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Costa Rica: Puntarenas – Monteverde; Don Juan Coffee Tour

The Monteverde / Santa Elena area in the mountains of Central Costa Rica is ideal for growing coffee. We decided to take a tour of a plantation to find out more about how it is grown, harvested & produced

Although you might expect that as we’re British we might be tea drinkers, that is not the case, we love our coffee, especially first thing in the morning. So, going on a coffee tour, with coffee tasting opportunities, was a ‘no brainer’. There are quite a few coffee plantations in the Monteverde area, but we decided to check out the Don Juan 3 in 1 tour. This is probably the most commercialised tour in Monteverde, but I was interested in the production and processing of coffee and sugar cane, as well as coffee.

It was Christmas time when we visited Don Juan - seemed incongruous with the weather!
A couple of oxen statues

We arrived a little early and headed into the huge shop and tasting room. So, before the rest of our tour group arrived we managed to sample the coffee.

Once the group had assembled we set off on the tour. Before we headed out we were introduced to a diminutive, wizened old man who we were told was Don Juan himself. No idea if this was true or not, but it made a great photo opportunity. Then we set out to learn more about coffee production.

This location is not a real plantation. It has some coffee plants but the main growing is done elsewhere. They also take beans from other local growers and resell them as a collective.

A bit of history about coffee production in Costa Rica …

Coffee plants were first brought to Costa Rica in 1779 from Cuba, with commercial production launching for the first time in 1808. The first exports took place in 1820, just one year before the Central American countries declared joint independence from Spain. Today, less than 1% of the world’s coffee supply comes from Costa Rica. Yet, with that in mind, it’s still the world’s 15th largest coffee producer.

The coffee produced is based on the arabica bean, which makes up about 60% of the world’s coffee. Costa Rican coffee generally has lively acidity, a lighter body, rich sweetness, and smooth aromatic flavours.

The Don Juan Coffee Tour route
Meeting with Don Juan
Coffee beans from the pod
Coffee plants at the Don Juan plantation

Coffee beans grow on shrubs, which get up to about 6-feet in height. The fruit of the coffee bush is called the coffee cherry, which has an outer layer or rind, which is reddish in colour. Coffee beans are the seeds from the coffee cherry.

Once the cherries have been harvested the outer rind and flesh is removed and the beans are left to dry. On the Don Juan tour, we got to pick some cherries and put them through the hand processing machine, as was the traditional way before automated processing equipment was introduced

The machine for removing the rinds from the coffee cherries
The processed coffee cherries with the rind's removed
Coffee beans drying out

The final stage in coffee production is roasting. Roasting means transforming coffee beans from green to brown. There are different ways to make it, and that affects the flavour. There are three stages to the roasting process:

  1. The DRYING STAGE. The drying stage typically lasts 4–8 minutes with a traditional drum roaster.
  2. The BROWNING STAGE. At the browning, the stage starts the Maillard reaction that is responsible for browning. In the Maillard reaction, reducing sugars and amino acids react making hundreds of different aroma and colour compounds known as melanoids.
  3.  The ROASTING STAGE. During the drying and browning stages, the bean has collected energy that makes the coffee explode. Development time is when the wanted aroma compounds are developing.

The degree of roasting is what controls the final flavour of the coffee. Roasters usually want to enhance coffee’s own flavours and decide the roast degree. Typically light roasted coffees are more acidic, and dark roasted coffees are more bitter.

Stages of the coffee bean production
A chart of levels of caffeine in different drinks
Roasting the coffee bean gives the final product its flavour
Coffee in the sacks waiting to be sent out

The main focus of the tour is coffee, but as this was a 3 in 1 tour we got to learn more about the production of some other key crops in Costa Rica. The first of these was sugar cane. 

The sugarcane plant produces a number of stalks that reach 3 to 7 metres (10 to 24 feet) high and bear long sword-shaped leaves. The cane is primarily cultivated for its juice from which sugar is processed.

The by-products from cane, such as the straw and bagasse (cane fibres), can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, a second-generation biofuel. Other sugarcane products include molasses and rum, and the plant itself can be used as thatch and as livestock fodder.

Sugar cane stalks

The final leg of the tour was cocoa from which chocolate is made.

Cocoa beans grow in pods that sprout off of the trunk and branches of cocoa trees. The pods are about the size of a football. The pods start out green and turn orange when they’re ripe. When the pods are ripe, harvesters travel through the cocoa orchards with machetes and hack the pods gently off of the trees.

After the cocoa pods are collected into baskets, the pods are taken to a processing house. Here they are split open and the cocoa beans are removed. Pods can contain upwards of 50 cocoa beans each. Fresh cocoa beans are not brown at all, they do not taste at all like the sweet chocolate they will eventually produce. Now the beans undergo the fermentation processing. They are either placed in large, shallow, heated trays or covered with large leaves.

After fermentation, the cocoa seeds must be dried. The fermented seeds are put on trays and left in the sun to dry. The drying process usually takes about a week and results in seeds that are about half of their original weight. Fermented and dried cocoa beans will be refined to a roasted nib by winnowing and roasting. Then, they will be heated and will melt into chocolate liquor. Lastly, manufacturers blend chocolate liquor with sugar and milk to add flavour.

Cocoa beans
The shoots of young cocao trees
Cocoa beans at various stages of the fermentation process

In summary …

We always enjoy learning about how things are produced; from art to clothing to food to aircraft. The Don Juan Tour was not in-depth but nonetheless we learned a lot about how coffee, sugar and chocolate are produced in a fun and interactive way.

The tour was pretty short – about 90-minutes, including tasting the coffee. It was not only great for the adults but also for older children to learn about the production of these major crops for Costa Rica.

Planning your visit to Don Juan Coffee Tours

Address:2 km Noroeste de la Plaza de Deportes Santa Elena, Provincia de Puntarenas, Monteverde
Website:https://donjuantours.com/monteverde-chocolate-coffee-tours/
Telephone:T: 506 8359 7017
Hours:Open daily from 8:00 am – 7:30 pm
Fees:Adult: $35.00    Child: $15:00

Planning your trip to Monteverde

Santa Elena is about 140km (about 90 miles) from the capital San Jose and about 115km (70 miles) from Liberia. A shared ride will cost around $65 from San Jose & Liberia and will take about 4 hours. If you rent a car it will take about 3 hours. The roads approaching Monteverde are paved and good from the west of the town.

We travelled from east, coming from La Fortuna / Arenal. As the crows flies they are close, but due to the mountains and the lake the journey by road is about 115km (70 miles) and takes 3 hours. One way of doing this is to take a ride to Arenal Lake from La Fortuna take a ferry across the lake and take a ride to Monteverde. The ferry is foot passengers only. This shared ride service starts at about $35.

We had a rental car so drove ourselves from La Fortuna. This route takes you north along highway 142 which follows the shoreline, offering tantalising views of the lake from time to time. After about and hour or so after leaving La Fortuna, you will arrive at the small town of Nuevo Arenal, which is a good pitstop if you are looking for somewhere to eat. 

Continuing on from Nuevo Arenal you’ll eventually reach the northern reach of Arenal Lake and start heading west. At the town of Tilarán we left the 142 and joined the 145. Up to this point I had thought the stories of the huge potholes and unpaved roads were tales from a time past, but over the next hour or so we realised that they are still very much a hazard. When I could take the time to not pay attention to the road, the countryside was amazing. We had climbed into the mountains. The road was extremely rough, but not something we hadn’t seen before. 

A lot of people recommend renting a 4×4 vehicle when travelling this part of the country. This is good advice, especially in the rainy season. We went in December so the main rains had stopped and did the whole journey in a little Kia sedan and made it through without incidence! Just think about your personal comfort on driving on unpaved roads with deep potholes.

Best time to visit Monteverde

Just like the rest of Costa Rica, Monteverde has a dry season (December to May, when prices tend to be higher and crowds bigger) and a wet season (May to December). Here, though, the terms are relative. Because the park is in a cloud forest, the mountaintop reserves and the twin towns below them are often enveloped in a hybrid of wind, rain, and fog, which forms when warm air blows in from the ocean and rises up to the summits of the Tilaráns. The months between August and November are particularly rainy,

Other things to do whilst in Monteverde

1. HIKE IN THE CLOUD FORESTS

The small town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica once again sits at the base of Arenal Volcano. A massive eruption in 1968 wipded out the town of La Fortuna, along with two neighboring towns. The town rebuilt, tapping into the underground river that was now being geothermally heated by the volcano to create dozens of natural hot springs in La Fortuna.

The hot springs in La Fortuna range from luxury to completely free.

2. HANGING BRIDGES & ZIPLINING

Monteverde owes a large part of its popularity to the hanging bridges in the cloud forest. Get up high in the forest canopy by way of these bridges which range up to 800 feet long and 2400 feet in altitude (240 meters to 730 metres). The two adventure parks in Monteverde; Skyadventures and Selvatura have trails through the jungle with a series of hanging bridges. We chose to do the trails at Selvatura, which has  8 bridges ranging from 170 to 560 feet offering absolutely incredible views of the cloud forest because that park is very high in elevation (higher than all other parks).

If you are looking for something to get the adrenalin pumping then ziplining is a great option. After all, Monteverde was the birthplace of commercial ziplining. Both the adventure parks mentioned above have excellent ziplining courses and additional adventure activities.

Where to stay in Monteverde

1. JAGUARUNDI LODGGE

During our stay in Monteverde we stayed at Jaguarundi Lodge, which is located outside the main town area of the small town of Santa Elena, the gateway to the cloud forests, but is close to the central bus station and a small shopping mall that has a supermarket, a bank, shops and some cafes and restaurants.
From Jaguarundi it is only a short drive to Monteverde Cloud forest and other attractions.

2. RAINBOW VALLEY LODGE COSTA RICA

This hotel has some of the best mountain views in Monteverde. There’s free WIFI, lush gardens, a scenic terrace, laundry facilities, free parking, and a tour booking desk. There’s an airport shuttle, family-style rooms, currency exchange, library, and bicycle hire.

3. CHIRA GLAMPING MONTEVERDE

This dome, luxury tent gets you as close to the forest as possible while still living lavishly. There is free WIFI, free parking, and a terrace overlooking the rainforest. There’s an outdoor fireplace, outdoor furniture, BBQ facilities, and a shuttle service. There’s an on-site hot tub, champagne/wine for purchase, and board games.

Each unit has an outdoor area and garden. Some units come equip with a dining area and/or a balcony. Guests will have a private bathroom with a shower, and access to an outdoor kitchen with a stove top, toaster, and fridge. 

This glamping property is located 1.4 miles from Sky Adventures Monteverde, and 2.2 miles from Selvatura Adventure Park. It’s 1.9 miles from Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.

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