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Coffee in Niacaragua

Coffee not only powers office workers around the world through their 9 a.m. meetings, it also provides employment for a large segment of Nicaragua’s population and fills the government’s coffers. The tasty beans grown in Nicaragua also have an interesting, and checkered, history that parallels that of the country as a whole.

German immigrants brought Coffea arabica seeds with them 150 years ago and quickly began cultivating the crop in the cool, moist hills around Matagalpa and Estelí. The conditions in the Northern Highlands and the Carazo proved perfect for coffee. Sales of the crop were driving the country’s economic growth by the turn of the century, and the circle of wealthy coffee planters and exporters developed into a powerful political force in León and Managua.

Political instability, the American military occupation, and banditry conspired to reduce production in the following decades, but by the eve of the Second World War, coffee exports had rebounded to account for half of the country’s export earnings. Later, Anastasio Somoza used the pretense of the war to expropriate coffee farms belonging to the descendants of German immigrants, which enable him to amass huge personal holdings.

Following the Sandinista revolution, the new government turned many of the large coffee estates, especially those owned by the Somozas and their allies, into collective coffee farms. The government promoted the formation of cooperatives, and smallholders became an important force in the coffee industry. However, a US embargo on Nicaraguan coffee imports and the Contra War, fought mostly in the northern coffee-growing areas, stymied production and discouraged investment. Nicaragua’s coffee industry fell far behind those of its neighbors.

In 1990, with the election of Violeta Chamorro, the American ban on Nicaraguan coffee was lifted, and the industry started to rebuild itself. Many of the cooperatives that had been formed by the Sandinistas continued to produce and market coffee collectively, and they brought in a good living for the country’s small coffee farmers.

By the late 1990s, however, coffee production in countries like Brazil and Vietnam surged, which flooded the market with cheap beans and caused the world price to plummet more than 60 percent. This triggered a humanitarian crisis in the Northern Highlands, and relief agencies poured into the region to distribute food aid to smallholding farmers and coffee pickers unable to earn a living wage.

The coffee industry has had to rebuild itself yet again. Rather than trying to compete with the cheap Robusta beans grown in Brazil and Vietnam, Nicaraguan coffee farmers have attempted to brand their product as a high-end luxury item. There is also a growing effort to market Nicaraguan beans as fair trade, which means that the producers and pickers are paid a good, living wage for their backbreaking effort.

Today, coffee accounts for almost 15 percent of Nicaragua’s export earnings. The area around Matagalpa and Estelí is the still the center of the industry, and many farms and cooperatives in the region, including the famous coffee estate at Selva Negra, are open to visitors. Even if you can’t fit a farm visit into your schedule, you should seek out a bag or two of premium Nicaraguan coffee, since the country’s beans are considered some of the finest in the world. They are all Arabica, and most are grown in the shade and at high altitudes. If you’re looking for something unique, search out Pacamara Peaberry, a large bean with a strong, fruity flavor.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Nicaragua : When to Go to Big Corn Island, Safety, Safety, Safety, Eco-lodges in Nicaragua, When to Go to Laguna de Perlas, Apartments in Nicaragua, Camping in Nicaragua, Photography in Nicaragua and Shopping.

By Nick Rosen
A staff-writer here at V!VA's offices in Ecuador, I came to Quito after having worked on public health and development projects in Africa. Naturally,...
12 May 2009

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