It rained every day during the five days I spent in Miraflor, the natural reserve in the northern mountains outside Esteli. The dark earth was saturated, water permeating every surface, reeling with color.
In between the storms…
Some days I have fantasies about being a scientist, imagining long days in exotic field locations, listening for birdcalls in lush rainforest or tracking mammals through the desert. When I met Katie Goodall, PhD student (and my housemate in Matagalpa), and found out she’s researching birds and coffee farms, I immediately hoped she’d let me tag along.
With little persuasion on my part, one day Katie and I got on the Jinotega-bound bus and wound up the road into coffee country.
After jumping off at the highway, we hiked down the road to Selva Negra, a coffee plantation, hotel, and pioneer of ecotourism in Nicaragua in the 80’s. On either side of us rows of coffee bushes spilled over the rolling hills, interspersed with mature trees that cast shade below.
Selva Negra, like most farms in Nicaragua, grows Arabica beans that need some shade to thrive. As a result of this planting strategy, some mature trees and forest are left intact. A byproduct is greater habitat for birds and other animals compared with non-shade-grown coffee.
Selva Negra’s coffee is also grown organically, with natural fertilizers and without pesticides, which also protects birds and other animals.
Katie uses fine-threaded mist nets to catch and release birds to find out which species are present on the farms.
In the late afternoon she chose three sites for the nets within the plantings, each at a different angle and in slightly different environments. We put up the poles, and strung out and untangled the nets, then wound them up so they wouldn’t catch any night creatures.
The coffee bushes had burst into bloom with fragrant white flowers, their lemony scent akin to gardenia. The sun had dipped lower in the sky by the time we finished prepping all the nets. In the late afternoon, the plantation came alive with the songs of wrens and oropendulas, one of my favorite birds, with a looping, musical call and feet-long woven nests that dangle from the outer branches of mature trees. We packed up for the night, planning to come back early the next morning when the birds would be most active.
Over a dinner with giant homemade tortillas at the hotel’s restaurant I asked Katie more about her research.
Her agroecology degree, and in turn the question guiding her studies, are complex: she wants to know how coffee farmers’ decision-making is affecting the environment. She’s measuring that effect through the abundance and diversity of birds and trees, and focusing on farms in cooperatives, as opposed to large-scale plantations owned by a single person.
So her research involves not just the birds and the forest but the human players. This element fascinates me, having spent time in coffee-growing communities and seeing all the pressures small farmers face: the politics and power dynamics of cooperatives; fluctuating prices in international markets; land distribution; attitudes about gender and work; and the list goes on.
So the unique thing about Katie’s research is she’s as passionate about understanding the challenges farmers face as protecting birds. She’s hoping her research will benefit the farmers she’s surveying. Before she left Nicaragua she invited participating farmers to a meeting to hear her preliminary results and get their feedback.
The morning after we set up the nets we woke up at 5 am but it was so windy we waited another hour to make our first foray. We opened up the nets, then came back on a half-hour schedule for each net to check for birds.
One site was easy to locate next to a snag with a neat hole ten feet up, telltale for a toucanet nest. (Toucanets are small toucans, with a longer, narrower beak). We soon caught sight of a parent in nearby tree, waiting to swoop down and perch on the edge of the hole to feed its young.
Between the second and third sites we spotted a tiny hummingbird nest a little above eye level in a bush at the edge of the trail, but a mirror held above it showed no eggs or other sign of life.
Soon the quick jogs between the nets became familiar. As we moved from the sun-dappled plantation to the cool forest trail and back, we caught new scents beyond the coffee blossoms: musky peccary, the mossy forest smell.
In one net we caught a delicate hummingbird, which Katie freed and released with minimal study, since their hyper-fast metabolism makes them sensitive to capture.
While I didn’t handle any birds, I did free a giant cicada, unwinding the thin threads while holding its body to keep the propeller wings from vibrating. Katie said it was good practice for other winged creatures!
I had to leave that afternoon, but Katie stayed at the farm a couple more days, and returned each week over the course of another month. When she was in town, she spent hours a day inputting data, a part of the scientist’s life that didn’t make it into my fantasy. But I can report the birdcalls were beautiful, and that my taste for coffee grew in complexity.
This is how chocolate starts out: cacao seeds enclosed in milky-white, gelatinous pulp, sweet and slightly tart, like a firm mango. A thick husk protects the fruit, the whole mazorca weighing a good pound.
This is also the first cacao fruit I’ve ever tasted. I’m thrilled to try the precursor of chocolate, which some friends have called an obsession (how else was I supposed to make it through the school day??)
I scoop a small handful of the baba (seeds and pulp, like in a pumpkin) into my hand, then pop a couple seeds into my mouth. The smooth pulp is firmly stuck on the seeds, so I suck it off with my teeth and tongue.
Xiomara’s the one holding the mazorca. She’s the daughter of a coffee farmer who also grows cacao, and she toured me around her family’s small plantation. Though not the height of the harvest, since cacao trees produce year-round we find ripe mazorcas.
Her dad, Juan, is an innovator in his community—he’s the only member of his cooperative growing cacao, inspired by a workshop. He tells me he likes cultivating cacao because there’s less of an investment of time and energy than with coffee. Cacao is native to Central America, and produces its own compost in the form of decomposed husks, so there’s little input after the trees are established. Juan says he gets a similar price per pound selling his raw cacao beans locally as selling coffee to the cooperative.
The process after he harvests is simple: he leaves the beans in a sack for three days to ferment. Then he dries them in the sun, and brings them to the market in the city of Matagalpa (keeping some at home for pinol, the national drink of ground corn and cacao).
Xiomara points out the range of food in cultivation on their land: glossy green mango and lemon trees shade the cacao, pitahaya fruit cactus wraps around the trunks of avocado trees, yucca shoots burst from the soil in a shady corner. When I ask her if she knew the term polyculture, she says no, but when I explain it’s the opposite of a monoculture, she quickly agrees her family’s farm was a good example.
We meander a bit more through the plantation, arriving at the banks of a stream, broad-canopied ceiba trees towering overhead. Here in the deeper shade, Juan is experimenting with coffee interplanted with cacao. Black oropendulas with yellow-tipped tails fly above and smaller birds weave through the trees. By now, I’m hooked, not just on the cacao, but on the incredible diversity of Juan’s land. He’s hoping other cooperative members will try cacao, pooling their resources to improve harvests and quality, and earn a greater profit.
After visiting Juan’s farm, I stumble on a booth selling organic chocolates at a fair in Matagalpa. The woman staffing it invites me to visit the cacao cooperative a couple hours away, and a few weeks later my friend (and agroforestry expert) Katie and I hop on a bus to check it out.
We get off just past the small town of Matiguás for the cooperative “La Campesina.” Silverio, a tecnico who advises farmers on growing practices, shows us around the processing plant before going taking us out to visit a farm.
Since the cooperative exports to Ritter Sport, the German chocolate company, it has a lab for quality control. We walk inside an open, hangar-like space with a cement floor to check out the drying process. Cacao beans are spread out on a mesh rack as an assistant measures humidity and fermentation.
He puts the beans in a little metal box, each seed fitting into its own divot, then closes the box and drives a metal blade through, guillotining the cacao. (That’s actually what it’s called, a guillotine!) When he opens it again, we can see each bean has tiny holes and rivulets in them, which means they were properly fermented.
They also have to control for humidity—over seven percent and it’s not acceptable for export.
Silverio raises a handful of raw beans to his nose and inhales deeply. “It should just smell like cacao, with no other odors.” We copy him, breathing in an earthy, sweet aroma. The batch is good.
After the tour of the lab, we bus another 45 minutes to Armando’s farm, jumping off the bus and crossing the narrow highway to his small home. A greenhouse and cacao nursery share the front yard with a corral full of cows.
Armando’s been growing cacao for over 10 years and working with the cooperative for six. He said he’s seen a great increase in yields and the health of his crop since he joined the cooperative, learning more about managing the trees.
After checking out the nursery and meeting Armando’s dog, we set out for the cacao trees. We walk down a rutted path through more cows and cross a narrow stream before climbing into prickly pastures, then through a fence into the plantation. The difference is striking—from grasses to banana trees and then into the plantation, where temperature and light dip degrees in the deep shade of secondary forest. Armando has mostly planted in spaces between mature trees, areas that were more densely forested before a hurricane swept through with high winds.
Most of the cacao trees are around 15 feet high, with branches clustered at the top. Armando points out the cacao pods growing along the trunks, saying, “At the height of the harvest, you can’t even see the trunk for the pods.” Some bear purple-red husks, others yellow ones, as well as smaller green pods still developing.
Armando has become more savvy about the value of his crop since joining the cooperative and has plans to triple his acreage in planting. He’s in his late-forties and divorced—when Silverio asks him if he’s dating anyone, he confesses he likes a younger woman. “What would she want with me?” he asks. Silverio is quick to respond, “Don’t sell yourself short—you’re sitting on a gold mine!” Armando laughs and agrees, “The cacao is an investment I’ll have my whole life.”
In April, he makes regular rounds through the plantation to prune and monitor for disease. But during the main harvest months of September-January things get busy. After harvesting the baba in big sacks, Armando loads his “black gold” on the bus to Matiguás. Farmers who live farther away bring theirs to one of a dozen centers, and from there it’s collected to bring to the main plant.
Silverio says they ferment the cacao for 48 hours in an enclosed container, then an additional 4 days, before spreading it out to dry it in the sun. In all, it takes about two weeks to prepare the raw cacao for export.
Back on Armando’s farm, after the hot hike we sit in the shade on the cool forest floor, breaking open a mazorca to revive ourselves with fresh cacao fruit. The forest vibrates with the sound of cicadas, and we gaze up into the canopy of an immense, gray-barked guanacaste tree.
I ask Armando about what animals he sees in his forest and he mentions wild pigs, some kind of wild cat, and birds. “You should see it here in the morning. With all the birds, it’s a joyful awakening.”
Given all the different tasks to manage—cows, pasture, the milpa where he grows corn and beans, and his home, I wonder what he likes best. “I like it best working here,” he says, sweeping his arm out and meeting my eyes in a smile.
The celebrations of Semana Santa in León are bright and powerful, with fireworks crackling, processions of hundreds, and long masses presided over by the bishop and fleets of priests and altar boys in full regalia.
The energy of the Catholics in attendance defied both the incredible heat of the dry season and the temptation to join half the country on the beach!
On Thursday afternoon I went to the “solemn mass” at the cathedral with my Catholic friend Claudia. Since I was raised agnostic, everything that takes place in church is, well, Latin to me! Claudia was an excellent guide, explaining rituals and prepping me for photo opportunities.
The solemn mass was, mercifully, short (unlike the three hour-long Saturday evening mass which culminates in Christ’s resurrection.) Yet it was full of ceremonial detail: musky incense wafted through the massive marble expanse, the words of the priest echoing with each swing of the censer; a small choir of young women and a handful of young men harmonized over the songs of the flock; women knelt, heads bent in prayer, on the steps around the edges of the altar.
(I’ve included some recordings: click on the links to listen.)
Near the end of the mass a dozen men of the community sat waiting in two pews at the front of the cathedral, their bare feet visible beneath brown pant legs. When the bishop stepped down from the high altar, the crowd drew in to watch as he washed their feet with water from a glass pitcher.
Claudia explained, “It’s an act of humility, and it reminds us of what Jesus did before the Last Supper, washing the feet of his disciples.”
After the mass the bishop led the congregation to seven other altars, starting with the rarely-open chapel adjacent to the cathedral.
Claudia and I and a couple friends joined the procession as it wound through the narrow streets in the dusk. Though another friend later scolded me, “You’re supposed to go to all seven,” after hours of standing during mass we just visited two churches, the somber La Merced and yellow-trimmed St. Francisco.
The bells were silent on holy Friday, the streets mostly empty. In late morning another procession flowed through the city, with larger-than-life icons held aloft on the shoulders of the congregation. The bearers dripped with sweat in the midday sun, though they continued singing and praying with the loudspeaker mounted on a pick-up in the middle of the procession.
Maria was borne by several dozen men and women, a bouquet of lilies at her feet.
A massive statue of Christ robed in red needed an entourage to proceed it through the streets—men with long wooden poles lifted the electric lines for it to pass under.
The bells found their voices again Saturday night after the mass to mark Christ’s resurrection, the whole city booming with fireworks and ringing with sound.