Creating spaces for coffee communities to share their coffee story
By: Sara Lynn Ritchie
The idea to move to Lake Atitlán to work in tourism wasn't a novel idea. In fact, it was arguably an unwise decision to attempt to launch a tourism initiative in an already overly saturated market. However, as mentioned in One Year of Authenticity, the goal was to create something that was distinct from the conventional travel options that were contributing to the over-saturation. But sure, I wasn’t against capitalizing on the Lake Atitlán reputation, “brand,” infrastructure, and above all, its lure. It is not difficult to convince someone to go to Lake Atitlán--one Google search and many are sold. In fact, it is actually difficult for travelers to avoid ending up at the Lake at some point during their travels in Guatemala because the tourism infrastructure channels them there. I first needed to design and create the authentic experiences, which wasn't difficult because it was just a matter of expanding on the experiences that I was privileged to have had that local communities gave me, not an agency or operator. The more difficult task was creating a channel that would lead conscientious travelers to these experiences.
When focusing on creating this convincing channel to steer travelers away from conventional options and to Authenticity, that's when I landed on coffee. Again, not a new and novel idea. Honestly, far from unconventional. But, I had already used this strategy with the Lake itself--tapping into its lure--so why not do that with coffee and uncover the authenticity of an already mainstream icon?
The coffee story is tangled, tragic, and/or empowering, depending on which narrative you tell or decide to listen to. Its importance transcends cultures, borders, and demographics whether it is viewed as a beverage, political tactic, culture, livelihood, or market. It’s all the above and so much more, which is exactly what makes it a dynamic lens through which to tell an array of narratives. Personally, a majority of the impactful stories that I have been told in Guatemala somehow started with or circled back around to coffee. Beyond the stories, a majority of the individuals and communities in Guatemala that I got to know all seemed to be connected to or impacted by, you guessed it, coffee. Recognizing that coffee has an iconic lure and that opens doors to tap into so many topics--climate change, politics, capitalism, the indigenous-ladino dichotomy, to name a few--I felt that it was the perfect channel through which I could connect local communities and conscientious travelers.
Piecing together the key elements--coffee, Lake Atitlán, non-conventional tourism, benefiting local communities--this all landed me in the coffee growing community of San Juan la Laguna, a town that had been drawing me in and inspiring me with their coffee story since my first visit in 2017. Coffee has had a major economic impact on this community. There is clearly a pre-coffee and post-coffee time period as part of the San Juan coffee narrative, which I slowly uncovered and understood during years of visiting Cooperative La Voz. I was able to delve even deeper during my first months living in San Juan to launch Authenticity, being welcomed and supported by the cooperative, where they were eager to grow in their tourism initiatives. I wasn’t reading the story from a history book, I was learning it from the community and cooperative members themselves, first-hand hearing how coffee drastically impacted their lives: men didn’t have to abandon their families to find work in other regions, parents put their kids through school with their coffee earnings, young adults launched their careers as baristas, women became coffee shop entrepreneurs, and children of cooperative members even taught themselves English to be able to share the community's coffee story with visitors. Each cooperative family reveals a different coffee narrative that allows one to see coffee as more than just a beverage to be purchased in a coffee shop. It humanizes an industry.
"Each cooperative family reveals a different coffee narrative that allows one to see coffee as more than just a beverage to be purchased in a coffee shop. It humanizes an industry."
Cooperative La Voz is already doing this in an amazing way through their coffee tour and very own coffee shop. The imagery itself is a tangible representation of economic empowerment and growth: a coffee shop owned by the cooperative with baristas from the community serving customers from all over the world who can enjoy a cup of coffee while looking out over the drying patios and processing area where cooperative members proudly turn in their coffee cherries. The La Voz coffee shop is the ideal place to begin the coffee narrative, which is worth expanding on so that even more cooperative families can tell their own story. In efforts to develop this expansion with the families of La Voz as my inspiration, I designed four Immersion Trips that use the Cooperative La Voz coffee tour as the starting point to uncovering the stories of the coffee growing families themselves.
Stay tuned for uncovering those stories and meeting the people who bring the authenticity to each Immersion Trip.