Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 3: Sampling Coffee and a Night Walk

Destination: Monteverde

My alarm sounded, rousing me from a deep sleep. It was 6:15 a.m., and I had to be ready before the Monteverde Coffee Tour van arrived at 7:20. Our morning meal of French toast, eggs, ham, and a delicious Tree House cafe con leche, a tantalizing mix of two espresso shots and foamed milk, helped get us started.

The tour transport van arrived on time, and Mallory and I climbed on board. Our guide, Juan, explained that his role today would be mainly as translator; we were headed to an actual coffee plantation, and the farm owner, Don Jose, would explain the coffee process and answer all of our questions.

The van turned onto a bouncy, bumpy dirt road, and we began to descend into the warmer valley below. Juan explained that the Monteverde area is very cloudy and damp -- conditions not conducive to coffee growing -- and growers are located at slightly warmer, lower elevations to compensate. Driving down the gravel road, we stopped at a lookout for the Gulf of Nicoya; the valley extended out below us, clouds rolled off the mountains above, and the sparkling Pacific Ocean winked in the distance.

Five minutes later, we arrived at Don Jose's and were walking onto his coffee plantation. 42 coffee farmers comprise the Monteverde Coffee Cooperative, and Don Jose's plantation, at just seven and a half acres is one of the smallest. Though not certified organic -- an expensive, arduous process that brings little extra profit -- Don Jose and many of his fellow co-op members farm organically nonetheless.

Don Jose was in the middle of his three-month long harvest. Coffee cherries -- red coffee fruits ripe for the picking -- adorned the coffee plants all around, and we were introduced to the cajuela, a large basket used to both collect and measure coffee. Each basket holds about 26.5 pounds of raw coffee fruit, which, after preparation and roasting, will yield five pounds of consumable beans. Coffee pickers are paid per cajuela collected -- anywhere from $1.50 to $2.00 -- and the roaster pays its co-op members $5 per basket.

On Don Jose's farm, coffee plants share the space with banana and orange trees. Shade-grown coffee is thought to produce the largest coffee yields, promote biodiversity and help to reduce weed growth, an important aspect to chemical-free farming. Don Jose showed us several coffee leaves ravaged by fungi, the cause of many lost fruits and profits.

To grow seedlings, baby plants must be covered for the first 30 days to maintain moisture and protect them from the hot sun. After 45 days, the growing plants are allowed to see the sun. When they have reached 18 inches, they can be planted in the fields. Four years after planting, most new coffee plants will yield their first harvest. The plants generally produce for 30 years; since Don Jose's plantation is more than 20 years old, he had already started the seedling process.

We continued to walk through the coffee plantation, observing the fruit-filled banana trees and hungry animals that had ravaged their sweet treasures. Arriving at several coffee plants, Don Jose encouraged us to try on his coffee basket and pick a few cherries. After several fits of laughter, our group continued on to Don Jose's home for coffee and corn bread.

When the plantation tour ended, Juan took us down to the coffee mill. The Monteverde Coffee Cooperative mill is very efficient, using hydropower derived from a neighboring river. When coffee arrives at the mill, it is manually checked to ensure that red cherries, and not the bitter green, are used. The coffee is then processed immediately, traveling through myriad stages -- shelling, soaking, sun-drying and roasting -- before it is ready for purchase.

The last leg of our tour consisted of coffee tasting, and I happily sampled dark roast, light roast and sun-dried coffee. Each had a distinct flavor -- delicious, rich and very natural. Soon, it was time to leave, and we headed back to downtown Santa Elena with our fellow passengers, abuzz with caffeine and hungry for lunch.

After a satisfying meal, Mallory and I went upstairs to our rooms for a bit of rest. As I typed up the day's notes, I felt a slight rumbling beneath me. Costa Rica had experienced a minor earthquake the day before, and I wondered if I had felt an aftershock. Flipping on the television, a quick consult with the news revealed that it had not been an aftershock at all, but rather a very serious earthquake centered near Poas Volcano. As reports rolled in, we learned that the 6.2-magnitude quake had shocked the country, causing landslides and casualties.

Despite its effects around the country, Monteverde had hardly felt the earthquake. At 5:00 p.m., Mallory and I left for our next tour, a night hike at the Ecological Sanctuary in Cerro Plano, a small town located between Santa Elena and Monteverde. As we approached, the sun began to set, coloring the blue sky with a beautiful combination of orange and red.

We set out hiking at dusk. Our first sighting was a beautiful blue-crowned motmot, a tropical cousin of the kingfisher. In the woods, the air was abuzz with cricket and katydid song. Our guide explained that male insects often call to the females, who choose the most beautiful singer as their mate. To create their soprano tunes, crickets and katydids rub their wings together; the resulting vibration is both beautiful and calming.

The Ecological Sanctuary used to be a farm, and today second growth forest is interspersed with banana trees and patches of fields. Leafcutter ants marched in a line in front of us, as our guide explained a bit about this amazing species. The ants before us were all females -- workers, soldiers and minors -- and each served a purpose: workers are the primary foragers, soldiers guarded the workers and the minors sacrificed themselves as a first line of defense in the event of attack.

We moved on through the forest, bats swooping through the air around us. There are 112 bat species in Costa Rica -- 5% of the world's total -- and 60 species exist in Monteverde. Looking into the trees above us, our guide also spotted a small ball of green feathers: a sleeping emerald tucanette. Just beyond, the city lights of Puntarenas twinkled in the distance, a beautiful backdrop to our night walk.

Our guide carefully led us around a corner, and indicated that an orange-kneed tarantula lived in the hollowed-out stump at our feet. He knew that it was a female tarantula, since males don't live in holes, spending their much shorter lives hunting in the wild. To coax the nearly-blind arachnid out of her log, our guide tickled her legs with a small branch. Anticipating a meal, she hurried out of her cozy home, posed for a few photos, and crawled back inside.

Before we knew it, our tour had finished, and we were back in Santa Elena for a late dinner. Trundling up the steps to the Tree House restaurant, we agreed that tonight we would try the famous cheese fondue, a sublime mix of cheese and spices accompanied by bread, fish, chicken, vegetables and other goodies. It arrived, smelling delicious, and we dug in, as the sound of marimba music danced in the background.

Sated and tired, Mallory and I climbed up to our rooms. Tomorrow, we would visit Sky Trek, the fastest canopy tour in the country, and we needed sufficient rest to build up our courage.

Day 3: Sampling Coffee and a Night Walk in Pictures