Peruvian Coffee, Tea & Chocolate
Peruvian coffee is growing in reputation worldwide, and its chocolate has always been some of the best in the world, so we headed off to explore where it comes from. After driving for four hours from Cusco, along the spectacular switchbacked road that ultimately arrives in Quillabamba, you find yourself in a very different world to the one you started in. In great contrast to the generally sparse vegetation of the Andes, the slopes on this side of the mighty mountain range (the side facing the Amazon) are covered with lush cloud forest. And if you continue dropping in altitude the dense cloud forest gives way to tea plantations, coffee and cacao farms, along with more fruit than you can name!
I would guess that 99% of foreign visitors to Peru never see these stretches of road past Ollantaytambo as their trains to Machu Picchu leave from the station in the town. An alternative route to Machu Picchu does pass this way but very few people do it as it is much more of an effort (but cheaper), so a trip over the Abra Malaga feels quite “under the radar”. The area is popular with birdwatchers but not with “conventional” tourism.
The Abra Malaga is the highest point of this road and the pass sits at a lofty 4316 meters (14,160 ft) above sea level and, if not covered in clouds, affords spectacular views. As our trip was last week, in early January (the wet season runs from January to March), clouds and fog were in full effect, and we couldn’t see more than 200 meters in any direction. What we could see however was an eclectically decorated stone hut cafe, right at the pass, which turned out to serve the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted.
From the Abra, we descended through dozens of hairpin bends for an hour, arriving at our base for the next three days, Tunkiwasi Lodge. This place is lovely, hidden from the road by dense forest cover. The rooms are very nicely appointed making for a comfortable stay, with good WIFI, which was an unexpected bonus taking into account where you are!
From Tunkiwasi it is easy to explore the area as the main road is right next to the lodge, and in good condition. The lodge is blessed with extensive grounds, some of which are covered by tea plantations. There is a trail that leads you up to a magnificent viewpoint, and across the road is a trail that leads you to some ancient ruins. That is just for starters. Driving downhill for 20 to 30 minutes gives you plenty of other visit options; more Inka ruins, tea factories and plantations, plus a tea-tasting experience with a local expert, plus coffee, cacao and fruit farms. One of these farms offers a very interactive experience which we loved.
The Chakra de Julia is a great place to spend an afternoon. Julia’s farm has such a range of local fruit, Peruvian coffee and cacao that the mind boggles. The owner is very passionate and full of interesting facts about the things growing on her farm. We have tasted a lot of fruit in South America, and have travelled to the Amazon many times, but were blown away when Julia picked a potato-looking-type fruit from a tree, cut it open, and it smelt exactly like blue cheese!
The highlight of this visit is making chocolate and having a tasting session with lots of fruits to see which combination is your favourite. Cacao beans are harvested from the pods hanging off the trees at the farm, 3 different varieties are on offer, with Chuncho being the best. These are then manually toasted for a while on the wood-fired stove you see in the photos before being manually peeled to expose the grains. As a visitor, you can get involved in all of the processes, which is great fun, especially the pressing of the grains into chocolate paste with a manual grinder. This is seriously hard work.
As a prize for grinding away, you will then enjoy the pairing exercise and finally enjoy a hot chocolate, directly from the farm and by your own hand. We loved the activities and the tastes, and any clients we have visiting this region are sure to try this.
Peruvian coffee is much more famous than tea but another must-do activity is the Infusiones Elvira tea tasting with your host, Landers. Here you get the chance to learn how tea is selected and picked and also try many different variations made from the same plant. Before this tasting I had thought that different bushes made different tea, we have since been set straight on this point, and many other things tea-related.
There are enough very interesting visits in this region to keep you interested for a week or more, we haven’t mentioned some of the other possibilities. But if you can squeeze at least three days into your schedule you can have a great experience in this beautiful part of Peru. Just the drive to get there and back is an experience, we highly recommend it and we will be back for sure!