Peru is a land of mist-drenched mountains, ancient Incan ruins, and giant mysterious patterns on the plains. For thousands of years, the Moche, Nazca, and Inca people were engineers, builders, skilled metal workers, weavers, and warriors. Stories of their silver and gold eventually brought the conquistadores looking for treasure, and in due process of time, the first coffee seeds arrived.
Story has it that Dutch immigrants arriving in the northern port of Pacasmayo ca. 1740 brought with them coffee seeds/seedlings, and planted them in the Chinchao district of Huánuco province of northern Peru. It was a fortuitous event for both the country and eventually the world, because nutrient-rich soils, abundant rainfall, and ideal elevation welcomed that first coffee endeavor, and before long, cultivation spread north and south wherever conditions were favorable.
Peru had its first coffee shop as early as 1771, but it wasn’t until 1895 that it began exporting the magic bean. Here on the lush slopes of the Andes, many of the older farms and smallholders continue to cultivate the original varieties brought by the early settlers. Most farmers are of Incan descent, with Spanish as their second language. Except for the areas closer to the Pacific coast, farms tend to be hours from the nearest electricity and indoor plumbing. Winding one-track roads clinging to mountainsides, rendered perilous by rain and mud, make travel by vehicle challenging, and most farmers don’t own a vehicle anyway.
This lack of infrastructure translates into transporting cherries to the nearest mill--often hours away--or using hand pulpers and on-site wood fermentation tanks. Farmers transport their beans to market by foot, horseback, or mule to the nearest town--anywhere from 30 minutes to a full day’s journey from the farm. For these remote areas, coffee is sold on Saturdays, after which farmers buy supplies and head back up the foot trails to their farms. Unfortunately, prices at these markets can be disappointingly low, a situation made worse in the 1970s by guerrilla activity of The Shining Path communist group which often destroyed crops and drove farmers from their lands.
These days, about a fourth of the 100,000 small producers belong to cooperatives, which among other benefits, enables them to earn Fair Trade certification and more equal pay for their coffee. Much of Peru’s coffee is shade-grown, often organically (though most farmers can’t afford to become certified). Though in the past producers have been disconnected from the end product, many are increasingly understanding the connection between their efforts and the beverage in the cup. As this happens, their vision for quality continues to grow.