Cacao and Cafe

Saturday, April 22nd was a day of transition for us as we packed our belongings, bid farewell to La Fortuna, and headed to Santa Elena, located in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica.  We also said goodbye to the rental car.

What?!  Give up our freedom?  Our ability to explore at-will?  I know.  Very unlike us.  But, there’s a very good explanation.  According to Googlemaps, it takes 3 hours and 8 minutes to drive the 110 km (68.35 miles) from La Fortuna to Santa Elena.  What’s your speed?  Approximately 22 mph.  I also suspect, based upon what I’ve read and heard, that it often takes longer than 3 hours to do that drive.


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Well, the first part of the road is fine.  We drove on Road 142 when traveling from Playa Hermosa to La Fortuna.  It’s relatively narrow and curvy, but paved and offers some gorgeous views of Lake Arenal.  The problem is when you turn off Road 142 to Road 145 and then on to Road 606.  Road conditions…deteriorate…with each road.  We experienced a bit of Costa Rican gravel/dirt/mud (depending upon the weather) roads while driving to Sugar Beach.  However, we had made the decision to leave the car behind before arriving in Costa Rica after watching videos of the drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde on You Tube.

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So, instead of spending 3 (or 4.  Or more) hours grousing at each other while crawling over pot-holed gravel roads we returned the car and were picked up by a van.  The van transported us to the shores of Lake Arenal where we were greeted by a boat.  Our luggage, and that of our 40 or so companions, was tossed into the boat in a haphazard fashion (hey, as long as we were balanced we didn’t care) and we sat back for a one-hour ride across the lake.  On a warm, sunny day in April.  There are worse things.

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Upon reaching the other side of the lake we hauled our luggage (well, the husband hauled…one of the very nice van drivers grabbed my suitcase and lugged it for me.  That happened on both legs, actually.  I must have looked cute that day…or like I had a ridiculously large suitcase) to another van and settled in for the jarring graveled portion of the drive.  However, the scenery was gorgeous, so who cares about the gravel?

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Baby coffee plants
We stopped once for a bathroom and refreshment break (orange Fanta anyone?  Mememe!) and watched a parrot bob around and try to con treats out of the tourists.  One interesting thing to note about our fellow travelers:  there seemed to be a lot of young females with large backpacks traveling in pairs or small groups.  Costa Rica has a lot of hostels, making travel cheap for those willing to hostel.  I found myself fascinated by the number of young people traveling about the countryside.  Where do they get their money to travel?  Are they in school?  Have a job?  There’s an element of envy in those questions.  The husband and I are solid Gen X-ers.  We value work-life balance but believe you have to earn your way.  Our personal goal is to save hard now (while still enjoying life and vacation) so we can get the heck out of the rat race early (work until 65?  Are you crazy??  Even 62 is unimaginable).

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Coffee plants. The ones in the front are one-year old. The ones further back are three-years-old
Thus, being mystified about these young travelers.  Slightly judgy.  Slightly envious.  Slightly confused.

Our transport was scheduled to arrive in Santa Elena.  However, since lodging check-in time wasn’t until 3 we had elected to add a coffee and chocolate tour into the mix.  We were dropped, along with our luggage, at the Don Juan coffee farm.  After a casado lunch with coffee ice cream for dessert (which the husband consumed with a side of coffee), we joined up with a half dozen other people for the tour.

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Here’s where I make my confession:

I don’t like coffee.

Can you believe that?  I can’t.  Love the smell of it.  The taste does nothing for me.  Even with a whole lotta flavoring and fluff.  The husband, on the other hand, adores it.  On our second day I taught him to ask for coffee con leche so he’d get what he wanted.  With that knowledge he dove into the world of Costa Rican coffee head-first.  It was love at first sip.

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Coffee on drying racks. Note: we were not there during harvest (there weren’t even any berries on the plants), so all of beans seen were for example only.
So, there we sat eating lunch at Don Juan’s, with three or four types of coffee available self-serve style for tasting.  I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s different.  Maybe I’ll try it and adore it.”  I poured myself a small cup.  Added sugar.  Took a sip.  Nope.  Tasted like coffee.  Bummer.  I had such high hopes.

I forget the name of our tour guide for the coffee farm, but he was fantastic.  Great sense of humor and great passion for his work.  His family had long worked in the coffee industry (working it…not owning it) and he had quite literally grown up amongst coffee plants.

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Beans are inserted in this machine and the belt closest to the husband vibrates, causing the beans to be filtered by size into bags.  Different sizes = different grades and uses.
Coffee is amongst Costa Rica’s top export items.  Production began in the country as early as the 18th century.  The soil and climate made for perfect growing conditions and, by the 19th century, the government recognized the cash crop it represented and strongly encouraged production.  So much so that they offered free land to people willing to farm coffee.  The coffee?  Arabica, introduced to the country by Ethiopia.  100% Arabica remains the coffee of Costa Rica.  That’s part of the reason their coffee is so darn good (so say the connoisseurs), it’s not a blend of beans (which is actually more common than you would think).

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Pulverizing coffee beans.
According to, “Costa Rica is the 13th-largest producer of coffee in the world, churning out around 1.5 million bags every year. 90 percent of the coffee is exported, with the revenue accounting for around 11 percent of Costa Rica’s export earnings. Small farmers play a large role in this production—nearly 90 percent of all producers cultivate less than 12 acres.”  To read more about the history of Costa Rican coffee, visit their website here.

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Don Juan Cruz, the founder of Don Juan Coffee, was born in 1937.  His was one of the first pioneering farming families to arrive in the Monteverde area and he continues to work on the property today.  In fact, he wandered into the chocolate room while we were there and paused to greet us.

The tour combines coffee, chocolate and sugar cane all into one, but it’s obvious that their main product (and true passion) is coffee.

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We started off with coffee, where we spent the bulk of our time.  We were walked through the process, from plant to drink, which was actually quite fascinating.  We learned how the beans were graded and how the length of the roasting process determines the type of coffee.  We sniffed jars of each produced at Don Juan’s to understand the difference.

After coffee, we experienced a shorter introduction to cacao, which was equally cool.  We got to try raw cacao (as in, bust open the seed pod and try the slimy bean inside.  Didn’t taste much like chocolate), dried cacao (bitter) and then our guide took us into a room (where we met Don Juan) and mixed us some fresh hot chocolate, which we consumed with a side of chocolate covered coffee beans.

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We paused to allow a “little shower” to pass through
Next came the sugar cane.  We didn’t see any sugar cane fields, and I’m not sure how much they actually grow, but the husband got to participate in cranking canes through a press to produce juice.  Our guide combined that juice with lime juice and gave us tastes. It was really good.  Would be amazing with the addition of some rum and ice

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After the tour we were kindly dumped into the gift shop, where we took advantage of the opportunity to load up on coffee, chocolate covered coffee beans and cocoa butter.  Then, we were driven to our digs in downtown Santa Elena.  We had entered the lush, rainy, cool beauty of the cloud forest.  Pura vida.



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