Into the coffee fields

I walk through fields of blossoming coffee trees, where a thin veil of jasmine wafts through the air. Acres of shoulder-height trees bloom with delicate white flowers. The small clusters of fruit on the trees are deep shades of burgundy, hanging heavy on the branches, signaling that they are ripe and ready for picking.

It is early February and at the peak of coffee harvest in Coorg, a little-known slice of southern India tucked into the emerald hills of Karnataka. From morning until dusk the fields are busy with pickers toiling over these small, precious beans that feed the global coffee obsession; a trend that is foreign to me due to a mysterious caffeine intolerance I have had for the last decade or so. A corner of India steeped in legend and long known for its abundant land, the Coorg coffee region is at the front of an increasing effort to incorporate sustainable, organic agriculture alongside experiential travel.

Blooming flowers on coffee plants in Coorg.

Arriving in Coorg

Also known as Kodagu in the local Kodava language, Coorg is a district and hill station in southern Karnataka, a state on India’s southwestern coast. Lacking a train station, an airport, and major bus routes, Coorg is not exactly an easy place to travel to. However, its relative isolation is much of its appeal.

I arrived late at night in the back of a taxi that sped up and around low-lying mountains. I had little idea of how Coorg was oriented, or that it was two and a half hours’ drive away from the Kannur airport.

We left the sticky heat of the coastal south behind as the taxi climbed higher into the mountains, where a fresh chill punctured the air. The next morning, I woke up to find myself surrounded by dense coffee farms and next to no discernible town or village, which further stoked my already tenuous orientation.

Eager to explore the Coorg coffee region, I meandered through the plantation and to the closest major road, which wound its way through forests and coffee plantations for miles in either direction. Unsure of when, or even if, a bus would be coming anytime soon, I waited on the side of the road to see what happened next.

Before too long, a truck stopped and offered me a ride. While I wouldn’t always readily hitchhike anywhere in India, there was something humbling and unassuming about this rural coffee district I had found myself in. This is the type of travel I had been aching for: an unplanned, unmapped adventure through a place where I had few expectations. I piled in and was soon joined by a father and son. My few words of Hindi and English skills left me with only a mixture of hand gestures, nods, and smiles to communicate with in a region where people predominantly speak something else.

I hopped off around 45 minutes later near Kushalnagar and headed to the Golden Temple and Bylakuppe, a Tibetan monastery and settlement reminiscent of some of the Tibetan settlements in northern India. The curated gardens and elaborate temple provided a peaceful haven of calm and reflection.

Background to Coorg

Coorg is peppered with colorful folklore. According to legend, the Goddess Cauvery appears at the sacred site of Talacauvery —the source of the river Cauvery — on a specific day in October every year, where she manifests herself as a sudden upsurge of water. Devotees gather to witness the bubbling spring, the waters of which are thought to possess special healing powers on this occasion.

The rainfall and rice fields, the natural beauty, fertile soil, and water sources, made Coorg a highly sought-after attraction to outsiders. Today, much of the land remains undeveloped and uninhabited, a relatively unusual occurrence in India. The dense tree coverage is largely a result of the local communities’ worship of nature and their ancestors, a practice extending back centuries. Most villages in Coorg have sacred groves, which are pieces of forest protected in the names of the deities they harbor. Each grove is unique and home to butterflies, bees, and insects, protected from human interaction.

Off the radar of most guides to southern India as of yet, Coorg enchants its handful of visitors with organic coffee, lush rolling mountains, and a distinct history and culture. Thick green forests, waterfalls, and coffee plantations dot the slopes of the Western Ghats, spread out over 1,500 square miles. In the towns, one can find colorful markets selling local spices, coconuts, flowers, fish, and beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes inside a temburni leaf), as well as temples dedicated to southern Indian Hindu gods.

The Rainforest

After a few days of self-exploration, I travelled across Coorg to explore the coffee and spice plantations tucked within the rainforest. Despite the higher annual rainfall in this micro-region, the coverage from the trees provides protection from the rain. The rainforest has proven to be a prosperous climate zone for Coorg coffee production in unexpected ways, offering unique attributes to the agricultural process not seen in the more arid climates typical of coffee growing regions. In one section of the rainforest lies Mojo Plantation, an organic coffee and spice plantation that has experimented with sustainable farming in a rainforest in an effort encourage a shift to ecological agricultural policies.

The plantation is run by Drs. Goel, two former plant biologists who left their lab in Delhi. They travelled south through India to research soil and better understand agricultural biology in different ecosystems throughout their native country. Landing on a large piece of land outside of Madikeri— the main town in Coorg—they were intrigued by what this land offered. Upon talking to agricultural companies and farmers, Drs. Goel were alarmed to learn of the reliance on chemicals and pesticides. This discovery motivated them to research alternative, eco-friendly practices.

After years of using the land they purchased to study the eco-system and organic farming through growing their own crops, the Drs. developed an intricate understanding of ecological agriculture in the rainforest. Their findings are reflected in every aspect of their plantation, which grows coffee, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, citrus, and pineapple, among other crops.

Sustainability and eco-friendly practices are the focal point of their ethos. No pesticides are used. Trees are not cut back from the plantation because the canopy serves a purpose. The spiders in the rainforest kill pests that impact coffee. Goats and cows are kept on the property to create a manure that is used with food compost for the plants, as well as a biogas that is used for cooking the food on the plantation. Electricity is fully solar powered. Many of the houses on the plantation are constructed with mud that is created from landslides in the area.

Visitors are welcome to come and stay at Rainforest Retreat, an immersive guesthouse on the plantation. The houses are secluded within pockets of the rainforest that provide privacy and peace, entirely immersing one into the stirrings of nature. Beyond exploring the farm, guests have the opportunity to work alongside Coorg coffee pickers, learn more intricately about ecological farming, and explore the surrounding nature.

My stay at the Rainforest Retreat was all at once relaxing, adventurous, experiential, and educational. I passed mornings and afternoons walking through thick forested areas overlooking the slopes of the Western Ghats and wandering through the secret pathways of the plantation, learning about the many species in the eco-system. I tried my hand at coffee picking, bargained and tasted local produce and snacks at the Madikeri market, and simply sat beneath the sun and listening to the trickle of the river and the chorus of insects. I found myself lingering at Rainforest Retreat, a place that instantly felt like home, as long as my itinerary would allow it.

Evolve Back

After leaving the rainforest, I caught a bus back to the other side of Coorg as far as it took me. On the walk to my guesthouse, I wandered past more coffee plantations and stopped to buy watermelon from the back of a truck. I indulged in the sweet pink fruit doused in chili beneath the shade of coffee trees. The juice dripped down my hands as a shy, young Indian couple stared at the foreigner out of place and covered in sticky watermelon juice.

The next morning, I headed to Evolve Back to continue my quest to understand sustainable Coorg coffee production. Set among 300 acres of property are free-standing guest houses inspired by Kodava design, interspersed among coffee and spice plantations that have been in the family for over a century.

Evolve Back Coorg offers a deeply immersive travel experience, allowing visitors to explore the local industry and experience the distinct Kodava culture. They combine the concept of intentional travel and sustainable agriculture to encourage a mindful vacation and way of life. Environmental awareness is at the core of their operations, aiming to minimalize waste, energy and water consumption, and carbon footprint, while seeking alternative energy sources. Re-forestation, protection of local plants and trees, and participation in local conservation efforts lead the operation of the tourism and agricultural sides to Evolve Back.

The property is surrounded by local villages that extend along the river Cauvery. Early morning fog clung to the trees as we cycled through the narrow pathways and past the brightly painted homes. Some of the residents walked past us on their way to a day of picking in the fields, with thermoses of coffee in tow. Evolve Back employs much of the local community—60% of their staff are locally employed— investing significantly into the local economy. Before cycling back, we sipped on chai at a local shop on the banks of the river, observing the rhythm of village life.

On my first afternoon I joined a plantation walk that meandered through the extensive coffee trees abloom with snow-white flowers and ladders of pepper plants that climbed into the sky. We walked through the different steps of the coffee cultivation, harvest, and processing. The plantation is run entirely organically, and every aspect of the coffee harvest is as sustainable as possible. For example, discarded skins are used to make fertilizer for the coffee plants. The juice from separating the beans from the skins is even used to make coffee wine, a better-than-expected delicacy with low enough caffeine levels even I could enjoy.

Workers at Evolve Back, a Coorg coffee plantation
Plantation workers at Evolve Back carrying loads of coffee beans.

For coffee lovers, there was no shortage of opportunities to taste the local crop. From coffee in the jungle to a coffee tasting class, guests could learn about and try the many different styles of coffee on offer. For myself, the varied restaurant options incorporating the rich, succulent spices and curries of the Kodava cuisine was a delight to my palate.

From showcasing Kodava clothing, jewelry, and architectural design, to incorporating music, dance, and cuisine, elements of Coorg’s history and Kodava culture were woven into many details. Each night, a different dance group from Karnataka put on traditional dance. Evolve Back brought groups from across Karnataka to perform in an effort to support and showcase the rich cultural heritage from the state, traditions that are starting to disappear in the increasingly modern age.

On my last afternoon, I joined a truck heading into the fields to partake in some of the work of the plantation farmers. I picked ripe beans alongside the female pickers, who endured the hot, tedious work with strength and humor. On the truck ride back, I ate delightfully pink-colored rose apples, watching as the fields of coffee plantations passed by. Catching a glimpse into each step of Coorg coffee cultivation and into the process that fuels one of the most popular consumptions in the world, was enlightening and cracked open an awareness of so much of how the world around us functions. A world tucked within a world in India, Coorg satiated my craving for intentional, educational adventure off the traditional path.

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