The drive to Orosi had been beautiful and rather uneventful. Uneventful is good for driving in a Central America still prone to long, unexpected delays, random police checkpoints, cattle in the road, unattended construction areas, and mirad opportunity to drive straight off the road and into a mile-deep abyss – that is if your rental car doesn’t break down or get a flat or your technological dependence on Google maps doesn’t fail in the middle of a mountainous jungle somewhere leading to a missed turn in San Isidro – not that that happened.
After a week of heading longitudinally, first south to Pavones the north again, heading east out of Dominical presented an altogether different Costa Rica within minutes. By heading east into the mountains, you are also quickly and dramatically heading up. This upness doesn’t happen in a straight line, but rather in an endless series of serpentine twists and turns leading to only a vague sense of overall progress in any one direction.
While in had reservations about heading away from the coast, after all I had just had some of the best waves of my life at Pavones and some amazing sessions at Dominical as well, this was quickly supplanted by the cooler, misty air, dark jungles, and non-surfy small towns along the road. By the time I reached Tinamaste, just half an hour into the drive, I was already pulling over to write down phone numbers on wooden Se Vende signs along the road. Just half an hour from great surf, but surfy crowd towns, and the muggy swamp-like heat of the low-lying coast you were in the clouds. Temperatures had dropped by over twenty degrees and little markets sold locally grown produce next to bus stops with well dressed kids on their way home from school. I could definitely live here, is my instantaneous thought.
Another half hour down the road and you are in San Isidro de General, the main city of about fifty thousand people in this part of the country. Seeing the red tiled roofs and tall cathedral from up in the hills as you approach gives this city a feeling of discovery. You realize you are approaching coffee country as soon as you arrive.
One of the first buildings you see coming in from this direction was the local office for iCafe, the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica. I couldn’t help turning around to grab a picture, which almost led to the afor-mentioned delays as I nearly ripped off my front right tire in the deep concrete ditches that line the streets, clearly part of the water management system for a town in some of the wettest parts of the world.
I saw offices for other coffee co-ops all over town and took the time to park and wander around the square outside the cathedral where many locals were finding shade from the midday sun. While the twin spires of the cathedral had caught my eye from miles away in the mountains as I approached, the cathedral itself was a bit of a disappointing 70’s style architecture that in fact matched the modern feel of the town with its American chain food options and car dealerships and the red-tiled roofs that were actually just rusted metal roofs. Clearly this was a city where you came to get stuff or catch a bus and move on.
Moving on from San Isidro, you leave the valley and its small city again start climbing into the clouds. Again you are quickly reminded that you are heading deeper into coffee country by the roadsides pointing out distnaces to some of Costa Rica’s finest coffee growing regions. While I was heading to Orosi, I first had to pass through Tarrazu and along the edge of the Santa Maria de Dota region. This areas high altitude and perfect weather make for some of Costa Rica’s finest coffee growing conditions. Just driving along this road offers multiple opportunities to stop at well-staffed tasting rooms where fresh roasted coffee is provided in an educational context. The barista working in the shop was a young woman who clearly had been educated about the coffee and we had a nice chat (in English) about the different beans and roasts they had to offer.
I was the only person in the place at this time of year and sat inside and was cold for the first time in a week and a half of surfing up and down the coast. I really felt like this was the beginning of my coffee pilgrimage as without the motivation to learn more and start seeing it for myself I probably wouldn’t have been able to pry myself fro the coast. I would still be sitting in my nice little apartment at Casa de la Suerte in Pavones taking notes and watching surfers drift by, exhausted after hours of catching the longest waves of my life.
At this fork in the road I had a decision to make. Sitting at a fork in the road, I was torn between heading to San Marcos de Tarrazu, heart of the Tarrazu region, or on to Orosi as planned. I had a hard time with the westness of the direction, almost making a uturn and the inclination to keep moving forward. While Orosi is perhaps less famous than Tarrazu, it is still a top coffee growing region. Each place is protected by a the same mountainous roads, so distance wasn’t an issue. Orosi had the advantage of getting me closer to San Jose for my upcoming meeting with Ticos y Nicas, so I allowed my plans to play out. In hindsight, while I ended up having an amazing visit to Orosi, I have a bit of regret not going to Tarrazu. After all it is Costa Rica’s most famous coffee growing region. But just driving through, seeing the signs and stopping at the tasting rooms definitely lets you know that you’re close.
Heading on to Orosi, the jungle persists. I had traded more driving today for less tomorrow.
To sum it up briefly, the Orosi valley is spectacular. As you pull into the valley, you are greeted with deep greens of the jungle, manicured coffee plantations up and down the steep hillsides, and the Reventazon river meandering its way through. Sitting just just over an hour, but a world away, from San Jose, Orosi is quintessential coffee country. The town of Orosi sits at about 3,200 feet of elevation, with surrounding mountains reaching 5,000 feet, and receives 275 inches of rain a year – perfect for growing coffee.
I had a room booked at the Orosi Lodge which is run by a German couple and had a distinctly Old-Europe feel. I only had one night in this beautiful place, so I was looking to make the most of it. The proprietor was able to set up a coffee tour for that same afternoon, so I took advantage of the chance to briefly settle into my room while I waited to get picked up.
The tour was given by the man who owned and ran a large familiy plantation in the valley. Normally he runs groups, but today it was just me, so it was a personal tour with he and I just riding around in his pick-up – me listening while he gave me an amazing history lesson of the area.
The most important thing to realize about the Orosi valley is that it is dominated by the still active Irazu volcano to the north. The last major eruption was in the 1960s and it filled the Orosi valley with ash, creating a bit of a problem in the short term but in the long run refertizing the entire valley and setting the stage for its place at the top of the coffee food chain. Without a hint of irony my guide looked at me and said, ‘If the volcano begins to erupt, you should run.’
‘Run where?’ I asked.
He just laughed. ‘The coffee plants here are shaded by large trees, and fruit grows there too.’
High altitude, shade grown, non-monoculture. Orosi coffee has all the buzzwords needed to make it into the rarified air of specialty grade coffee. Over 90% of the coffee in this valley goes to either Starbucks or Nespresso, and while long term contracts with these huge customers guarantees some level of demand stability, the global prices of coffee still don’t trickle down to much on the producer end.
We stopped and got out to walk around, he showed me coffee seedlings being grown in pots that would be distributed all over the country. This was one of the only places that are licensed to grow and distribute coffee plants. Green and beautiful, we walked around and picked ripe coffee beans off the plants and tasted them. There weren’t many as this was not harvest season, but you could see why harvesting coffee is so labor intensive. Multiple passes must be made in order to just pick the ripe beans. Mixing in the unripe fruit will degrade the quality of the product.
Looking around the area, there was a row of ramshackle buildings, white with red-clay roofs, doorless with no glass in the windows. Assuming it was storage or just a tool shed, I asked what they kept in there.
‘It is where the laborers live. Sometimes just men, but families come and work as a team. They make more money that way.’
With Costa Rica moving up the economic chain, local labor no longer wants to do the demanding work of harvesting coffee. In fact, I had just met a kid out in Dominical who had ridden a scooter out to the beach from Cartago with a friend.
‘Very dangerous,’ he said.
We chatted for a bit and he had told me his family owns an onion farm, but he doesn’t want to work there. For him, practicing his english and getting a job with a call center was the dream.
The laborers living in this camp will mainly come from Panama.
Further into the tour we would run into another farmer and stop and chat for a bit.
This man spoke of a program the Costa Rican government has offered that will pay farmers to let land go back to the jungle, and he is considering taking them up on it. Why not, money for no work.
As Costa Rica continues to claim its place as an example of environmental stewardship and the tourist dollars that come along with that, it may lose some of its coffee heritage. But it’s impossible to ignore the economics. Coffee is a tough crop to grow, harvest, and process, and the numerous middlemen in the chain soak up most of the profit.
Moving on we stopped to see the processing facility that he ran for the farmers in the valley. This monster of engineering built into the side of a mountain was the only one in the area that relied solely on gravity to move the coffee beans through the cleaning, fermenting, and drying process.
Of course, being a small area, while driving up the hill we ran into his daughter who was out for a jog. Farmers don’t jog, I couldn’t help but think. Teen-aged and cute, wearing spandex and sporting an iPhone and headphones, this girl seemed out of place in this ancient agricultural valley with its rusty roofs and rain-rutted dirt streets. But at the same time she seemed emblematic of Costa Rica’s future, one where the next generation of laborers will come from elsewhere and jobs in the city just an hour away will look more appealing and maybe that government money you can get not to farm will sound pretty good.
We climbed around the processing facility for a bit, on monstrous marvel of concrete engineering, the kind of place that in the US you would need far more handrails and a guest like me would have to wear a hardhat and stay behind the yellow line. In leu of any of these things, I tiptoed around the concrete embankments of empty fermenting tanks, a tumble from which would would have been a consequential fifteen foot free-fall into the bottom of a cement pit.
My guide explained how gravity feeds the system, with the freshly picked coffee cherries being dropped off and sorted at the top of the hill, then water taking them down through the various cleaning and fermenting pits, before being delivered over the course of days to the drying kiln housed in a huge brick building at the bottom. The kiln itself, they don’t use drying beds at this particular facility, is fueled by the husks of the cherries in a closed loop of self-sustainability.
This facility is the only one in the valley, so most of the farmers bring their crop here. It was amazing to have the opportunity to see this place. As I’ve been diving into the world of coffee, it has been necessary to learn so much more than just the cupping terms or the origins and varietals of the beans themselves. Different processing methods have a profound effect on the final product, and for my first coffee tour, it is hard to think of how I could have done much better than this from an educational standpoint – seeing the fields, talking with farmers, seeing where the migrant workers live, touring the processing facility. I can’t wait to come back at harvest time and see what it all looks like in action.
Winding up the tour, we headed back towards town and my hotel. However, first we swung by my guides house to do a little small batch roasting, local style. Pulling up behind his house, we stopped and chatted with his father, a man of about 60 who looked every bit of the part of a Costa Rican coffee farmer, unlike his son who wore a golf shirt and baseball cap with a cell phone on his belt and could have been anyone, anywhere. White haired and dark skinned and wiry framed with a straw hat and pants tucked inside his waterproof work boots, he gave me a firm handshake, and nodded at my horrible spanish. All I really could do was cast my eyes across the valley, the full scope of it visible from their hillside perch, ‘hermosa’. Beautiful. He nodded, waved and wandered off to tend to something on the little farm.
The guide took me into a little plastic structure that kept the frequent rains off his simple outdoor coffee drying and roasting station. At home, he dried some beans on raised beds and sorted them manually through screens for size and impurities. Each morning he roasted some beans up fresh in a cast-iron skillet on a propane fueled camp stove. He fired it up and threw a couple handfuls of these fresh beans in there for me, and tossed them as a chef would diced onions. Wait, he said, as he cupped his ear with his hand. And there it was. The famous, crack, that happens when you roast coffee beans.
After a few minutes, we each took a freshly roasted beans and ate it. Tasting coffee today had had nothing to do with the drink. It was all beans and cherries, greens, and ripes and dried, and fresh roasted. Experiencing all the different stages and processes in a tactile way throughout the day. As a parting gift I received a small plastic zip-loc bag full of these freshly roasted beans to have when I got home, probably the best souvenir I could get from this crazy surf and coffee trip through Costa Rica.
Soon I was back at the Orosi Lodge and its German old-worldness. I didn’t linger too long, but cleaned up after a day of driving and stomping around the coffee plantations. I wanted to wander around the actual town of Orosi for a bit before the sun went down. The Orosi Lodge is walkable to the town, so I headed out as people were gathering in the streets for what I guessed was a typical Sunday evening.
Quiet, but far from deserted, the town had a gentle hum of the typical busses and motorcycles you find all over this country. Hungry, but not quite ready for dinner I stopped in a pastry shop and grabbed something to eat, plus I enjoy the many small interactions and transactions that go with wandering around, as opposed to just the one big one at a long meal. This helped me put off dinner for a bit, I had nothing else to do anyway.
One thing that caught my eye on in Orosi was the existence of not one, but two bike shops on the main drag. I had not seen a bike shop in Costa Rica before. I didn’t actually know where all the bikes came from. But here were two in this small town. As it turns out, there is a 20km loop around the valley that is a popular attraction for cyclists, both foreigners and people from the larger cities of San Jose and Cartago not far away. I immediately thought of my brother who is an avid cyclist and shot him a quick picture to let him know he should put this on the map. It’s hard to think of a better place to come for a ride – nice German style breakfast eggs and bread, with some of the best coffee in the world, a ride around a loop in the tropical rainforest, but elevated enough to keep the heat down to a tolerable level, sounds fantastic.
If I wasn’t leaving after breakfast in the morning, I might have looked into renting a bike and knocking off the loop myself.
In town, things were quiet. I circled around the soccer field where kids were practicing in a structured setting with coaches and everything. On one side of the field busses from San Jose were unloading people who went into the city to shop and see visit but needed to get back on a Sunday evening before the week kicked off. Men on motorcycles waited for women to stop off the busses with their goods, balanced everything on the back, and slowly rolled off down the dirt roads.
On the other side of the field was the oldest church in Costa Rica that is still in use today (the oldest church in Costa Rica not still in use is down the street). The Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi was built in 1743 and looks exactly like you think a Spanish mission church built in 1743 should look like. Whitewashed with a red-tiled roof and a simple but prominent bell tower, the church is surrounded by simple but well-kept grounds and seems to sit perfectly in the landscape of the cloud strewn mountains that are its backdrop. Dignified, but not fussy, this church still provides active services to the public and has that perfect blend of something preserved yet used, not put in a glass case and left to collect dust on the shelf.
It is fascinating to think that this structure has survived centuries of use, frequent earthquakes, and the occasional volcanic eruption over the centuries in such good repair – remember the afor-mentioned ‘just run if the volcano erupts’ advice?
I found a table at the Bar y Restaurant Coto overseeing this entire scene, the soccer field, the bus stop, the church, the drifting clouds, the coffee slowly growing, and even a far off farmer tending to his hillside coffee plants, clinging to the steep terrain like a goat. Being able to take in this entire scene in one left to right glance was spectacular. Being Sunday, or maybe just being too early, the restaurant was empty and slow paced, the owner nodding a quiet smile as he brought a menu and took my drink order. Clearly this place was able to cater to larger tour groups that must come through town in a different season, but it’s location couldn’t be beat.
There was plenty of life in the town, but this scene was one of locals not the Euro-techno filled bustle of surf towns. This was the level of noise, the pace of life, that made you feel comfortable in a new place – just people going about unpretentious lives.
This was not a dinner I needed to rush through. I had the perfect seat to the perfect scene, somewhat similar to watching a sunset on the beach in a weird way. Content. As night fell the kids on at soccer practice disperses, parents arriving to accompany them on the walk home in time for dinner before bed on a school night. The last bus unloaded and departed, waiting rides on motorcycles and pickup trucks headed off into the night, leaving the bus stop quiet aside from some small groups who lingered around street vendors and chatted. I was glad that this wasn’t the busy season, if there is one.
Tired from what felt like three different days – the drive, the coffee tour, the evening – I headed back to the Orosi Lodge, past the church and off the main street. I took my time and wandered back through some side streets, helping some kids who had kicked a ball out of their enclosed patio and into the street and keeping an eye out for stray dogs, none of which seemed threatening. After a certain hour the lodge locks its large wooden front door and the proprietors adjourn to their beautiful cabina on the property. I let myself in and turned in for the night.
Probably the best thing about staying at a German-run hotel is the breakfast. I was up early and there just as they were setting up the cafe which opens up and overlooks the valley and the town below. Even though I had just been in Orosi one day, I was treated to what I had come to believe was just the regular view here – lush green hills manicured by coffee plants and interspersed with tropical trees, low misty clouds drifting by and clinging to the hills like cotton balls, the occasional farmer up earlier than the rest and tending to his crop. The temperature was perfectly cool, such a refreshing break from the steamy coast.
The food came out in waves, starting with a massive bowl of freshly baked bread and generous square of butter with a coffee bean ceremoniously placed on top – a tackier yet more appropriate mix of Germany and coffee country I couldn’t imagine. Of course fresh coffee was on order. I ate the bread with butter, mopped up my perfectly fried egg with the bread and butter, then finished with bread and butter plus the jam.
Sitting on the patio, enjoying this full, slow moving breakfast and in no hurry at all, I watched the neighbors walking their school-aged kids in their clean uniforms and backpacks down the road to school or the bus on a Monday morning – an other glimpse of regular life in Orosi happening at it’s pace on it’s dusty streets in this spectacularly beautiful valley.
Coffee had brought me off the surfer’s trail and to this place, and I was immensely grateful. Just as taking the time to volunteer to plant trees and arranging to meet Beverly Kitson up in Nosara had added a layer of connectedness I had never experienced on my previous trips to Costa Rica, adding the coffee connection to my travels was providing a reason to connect and try new places. I knew I was on the right track, the whiff of scent that lets you know you’re heading down the right road.
After packing up, I began my trip to San Jose, a big city after many small towns, but looking forward to another connection, another inspiration as I would join the amazing kids from Ticos y Nicas to hear their much more complicated and real tales and version of life.
Taking the long way out of town, I drove the same scenic loop that many do on a bike – through more coffee plantations, along the wide rocky valley of the Orosi river, past the old church, the oldest one in Costa Rica, the even older one that is not still in use.
Soon I would be near Cartago and the traffic would start building. Shortly after that I would be in a complete traffic snarl in San Jose as construction and congestion conspired to keep me from finding the hole in the wall entrance to the Hotel Balmoral. Just like that you are in the city with its bustle and life, head still spinning, wanting another breakfast on that patio at the Orosi Lodge watching the kids get walked to school as the low clouds drift by.