A couple of years ago I read about a small coffee pueblo, high in the mountains, that overcame the great coffee depression that is very existent today. A man named James Kosalos in the state of Washington imported an expert from Brazil, trained the growers and introduced modern processing equipment. This resulted in the production of quality coffee and the entire crop is being exported at fair market prices. Coffee was first started in this area by German immigrants over a century ago. For those interested, go to search and punch in El Malinal.
This morning we are using Las Varas as our departure point. My traveling companion, Vicky, and I are in our jeep CJ7 and we have another vehicle joining us occupied by our new found friends from Arizona, Lee and Colleen Hunt. Lee and Colleen are now living in San Pancho and are readers of La Peñita Folk. It’s nice for Vicky and I to have company.
Editor’s Note: “Back Roads of Nayarit” is a series of essays written by Bob Howell, a long-time resident of Jaltemba Bay. The series details his day trips and adventures between 2001-2007. We are sharing these stories in an effort to preserve Bob’s memory – and to help Bob’s partner and traveling companion, Vicky Flores Ramirez, who still lives in La Peñita and quietly carries on the work that she and Bob so loved. You can learn more below.
It is 8:24 a.m. and we are just leaving Las Varas. Our goal today is to go to El Malinal the hard way. We plan to go through Zalcualpan and hit the back road at Ixtapan de la Concepción, which is in the direction of San Blas. Passing through Zalcualpan, we decide to stop at the little outdoor museum, which is located a few blocks from the main plaza. Hard to find if you don’t know where it is. The time is 8:37 and we park and enter the little park. There are no admission fees and the caretaker is not normally here. We are on our own. The place is filled with many large and small rocks with ancient drawings of some sort. Many experts have come up with many different interpretations and so we must say we are not sure of what they mean. I see many signs or drawings that are similar to those found near Alta Vista, one of the favorite trips of our Bed and Breakfast guests. Most of these were found during the construction of new roads, digging of wells and other excavations. It is interesting to note that many of the smaller stones and artifacts (most of these are in the museum in Las Varas or Tepic) were uncovered in tombs. These tombs were often dug to depths of 2 or more meters deep and consisted of two rooms. They were then covered so it was impossible to know the location.
A quick cup of mountain grown coffee, which was roasted this morning, and we are off. We are passing through fields of tobacco and corn. Everything is so green. Off to our right, and towering above all, are the high forbidding mountains that we will soon be entering. El Malinal is supposed to be about 4,000 feet and I see a peak that must be about that. Wow! We are really going to have to climb. They look so steep from here. Vicky talked to a gentlemen just outside the museum earlier and he said that the road to El Malinal was “muy fea” (very bad). I hope this is not the case. We pass through the little village of San Ysidro. There a few little palapa huts along the road selling bananas, honey, coconuts and that sort of thing. A couple of topes here. Passing through we encounter groves of mangos and guanabanas. Here comes a man riding on his horse and carrying a large bundle. It is really refreshing to see someone riding, not just for pleasure, but for transportation. Approaching the village of Ixtapan de la Concepción, we start looking for someone to tell us where the turnoff is to El Malinal. We stop and ask a couple of people who give us vague directions, and we turn right on a dirt road on the edge of town. Continuing on we encounter a gentlemen on a bicycle and he says yes, we are on the right road. The road is not really bad. We are poking along in 2nd gear. It is a beautiful little valley. There are a lot of different crops growing in the fields on either side and a few scattered palapas. We see a large field of corn with a stream running down the center. We see a fellow walking along the road and ask him if he would like a ride. He accepts and tells us he is going to a the small village of Los Guajalotes, which is not too far up the road. His name is Don Jose, he is 59 years old and has lived in Ixtapan for many years, but has never been to El Malinal, just a few kilometers ahead. A short distance further we see a fellow walking and offer him a ride, which he accepts. An interesting young man who is a teacher in the pueblito of Juan Escutia. He is 17 years old and is in the same program as Vicky’s daughter. Because there is a shortage of teachers in the small villages, bright young students, 15 years of age and above, can enter a teaching program and then be sent out to remote areas and teach in the lower grades. They are paid a small salary, boarded by the villagers and may serve one or more years. The salary continues after their period of service for a length of time that is determined by length of service. This helps them finish high school and even university if they wish.
We pass through the little village of Juan Escutia, drop off our passengers and stop on the edge of town for a coffee break. Of interest is that on one of our maps the town is named Los Guajalotes, but is now called Juan Escutia. I remember this name very well. The Marine Corps hymn starts “from the halls of Moctezuma…,” which describes the citadel that the marines assaulted in the Mexican war. The primary assault was made by the marines and were met by the most staunch defenders, the young officer cadets. Juan Escutia of Tepic was one of these young cadets, 15 or 16 years old (you can visit his former home in Tepic). The Mexicans refer to these young cadets as Los Niños Heroes. They were all killed as I understand. As a Marine, I can say that this is not one of the proudest moments in our history, but in defense it must be said that an armed young cadet can kill you just as easily as an older soldier.
We stop under some shade and break out coffee and sweet rolls. At this time we are approached by a gentlemen named Alfonso Anzaldo with his mule; he is 87 years old, appears to be in good health and vigorous. He is very talkative and we offer him refreshments, which he accepts. We talk of the pueblo and he tells us of some caves, which are located above the town, and in which gold is found. Another treasure story! Folks with metal detectors, where are you?
Leaving Juan Escutia, we start passing through an almost jungle area. We see lots of tall palms and many very large air plants with flowers that look like orchids. We are seeing more birds. Vicky just saw a Baltimore Oriole and a Mourning Dove. Now we come out of the jungle and enter open country with different kinds of palms. Now we pass a little settlement named El Palmar. Our next goal is San Antonio, a few kilometers more. We are entering a jungle area again and are climbing even more. Here we see coffee plants. We are in coffee country.
The road is narrow and we are overtaken by a truck. We pull over and he narrowly passes by. It is a vegetable truck with eggs and other things for sale to the villagers, and yes, he says we are not far from San Antonio. We soon arrive in said pueblo and the time is 11:01. We have been on the road for about 3 hours. It is a much larger village than I expected. The streets are cobblestone and we see several nice houses. We stop in front of the little church and talk to various townsfolk. As usual, we ask about things of interest, waterfalls, petroglyphs, etc.
One man tells us that about 3 kilometers back down the road we had just passed was an archaeology zone; that some months past a movie company came in and spent some time filming, and that the movie could be seen in Tepic. A good reason to return here someday? The day is moving on and we still have a long way to go, so we are off again. Next stop El Malinal, which we judge to be about 8 km. more and an expected arrival time of midday.
The cobblestones continue for some distance and we see a fork in the road. We bear to the right. We are really climbing now. We leave the coffee country, but just as the cobblestones end (about 3 km. down the road) we start the coffee country again. Now the cobblestones start again. The trees are very high. This is truly mountain, shade grown coffee. Vicky is happy and starts singing. This clear mountain air, the green tunnel of trees and coffee plants, I have a great traveling companion – what a way to spend a life! We start passing guanábano trees and Vicky sees smoke coming from across the valley. I think it is from a hot spring – there is no village near here. We soon pass a gentleman on a horse with a couple of dogs and he tells us we are about 10 minutes from El Malinal. We continue to climb under the shade and what a view we have. We encounter another man and he tells us we are only about 15 minutes from El Malinal. Would you believe that. We travel some distance and lose a few minutes, oh well. Soon we see a coffee processing plant. We must be arriving in El Malinal.
We have just arrived at a coffee processing plant on the edge of El Malinal. We are in the middle of Arabica coffee country. We see huge avocado trees with very large fruit. There are few of these on the American market. Don`t confuse them with the large almost tasteless ones from Florida. We picked up a couple and the oil content is high and they are delicious. Underneath, and well shaded are the coffee plants.
We walk over to the plant and notice a lot of new machinery with sheds and concrete outside drying areas. There are a couple of friendly workers who give us detailed descriptions of the equipment and processes. They bring in the beans, wash and dry them, remove the hard outer shells, and then the inside shell and membrane. We thank them and continue for a couple hundred yards into El Malinal.
A very unusual town. Cobblestone streets with houses on both sides but built completely around huge dark boulders. All is very rocky. We stop mid village. Not a plaza as such, but a huge paved area. There is a church and a tienda (store), and a group of men seated in front. I decide I will buy some coffee beans. I have been waiting a couple of years to try beans from here. We get out and chat with some of the village elders.
There are about 150 families in the pueblo. There are no green coffee beans for sale at this time. This years crop suffered insect damage and the marketable crop was reduced by two thirds (I got a lot more information on this later, but what makes it so sad is that it was preventable, and without chemicals). The marketable crop was bought up entirely by San Cristobal Importers, the Washington State based company.
Off again. After a couple of ‘s we come to a fork in the road and we stop for – you would never guess – a coffee break. After we take the road to the right. The road is now going through natural deposits of Cal (lime). Now the road is descending sharply. We are seeing lots of tropical plants, although we are still at a high elevation. Now we seem to be leaving coffee country. We come to a turn off in the road and note a few scattered buildings, corrals and cattle. Vicky walks over and says this is the pueblito of El Italiano. An interesting name and I have to see what the story is here.
We meet three elderly ladies and chat awhile. One is 98 and the youngest is in her 70s. They are all sisters and they are friendly and talkative. They invite us into the house, where they have been working in the kitchen. The stove is adobe and they are preparing the afternoon meal. Tortillas, chiles and beans are cooking. The older sister is working very hard. What energy at age 98! Two have never been married. We notice two men in the settlement. One is the husband of the younger sister. We now notice a lot of coffee plants and citrus trees. The rancho used to be a lot larger. It was settled by Italian immigrants over a century ago. My friend Lee talks to them in Italian, but they don’t understand. When the revolution of 1910 came, much of the settlement was destroyed and many people were lost. Now it is impossible to get help for the ranch. There is only themselves. They give us a tour of some of the ranch and fill our arms and caps with citrus along with some coffee beans. I would like to record the history here, but the day is getting late, I will just have to try and return some day.
This is really a pretty little ranch. Everything is here. We notice also chickens, pigs and goats. Nobody to bother you. We see water lines all over. It seems to be coming from springs higher in the mountain. I can see the Italian immigrants arriving at this mountain Eden. After the difficulties of land ownership and taxes in Italy at that time this must have really been something. Probably more land than they could walk around in a single day and free (maybe a small propina to the right place). They lived happily here until the revolution. How heartbreaking it must have been to lose loved ones and most of what they had worked so hard for.
On the road again. It is a little rough going, 1st and 2nd gear and a little dusty. Now a distance away from the little ranch, we are seeing signs of civilization. Vicky asks someone who tells us that this is La Cofradia. We continue on without stopping (we should have stopped because later I learned that this ejido produces fine coffee). We start to descend rapidly. The scenery is beautiful. We are overlooking a large valley. We meet a man on the road who tells us the main highway is only 15 minutes distant. Now we are starting to meet a few other vehicles. We pass over a lively little stream. We meet another man who says we have about a half hour to go to the main highway. Ah, yes. Situation normal. It is getting dusty now and we are getting into a lot of sugarcane fields. The map shows that the road is better. I think that is open for discussion. We come to a cobblestone road and then a fork; we go to the right. We come to another fork in the road. Walking along the road we see a young Indian woman with two children. They look so poor. Their clothing is in tatters. She is carrying a load of firewood and a little boy is carrying a baby which is almost as big as he is. She tells us which road to take. Stopping, we give her what food we have left, including all of the citrus she can carry from El Italiano.
We finally enter the highway and turn right toward Compostela. The dust is really flying as we pick up speed. I look closer at Vicky and she looks like a ghost.
This is almost the end of the tale – there is more. We continue and take the by-pass around Compostela and on the straight of way our traveling companions, Lee and Colleen Hunt, pass us and continue on. We pull over just after the intersection of the highway to Guadalajara and stretch our legs. I notice a plant across the highway and there is a sign that says something about coffee. If you read my recent article, “The Indians Won,” you know what happened. For those who didn’t, here goes. We entered and started talking to a fellow who turns out to be Jim Cosalos (of El Malinal fame). He is sorting coffee beans. I tell him of my interest and he shows me around and enlightens me on the grading and the making of good coffee. I have prided myself on making good coffee, but when I left I felt I didn’t know the first thing. Jim told me of the problems they had this year. That the beans had suffered a plague and a good crop was produced by only those growers that followed the correct guidelines, such as picking all of the fruit and cleaning up debris to prevent the insect nesting areas. He was not able to buy enough coffee from El Malinal. Much of the coffee he was processing came from La Cofradia, the village we bypassed. Jim said quality beans were hard to come by this year, but hopes the growers will do better in the future. He gave me a couple of kilos of great coffee beans. I then noticed that while all of this was going on Vicky was kicking back in a hammock and sipping – you guessed it, a cup of coffee. We thanked him and reboarded our jeep after another great day on the BACK ROADS OF NAYARIT.
by Bob Howell
Originally published April 2002 on La Peñita Folk
Editor’s Note: “Back Roads of Nayarit” is a series of essays written by Bob Howell, a long-time resident of Jaltemba Bay. The series details his day trips and adventures between 2001-2007. We are sharing these stories in an effort to preserve Bob’s memory – and to help Bob’s partner and traveling companion, Vicky Flores Ramirez, who still lives in La Peñita and quietly carries on the work that she and Bob so loved. Sometimes her bodega is packed full of donated clothing, school supplies, toys and medicine; sometimes it is bare. If you enjoy reading these articles, please consider making a donation so the McKibben Foundation (Nurse Vicky’s Dispensary) can continue helping schools, seniors and needy families in the Jaltemba Bay area. And if you have copies of any of Bob’s old stories or photos, please contact us.
Tom Plattenberger’s personal dedication entitled “In Memory of Bob Howell” serves as an introduction to this series.