Western Honduras to Nicaragua…in only two days

Sitting on the crowded bus, I marvelled at how quickly the miles passed and yet how I was missing all that was happening on the road. I could look out the window, but it wasn’t the same as seeing everything from the seat of my bicycle. But when the bus slowed to a virtual standstill, the driver ragging the gearing to get into first, I did feel slightly happier that I wasn’t riding up some steep mountain roads.

My few days in the Santa Rosa area in western Honduras were really interesting. But time was running out and I needed to make tracks towards Panama. It meant some long bus rides lay ahead. The first of which was getting to the Honduran captial, Tegucigalpa.

Santa Rosa parque central. Lovely square, nice church

Leaving Santa Rosa was a bit of a panic. For all the ‘laid-backness’ of the people in Central America, when it comes to bus travel, they somehow get over-excited and the bus ‘shouters’ make you feel like their bus is the most important place to be in the world. “You have to get on, now! (Even though we’re not leaving anytime soon…).” So I got into a bit of a tizzy trying to get my bike around to load her up, dumping my bags on the ground and making sure they treated her well when loading her up. I didn’t count on the blind taxi driver then driving over my bike bag. Argh! All a-fluster, I managed to get on the bus but then had 8 hours ahead to calm down…

Tegucigalpa was a place I wanted to spend as little time as possible. I heard negative things about it and the bus terminal was not in the nicest area of town. Arriving late afternoon I hope to be on my way first thing next morning. I didn’t get to see any of its nicer spots, unfortunately, so my experience is one-sided. I did get to wander about a little bit, but I was on edge almost the whole time. It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to see its good side, which it does have. My hotel was perfectly fine and safe, but I was glad it was a quiet Sunday morning when I left. I needed Plan B, as the bus to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital was full. It meant a bus to the border, skipping over and more buses from the other side. Not ideal, but getting to Esteli was do-able in a day.

Except…I get to the bus stop and they tell me they can’t take my bike. Unbelievable! I thought these bus people could take anything. Not this time, even though I waited for another bus. Eventually they pointed me over the road, to catch a different bus. It got me going, though not quite as far as I hoped. Eventually, after another bus ride, I was close to the border. I fancied cycling the remaining 15 km, even though it was uphill and I didn’t have much time that day. But it felt a lot easier than juggling the bike and the buses.

The border was its chaotic self. I even smiled at the $12 ‘tourist’ fee. Money changed, I saw the Nicaraguan bus. Relief! It was a “school bus”. This typically means anything goes, and with little fuss Edna was loaded up on the roof. We drove through more coffee country and I felt quite at home; the bus was packed, sweaty and jarring. But it was short, and I transferred to yet another bus in order to get to Esteli, my stop for the day. I timed it perfectly, after paying for tickets and toilets we were on our way again. This bus was a proper coach, so I got to sit back and reflect on my chaotic day. Four buses, a border crossing, an hour of cycling…and, very relieved, I made it to a simple but very nice hotel in Esteli just before dusk.

Nicaragua! The usual border chaos, but it was pretty straightforward

I was very relieved to get through El Salvador and Honduras. I’d heard plenty of negative things about each country, and though my experience was generally good, I always had a sense of caution in the back of my head. When even local people urged caution, as in El Salvador, it made me take notice. A couple of other cyclists I’d met in Mexico had their trip ended after later being robbed in Honduras. And though I was cautious, I had some very good experiences in both countries. The people were generally very welcoming, friendly and hospitable. Each country has a lot to offer visitors and I often felt that we listen to the media too closely when it comes to travelling. Sometimes you just have to put that to one side. The best way is to get out there and experience it for yourself.

Leaving Esteli...I was out before dawn

Las Capucas (COCAFCAL), Santa Rosa, Honduras. An excellent Fair Trade example

(to see some videos of my time here at Las Capucas, visit http://www.youtube.com/fairtradebikeride)

“The next bus is at 1pm”, the young lady in her rickety shack of a shop told me, as her young child buzzed around her by the doorway. “1pm? But it’s only 10am now”. “Si…but maybe you can hitch a lift before then.”

So I set out on foot up the dirt road. 14 km away was the co-operative Las Capucas (COCAFCAL). I figured I’d make it there by 1pm anyway, if no one showed up. However, my luck was in and my 2nd attempt at thumbing got me onto the back of a pick-up. “Las Capucas?” “Si, senor”. Great, I was going to make it. And after two bus rides already that morning, it meant it only took three hours to get there from Santa Rosa. It was certainly worth the trip.

This time I’d actually made arrangements with Jose Omar for my visit. Unfortunately by the time I showed up he was otherwise occupied and wouldn’t be back until late afternoon. However, there was more than enough there to keep me occupied and Jose Luiz took me to visit some producers in the afternoon. The producers I met that day could have been characters straight out of a cult film…Jose Isidro – Speedy Gonzalez, Pedro Romero with his illicit booze, and Francisco with one arm.

The Las Capucas story is inspiring. Established in 1999, Jose Luiz helped fund the start the co-operative and has been President for the last four years. It started with 24 producers. Now the co-op is 100% Fair Trade and organic certified (plus Rainforest Alliance and “4C”). Jose has lived in the area his whole life and is passionate about the area and the community. He’s seen the co-op through the hard years to build it up to what it is today, and he’s an award-winning producer himself too, placing 3rd nationally.

Jose took me to visit some producers, and when I got in the passenger seat of his truck, I gave the gun lying on the seat a dubious look. Jose sensed my apprehension, told me it is ‘useful’, but to my relief decided it would be better housed in the glove compartment.

The success of the co-op is down to Fair Trade, according to Jose Luiz. Investments in the health centre, school, library, football pitch and the construction underway on my visit, were not possible without Fair Trade. He has been able to get a very committed response from the community, not just the producers, and that has made a big difference. Their buyers come back year on year and they are also investing in tourism, with three modern cabanas almost complete.

Some really effective initiatives include the electronic/virtual library for the community’s education, their branding is consistent and modern, a well-run website. The internal annual ‘cupping’ competition encourages improved production from the producers and their education. External buyers are invited as well, which cements those relationships.

As I waited for the crowd to return Jose Luiz kept an eye on his Facebook page and seemed to be chortling away at whatever was amusing him. It’s not something I quite expected, but then my day was full of the unexpected.

I was told that Jose Omar was out with a ‘delegation’ for the day. It included people from the national coffee federation and a coffee buyer, a Swiss guy. Knowing I could get a lift all the way back to Santa Rosa with them, I stayed until they arrived back. Enrico, the Swiss buyer, was a beanpole of a man with a pencil, greying moustache. However, he was easy to talk to and said he really enjoys his job (well, who wouldn’t…). He didn’t let on about who he worked for and we only got a little chat in the car on the way back. I’d have loved to have learned more.

What really convinced me that this is a really good example of Fair Trade in action is the commitment of the co-operative and the ‘buy-in’ that they have from the community. The area is quite isolated and yet the community is doing well and continues to make improvements to the lives of the people there. With everyone having a vested interest in the success of the project, there’s a greater incentive to see it succeed. I’d seen eco-tourism initiatives in other co-ops that didn’t look like they would immediately succeed, but this one appeared different to me. They regularly try to meet with their buyers, they involved the community and they have and continue to make investments in their infrastructure. It also helps that they have a website with information in Spanish and English. One other advantage they had was being able to work with external NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that have enabled internships to the co-op. Whether by luck or design, that brings more exposure and a commitment to improve things there. The driving force of people like Jose Luiz and Jose Omar means that this co-op is in good hands for the foreseeable future and should continue to benefit and improve the local community.


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A Fair Trade Coffee Shop: Cafe Honor, Santa Rosa, Honduras

Santa Rosa is a hotbed for Honduran coffee. Most of the country’s coffee is produced in the surrounding areas and the quality is generally quite high. However, there are not many quality cafes in which to drink Honduran coffee, because most of it gets exported to other countries. I successfully avoided “Nespresso” when I visited a cafe in Ocotepeque, preferring herbal tea instead. It’s common that cafes have press-button machines for coffee that have “Nespresso” written the front. I don’t think it’s actually instant Nescafe coffee (though it’s all Nestle owned), but it’s probably close in quality terms.

So I couldn’t wait to try some coffee at Cafe Honor when I got to Santa Rosa. I’d heard it was a very special cafe, and not just because of the coffee.

Cafe Honor is a new initiative developed with the help of the Fair Trade labelling organisation (FLO) affiliate for Central America. The cafe, open for less than a year, was established after several Fair Trade Honduran coffee co-ops jointly invested in the project. Along with becoming a profitable cafe chain, its aim is to raise the profile of Fair Trade coffee within Honduras and to enable the producers to diversify and increase their income through the cafe investment. There are just under 30 Fair Trade coffee co-operatives in Honduras and Cafe Honor was set up with the collaboration of five of them. Unfortunately for some co-ops the investment required or perceived risk was too high.

The first two locations opened last year in Santa Rosa. I made sure to visit both of them. One is in the heart of the old town in the central plaza, a lovely ‘kiosk’ location, where I sat overlooking the tree-filled plaza. The main location is on the main road through town and where I went on my first visit. I sat with Nelson (a different Nelson) who manages the cafe. It’s contemporary, bright, open and would fit perfectly well in North America. It feels clean and uncluttered. The menu is simple with a few snacks but several coffee options.

One of the difficulties that producers and co-operatives have (whether or not in Fair Trade) is lack of opportunity. Even within a co-operative, a producer typically only earns the price of the exported coffee. They are dependent on the coffee buyers from other countries and the price they are willing to pay. If not in Fair Trade, they sell at the market price. Being able to diversify via a project like Cafe Honor gives the co-operatives and their producers a way to obtain additional income. They now have opportunities to earn more, to educate the producers, improve the quality of their coffee, and promote their coffee within Honduras. There are plans to expand the number of cafes to other cities within the country.

While I was at Cafe Honor I had another appointment I was excited about. I met Xiomara Paredes, who works for…wait for it…the Coordination of Latinamerican and Caribbean Fair Trade Small Producers (Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo), or CLAC. This is a non-profit organisation whose mission is focused on helping small producers throughout Latin America. In its 20-year existence, it has given producers in developing countries a unified voice, particularly when it comes to dealing with many northern Fair Trade groups. CLAC has long argued (with many others) that the balance of power in Fair Trade is tilted too much towards decision-makers in northern developed countries. In recent years CLAC has developed its own ‘stamp’ for fair trade, “productores pequenos” (small producers). This stamp is becoming more common for Fair Trade products sold within Latin America, but can also be found on some products in developed countries. It helps promote Fair Trade within Latin America. Xiomara said that CLAC are very supportive of initiatives like Cafe Honor. She gave me a good insight into a more ‘southern’ perspective of Fair Trade.

The following day I made a visit to the kiosk location of Cafe Honor, a lovely location overlooking the central plaza in the town. The sun shone warmly, the coffee was good, and I lingered to savour and reflect on my “Fair Trade” days around Santa Rosa.

A new meaning to riding ‘shotgun’: COPROCAEL, La Encarnacion, Honduras

The COPROCAEL co-op was another one I’d mis-located, thinking it was in the town of Ocotepeque. It was actually miles away, but I did get the province right… I’d already contacted Nelson Guererra to say I was on the co-op’s doorstep, and had to backtrack when I found out. We exchanged several emails, and the frustration I felt at his stuttered, mis-spelt replies left me wondering if it was worth the hassle. But this was all part of Nelson’s character, and this backtracking on my part led to an interesting few days……

Firstly, when I told him where I was staying in Ocotopeque, he turned up at my hotel, though I was out. Telling him I was moving on to Santa Rosa and would miss the chance for a visit, he said no problem – he lives in Santa Rosa!

More back and forth later, and in Santa Rosa we made vague plans to meet up. Vague because I could hardly follow his email threads. But I didn’t expect him to turn up at my hotel again unannounced, waiting for me to go with him to the co-op. It was a 2-hour drive away (for a normal person; Nelson does it in 90 minutes). Luckily I had planned to spend time with Nelson that day, whatever he had in store.

A few minutes later we were away. Nelson lives in Santa Rosa and commutes to the co-op every day. Which means he doesn’t take his time on the road. 30 km of the drive is on dirt roads, but that doesn’t bother Nelson. Accompanying us in the back of the pick-up was Tony, a fairly unassuming, straightforward guy. We chatted briefly. He said he works with Nelson. During the day whilst at the co-op, Tony didn’t seem to do much, so I wondered just what kind of work he did. It wasn’t until we were leaving when Tony was fiddling around with his handgun in the back of his jeans that I realised what his job probably was. Guessing that he is some kind of bodyguard for Nelson, he didn’t look the part, but maybe that’s why he does what he does. I never did learn from Nelson whether he’d had any trouble in the past.

Nelson continued to surprise me. He had three phones with him and was rarely off any one of them, even when driving. He was always busy talking to someone or other during the visit, and has a quick smile and remarkable energy. Only slightly older than me, he’s the founder of the co-op, and all the various trials and tribulations that the co-op has been through don’t seem to have shown their mark on his personality. He comes across as a happy, giving and enthusiastic bloke. He went out of his way to make sure I could see the co-op and was generous with his time and in getting others to show me around. I even got a souvenier hat to go along with my experience of the day. Nelson used to live near the co-op, but his extended family lives in Santa Rosa, so he moved there four years ago. He was philosophical about having to commute every day.

As for the co-op itself, it’s a great example of Fair Trade in action, and this is in large part due to the efforts of Nelson himself. Nelson started the co-op around 11 years ago, at the height of the coffee ‘crisis’. They have had certifications only for the last three years (Fair Trade, UTZ and organic). The co-op now has 200 producers, generating around 6m lb of green coffee for export. They sell to roasters in the US (including Green Mountain Coffee and Cooperative Coffees), Europe and South Korea.

Nelson told me that it’s been hard for the producers to see the benefits of Fair Trade up to now, but he is a firm believer in it. Coffee prices recently have been relatively high, and it is in times like this when it is more difficult to see the benefits of Fair Trade. For a typical small farmer, a high price means they are more tempted to ‘cash in’ right at harvest time, because they can get paid straightaway. This is not the norm in Fair Trade, when payments to producers are typically given at specific times of the year, so the farmer can struggle financially for a period of time. This co-op is unique because it does pay its producers at harvest time. Nelson realised they must do this to stop farmers selling outside of the co-op, but it’s very difficult to do. It leaves the co-op itself at a financial risk, particularly if market prices change, because the co-op has to wait several more months to receive its own payment.

Because of this constant juggle of finances for the co-op, Nelson would really like the ‘Northern’ buyers to pay up-front, alleviating the risk for the co-op. He would also prefer to have longer than single-year contracts with buyers, but he said a number of them come back year after year. He would also like the co-op to be 100% organic but realises how difficult this is for some producers.

Some of the benefits Nelson has seen for the co-op have been investments in a commercial coffee dryer (completed the previous year), medical help for producers, access to credit, and giving education and technical training for the producers. The co-op is growing each year.

While at the co-op I met several people. I had a great time with Dany, the catador (cupper), roasting and tasting the local coffee; Eduardo, the co-op president, who is a farmer himself and keeps a gun very close to his side except when was showing it off to Nelson; Mixael, the quiet bookkeeper (I’m not stereotyping…honest); and Oscar, a farmer, who went to school with Nelson and recently came back from spending nine years working low-paid jobs in the US. His farm is conventional as he says organic is too much work.

Nelson has put in a huge effort to get the co-op where it is today, and it looked impressive to me. The COPROCAEL co-op is also an investor in Cafe Honor, a new cafe I had been to the previous day in Santa Rosa. But this posting is long enough! More about that in my next blog…

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COCAFELOL, Honduras: random Fair Trade stop on the road

Breezing into Honduras from El Salvador I fell into the trap, yet again, of confusing provinces and towns. My stay in Nuevo Ocotepeque, my Fair Trade ‘base’, just across the Honduran border, did not turn out as I hoped. I was in the right province, but my intended Fair Trade visits were too far out of reach from the town. Plan B then…Nuevo Ocotepeque had nothing to distract me, despite trying hard – the circus was in town – so I decided to head to Santa Rosa the following day. It turned out to be one of my toughest rides of the trip.

I started with a long climb – a good three hours uphill. I was a wee bit nervous about cycling in Honduras having heard the odd story or two, and knowing the capital, Tegucigalpa, to be a little dodgy. So when a bloke stopped halfway up the hill and offered to give me a lift I wondered whether I’d found a very generous soul or a dodgy geezer. I wasn’t tempted, even though the climb was hard, I wanted to get up that hill all by my own effort. Declining as nicely as I could, I don’t think he understood my motivation. Eventually he moved on but stopped a little further up the road, putting me on edge. I passed him and waved. A few minutes later he did the same, to my huge relief. Looking back, I wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned about my safety or the fact I was crazy for cycling up this long mountain pass.

Weather conditions changed significantly at the top as I was greeted with strong winds, fog and the coldest temperatures I’d experienced in a while, but my long descent gave way to more sun and heat. It was near the bottom of this, in La Labor, whizzing past a sight to my left that made me brake in earnest. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity!

The co-operative has well-adorned walls, showing their Fair Trade credentials

It was the colourful wall display of COCAFELOL, a Fair Trade coffee co-operative. It was too good to miss, so I parked up with Edna, chatted to the security guard, and got myself a chance to look around the facility. I figured an hour here would still give me enough time to complete the ride in good order…

Sipping a welcome cup of coffee, I waited in reception for Renan, a young lad who works on the co-op’s certifications. They have quite a collection – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and “UTZ”, and organic. The different certifications cater for the different growers in the co-op and the different buyers of the coffee. Producers have one of the three social/environmental certifications (Fair Trade has the highest number) but organic certification is only with a few producers. Although the co-op encourages organic production, the standards are strict to obtain and many producers are put off by the investment needed.

The co-op has over 300 producers and in total produces more than 2.5m lbs of green coffee. All the ‘premium’ quality is exported to foreign markets; the ‘second’ quality is used for domestic markets. AMPROCAL, a women’s co-operative, is a separate co-op affiliated with COCAFELOL who create the roasted and ground coffee products for the Honduran market.

COCAFELOL is an ambitious co-op, as I could tell just from their wall graphics out front. As well as quite modern processing equipment they have instituted a bio-ethanol operation for powering the equipment and it was the first time I saw the drying ‘greenhouses’. These help produce ‘micro-lot’ coffee that is typically produced in small quantities and can fetch higher prices when sold. In common with many other co-ops, they produce organic compost, including worms, that they sell back to the producers. The producers have access to credit via the co-op.

I got a quick tour and would have liked a little longer. Not only was it lunchtime, but I had a lot of riding still to do that day. I figured I was behind schedule but thought I’d still be ok for time. I trusted my map, I trusted Google Maps…

It all worked out in the end, though I rolled into Santa Rosa at the latest time of day I’d ever arrived, right around dusk. The climbing was particularly tough getting into the town, and the state of the roads and traffic didn’t help. I should have learned some Spanish swear words for that climb…

But there’s a great feeling to finish a day like that and my bonus Fair Trade visit really made my day. Unpredictable in so many ways, it encapsulated the good and bad of bike touring in strange places, and the bizarre things that can happen along the way.

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