Trouble Brewing – Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador


We love coffee (technically speaking, Karen needs coffee). Prior to traveling to the town of Ataco (aka Concepción de Ataco), part of the lush, mountainous Ruta de las Floras (Route of the Flowers) circuit in northern El Salvador, we didn’t fully understand coffee’s deep, dark role in this country’s history. Turns out, trouble was brewing in coffee growing regions like Ataco long before the official start of El Salvador’s civil war.

Coffee sacks - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

World class coffee grown in the Ruta de las Flores area of El Salvador, bagged up and ready for shipping.

 

Soldiers in your cup (sung to the tune of that classic Folger’s coffee jingle)

After the invention of synthetic dyes in the late 1800s, El Salvador’s wealthy indigo farmers scrambled to find another cash crop. They settled on coffee. And they did well.

The success of coffee cultivation in El Salvador created an even greater divide between the very rich and the very poor and in January of 1932 economic and social tensions reached the breaking point. Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist Party, led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people who El Salvador’s military quickly squashed by methodically killing an estimated 30,000 people. Anyone who supported the campesinos and anyone who looked or sounded indigenous was doomed. To this day, indigenous groups in El Salvador tend to shun their traditional clothing, preferring to blend in by wearing jeans.

This terrible time is known as The Massacre (La Matanza) and some consider it the actual start of El Salvador’s civil war which didn’t “officially” begin until 1980. Before La Matanza was through, Martí was shot by a firing squad but he remains a revered and martyred figure to many and is memorialized in the name of the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional) which is currently the ruling party in El Salvador.

Arty little town

There is no obvious physical legacy of all that trouble in the sleepy town of Ataco along the 23 mile (36 kilometer) stretch of scenic road dubbed the Ruta de las Flores after the blooms which explode here, particularly between October and February. The coffee plants sprout a blanket of fragrant, white blooms starting in May.

Coffee mural - Ataco, El Salvador

Good morning! Coffee beans and streaming sunshine in the distinctive painting style that covers much of Ataco.

Mural Ataco, El Salvador

Just one example of the vibrant, cheerful painting style that covers many of the walls in Ataco.

These days Ataco seems more intent on retaining its easy-going ways, cautiously welcoming travelers and fostering the distinctive local style of art than rising up against the coffee finca owners.

Some of the world’s best coffee is grown in El Salvador and some coffee plantation and processing plant owners are branching out into tourism too.

We now return to our innocent love of coffee

Brewing coffee - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Coffee made the traditional way by dripping through a simple cloth sack into a handmade pottery jar.

While in Ataco we stayed at Quinta El Carmen Coffee Resort. Owned by the Alfaro family for more than four generations, this sprawling property is part coffee farm, part homey hotel, part coffee processing facility and part adventure activity center.

Hotel first. We stayed in the original “quinta” portion of the property which is an airy, almost ranch-style building with four guest rooms, a large sitting area, wide porch and full kitchen where breakfast is prepared every morning.

The family’s separate, personal residence has also recently been opened to guests as La Casona. Five rooms of varying shapes and sizes have had modern bathrooms added but are still furnished with the family’s antiques. Hallways are lined with family photos, some dating back many decades. It’s a living museum inside an elegant homestay.

Coffee drying patios - Finca EL Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

At the El Carmen coffee beneficio coffee beans are dried in the sun on special patios or in enormous mechanized dryers.

Coffee drying - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

At the El Carmen coffee beneficio coffee beans are dried in the sun on special patios or in enormous mechanized dryers.

Both sets of accommodations are more than 100 years old and are located right next to the massive El Carmen coffee processing facility (beneficio) where two hour guided tours are offered (US$5). Opened in 1930, this is one of the oldest coffee beneficios in El Salvador and a tour here is a great way to understand the steps it takes to go from field to cup. A highlight is the massive, decades-old machinery that’s still going strong processing around 5,000 tons (4,545 metric tons) of fresh coffee beans, called cherries, every year.

Coffee Roaster - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Some of the massive machinery inside the El Carmen coffee beneficio dates back to 1930 when the processing facility opened. This practically antique roasting machine is still going strong.

Coffee depulperr - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Simple but massive tools for de-pulping fresh coffee beans which are called cherries.

Industrial coffee grinder - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

They don’t make machines like this industrial coffee grinder any more.

El Carmen, which was named after the only daughter in the original patriarch’s family, processes coffee for the giant Illy corporation, among many others, and they pride themselves on their ability to track every customer’s specific coffee from start to finish to ensure consistent quality. Illy even has its own storage area at the beneficio to further ensure that its coffee doesn’t get mixed up with anyone else’s.

Coffee tasting - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

All set up for a “cupping” session during you learn the basics of how to appreciate the taste and aroma of coffee like a professional.

Turns out, watching coffee dry is actually pretty interesting. Check out our (sped up) footage of workers raking and aerating green coffee beans at the El Carmen beneficio in Ataco.

 

Amped up on adrenaline

If it’s adrenaline, not caffeine, you’re after Quinta El Carmen has you covered as well with a zipline and ropes course, ATV tours and horseback rides on El Carmen’s Peruvian paso horses.  We took the horses out for a meander through El Carmen’s coffee-covered hillsides and some of the surrounding mountain roads. It was the first time we’d ridden the breed, known for its clipped, yet steady gait. The horses’ legs prance furiously while everything from their shoulders up remains still. This unique gait was really comfortable in an unnatural kind of a way.

Horeseback riding - Ataco, El Salvador - Finca El Carmen

Touring Ataco on Peruvian paso horses, available for hire through Quinta El Carmen.

Next, we hopped on ATVs and roared up and down dirt roads that criss-cross El Carmen’s hilly, forested property. Okay, one of us roared and the other drove cautiously observing all reasonable safety measures.

Remember MTV videos in the 1980s? You get a similarly herky jerky effect when you use a GoPro to shoot footage while you drive around a coffee finca on an ATV. Unless you’re epileptic, check out our video of our ATV tour of El Carmen in Ataco.

 

Cascadas Don Juan waterfall - Ruta de las flores

Las Casacadas Don Juan, one of the most accessible waterfalls in El Salvador.

Also along the Ruta de las Flores is the 115 foot (35 meter) Don Juan Waterfalls (Las Cascadas Don Juan). Not only does this waterfall have a killer name, it’s also one El Salvador’s most accessible.

Look for a sign and parking area where you pay a US$1 entry fee. Then walk up and across the road to the head of a very short trail which leads directly to the base of the two-tiered falls. A perfectly swimmable natural pool is your reward.

 

 

 

 

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10 comments on “Trouble Brewing – Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

  1. Adventure travel and coffee? I guess they really want your adrenaline flowing in El Salvador. Very sad history during the dark years there. I don’t know much about the area but I admire them for what they have had to go through as a small, struggling country. However, I don’t drink coffee so I just have to enjoy the history of it!
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..Win and travel with the Expedia Find Yours photo contestMy Profile

  2. It’s amazing the historical impact that plantations of all kinds had throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, isn’t it? So interesting to learn about coffee’s role in El Salvador’s history, but I find the art in your photos and the craft behind perfecting coffee varietals equally intriguing. I just did a story for Preferred Hotels’ magazine about gourmet coffees from all around the world, and apparently there are some Guatemala and Panamanian varieties that are now among the most critically acclaimed (and expensive) in the world. Now I’m curious to try some Salvadoran coffee…
    Bret recently posted..INTERVIEW: Is Will Harris’ White Oak Pastures the Future of Sustainable Agriculture?My Profile

    • I recently visited Ataco in Ahuachapan and I loved it! Finca del Carmen very nice & peaceful place despite the war that El Salvador suffered for many years, this is a place that is worth staying for a night or two… don’t forget to try their excellet coffee! When you go to the little town there, there is also a very pretty church… nothing like the beauty of the simplicity of what the whole surroundings look and make you feel like. Enjoy the paintings of the wall through the whole town, very colorful and pretty.

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