Costa RicaCosta Rica

Central Valley "Best of" Sights

Destination: Alajuela

When the bus from Expediciones Tropicales picked me up bright and early this morning, I was excited for the day's full roster of activities: a coffee tour at Doka Estate, a trip to Poas Volcano, and a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The sky was blue and as we climbed up the mountains of Alajuela, I looked out over fields of green crops and ornamental plants. As always, it was a beautiful site, an appropriate prelude to the day's activities.

read more close

Costa Rica began exporting coffee in 1838, and by 1850 the coffee industry expanded to become the country's largest earner. Doka, a working coffee farm since 1908, produces Cafe Tres Generaciones, or Three Generations Coffee. The company is home to the oldest water mill on earth and produces world-renowned coffee that has won awards for its quality. In fact, Doka's largest importer is Starbucks, which purchases 70% of its annual production.

After a delicious Costa Rican breakfast at the estate, we headed out for a coffee tour. Doka's coffee fields look like waves of green: the trees are planted in diagonal rows, peppered with banana trees that provide shade, block wind, and help control humidity. I learned that banana trees are also planted to divert viruses from the fragile coffee cherries.

Though they only grow to about eight feet, coffee plants live and produce fruit for 25 years. The small bush will begin to produce coffee cherries at around 2.5 years, though the best quality production takes place between 10 and 25 years. The coffee harvesting season runs from November through January, with December being the highest cherry producing month. An efficient coffee picker can gather 13-17 baskets of cherries per day.

To make coffee, the red cherry must first ferment for 33 hours. After that, the skin is peeled off and the seed is left to dry -- sun-dried seeds take three to six days to dry, while machine-dried seeds are ready in 24 hours. Next, a thin parchment is extracted from the seed, leaving the green bean. Many large importers, such as Starbucks, purchase green beans to be roasted in their own machines. Doka also roasts the beans, producing everything from a mild European roast to a strong espresso.

One aspect that makes Doka's beans stand out is the peaberry. You may have heard of peaberry coffee, but did you know that the peaberry is actually a small, concentrated bean? All Arabica coffee plants -- the only legally grown in Costa Rica -- will produce peaberries: instead of two beans inside a cherry, there is only one. All the nutrients concentrate in this single bean, producing a stronger, richer and more caffeinated cup of coffee. Since these beans are mixed in with regular beans, most coffee producers do not have the patience to separate them out from the traditional cherries. Doka does, producing a bold cup of java that is a true treat for coffee connoisseurs.

I purchased some coffee for myself before we hopped in the bus and set out for Poas Volcano. Located within the 16,000-acre Poas Volcano National Park, Poas is one of Costa Rica's five active volcanoes, though its activity is limited to sulfur and steam emissions. Sitting 8,872 feet above sea level, the volcano has three craters (only one is active). After a short walk -- 4/10 of a mile -- we arrived at the crater, to find it shrouded in fog.

Due to its altitude and geological conditions -- it is located at the intersection of rainforest and tropical cloud forest -- Poas Volcano often plays hide-and-seek with visitors. The best month to visit is in April, though you'll have decent luck year-round if you visit in the morning. The clouds cleared for a few moments, and we saw the outline of a greenish-blue lagoon in the crater. At its bottom, the crater features the world's largest, active boiling lagoon. Of course, what you see from up top is brilliantly colored water and barren terrain, accompanied by the smell of sulfur wafting through the air.

Unfortunately, the cloud cover never blew over completely, so we decided to cut our losses and head out of the park. On our way down the mountain, we stopped at a country store where I sampled fresh strawberries, local sweet red and sparkling rose wines, and a delicious chocolate liqueur. When we were all together again, we departed for La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

On January 8, 2009, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake rocked Costa Rica. Its epicenter was located only two miles from La Paz Waterfall Gardens, one of Costa Rica's most iconic tourist attractions. Whole communities were buried under rubble as a result of the quake. Though I had prepared myself for this leg of the trip, it was jarring to see dirt roads where asphalt once existed, homes sliced in half on the mountainside, and huge piles of stone and mortar that used to be buildings and houses. Ongoing work was evident in these rural communities -- we passed numerous road repair crews and construction trucks.

When we reached La Paz, I saw that the hotel and gardens were also under construction. Several sections of the gardens are still closed, so today we would visit the aviary, butterfly garden, frog pond, monkey house, hummingbird garden, serpentarium, and waterfalls. We began in the giant aviary where, to my surprise, many species flew around freely. Every bird at La Paz has been legally obtained -- most are rescued birds that have been gifted by the Costa Rican government. Since many domesticated birds cannot survive in the wild, they now live at La Paz, where they are given safe refuge, health care, and food.

There were ducks, toucans, and tanagers flying freely around the aviary. Scarlet macaws chowed down on watermelon, a toucan gobbled down a fruit salad, and one duck followed our group around the aviary's paths. In a special toucan room, I was delighted to see both chestnut-mandibilled and keel-billed, or rainbow, toucans flying around. All of a sudden, a brightly colored keel-billed toucan landed on my arm, searching for a sweet treat. Our guide fed him some dried fruit, and he hopped up to my shoulder, nibbling my hair before flying off.

One member of our group had a new baby, just 17 days old, who she carried in a basket. When we visited the monkey house, in an entertaining turn of events, the spider and white-faced monkeys were absolutely fascinated by the tiny human. Though the monkeys ignored their admirers, they all came to the windows to stare, point and reach for the baby. Even our guides, who visited the primates on a daily basis, had never seen such amusing behavior.

Passing quickly through the frog and snake exhibits, we walked down to the waterfalls. The winding path alternated between large, stone-and-concrete platforms to narrow, metal steps. The steps were slick with moss, so I gripped the handrails that lined the stairs from top to bottom. Crossing a small bridge, we emerged at the base of El Templo (The Temple) Waterfall. Huge and roaring, it tumbled down a mountain still muddy from quake induced landslides.

We doubled back and climbed farther down to reach the Magia Blanca (White Magic) Waterfall. Named for an optical illusion that makes the land around it appear to undulate, the waterfall was absolutely amazing. We took a small trail that leads to its highest point to experience the powerful water from above. It was incredible: the sounds, the smell, the feel of tiny droplets pelting my skin. Looking down, I couldn't help but contemplate what it would be like to tumble off the top in a barrel. (That's absolutely not permitted, of course, but that doesn't stop my imagination from running wild!)

We climbed back up all 402 steps, and I was huffing and puffing when we reached the top. Our final stop was La Paz's open-air restaurant, where a buffet spread awaited. I heaped salad and other goodies on my plate and sat down to enjoy the view. Before I knew it, we were back on the bus, rumbling down the mountain on our way back to San Jose. The 12-hour trip had been a blast -- a wonderful combination of three Central Valley highlights.

Central Valley "Best of" Sights in Pictures

Best Hotel Deals in Costa Rica!

Get up to 30% off Hotels & Resorts worldwide compared to other major booking sites like Expedia and Priceline with our exclusive pricing ...