in the office. After sharing out group provisions and packing 15 litre day bags, we set off for a short chicken bus that would take us to the suburbs. Then the walk began – at first a medium slope that would quickly turn into a steep one, prompting me to wonder whether the extent of my hiking experience (being carried halfway up a mid-sized Scottish mountain as a child) might not be quite enough.

The first hour set the tone for the day: breath-taking in every way. Once we’d conquered the steep slope we found ourselves in pasture land, with equally precipitous corn fields to tackle up and down, the locals all putting us to shame as men and boys shimmied up slippery clay slopes with huge baskets of wood strapped to their backs. Lunch was in the ‘cloud forest’, amongst trees entirely encased in white, then there were steep, dusty roads to tackle before a steady upward climb home.

The first night was spent in Santa Catarin Ixtahuacan, using a local’s property to sleep in, the balcony providing stunning views over the mountains while Tyler cooked as much pasta as the pot could handle. In the highlands it’s common for houses to have temescals, low, coal-fired saunas that resemble pizza ovens housed in a chicken shed. Taking it two-by-two we clambered in, instantly feeling our muscles relax as the hot steam worked its magic.

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Road to Xiprian

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Day 2: Comedor Belen, Santa Catarina

We set off early the next morning, feeling reassured that the worst was behind us. Breakfast was in a local comedor a short walk from our base, ensuring more than one business would benefit from our stay. Cups of strong cafecito (a sort of coffee/tea blend) and plates of beans, rice and eggs followed by banana pancakes worked like rocket fuel for the day – which was lucky, given what was to come.

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Comedor Belen

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We climbed up through more jungle, then lunched by the river after slipping down to the valley floor. Next would come Record Hill – an almost vertical climb taken one hiker at a time due to the narrow path and likelihood that you’ll need to stop (and possibly spew). Not quite beating the 11 minute record, neither did I win the wooden spoon (a weighty 40 minutes on a previous hike), coming in at a respectable 20 minutes or so.

We felt we’d conquered the worst… until Record Hill merged into Record Mountain, only slightly less steep and considerably more slippy. By the time we reached the promised ‘Ice Cream Village’ everything was sore, and a unique camaraderie started to build around the collective taping of feet to stave off blisters. The rest of the day involved thigh-testing descent, then the final ‘Cornfield of Death’, another raking climb, though mercifully shorter than Record Hill.

Finally we reached our second base at Don Pedro’s, in the village of Xiprian. There were fresh fruit smoothies on arrival, then a fantastic dinner of tamales, chicken and salad served by the Don’s wife; later there was a real fire with marshmallows to melt. Before bed Don Pedro would thank us all for coming and explain the good the project was doing, leaving us all feeling a little humbled and even more pleased we’d happened upon such a worthy cause.

Day 3: San Juan and San Pedro

For our final day we were up at 3:15am, quickly packing our sleeping bags and setting off in the dark to the nearby mirador to await sunrise. On the way we’d pick up our police escort, a precautionary measure introduced after a robbery some years before. Once at the lookout, Tyler and Ofer set about making breakfast – porridge, granola, jam and peanut butter and cookies made by the children benefiting from the scheme, all washed down with hot chocolate and shared with our friendly minders.

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Breakfast at sunrise

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Before the sun appeared we watched a nearby volcano – Fuego – erupt in the distance, a far off lightning storm adding to the drama. The sunrise, when it came, was spectacular, throwing electric blues, oranges and purple across the sky, reflecting in the waters of Lake Atitlan below.

After breakfast it was a relatively short and bumpy climb down to the nearest town. Here we’d visit another local business, this time a coffee co-operative in San Juan offering excellent and much needed hot drinks to mark the hike’s end, at an incongrously early 9am. From here we’d take a truck to San Pedro to await our bags, taking the chance to cool off in the Lake and have one final meal together before saying our weary goodbyes.

http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com

Price: From 750Q per person (approx £70).

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