The derelict coffee plantations of Cuba

MD Danny Davies visited Cuba this year and was a little surprised at what he found.

In April this year I took a recreational trip to Cuba for the first time. Naturally I spoke to importers I know in the UK before I left and wasn’t too encouraged by what I heard about the coffee grower’s lot on the island, resulting in not making any appointments with farmers or exporters. I was also warned that visiting farmers unannounced can raise suspicions of being a spy, as the government polices the black market for coffee rigorously.

My curiosity about Cuba’s sugary past lead to me reading travel guides and blogs for ideas of where to look for a glimpse of this tumultuous history. After some long and treacherous taxi journeys, my girlfriend Erika and I found ourselves in a few eerie, coffee-haunted ex-plantations in regions once famous for their coffee growing (which has centralized to other regions these days).

My highlight was Cafetal Buenavista, in the Las Terrazas biosphere west of Havana. The restored ruins are Cuba’s oldest coffee plantation, built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti. The huge tajona (grindstone) out the back once extracted the coffee beans from their shells. The beans were then sun-dried on huge platforms.

Ruins of the quarters of some of the 126 slaves held there can be seen alongside the driers. The attic of the master’s house (now a restaurant) was used to store the beans until they could be carried down to the port of Mariel by mule. The view from the top of the plantation was stunning!

The surrounding forest is dotted with wild coffee trees, mainly Mondo Novo variety. Cherries were forming and you could certainly harvest a few kilograms from these trees, the tallest of which was about 7.5 metres high. With the main growing areas of Cuba now much further south on the island, it seems like a wasted opportunity to not take advantage of what is obviously ideal growing conditions for coffee in this region.I would really love to see Cuba one day participate in the Cup of Excellence programme, and at the very least be able to purchase high quality green coffee for use in our blends and even our single origins but sadly these prospects seem very far away for now. I may yet decide to become an advocate for the improvement of the Cuban coffee sector, but the bureaucracy is well known for making things tough! Watch this space...

By Danny Davies

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