Costa Rica

Alajuela, Costa Rica – Arrival and the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation

We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica after traveling for 7 hours, stopping through Houston IAH on the way. We had a tight connection in Houston…38 minutes to get from Terminal B to Terminal E, which, incredibly both ourselves and our luggage completed successfully.

I am ashamed to say that after running a distance of roughly 0.2 miles, my legs were sore the next day.

We arrived in San Jose around 2:30pm, and following a fairly quick walk through immigration and customs, emerged into the chaos that is the arrivals curb at SJO airport. It was jam-packed with people offering tours, rental cars and unofficial taxis. I had been instructed to take the official orange cabs that lined the curb, but their drivers were nowhere to be found. A kindly stranger let us know we could meet the driver by the exit doors, but there was such a crowd gathered that it was impossible to dive back in…especially when you have a huge backpack strapped to you.

A taxi agent flagged us down and pointed to the cabs…”you need a taxi?” Before we knew it, a wiry little man dragged us to the center median. “You wait here” he said, before he disappeared to get his taxi cab. I realized immediately that we were about to take an unofficial taxi, but figured we had enough travel sense not to get conned.

In the end we were driven about 5km for the bargain price of $27. I guess we paid extra for the privilege of being terrified while our cabbie squeezed between the curb and the other cars who were occupying the single lane. Our first mistake was accepting the ride, our second mistake was paying him in colones and messing up the exchange rate. 1 colon is 0.0018 dollars, so the bills start at 1,000 colones, but the lowest we had was 10,000 ($18). I misread the number of zeroes and handed him far too much…this ride was supposed to clock in around $5-8. He was great about it though, as he deftly shortchanged me before speeding off. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer after 7 hours of flying under the influence of 2 Benedryls…lesson learned. Take the orange cabs!

We are staying in Alajuela, which is about 10km away from San Jose proper. Alajuela is a small town, it’s main function seems to be selling scratch-off lottery tickets and providing tourists any America fast-food option they desire. They got ’em all: Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Burger King and McDonalds. Strangely absent is Subway…but I suppose it’s only a matter of time. Alajuela does have it’s charming side, mainly the Parque Central, which is shaded by beautiful mango trees.20140805-204138-74498892.jpgWe are staying at Hotel Mi Tierra, which is actually a hostel, which suits our needs just fine. It is equipped with what’s known as a “suicide shower”, picture below:20140805-204620-74780708.jpgNow this isn’t really a reflection on our hostel; this getup is very common in Costa Rica. The standalone water heater that you all know and love is not an item that is familiar to the Ticos (as the Costa Ricans like to call themselves), and this dangerous-looking item works by heating or at least warming water as it passes through the shower head. Think of it as “just-in-time” hot water. The water is heated by an electric heating element contained in the shower head itself. Yes, you read that correctly. What could go wrong?

My shower this morning was taken whilst standing nervously atop thick, rubber shower shoes…careful not to touch the shower head, the walls, or most importantly, the metal water control on the bathroom wall in front of me. Becci sat nervously in the bedroom and made me swear not to pull the old “I’m being shocked” routine. I promised that any electrocution that she witnessed would be legit.

Shockingly, I survived.

In other bathroom-related news, the plumbing of Alajuela cannot accommodate toilet paper (pun acknowledged but not necessarily intended). Used tissue is to be placed in the waste basket. Yup. We bought dog poo bags at the MegaSuper to help us make this work out.

After checking out our accommodations, we headed out in search for food and drink, which we found in the fantastic Jalapeño Central restaurant. This little tex-mex serves up one hell of a delicious dinner. We dined heartily on beans, rice, guacamole, pico-de-gallo, burritos and chilli-con-carne. After washing all that down with a couple of Imperial lagers, we headed back home and fell asleep before 9pm. Score!

For our first official full day in Costa Rica, we visited the Doka Coffee Plantation, which is about 15km away from Alajuela in the Highlands region of the Valle Central. We decided to take a bus from Alajuela’s station. On our way to the terminal, we stopped in at the Mercado Central. There are about 400 vendors selling everything from sacks of queso (yes, please!), meats and veg and some very fashionable calculator watches.20140805-205048-75048048.jpgThere are also many sopas (small counter-type restaurants) inside, which filled the whole place with delicious smells.

We were advised to take a bus to the village of Sabadilla, and then a taxi to the estate. However, once we arrived at the station, we were pointed towards a bus that had a different destination on the front. As we followed our progress on the gps, we were getting closer to our destination, but never actually seeming to take anything that resembled a direct route to our destination. It was hard to be too concerned…even if we just took a bus around the countryside for an hour before heading back to Alajuela, we had some great views along the way. Once you leave Alajuela, you immediately start to climb into the surrounding hills, which are virtually impossible to see when walking around the town. 15 minutes into the ride we were staring down at the valley of San Jose and Alajuela which spread out beneath us.20140805-210413-75853891.jpgAfter a while, even the views couldn’t distract me from the fact that the bus route didn’t seem to go where we thought it would. We eventually bailed when we saw a sign that said Doka Estate –> 1km.

It was a long, steamy 1km…which I suspect was actually double that distance…uphill. Like, really uphill. As we plodded along the side of the road, we passed a couple of Ticos sitting on their porch. “Americanos”, one tutted to his friend. Yup. That’s us.20140805-210805-76085358.jpgThe Doka Estate Coffee Plantation has been operating for 120 years, and covers 450 acres of land. Doka is a “wet mill”, which means that the entire operation of processing the coffee is powered by water. In fact, the wet mill on the property is the oldest continuously functioning mill in Costa Rica, still kicking after 110 years. Doka grows only Arabica coffee (by law; the Costa Rican market is not big enough to compete in quantity…only quality) and exports 70% of its production to Europe, the US and Japan. The Estate keeps the rest and sells it onsite.20140805-215547-78947933.jpg
The next tour was to start about two hours after our arrival, so we amused ourselves by walking around the estate. There was ample opportunity to sample their coffee, which we graciously accepted. 20140805-211600-76560728.jpg Included in the price of the tour is access to the butterfly garden and bonsai garden. Unfortunately, both were closed without explanation, so we were relegated to wandering through the vegetable gardens and watching the butterflies al fresco. The grounds not dedicated to growing coffee are full of colorful flowers, vegetable plots, fruit trees and eucalyptus. It was the first time I actually felt as though we were in the tropics.

20140805-211453-76493837.jpg20140805-211454-76494150.jpgLunch was also included (delicious) and we were plied with more coffee, including an incredible concoction of coffee, lots of milk, cinnamon and chocolate served icy cold…but sans ice cubes. John dubbed it “The Spicy Cow” and I challenge you, our dear readers, to order this drink at every Starbucks in Nashville, until they are forced to add it to their menu by the time we get home. You can do it, people!

The tour started by getting to know the coffee plants in their various life stages from the seed to the fully grown plant. Coffee plants can reach an age of around 100 years, although they lose a step as they get older. Plants on this plantation are allowed to keep on keeping on for 25 years. From freshly planted bean, each plant takes 4 years to produce it’s first useable beans, and they continue to produce a crop every year after that. Beans exist on the plant in all stages of ripeness, but only the fruit that is red and ripe is picked and processed. These are unripe beans:20140805-215703-79023635.jpgAll the beans at Doka are hand-picked, and the majority of the seasonal workers come from Nicaragua. Costa Ricans make up only 10% of the workforce. Each picker straps on a cahuela, which is essentially a medium sized laundry basket, worn strapped to the waist. The cahuela is also the unit of measurement the crop is counted by; a cahuela is 25lbs of coffee beans. The worker is given $2 for each cahuela; a worker usually collects 20 cahuelas a day. 25lbs of beans eventually becomes 7lbs of ground coffee, which was the reason given for the low wage. In addition to $40/day, the workers are housed and fed on the plantation year round.

After the beans are collected, they are sent to the first selection station.20140805-213902-77942373.jpg The beans are dumped into a vat in the floor, which is filled with water. The “good” beans have a higher density and sink to the bottom of the vat, where they are sucked up a pipe and float to the next stage. The inferior beans (un-ripe or infested) float to the top and are siphoned into a different batch for processing. These beans are still used…but they are not considered high quality and are only sold on the Costa Rican market. The next step is to separate the beans from their red skin (later used for compost) and sort them into different sizes. Still separated by quality, they go through a tumbler and become sorted by size.20140805-214643-78403433.jpgA genetic mutation in the coffee plant sometimes produces the Peaberry bean, a single bean as opposed to the two halves that are typical. 20140805-214832-78512452.jpgThe Peaberry is a sweeter bean, and Doka regards this particular mutation a valuable one. Their Peaberry roast is delicious!

After the beans are separated into size, they soak in water-filled troughs for 40hrs, until natural fermentation has stripped the slimy sweet outer layer of the bean. The beans are then taken outside to dry, where they will stay for 4 days under the morning and afternoon sun. The beans are raked every 45 minutes to ensure that they are dried evenly. John wasn’t doing much, so we put him to work.20140805-215334-78814898.jpg The dried beans are then stored for 3 months inside until they are shipped off to be roasted.20140805-215524-78924191.jpg
The 30% that the Estate keeps are roasted onsite. For no particular reason, I always thought that the roasting process took a long time. An Espresso bean, the darkest roast, is only roasted in one of these machines for 20 minutes.

20140805-215924-79164998.jpg A medium roast, such as a French roast takes 17 minutes. The lightest roast takes 15 minutes. Only 1% of the coffee that remains at Doka becomes Decaffeinated coffee. Pre-roasting, the beans to be decaffeinated are shipped to Germany, where the caffeine is removed via a process involving very hot water. The extracted caffeine is kept and sold to companies such as Coca-Cola, Red Bull and other energy drink/meds.

Our tour ended with more coffee sampling, including some chocolate and yoghurt covered beans. Before we left for the walk back to the bus stop, I snuck away into the fields for a final picture on the Estate.
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Thankfully, the walk back was mostly downhill, and since we weren’t too full of rage or staring down at our dragging feet, we could actually take in some of the scenery we missed during the ascent. The Valle Central is packed full of coffee plantations, and the rolling hills are covered with greenery as far as the eye can see.20140805-220928-79768197.jpg20140805-220928-79768421.jpg20140805-220927-79767986.jpg
Back at home base, we decided to take brief nap before foraging for food. The guy practicing his drumming next door had a different idea. While I stared at the ceiling listening to the racket, which alternated between drum solos and dogs barking (probably at all that snare drum), John snored beside me. He has an uncanny ability to fall asleep under any conditions.

As the sun finally set, we headed back to Jalapeño Central for more tip-top food. This may be our only back-to-back restaurant repeat so far on the trip. It’s just that good.20140805-221327-80007607.jpg
Thanks for an awesome day, Costa Rica! Tomorrow we tackle a volcano!

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