Sunday, January 27, 2013

Costa Rican GPS

We'd arranged to stay our last night in the Marriott near San Jose airport so set out bright and early with Jimmy's younger brother Juan Carlos as our driver/guide.  The aim was to take a coffee plantation tour and then visit the Poas Volcano near San Jose.

Poas is the nearest of a number of active volcanos that ring San Jose which itself is in a large plain surrounded by mountains.  They are aligned like pearls on a chain, due to the 'north east subduction' of the Pacific tectonic plate under the Caribbean plate.  Poas is one of the most active volcanoes along with Arenal and Irazu.  It is also really near to the Doka coffee plantation, the one that we intended to visit as its coffee plantations were dotted all over the slopes of the volcano.

Poas crater ... on a clear day!

First of all though we had to find it.

I'd noticed that both Jimmy and Juan Carlos while being the most agreeable and pleasant of guys never either spoke ill of anyone or anything or spoke in anything other than superlatives.  It also meant that when they suggested something that it was the best of its kind, no doubt.  100% the best.  However they were also incredibly vague.  I'd asked to do the Classic Britt coffee tour and Jimmy had agreed yet at the last moment he recommended the absolute best tour of all, which was undoubtedly Doka Estates and as it was conveniently on the way to Poas we could really take our time and enjoy it thoroughly.

So Doka it was.

The way there was via what seemed like backroads and as we got ever nearer it became clear that Juan Carlos really didn't know the way.  He called Jimmy a couple of times who seems to have put him straight but as the road steepened as we neared a mountain of some sort, he started looking around for inspiration even after stopping on several occasions to ask the way.  Culmination came when we spotted directions to the coffee estate on a sign post and Juan Carlos took the other fork down a hill saying that they must have changed the way in.

A bit late to help Juan Carlos, I know!

However his curious method of navigation which followed few of the suggested roads shown on the map finally bore fruit as we rolled into the estate half an hour ahead of the 11 am tour.  It gave us the chance to try some of their coffees but more importantly tour the estate (not the coffee tour) which was laid out in a very nice, one might say harmonious, manner.

Note the bean motif in the pathway.  A nice touch.

They had a butterfly enclosure.  Butterflies are all over Costa Rica, all throughout South America too  due to the proliferation of forests and the fabulous flora.  The ones we saw in the enclosure were simply gorgeous.  Doka exports containers full of butterfly larvae all over the world in addition to their coffee.

The tour itself was great too.  The guide was enthusiastic which is always an important first point and took us through the various stages of the process starting with the planting of seeds -- they germinate really slowly and stay in small containers for a year -- and then the planting out of yearlings within the various plantations -- Doka controls 24,000 acres of plantations, all but 3,000 of which are independent.  Plants produce their first cherries after 4 years and then for 24 or so more years after that.

Coffee seedlings

The red coffee cherries on a mature plant

The cherry itself is in 4 parts -- the skin, the pulp, the inner skin, and then the bean itself.  Usually there are 2 beans in each cherry but sometimes there are hybrids -- that producing one bean is called a 'peaberry' and produces a premium bean and hence coffee.  The one producing 3 are rolled into the general melange.  They taste awful raw -- I tried one!

24,000 Guatemalan temporary workers (one per acre) come to Costa Rica each picking season to work the Doka plantations where they stay for 4 months picking up to 15 baskets of cherries per day (value to them $2 per basket) at the end of which a family of 4 has earned enough for a year in Guatemala.  Apparently 25% of the total cost is labour which is statutorily controlled by government so as to ensure nobody is ripped off.  Doka's main customers are Starbucks and Green Mountain who take 80% of the total output -- they make dead sure that the Fair Trade label on their cartons is just that.

Then comes the washing, shredding, drying and finally 3 months worth of aging before the final peeling, grinding and roasting. None of it is hi tech at all -- the machinery is 115 years old for goodness sake, made in London too!  As for the drying, even I had a go at the drying process!

Beans air and sun dry for 5 days to produce the best quality coffee being turned every 45 minutes.

OK I'm a fan of coffee, I admit.  But think of the statistics.  Coffee is the 2nd most traded commodity (Oil being #1) and 2nd most drunk beverage (behind water) but ahead of in order tea, beer, wine and then ... wait for it ... Coca Cola.  Numbers 1 through 5 are generic but Coke (the guys who invented Santa in red) are well Coke.  That is an amazing statistic and one that we should all remember when putting together our investment portfolios (and no that's not a recommendation, just a thought!).

Pre-roasted green beans at the front, roasted at the back.  The best quality roasted beans are at back left.  The decaf beans are bottom left -- an ugly brown color with all the caffeine sweated out of them in Germany of all places.  The German plant does it for nothing incidentally just keeps the caffeine that it sells to Red Bull!

Juan Carlos suggested we stay at the estate for lunch as it is wonderful and provides typical cuisine but we were adamant and found a place nearer to the volcano which was wonderful and provided typical cuisine too.  Interestingly one table with local businessmen drank nothing but imported beers -- Stella Artois, Heineken and Corona -- over the local brew which are all uniformally very good indeed.  Perhaps it is a status symbol.

As we neared the entrance to the Poas volcano it became clear that the weather was against us.  When we reached the top we could see no more than 50 metres in any direction -- Juan Carlos helpfully said he'd been there 5 times before and each time it was nice and clear.  Oh well, better luck next time.

At the top of Poas -- that is mist not my lousy camera

The way back to the hotel utilized all Juan Carlos' skill and ingenuity, not to mention charm and persuasiveness with complete strangers to manage but he did in the end so all's well that ended well.
So fare well Costa Rica.  Its been a blast!

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