Posted by: stacylynn12 | December 13, 2011

Alta Gracia

Coffee tastes better when birds sing over it. – Julia Alvarez


By now, you all know I love coffee. I’ll go miles out of my way and pay big money for a really good latte. So one morning way back when, we were traveling through Rutland, Vermont and I’d scoured my sources of information searching for the best coffee shop in town. Thankfully, I found one. While awaiting my cup of sanity I happened upon a brochure; the cover read “Cafe Alta Gracia – Organic Coffee”.

I read on.

Turns out the Finca (farm) Alta Gracia is in the Dominican Republic, owned by the esteemed Dominican American author Julia Alvarez and her American husband Bill Eichner. The brochure was laden with all kinds of buzz words that excited my little liberal coffee drinking heart:

Environmental Sustainability through Organic Agriculture
If the soil erodes and rivers dry up, nature will have no infrastructure for agriculture.It’s not fair that workers poison themselves and their environment when they use chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Economic Sustainability through Fair Trade
If workers don’t receive a living wage, and owners a reasonable profit, the business will fail, workers will migrate to the urban slums, and there will be nothing to pass on to the next generation.

Social Sustainability through Education and Health Care
If rural communities remain impoverished, illiterate and unhealthy, there will be an eternal desire to move away to the city “to a better life.”

Interestingly, we had just bought our tickets to go to the Dominican Republic so I stashed this little piece of information away for later knowing if it was humanly possible, I’d have to go visit this place.

La Finca Alta Gracia is just outside of Jarabacoa in the Central Mountain Range of the Dominican Republic and very near to Sondido del Yaque, the little Eco gem from my last post. Interestingly, though we were only a few kilometers away, we could not get there from Sondido and we had no way to communicate with the farm in order to try to arrange something. Things are not as straightforward as they might seem here in the DR. I began to feel my chance to visit slipping away.

Then, upon our return to Jarabacoa I received an email from Bill Eichner in the States. He put me in contact with Alicia, the volunteer at the farm. After much back and forthing with email and spotty phone calls, we did indeed arrange for a tour of the farm. I use the term “tour” loosely and I’m grateful for that. By this I mean, I’ve been on tours before… you probably have too. The kind where you sign up in advance, pay your money, the tour company arranges transportation, provides a snack, lunch and beverages and takes you on a clearly agreed upon excursion before returning you to your hotel. This was not that kind of tour.

The infrastructure for that kind of tour simply doesn’t exist at present at the Finca Alta Gracia. It didn’t make for an easy, leisurely day but what we got in exchange was a fantastic and sobering look into rural Dominican life.

Alicia is a recent college graduate from Middlebury College in Vermont (where Julia Alvarez is a Writer-in-Residence) and the current Alta Gracia volunteer. On the afternoon of our visit she met us in a 4 wheel drive pick up truck at the intersection of the main road and the long, steep, muddy dirt road that leads to the Finca and the tiny village of Los Marranitos.

Arriving in the village we were greeted by a dozen or so smiling and curious faces… the children of Los Marranitos. We had arranged to have lunch in the village and were led into the home of Esa. Esa’s home was tiny but she warmly invited us in, making no excuses about it’s size or condition. There was a small room just big enough to fit the table and off this main room were two tiny bedrooms and a kitchen. If my memory serves me correctly, the floor was a simple concrete slab. The food she prepared was a traditional Dominican meal of rice, beans and stewed chicken served with the most enormous slices of fresh avocado I’ve ever seen. It was of course, delicious.

Lunch at Esa’s place

As we ate we talked with Alicia about her time in Los Marranitos. As a young college graduate she had signed on for a year of volunteer work sight unseen. She talked of feeling isolated and underprepared for her work but did so with the upbeat energy of someone who passionately wants to make a difference in the world. She talked us through an endless list of projects that she was attempting to juggle. Everything from helping to create a more streamlined tour of the farm to negotiating with local authorities alongside the villagers. Currently the town has no electricity nor do they have a consistently reliable clean water supply. What impressed me most was that she seemed to have a clear understanding that she was not there to rescue anyone or to fix Dominican problems with western ways. She is an ally to and an advocate for the people of Los Marranitos, working along side them to create opportunities for a better life.

Interestingly this is something I’ve pondered often during our time here in the Dominican Republic. What is it that makes “a better life”. Some things would be difficult to debate. Clean water, access to quality health care, sufficient food, adequate shelter and people who love and care for you. Beyond this, it gets subjective or so I’m inclined to believe. For me “a good life” includes all of the above plus the ability to travel, career opportunities, access to books and information, organic food, high quality education and a yard for my kids to play in to name a few. Oh, and of course how could I almost forget, exceptional coffee. 🙂 The list could get very long. But clearly once we get beyond basic needs, everyone’s list is going to be a little different and we begin to get into the “needs vs. wants” debate.

As I walked through Los Marranitos toward the Finca, I saw people with very limited resources. I wondered, do they want to travel? Do they envy me and my ability to visit and then leave? Do they wish they could go to college and do something else with their lives? Do their children long for Xbox and iPhones? Do they want a bigger, nicer house and a car to drive? What is it that they do wish for?

When I am in Seattle I often long for a simpler life. One with less commitments, less hustling and bustling around, less over scheduling and hectic days. On the other hand, I could not live in Los Marranitos. With no libraries, bookstores, coffee shops or restaurants, no supermarkets, no showers or electricity, no yoga studios and only one dirt road to walk I’d go crazy. When I am at home and I cannot travel, I frequently rearrange the furniture in my house. It’s a little odd I know but it makes things fresh and new again if only for a while. Living in the same small, remote village all my life I do not think would suit me.

Los Marranitos

But does it suit the villagers I met that day? If they had clean water and electricity would they be content? Does a good life to them involve passing the days peacefully and quietly, taking care of basic needs and talking with other villagers at the colmado about rural life? (A colmado is a small Dominican general store and often the center of social activity in a town)

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I didn’t get to known the people of Los Marranitos well enough to ask them what they wish for. But I will continue to wonder about it as I travel to places where people have very different lives than me.

As for the coffee, we did walk through the Finca. Esa shared a wealth of information with us about different organic varieties grown there. She and Alicia picked juicy, sweet tangerines and oranges for us to eat and pointed out macadamia nut and cinnamon trees. These kinds of trees provided the shade for the yummy shade grown coffee and certainly added much diversity to the farm. We saw the casita where Julia Alvarez is purported to have done much of her writing and the small house where she and Bill stay when they visit the Finca.

It was a fantastic day. In the end, it wasn’t the coffee that made it but the people, the thoughts they stimulated and the conversations that have already sprung forth from our experience there.

I hope that the vision that Bill and Julia have for Alta Gracia manifests itself in positive ways for the people and the land which sustains them. The finca is named after the county’s protector, La Altagracia, which means “high grace.” Their website states “We need her blessing to help meet the many challenges of improving the quality of life for our farm community, the workers and small growers, and their families and neighbors.”

It’s something to think about the next time you have a cup of coffee.

Looking down the valley at Jarabacoa

Randy talks with Alicia outside the one room school

A young boy has a bath outside his home

The Central Mountain Range outside of Alta Gracia

Esa and I talk coffee

The lush hills surrounding Alta Gracia

Coffee Cherries

A few notes:

I apologize for the quality of the photos in this post. With our camera out of commission we had only our iPod to capture the day. Thankfully we now have a new camera.

To learn more about La Finca Alta Gracia and the work they are doing in the Dominican Republic please visit their website at

I highly recommend the works of Julia Alvarez for a glimpse into Dominican life and history. While her most well know novels are In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, both Randy and I enjoyed Before We Were Free and I am intrigued by (but have not yet read) A Cafecito Story about La Finca Alta Gracia.



  1. Your blog is a couple of year old but I had to write to say I, too, have visited La Finca Alta Gracia & Los Marranitos. I so appreciated your photos and mental meanderings. It reminds me of my former work in the DR. Muchas gracias.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback! Alta Gracia is a special place.

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