Sometimes you just happen upon that perfect travel experience, the place that you will never forget and that you never wanted to leave. Yellow River, a stone’s throw from Machu Picchu, is just that place. Laze around with a book in your hand, tour the farm, make your own coffee and chocolate – it’s your choice.
Located in the small hamlet of Quello Mayo at the bottom of a hill near the river from which its name is derived, Yellow River is actually on the route between Santa Teresa and Santa Maria. Coming on a Machu Picchu bound bus from Cusco, you can ask to be dropped off at the Quello Mayo turnoff, or the driver may insist on leaving you in Santa Maria from where you can take a 30 sol taxi directly to the door.
The hostel is so close to the river that you can hear the water coursing through the valley at night. Sadly, the river has not always been benevolent to the inhabitants, and major flooding in 1998 led to the almost complete destruction of the original village and significant loss of life in the area. Since then many of the villagers have left and, by all accounts, what is now left of Quello Mayo is only a shadow of the thriving hub it was prior to the disaster. However, this leads to an ‘off the beaten track experience’, which seems ironic given that the tourist juggernaut of Machu Picchu is geographically so close.
Google ‘coffee tourism in South America’ and Colombia will loom large in the search results. Yet, as a matter of fact, Peru is one of the largest producers of organic coffee in the world, so that cup of ‘Fair Trade Coffee’ that you buy in Starbucks may well come from this region. Apart from the hostel, Yellow River is also a working farm that produces coffee, chocolate, pineapples, bananas and plantains. A farm tour costs $10 and you will walk to the top of the hill behind the village ( a workout that easily trumps a morning at the gym). Being a 100% organic producer, the coffee here is shade grown and bird-friendly. Between rest stops for the unfit (hands up here), you have the opportunity to see the crops growing and maybe even being harvested.
Coffee rust, known as ‘la roya’ in Spanish, has been a problem throughout Latin America, and I was able to observe it on some of the plants that I saw on my tour. As a result of a devastating attack of ‘la roya’ a number of years ago, Yellow River has planted more disease resistant strains of coffee, and you will learn first-hand the deadly economic impact of the failure of a coffee crop. Due to the fact that my trip was in July, I was able to witness the freshly harvested coffee beans drying in the sun, although this is not be possible at other times of the year due to the seasonal nature of the crop.
The farms in the region, including Yellow River, are part of a Co-operative that specialises in selling organic coffee to overseas markets. For British readers, you will find it marketed as ‘Machu Picchu’ coffee in your supermarkets.
The coffee tour is not the only coffee-related experience available at Yellow River. You can also do a coffee workshop. This starts with de-husking fresh coffee beans and, once ready, you then roast them in an earthenware pot over a gas flame, which requires a lot of rapid hand movement in order to achieve an even roast. My technique obviously required much more practice and some of my beans were considerably more ‘well-done’ than others. Indeed, some were burned black! Following the roasting you get to try a cup of coffee brewed with your own beans, which are also packaged for you to take home.
You are not a coffee lover!!!! Well then, there is also the chocolate. In fact, the cacao trees grow close to the village and Svetlana, the family member who currently runs Yellow River, may even take you to pick some fresh from the trees. Given that, like the coffee, the cacao requires some drying time, you will not be able to roast your own beans. However, fear not, there will be beans ready for you to roast. Broadly speaking, the process is quite similar to that of the coffee (as explained above), but unlike the coffee, you also have to grind the cacao again after roasting. The result is the cacao butter that you often find in western beauty products. Finally, you can prepare your own hot chocolate and taste the bliss!
Part of the beauty of staying at Yellow River is that it feels like you are part of the family. Svetlana currently runs the hostel, her dad is often around the house and her brother and his daughter sometimes pop in for a chat. Angel, Svetlana’s dad, is quite a character and he will be more than willing to share the ups and downs of coffee production with you and to fill you in on some of the turmoil that has marked Peru’s recent history (the family lived in Ayacucho, the birthplace of the Shining Path movement, during some of the worst years of the rebellion).
Although Angel only speaks Spanish, there is always someone on hand to translate if you are not fluent in the language of Cervantes. Should you speak Spanish, on the other hand, this gentleman will give you a real insight into Peru. In addition to Angel, there is also Nathan, Svetlana’s young son, who brings to the hostel the beauty and innocence of youth ( I wish I had his butterfly collection when I was six). Finally, there is also Tyson and the three young dogs who keep him company.
I seem to remember Emory, Svetlana’s brother, wishing that a UFO would come and whisk the three canine menaces away. They are playful…
The rooms are simple, spacious but clean and there are shared bathrooms. Meanwhile, the living area out front, which is painted in a bright pastel blue shade, is the spot where you can sit quietly reading a book and drinking a coffee (provided on request at an additional cost). You are encouraged to become part of the family and enjoying the delicious and copious breakfasts and dinners with them has to be one of the highlights of any visit.
Should you want to get active, take a walk down to the river or follow the path upriver all the way to the Cocalmayo Hot Springs. The hike apparently only takes 60-90 minutes and you can bask in warm thermal waters once you arrive.
If, on the other hand, you decide to stay close to base, the hostel is the perfect place to relax and the village has more character than you might think at first glance. During my stay the Feast of the Virgin took place and people from all around the valley (there was even a Peruvian lady from New Jersey) came to take part in the nightly ‘feasting’, music and dancing. Needless to say, I’m sure that Blessed Virgin was delighted by all the merrymaking taking place in her honour…
Apart from tagging along on one of the Machu Picchu bound buses from Cusco, it is also possible to take a bus to Santa Maria and then a 30 sol taxi from there to the hostel. Should you arrive on one of the aforementioned Machu Picchu buses, it is a 20 minute walk downhill to the village. Coming from Machu Picchu, the bus cartel in Hidroelectrica may not particularly want to take you because they seem more interested in filling buses to Cusco, so you may be better off arranging a taxi from there. I came this way and I spent a lot of time arguing before I managed to get on a bus (I was only successful because I had the full support of my tour guide from Machu Picchu). Detailed information on the hostel and directions to get there are provided on the Yellow River website (see below).
Note that there is a bank in Santa Teresa, but it will only exchange dollars if they are in absolutely mint condition, without a single blemish. The hostel only accepts cash payments in soles, although you can prepay your booking using Paypal. Finally, take plenty of cash for travel in this area since there is almost no ATM coverage. Apparently, travellers have been known to have made the trip to Quillabamba in order to be able to access a bank machine!
Rooms here range in price from $25 to $48 depending on whether you are just paying for the room or if you choose to pay for full board (July 2016). Up to date prices are available on the Yellow River website (link included below).
Finally, this is a lowland tropical area, quite different to chilly Cusco, so remember to bring insect repellent lest the mosquitoes enjoy your stay even more than you!
If you want to learn more about coffee in Peru, click here to take a tour of some of Lima’s best cafes
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