Friday, March 30, 2012

A Mexican Coffee Plantation

By Nicole

Half a block away from heaven.”

That’s how the Finca Hamburgo coffee plantation describes its location nestled high in a cloud forest in southern Mexico.  At over 4,000’, the finca (farm) is situated in an ideal locale and climate zone for growing premium organic coffee beans. 

When I first read about the many coffee plantations in the state of Chiapas (on the Guatemalan border), I knew I wanted to visit one.  Being a coffee addict, I was curious to see where the beans I grind by hand every morning actually come from.  Luckily for me, one of the oldest and most prestigious plantations in the region is just a two-hour drive from Marina Chiapas.  Thus, we set out with Panache and Jace and new friends Cindy and Adam on Bravo for a tour.

DSC_2185Burlap coffee sacks rest on the floor, ready to be filled with green coffee beans

Coming from the coast where daily temperatures are in the mid- to upper-80s, the 65-degree air at the plantation felt refreshingly brisk.  Before breakfast, we strolled around the manicured grounds (with our sweatshirts on) and gazed out past the rolling hills of coffee plants to the tropical forest that seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon.

The beautiful grounds and restaurant at Finca Hamburgo

DSC_2067Pale pink hibiscus

DSC_2203 Fuchsia blossoms after a rain shower

DSC_2081Rows of coffee plants cover the hills and mingle with shade trees

DSC_2206Expansive views over the unique forest of both tropical and coniferous trees

We weren’t the only ones getting a tour that day.  A group of school kids waved as we headed down the steep dirt road to see how the coffee plants are grown.


P3210125Front-row seat for the bumpy ride down the hill.  Can you see the rows of coffee plants?

DSC_2115 Thousands of young coffee plants wait to be transplanted

Like in the U.S., you won’t find many (if any) local residents picking crops in Mexico.  So each season, 1,000 Guatemalan workers and their families arrive at the farm to pick and process the coffee beans.  Finca Hamburgo is supposedly one of the best farms to work for because they pay well, provide schooling for the kids and offer healthcare to all.

Once picked, the coffee beans are processed completely on site.  The beans are sorted (by color and weight), removed of their outer husks, fermented, washed, dried, sorted by shape and picked over for defects (mechanically and manually).  Only the best beans make it through the entire process and into sacks to await shipment to customers.

In addition to being an organic farm, the finca also recycles many of its by-products back into the production process.  For instance, the husks are burned to generate power.

DSC_2192Overlooking the facility.  The cables were once used, ski lift-style, to transport freshly picked beans over the steep jungle terrain to be processed.  Today, trucks make the uphill trek.

DSC_2152Some of the processing equipment

DSC_2177The finca has a “zero-defect” policy, which means that after a mechanical eye looks for defects, the human eye takes a final pass.  Every single bean comes through here!   Phew.

DSC_2167Green coffee beans

DSC_2172Bagging and weighing

The highlight of the tour came when our guide, Ulysses, opened a sack of beans destined for an American client.  We were surprised to hear that the client was our favorite West Coast coffee roaster!  Seriously?  After seeing the operation here, it’s no wonder we like Peet’s Coffee so much.

DSC_2170Our tour guide, Ulysses, showing us beans destined for our favorite roaster – Peet’s!  Talk about a small world.

DSC_2156 Sacks and sacks of coffee ready to ship to clients across the world (pink sacks are domestic; burlap sacks are international).

I don’t know if it was the cool climate, the delicious food, the stunning landscape or the fact that we were on a mini-vacation from our daily boat-lives, but we left the finca feeling completely relaxed and refreshed.  Which, come to think of it, is odd considering how much coffee we drank!


We’ve been busy bees here in Chiapas … look for upcoming posts on our inland trip to see blue waterfalls, a city founded in 1528 and spectacular Mayan ruins. 

(And sorry for the delay in getting posts up – wi-fi is hard to come by around here.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blasting down the southern Mexican coast

By Nicole

As I write this, we’re crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec to our final destination in Mexico.  We evidently picked a good weather window, since we’re motoring across mirror-flat seas (the alternative for this passage is 50+ knot winds—it’s feast or famine, as the saying goes).

Aaron takes a self-portrait in the glassy waters

From horizon to horizon, the only interruptions in the smooth blue water are the shells of Olive Ridley sea turtles.  Of the eight species of sea turtles, six are found in Pacific Mexico.  Only the Olive Ridley isn’t on the endangered list. 


The last 600 nautical miles or so, from Zihuatanejo to Chiapas, have essentially flown by.  This stretch of the Mexican coast is fringed by gorgeous beaches and rolling surf with the impressive Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range standing tall in the background.

Beautiful as it may be, this rugged coastline offers few safe, comfortable anchorages.  Which means you need to burn lots of miles to get from one port to the next.  In fact, we’re on the third of four straight two-night passages—the last of which will bring us to Bahia del Sol in El Salvador.

The first two-nighter was from Zihuatanejo to Acapulco, where we stopped at the marina for fuel and water before dropping the hook in Puerto Marques south of the sprawling city.  In hindsight, it might’ve been more fun to anchor nearer to the famed hotel zone (to hit one of the world-famous discos), but Puerto Marques was a fine spot close to Home Depot and Costco—and we needed to pick up a few things (like insulation for our poor, overworked fridge—it’s not loving the hot temperatures like we are).  The Costco was sampling Grey Goose Vodka the day we went (mixed with cranberry juice, no less)—I love Mexico.

Another stunning sunrise on the way to Acapulco

These guys zip around the Puerto Marques anchorage with their colorful patchwork sails.

On the next two-night leg from Acapulco to the Bahias de Huatulco, we had a pair of fabulous sailing days buddy-boating with Jace and Panache.  Sure the ocean was littered with sea turtles and the occasional pod of dolphins, but on this passage we saw dozens of yellow-bellied sea snakes as well (which aren’t as icky as you might imagine, although if I were in the water with them, that might be a different story). 

J.P. on Jace had his 8th birthday while we were in Huatulco, and the crew helped him celebrate with a pool party, dinner out and a Star Wars-themed birthday cake back on the boat. 

P3130045 Happy 8th birthday, J.P.!  (J.P., Aaron, Mickey)

So that brings us to today and our Tehuantepec crossing.

Air temp (85 degrees) + water temp (89 degrees) =
Swimming off the boat in the Gulf of Tehuantepec!

We stopped the boat and took turns jumping into the warm, crystal blue waters. It was fun, but we both couldn’t help thinking that there was something down there watching us!

No land in sight

I was a chicken and held onto a rope.  Hmm, now that I think about it, I look like a lure on a fishing line…

Aaron cools off (in 89-degree water) by taking a dip in the Gulf of Tehuantepec during our passage

Southwest winds are predicted to develop over the next few hours, so with any luck, we’ll get some sailing in later today.  On to Chiapas!

Monday, March 19, 2012


By Aaron

We had a light wind sail down from Manzanillo. At one point a couple miles offshore we were stopped by the Mexican Navy. For whatever reason they didn’t try to board us, and after giving them our information such as documentation number, destination, last port, etc. (Nicole shouting in Spanish over the gap between us and the patrol boat) we were on our way. It was professional and courteous. They let us know they were on patrol and to hail them on channel 16 if we needed anything. I’d say about half the boats we’ve met have had a visit by the Mexican Navy. We’ve yet to hear of anyone having a negative experience.

P2270650The placid seas made it easy to spot sea turtles

P2260648 Approaching Zihuatanejo at dawn after a full night of motoring. My watch goes until 2am. I watched a couple stupid movies in between checking the radar and course as we droned on towards our destination.

P3010704 We were running a little low on dinosaur wind and with another two night passage ahead of us we thought we should take on some fuel. There’s no fuel dock in Zihuatanejo, but that’s not a problem. There’s a panga named Zeus that runs around the anchorage offering to supply the cruising boats with fuel, water, beer, whatever you need. They took our laundry and brought it back the next day with some diesel and water.  One of these days I’ll finish the watermaker installation!

P2290698 When we arrive at an anchorage at these latitudes we immediately put up the bimini and a boat shade over the foredeck. It’s over 80 degrees in the shade every day. Perfect for enjoying a cold beer during business hours on a weekday.

P3020707 SV Jace and Panache are making their way to El Salvador with us. We met up with them for drinks at a beach palapa. (Cruising fact: Sand between your toes enhances the flavor of Pacifico.) Ben summed it up by stating, “This does not suck.”

P3030737 The omnipresent and generally friendly stray dogs of Mexico can always count on some pets from Zack and me. This one stopped by the palapa and got the name Massachusetts, since the white spot on his head was shaped like that state. Sort of.

P2280669 There were lots of statues and a very large fish market

P2290695 Fresh fish are brought in daily by a huge fleet of pangas

P2280674 We liked how walkable the town was… many of the streets are closed to traffic and we spend several afternoons lounging on bar patios with a Pacifico soaking up some wifi.

Right off the beach is the town square. There’s something going on there pretty much every day. There’s a basketball court there too. Apparently they take it pretty seriously, and various teams in full uniforms play most nights – till 2am with the announcer calling the game on huge speakers. One night there was a clown competition that we unfortunately missed. One day we visited and there were some kids doing various dances.

P3020711 We had dancing girls doing a well rehearsed sassy dance

P3020712 And the boys did their dances dressed up as old men

With the cruising life you just never know what you’ll be up to some days, and it’s always fun when we stumble upon some fun local event. It happened the next day we went to the square and found a high school science fair going on. They sure know how to do a science fair in Mexico!

P3030755 Zack and Nicole had a blood sample taken. The students were then able to do some chemistry stuff and determine their blood type. Nicole and Zach are both O-positive. I don’t like bleeding so I abstained from the test.

P3030751 I’m sure in the US this booth would have required latex gloves, extensive hazmat training, and some kind of phlebotomy license.

P3030745 I’m not entirely sure what was going on at this table, but it looked extremely dangerous

P3030748 Apparently you can find out how attractive you are by holding your hands on one of these beakers. The change in pressure as the air warms up should raise the fluid to various levels. There were little tags at regular intervals. Zack couldn’t get past “Feo” without the help of a hair dryer.

P3030758 I learned a word here… Fuego means fire! These kids were having a blast with fires, igniting some volatile and highly explosive chemicals. …I think the most exciting thing I saw in high school chemistry was vinegar and baking soda being mixed together.

P3030765 There were lots of tables with all kinds of homemade Mexican dishes. For FREE! The food was made by students and their parents for visitors to eat, and it was all delicious. Mezcal shots? Yep, the kids were giving them away at the science fair.

P3030764 We had a great time. And this picture pretty much sums up what the kids were like.

Keeping the boat stocked up with fresh fruits and vegetables has hardly been a challenge along the Mexican Riviera. The central market in Zihuatanejo is an amazing place to do some provisioning.

P2290692 The market was massive, about 4 city blocks of narrow labyrinth-like passageways leading between stalls with just about anything you can think of. One stall was nothing but blender parts. We stocked up on fruits and vegetables and wondered what some of the meats in various booths could possibly be.

P3020706 The bird’s name is PepĂ©. He wasn’t for sale.

P3020722 Zihuatanejo was definitely a starred location for us!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Las Hadas: a pool, a beer run and a goodbye to great friends

By Nicole

When you’re anchored just outside a lovely Mexican resort—one that, for a modest fee, grants you access to its grounds—is it wrong to spend a few days lounging poolside?  Nah.

The Las Hadas Resort and Marina in Manzanillo is a striking sight, with its bright white, Mediterranean-style buildings climbing the hillside and overlooking the bay.

P2240637 The anchorage near the Las Hadas Resort

For a daily fee (200 pesos, or about $16US), the resort will let you tie up your dinghy, fill water jugs, dispose of used oil and, most importantly, have free run of their pool and grounds.  Yes, the fee is pretty steep.  But split the cost with a few friends, and your day of swimming and chilling by the pool drops significantly.  So needless to say, we spent a few days hanging poolside with Ventured, Panache and Jace.

P2230618 Second-story peek at the Las Hadas pool

P2220594 The view from my chaise lounge… Aaron launching J.P. into the deep end

3-2-1… launch!

And another view from my lounge chair.  Rough life, I know.

After crewing on his son’s boat down from La Cruz, Steve decided it was time to jump ship and head back to Seattle.  We all thought he was crazy!  But nonetheless, we shared a goodbye dinner with him anyway.

Why would anyone want to leave tropical Mexico for chilly Seattle? 

Thanks for all the fun and laughs, Steve! I’m so glad you had the chance to sail with Zack and see what this lifestyle is all about. We’ll miss you!

Our last happy hour with Steve (I’m drinking a most delicious blackberry margarita – 2 for 1!)

Despite whiling away the better part of 3 days at the pool, the guys did manage to discover some insanely cheap beer at the Walmart—25 pesos for a six-pack (if you’re doing the math, that’s like 33 cents US per can).  They even went on a mission to clean the shelves of Red Dog (not to be confused with Red Bull or Mad Dog), which, for the record, doesn’t taste nearly as bad as 33-cent beer should.

P2240641Empty shelves are all that remain after Aaron, Erlin, Zack and Ben raided the Red Dog supply

I wonder how long this will last…

Our time in Las Hadas wasn’t all smiles, though… This spot marked the end of the road for the buddy-boating flotilla of Bella Star, Ventured, Panache and Jace.  While we’re continuing south to Central America with Panache and Jace, Ventured is keeping to their plan of returning to the Sea of Cortez for the spring and summer—despite all our good-natured prodding and peer pressuring (and begging).  Yes, I cried.  More than once.

Sailing on Banderas Bay

We became fast friends with Erlin and Jenn in La Paz and solidified our friendship over street tacos, dance parties, beach trips and happy hours in La Cruz.  When the time came for us to pull anchor and head south again, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that we were going together.

Now that we’ve gone our separate ways, though, anchorages feel a bit empty without Ventured floating right next door.  Some of our very favorite memories were made in the last few months, and we’ll always remember the amazing times we spent cruising with Erlin, Jenn and their fearless sea kitty, Minion.

But this isn’t a permanent goodbye.  There’s talk of meeting up next year!  So until we share an anchorage again, we’ll keep tabs on each other through our blogs and plan our reunion dance party aboard Ventured

Erlin and Aaron
Erlin and Aaron

Jenn and Nicole

Until Panama, guys!