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Hacienda Buena Vista is good to the last drop

The historic coffee plantation in Puerto Rico entrances visitors with its 19th century water-run mill and beautifully restored buildings.

May 13, 2011|By Jay Jones, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The large, dormitory-style building that once housed slave workers at Hacienda Buena Vista in Puerto Rico is seen from the second floor of the coffee plantation's manor house.
The large, dormitory-style building that once housed slave workers at… (Hacienda Buena Vista, Hacienda…)

Reporting from Barrio Magüeyes, Puerto Rico — Shortly after beginning a tour of Hacienda Buena Vista, a historic coffee plantation in Puerto Rico, guide Lucy Morales shooed her guests indoors as the heavens opened.

"This is very unusual here," she said, almost apologetically, once the visitors had made it into the shelter of the hacienda's stunning manor house, the family home of the plantation's former owners.

At the hacienda — on an old, twisting highway in the foothills above the parched coastal city of Ponce — rain, let alone a thundershower, is rare. The lack of precipitation at this relatively low altitude is one reason the cultivation of coffee has moved up the new four-lane Puerto Rico 10 to around Adjuntas, a region that is significantly higher and wetter.

Buena Vista — "good view" in English — does afford pretty views of the Caribbean only a few miles distant. But visitors don't come for the scenery; they come for the living history lesson the hacienda provides.

Five days a week, Morales and other guides — they're officially "environmental interpreters" for the nonprofit Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico — lead visitors through the plantation. They note that it was established in 1833 by Spanish rulers who used slave labor to produce coffee, corn and other crops on the 500-acre property.

The beautifully restored buildings, from the main house with its lavish period furnishings to the slave quarters and the mill house, boast white shutters and metal roofs painted fire-engine red. They alone would be worth the price of admission, but it's the 19th century technology that wows tourists and locals alike.

The Canas River, which runs through the property, usually carries only a few inches of water, yet the early Spaniards devised an ingenious way to turn the trickle into a torrent, powering the mill that both grinds corn and pulps coffee.

Contemporary visitors are led a quarter-mile up a gently sloping walkway from the mill to a small waterfall along the river. It's here that early settlers began construction of a narrow canal to push downhill the meager flow of water. As guests see for themselves, the agua still turns a large paddlewheel-type device that, in turn, powers the grinding and pulping mechanisms.

"That's enough force to power [the mill]," Morales said. "It's amazing."

At its peak, the hacienda produced more than 10,000 pounds of coffee a year. Still-green beans were shipped first to Europe and later to the U.S.

"If you roasted [ripened beans], they began to lose their taste and aroma after seven to 10 days," Morales told her guests.

The plantation continued to operate until the 1950s. The Conservation Trust bought it in 1984 and, after extensive renovations, opened it to the public three years later.

Although tours are offered year-round, the annual coffee festival in October draws throngs to the hacienda. Visitors can participate in a variety of activities, including planting new coffee trees. Because the festival takes place in the middle of Puerto Rico's coffee harvest season — from August to December — guests can pick their own beans and even roast, grind and brew their own coffee. A steaming hot cup of rich java can't get much fresher.

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