Written by Dianne Sivulka, Owner & CEO of Travel on Purpose
As we pulled up to the modest corner coffee shop, a colorful mural facing the street, gave us a cheerful welcome. This wall painting depicts the family that owns and operates La Familia del Cafe in San Miguel, Guatemala.
Then, on cue, Julio appeared on the curb with an enormous smile and greeted our group. Moments later, we climbed into the back of his pickup truck and headed out to his family's coffee farm. The 10-minute ride took us outside of San Miguel and onto the slopes of the towering Agua Volcano, a large, dormant volcano that visitors can easily see from anywhere in the Antigua area.
Visiting La Familia del Cafe, a family-owned coffee business in Guatemala, has become a mainstay with Travel on Purpose's guided tours and curated vacations for anyone wanting a coffee experience. The "seed to cup" workshop is educational and fun, but it's the connection to this hard-working and kind family that makes for an extraordinary visit.
We turned up a dirt road and were suddenly in rows and rows of coffee trees. March is a coffee-picking season, so the plants displayed plump and waxy red cherries. The coffee plantation is a feast for the eyes. It's not only the abundant agriculture that caught our attention but also the surrounding volcanoes that we could easily see from this elevated vantage point. One of the reasons coffee production is so prolific in Guatemala is because of the rich volcanic soil. Just then, Fuego, the only active volcano in the area, puffed a dark gray cloud as if to say welcome.
We climbed out of the pickup truck and followed Julio and his dad, Freddy, to a shady spot among coffee trees to learn more.
La Familia Del Cafe is a family business with three generations working together to produce coffee and provide a community-based tourism experience for visitors.
Many years ago, Julio's grandfather was a farm worker for a sizeable industrial coffee farm. Like most coffee pickers throughout Central America and the world, his daily wage was barely enough to to get by. Long work days would bring in a meager salary of less than $2 per day and scarcely provide enough food for his struggling family. Luxuries like education and health care were beyond reach.
During these years, Julio's grandfather planted a handful of coffee beans to grow his own trees with the hopes of someday being able to earn a better living. He also encouraged his neighbors, who shared the same struggles, to do the same. Today, 75% of the people who live in San Miguel are small-plot coffee farmers.
But again, he came up short. While growing his own coffee provided some independence, the profit margin was too thin. The only buyers for their raw coffee beans were large companies, often with a middle-man (called a coyote) negotiating the cost and taking most of the profit. Once again, the family was left with the smallest margin and barely enough to make ends meet.
Then, in 2005, something happened that changed all that.
A man from the US arrived in the town of San Miguel and invited Julio's grandfather to create a coffee cooperative. He also encouraged him to invite the other coffee farmers in the village to join. Most people were skeptical. "Who was this foreigner, and was he trustworthy," they wondered. Just seven farmers decided to take a chance.
The stranger taught them how to grow better coffee, process the raw beans on their own, and eliminate the middleman. He also helped them buy the needed machines and found a buyer in the US. By forming themselves into a cooperative, they grew their quantity, strength, and profit. Things were starting to look up!
Within two years, local farmers could see the benefit of this small coffee cooperative. They decided to join too and the cooperative grew to 28 small-plot coffee farmers.
The American philanthropist only stayed as long as he needed to. Once he completed what he could do, he moved to another part of Guatemala to do the same thing and then to Nicaragua. The family has lost track of him, but have never forgotten the kind and generous service he gave them and the whole community. He came, not for personal gain, but to offer a skill he could pass along to others who needed it.
Today La Familia del Cafe is a family-owned coffee business and a direct result of the transformative coffee cooperative. Three generations of family members live and work together to grow, harvest, produce, and sell coffee. They grow two varieties of Arabica. They sell roasted beans in Guatemala to coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels. They also export raw coffee beans to more than ten companies in the US. La Familia Del Cafe started providing coffee workshops for tourists in 2022 and this effort also helps keep the family business going.
While large coffee farms in the region still make up the majority of coffee production in Guatemala today and continue to pay their field workers less than $2 per day, many coffee cooperatives like the one in San Miguel exist, helping to create a better life for coffee farmers across the region.
Today the town of San Miguel pays it forward as each coffee business supports local scholarships for children to go to school. Each year La Familia Del Cafe sponsors 45 families with school fees for children and farming tools for local workers. That means that a visit to La Familia del Cafe not only provides a fun experience to learn about coffee, but also helps support the local community.
Back in the pickup truck, we headed down the hill to the home Julio shares with his Freddy his father, Thelma his mother, his siblings, nieces, and nephews. In a hands-on workshop, we learned about all the steps a red coffee cherry takes to become the cup of coffee we love. Then we sat around the table and enjoyed a cup of coffee together.
We often drink our morning cup of coffee with little thought as to where it came from and who made it. It's humbling to learn that in most cases around the world, the people who pick our coffee can't even afford to drink it.
Thankfully for the people of San Miguel, a kind-hearted changemaker entered their lives and helped them create a better way forward.
If you love coffee with a heartwarming story, don't miss the chance to visit Julio, Freddy, Thelma and the rest the family in Guatemala. You'll arrive with curiosity and leave with a satisfied feeling of knowing more about the coffee you drink and the benefit of empowering local people. Plus, you'll leave with a bag of coffee, as all tours include one to take as a souvenir.
Julio's mom, Thelma, also known as The Boss of the Kitchen