The coffee harvest is in full swing in Costa Rica, with much of the country taking time out to pick the sweet, red fruits that were once the foundation of the nation’s economy. Although you can take a coffee plantation tour year round, now is the perfect time to appreciate the time and care that goes into producing the perfect cup.
Dozens of coffee fincas (plantations) around the country offer tours, such as the Doka Coffee Estate, each of them different. Some are exceptionally professional operations geared toward handling multilingual foreign tourists by the busload; others are family farms offering ad hoc tours set up by local hotels and operators, often in Spanish only, when adventurous guests show interest in rural tourism.
Most tours begin in the cool, misty mountain coffee fields – in Doka Estate’s case, on the steep and fertile slopes of active Poas Volcano, which is topped with Costa Rica’s most visited national park. While a day trip to Doka Coffee Estate and Poas Volcano is perfect for those pressed for time, those travelers who are enchanted with the pretty coffee-growing altitudes could stay at Siempre Verde, Doka’s lovely little bed and breakfast.
Here you’ll learn more about the biology and history of coffee in Central America. Be sure to try a fresh coffee fruit, covered with a thin, slightly sweet membrane, and deliciously filled with a serious shot of caffeine (keep your eyes open for uniformed school children popping a few on their way class). Wear long pants and/or insect repellant, as coffee plantations attract all sorts of insects that enjoy preying on people.
Most of the coffee you’ll see in Costa Rica is Arabica, a higher quality bean bred for the cool heights, which is often grown in the shade of fruit or cacao trees. Much of the coffee grown here is organic or Fair Trade certified; be aware of the huge difference those few extra pennies you pay per pound back home makes when visiting the homes of organic, versus traditional, growers.
On large fincas, your next stop is usually the beneficio, or processing facility. Here, the beans are soaked in deep cement pools to remove the fruit; your guide will explain how the fermented residue is somewhat toxic, and must be specially processed according to Costa Rican law before it is used as a fertilizer.
Next, you’ll see the vast cement patios covered with beans, which are raked hourly in the sunshine so that they will dry evenly. If you’re visiting a tiny family farm, the beans might be processed in a tiny stream, and dried on the side of the nearest paved road.
Finally, you’ll see the roasting process, which is almost always followed by a tasting. Be aware, as you exit through the gift shop, that cracked (but otherwise perfect) beans cannot be exported. Thus, most fincas sell inexpensive bags of ground coffee that are just as good (or better) than the regular brand-name coffees priced for foreign markets.