Mi Café, Su Café
“In Seattle you haven't had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it's running.” --Jeff Bezos
For caffeine addicts, this port of call will amount to a pilgrimage. Of the world’s premier coffees, Mexican Arabica is considered among the elite beans. And you are now at its source. The state of Chiapas exists almost exclusively for the cultivation, harvesting and exporting of this glorious nectar of the Starbucks generation. Most of the modern history of Chiapas revolves around the politics of coffee. And, as with so many of the world’s most desirable commodities, that history is written with heroism and hard work, mayhem even murder. A handful have prospered while others have suffered, and only recently has the coffee wealth begun to bring a better life to the very people on whose backs the industry has been built.
“I believe humans get a lot done, not because we're smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.” –Flash Rosenberg
Chiapas is the most southern of the 31 states of Mexico. To the east is Guatemala, to the south the Pacific Ocean. The lowland areas have a climate supporting what used to be a massive rainforest, most of which has given way to agricultural development. In the uplands between parallel mountain ranges, temperate, foggy conditions have resulted in “cloud forests” like those of the protected El Triunfo Biosphere, and an ideal climate for the plantations that produce what are arguably Mexico’s finest coffee beans.
The history of this region is not unlike the rest of Mexico and Central America. There is evidence of civilization dating from 1400 BC with the city of Palenque being founded by the Mayans around 600 BC. The Spanish arrived in the early 16th century and Chiapas was actually administered as part of the Kingdom of Guatemala. When Mexico and Central America divided during the 19th century, the state of Chiapas was eventually annexed by Mexico.
“If it weren't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever.”--David Letterman
The gleaming new port of Chiapas, inaugurated in 2005 by former President Vincente Fox, belies the fact that much of the state is populated by hard working, rural farmers. About one quarter are of Mayan decent. In 1994, a political activist group known as the Zapatistas began setting up autonomous municipalities dedicated to the rights of these largely disenfranchised communities. A number of them now support agricultural cooperatives that allow small coffee growers to compete with the larger plantations, many of which are owned by the descendents of European families. Naturally, this movement has created some friction with the central government but remains dedicated to achieving its goals through political means.
“I bought a decaffeinated coffee table, you can’t even see the difference.” --Author Unknown
Tapachula is the municipality that encompasses the suburb of Puerto Chiapas. Because of the thriving coffee and banana trade, the city has the highest GDP per capita in Mexico, which puts it in sharp contrast to the rest of the state. During the coffee boom, a number of German families migrated to the area and assembled large plantations known as “fincas”. Hamburgo, Bremen and Germania are still in the hands of those dedicated, extended families.
Railroad construction brought Latin America’s first Asian immigrants to Tapachula so the Japanese and Chinese have left their mark on the architecture as well as the cuisine. Surprisingly, you may find it easier to get good miso soup or Kung Pao Chicken than a tasty burrito.
Modern migration has written a sadder tale as Tapachula is a point from which many undocumented people from Central America begin their long and dangerous trek north. A walk through Tapachula will feature the colonial-era Temple of San Agustin, the Archaeological Museum, the nearby pyramids of Izapa, and a number of German houses and haciendas.
“In America you can buy bucket-sized cups of coffee in any flavour you like other than coffee-flavour.” –Author Unknown
The kind people of Chiapas will make you feel very welcome. Their new port has provided them with a window to the outside world that had not previously existed. For the first time, tourism and tourists have easy access to their region of Mexico, which in many ways is the last to play a role in a modern economy beyond simply providing agricultural commodities. The influence of European families over the last century and a half has made for a population curious to learn more of a world from which they have been largely isolated. Doesn’t this sound like a stimulating topic to explore over a nice cup of coffee?