February 20, 2019

What’s It Like to Grow Coffee in The Galápagos Islands?


The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of 21 islands around 1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador. Featuring exotic wildlife, breathtaking views, and a subtropical climate, the islands are a once-in-a-lifetime place to visit.

But what’s it like to not only live there, but to grow coffee in such a remote location? Read on to find out about the unique challenges and opportunities here.

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Iguana sitting on a rock

Marine iguanas on Santa Cruz island. Credit: Juan Proaño

How Did Coffee Arrive in The Galápagos Islands?

Coffee plants arrived on the archipelago at the end of the 19th century. Manuel J. Cobos arrived on San Cristobal, one of the largest islands, in 1866. Here, he founded a colony called El Progreso that cultivated sugarcane and coffee. The rich volcanic soil of San Cristobal made the island a good choice for both of these crops.

Cobos imported Bourbon beans from French Caribbean colonies and used prisoners to labor on the island. Today, it is one of the few places in the world where you can find the original strain of this variety. You can also see some original trees that are now over 140 years old in El Progreso.

Over the years, other varieties were introduced. Quiman Valle is a coffee farmer on Santa Cruz island. He tells me that settlers who arrived from coffee growing areas of Ecuador brought seeds with them to grow coffee for their own consumption.

Unripe coffee cherries on a tree. Credit: Julio Guevara

The Challenges of Growing Coffee in The Galápagos Islands

When you visit a coffee plantation in the Galápagos Islands, you might wonder why it looks so disorganized. There’s no orderly lines or regular pattern here. Plants are not in rows or half-moon arrangements as in other growing regions. It’s more like a natural forest of coffee. Quiman explains with a laugh, “This is volcanic soil. Where there is no stone, we put a plant.”

The harvest season occurs between November and February, coinciding with the rainiest months of the year. The heavy downpours cause cherries to fall to the ground.

Drying coffee is a challenge in this environment. Relative humidity meters show levels between 84 and 95%. Producers are forced to dry coffee mechanically in ovens, which reduces coffee quality and increases costs.

Although the islands have a lot of water, not much of it is fresh. Coffee cherries are washed in collected rainwater or water bought at a desalination plant. In addition, agricultural equipment and supplies need to be shipped from mainland Ecuador, making production even more expensive.

Members of a coffee cooperative selecting cherries by color

Members of the Cooperativa de Producción Cafetalera de las Islas Galápagos select cherries by color on Santa Cruz island. Credit: Eduardo Vintimilla

Because the Galápagos Islands are a protected ecosystem, some of the more intense and potentially harmful pesticides available are prohibited. It is undoubtedly a good thing that agriculture here is environmentally responsible, but it increases the amount of work for farmers.

Natural pest control is aided by local wildlife. The giant turtles that are a problem for other crops are an ally in coffee plantations. When looking for shade under coffee trees, the turtles feed on weeds. This keeps the ground clear and creates natural corridors around trees.

And although coffee is not a native plant, its production is beneficial to biodiversity. Producers have committed to help to control invasive species and encourage native ones in their crop management.

Giant Turtles

Giant turtles on Santa Cruz island. Credit: Eduardo Vintimilla

It’s difficult and expensive to secure a workforce on coffee farms here. Romel Ochoa is a producer on Santa Cruz island. He tells me that a harvester is paid US $30 and that they usually harvest around 60 lb in a day.

Legislation prevents workers from freely entering the islands. A producer is responsible for their workers. They must pay the expense of travel to the islands and commit to the worker leaving at the end of the contract. If the worker doesn’t leave the islands, the employer could face a heavy fine.

Romel tells me that the Ecuadorian minimum salary is 80% higher for those working on the Galápagos Islands, which increases the temptation to stay and work illegally. And for the locals, coffee is a relatively unappealing job – there are less laborious and better-paid activities than farm work, such as fishing.

Coffee producers and baristas enjoying coffee together

Producers and baristas enjoy a coffee together. Left to right, producers Javier Valle and Quiman Valle, barista Shiram Agama, producer Romer Ochoa, and future barista Klaris Ochoa. Credit: Juan Proano

So, Why Grow Coffee on The Galápagos Islands?

The Galápagos is not an easy place to have a coffee plantation. So why do it at all? Because the unique conditions make for unique flavors.

Volcanic soil full of nutrients and minerals combined with exclusive microclimates creates particular qualities.

All coffee here is grown at low altitudes, but it is sweet and balanced. Local tasters say it has an endemic acidity featuring both malic and lactic acids. What this means in the cup is an aroma and sweetness like refined sugar. Coffee from here sometimes features toffee flavors, with a round, silky, and balanced body. You may find pleasant notes of almond, clear notes of chocolate, and a very delicate note of sea salt.

Coffee from Galápagos is the only one in Ecuador to obtain denomination of origin recognition.

Learn more in Galápagos Island Coffee: Why Altitude Isn’t Everything

Ripe and unripe coffee cherries

Picking coffee on San Eugenio, Santa Cruz island. Credit: Juan Proaño

Producing coffee in the Galápagos Islands certainly isn’t an easy task, but the outcome is organic, high-quality coffee that is harvested by workers who are well-compensated. It also has a beneficial environmental impact and helps ensure social sustainability in a small, remote community. So, next time you buy coffee, why not try one from Galápagos?

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