The misty mountainsides of Costa Rica, rich with fertile, volcanic soils, are famed for growing some of the finest coffee in the world. If you’re curious about how your daily dose of wide awake makes it from the field to the cup, why not indulge in one of Costa Rica’s many coffee tours? They can be arranged throughout the country, most easily in central Costa Rica, close to the mountains, rather than the low-altitude coastal plains close to the best beaches. Plan accordingly.
Most travelers trek out on coffee tours while staying in San José or Monteverde, which are generally the most convenient, but there are scores of other fincas, or coffee plantations, around the Valle Central, Valle de El General, and some of the volcanoes. If your vacation won’t take you to the major cities, check online for other options.
While tours are offered year round, the very best time to attend is during harvest, which generally runs from mid-November through February, though this varies according to the altitude and weather. You’ll tour the fields, where the bright red “cherries,” or coffee fruits, are being collected; try one, and you’ll understand why neatly uniformed children try to grab a few on their way to school.
Next, you’ll watch how the raw fruits are processed. First, the red fruit is removed using different methods. Tiny family farms might wash them off in local streams (an ecological hazard) while huge beneficios, or coffee processing facilities, have huge swimming pool-sized vats for soaking and straining off the berry. Some specialty operations let the berry ferment for a few days before removing it, for a different flavor.
Next, the beans are dried in the sun, usually on a huge cement patio where workers rake them back and forth to guarantee and even color and flavor. Family operations, however, might do the sides of roads or parking lots. Next, the beans are sorted and prepared for shipping; many operations roast and grind a portion of their beans. Most tours finish with a sample (or several) of the finished product.
April is also a fine time to take the tour, when the coffee plantations are covered with tiny white blossoms. It’s not as interesting, but perhaps more beautiful. No matter when you visit, be sure to bring insect repellant and/or long pants; the biting bugs that infest most plantations are ruthless.
Tours vary a great deal, and in Costa Rica the options are almost endless. The most popular tours leave from San Jose and Alajuela, and visit the nation’s two top producers on Volcan Poas. Cafe Britt, Costa Rica’s flagship brand, has a popular tour that includes guides in period costumes and even a song-and-dance number; it’s a little bit cheesy, but kids love it. Doka Estates, close by, has a more straightforward tour and a nice B&B where you can spend a night or two amidst all that caffeinated beauty.
There are several other spots where you can stay on a coffee finca, from luxury properties like Finca Rosa Blanca, Xandari Alajuela, and Vista del Valle in Grecia, among several others, to more modest spots, including Tetey Lodge in Orosi or Pueblos de Cafe in Terrazu, with homestays. But most hotels ensconced at the appropriate altitude plant the shiny, dark green coffee bush on their property for decoration, at the very least.
In addition to the Central Valley, a popular spot to organize tours is Monteverde, Costa Rica’s most famous cloud forest. While there are probably half a dozen estates offering tours, the first was Cafe Monteverde, famed for its communal setup and excellent organic grounds. But ask at your hotel and other area operators about which might be best for you.
No matter what finca you choose to tour, be sure to purchase a few bags of Costa Rica’s before heading home, as that’s the one souvenir your friends and coworkers will actually want. Be aware that broken beans, by law, can’t be exported no matter how delicious, so local brands—notably Cafe 1820, in the brown-and-yellow bag available at most grocery stores—offer all the taste of pricier export-quality beans at less than half the cost.