History—it is said—is written by the victors. That would be why we in North
America believe that the USA now holds the largest area in our sub-continent and has for
years. I don’t think I am alone in being surprised that Mexico at one time occupied the
majority of the west coast stretching well into what is now British Columbia. I was also
surprised, well, not really surprised to learn that under the leadership of an expansionary
president, the US expanded southward to what is now Mexico City.
Why do I start a chapter on a visit to Mexico with comments about land that was
held by this country in the past? I think it’s worthwhile knowing, because along with the
diversity of having a large land base came variously distinct cultures not native to the
Our visit to Puerto Chiapas focused on a visit to a coffee plantation. The Argovia
Estate in the Chilko Valley produces coffee organically, processes it in traditional small
batches and commands a premium price.
The Argovia plantation traces its beginning back to 1880 when an immigrant
family from the Aargau canton of Switzerland named their farm after their estate in the
homeland, Argovia being the Spanish version of Aargau. By the end of the 19 th century, it
had been acquired by the Adolf Giesemann family from Germany, in response to an
invitation by the Mexican government to come and help with the development of
agriculture. Today Argovia is managed by the fourth generation of this family; one of
them stopped by during lunch to offer a welcome to the farm. It turned out our tour guide
had previously been employed by the farm and when the family member recognized her,
he invited our small group up to the big house to wander around the veranda and enjoy
From the beginning the isolation of this farm meant that they had to develop other
crops than coffee for their own consumption. A financial crisis more recently had further
pushed diversification toward tropical flowers in 1991, and we found ourselves touring
the start of what grew into an Ecotourism project in 2000. When we visited this farm and
satellite business, they were already providing jobs for several thousand people.
I knew a bit about the production side of coffee from a trip to Nepal. Mountain
growers there were trying to reach a critical mass of bean production in order to have
their own brand at Starbucks, but at this point they were not even considering processing
the beans. On the other hand, the operation in Argovia saw bean production as only the
beginning; not only were they adding value by marketing their own brand of coffee but
they had developed a significant business, charging people to watch it happen.
In fact, there were just enough beans on the drying floor to let us try our hand at
raking beans in the noonday sun, but I had the distinct feeling that there were times when
the machinery was running at full capacity and not just there to entertain visitors. At the
same time, they did a great job from the hotel, offering weekend getaways, day trips and
quality meals for guests.
The Giesmann family understood agricultural production as well as agritourism.
They saw both as renewable resources, providing a good income for the next generation
while allowing them to continue employing staff for the big house.
We left the farm and turned on to the Highway to Germany; I could not help but
feel strangely at home. The story Giesmann had recounted about his family coming from
Germany as well as the places with distinctly German sounding names started me
thinking of the parallel to western Canada and how the time frame was very similar to
when my ancestors left to find new agricultural opportunities at a place called Rosenfeld.
The next stop was Manzanillo and we could not possibly have chosen a tour that
showed greater diversity. Just as the coffee plantation had been able to embrace the green
desires of today’s tourist, these three stops showed how little things had changed in the
past 100 years or so. These were not parts of a living museum; these were real working
The first stop was an operation that harvested salt from the sea. I know the saying
about a salt mine being a less than desirable place to work, but here even the flats where
water was evaporated to leave behind the sea salt was not a place I would choose as a
place of employment.
The operation was indeed a family operation and Dad had the skin that you would
imagine as being that of a salt harvester after spending decades in the sun and salt. He
made his way between the small plots and raked them back and forth to speed the drying.
Shoes had been left behind long ago. Working on rocks with boards that likely had never
seen a lumberyard meant there must be dozens of scratches on his feet and each one
would feel the pang of fresh salt in the wound.
The real challenge of the visit came when I tried to buy a bag from the operation,
not a bag of salt, just a plastic bag like the ones they would use to market the salt. I had
no need to carry 10 lbs. of salt with me for the rest of the day. I wanted a bag for the book
I would make when I got home. The one you have in your hands.
It was so easy at the coffee estate, I asked if I could buy a bag and there it was.
Outrageously priced but I got my jute bag with the farm logo on it. Here it was an ordeal
to get a small plastic bag with the farm’s rooster on it. I was willing to pay the price of a
full bag and thought about it, but did not want him to see me pouring out the salt. Having
seen the work that went into harvesting the salt I did not want to waste it. I simply wanted
a bag… Eventually, I succeeded and left the owner shaking his head in bewilderment.
We did see that particular brand of salt in stores throughout the region. I am not
aware if the operation attained international or even statewide status but their product was
sold in super markets and at a roadside shop beside the highway where we stopped to
visit an orchard.
I am not sure that is the correct term, but because all the fruit here grew on trees I
assume that would be the correct terminology. We made our way through an extensive
orchard that had at least a dozen different kinds of fruit of which we recognized no more
than two. The others had not made their way to Costco in Canada, for whatever
reason—lack of demand or not a critical mass of production but they were new to us.
Proximity to the sea is hard on things and even enamel signs with the smallest
chip showed severe rust. Farm equipment parked at the end of rows of trees had long
since given up that last chip of paint and while I recognized some of the machinery, much
of it must have been used to produce the crops I did not recognize.
An interesting tour that struck a sad chord in this farm boy’s heart. That was old
equipment and I was sure that somebody was going to have to try and coax it back to life
in the next few weeks. Again, little had changed in the last few generations on this farm.
Our third stop of the day is a brick factory, and I have seen a couple of these in the
past. Brick factories can be a franchise operation but this one is not a multi-national
company. This is a place were a guy digs red clay from out of the earth, puts it in a wheel
barrow and mixes it, after which the mud is placed in moulds to shape and dry in the sun.
Then the green bricks are used to construct a kiln, a wood fire is built and the bricks are
cured. When done, they are loaded on the truck and another kiln is built on the same spot.
As a friend of mine said about driving a packer, working on highway construction,
“You see some pretty familiar country at this job.” It just happens over and
I have visited abandoned brickyards that had used miles more technology than
this operation and were left behind in the 1940 and 50s. The most advanced piece of
equipment here was the wheelbarrow. Not a living museum for tourists but it was in fact
a living museum. Tough work under the Mexican sun, and long days . . .
Heading back to the comfort of our cruise ship, I returned to my earlier
reflections. The people we encountered left Eastern Europe for Mexico about the same
time my ancestors immigrated to southern Manitoba; while we have winter, we also have
so many other things. I was thankful for where I live.