Viaje de Cafė

Drinking in the sights and smells with the coffee masters of Costa Rica

I wake up at 3 am to the sound of screaming.

In my half-awake, half asleep state, I’m only mildly alarmed, but I remember quickly that one of my new housemates is a finicky rooster that likes to wake everyone up by screaming every morning. I don’t know who decided the sound that a rooster makes is “cocka-doodle-doo,” but they were dead wrong.

I toss and turn for a few more hours, trying to get back to the deep sleep I was in before, but with no luck. I hear my host family stirring around 6 am, Hernan getting ready for work, Tatiana getting ready for school, and little Matthias running around and yelling in his high-pitched voice, “¡Mamá! ¡Papá!” These are my favorite moments to listen to my host family, when they’re just chatting and laughing, enjoying their last few moments together before parting ways for the day.

Our host mom, Cindy, calls out to tell Malorie and me that breakfast is ready. We dine on gallo pinto, lightly fried bananas, and fresh cheese from the family farm. Cindy sets out coffee for Mallory and tea for me, same as the past 3 mornings we’ve spent in her home. Every morning, the kindness and hospitality of my homestay family amazes me.

Malorie and I finish getting ready and say goodbye to Cindy and Matthias. We head down the hill to the spot where we will meet up with the rest of our classmates, passing curious cows and dogs with muddy paws that like to show their love by jumping all over us. When we join up with our group, we notice we’ve been followed by one of the needier dogs that had been kicked off of campus the day before. We all try to shoo it away, but every so often it sneaks closer, breaking our hearts with its need for love.

A needy dog tries to sneak along with the group.

After about half and hour of talking and waiting, we see other members of our group heading our way, led by Jeremy, one of the naturalists on campus. Today we are touring Finca La Bella, a coffee farm and one of the jewels of San Luis that attracts coffee connoisseurs from all over the world, and Jeremy will act as our translator.

I’m excited for the tour, but I have a strange relationship with coffee, which is why I chose tea for my breakfast drink. I used to hate the taste of the coffee, but as a college student constantly surrounded by caffeine fanatics, I’ve been drinking it and liking the taste more and more. Instead of waking me up, coffee usually just makes me jittery and sweaty, probably because I usually only buy sugary iced drinks from Starbucks.

Nevertheless, I immediately have high hopes for Costa Rican coffee when we arrive at the home of Gilberth Lobo, farmer and coffee extraordinare. He has a tanned face and muscular arms, and he looks strong and durable. It’s obvious he’s an athlete, even before he begins to talks about how he runs up a massive, nearly vertical hill every morning with his homestay son for the week, Zach.

Gilberth giving an introduction to our tour while Jeremy translates.

Gilberth immediately makes us all feel welcome by saying that the tour is very informal, and that we shouldn’t hesitate to ask questions about anything at all. With Jeremy translating every so often, Gilberth explains that coffee is part of Costa Rican culture, and that kids here start drinking coffee at a young age.

He explains how you can start to distinguish diferentes aspectos of coffee the more you drink it. You can figure out if the coffee has been sitting with other things that might change its flavor, or recognize if the coffee has been tainted in some way, gotten burned or left in storage for too long. When I drink black coffee, the only word that ever pops into my head is “bitter,” so it’s interesting to learn about all the different ways one can describe the flavor of coffee.

Different types of coffee beans are displayed.

Gilberth also talks about the shift in coffee production from the traditional use of pesticides to an organic approach, which is not only better for the environment, but also safer for Gilberth’s family.

He explains that coffee grows best at altitudes between 900 and 1400 meters, in areas that receive about 8 hours of daylight per day. Not surprisingly, the mountain town of San Luis provides the perfect climate for growing coffee plants.

Someone asks what Gilberth enjoys more: coffee, or exercise. He says: Café, ejercicio y trabajo — in the right proportions — are very important in his life. He says he only drinks about 8 cups of coffee a day, and everyone laughs.

Gilberth takes us out to his farm, showing us old and new coffee plants, with his many dogs trotting along at our feet. He shows us the fungus that plagues the plants- roya, or coffee rust. Fortunately, because Gilberth’s farm is a polyculture farm, he can weather any years of bad attacks on his coffee plants by utilizing the diversity of crops he grows.

As we stroll through the property with the golden morning sun peaking through the trees, we see examples of this diversity all around us. Fat oranges hang from trees, bananas emerge like spiky flower petals, and corn stands in neat rows. We arrive at the top of a hill and take turns grinding sugar cane to make a sickly sweet juice. I accept a small tin cup and sip the juice, finding it strange at first, but surprisingly tasty as it goes down. We toast with our cups, and I down the rest of my juice, feeling the sugar build up on the back of my teeth.

Churning out sugar cane for sugary juice.

Almost at the end of our tour, we pass a beautiful treehouse, and Gilberth says he built it for his grandchildren to play in. I duck inside and marvel at the tiny table and chairs, and the carefully painted Snow White scene on the walls. I can imagine that growing up in a place like Finca La Bella would be paradise.

Once we’ve returned to the house, Gilberth turns on his million-dollar smile and shakes each of our hands. He turns to me first, and I add a sincere muchas gracias when he squeezes my hand. His kind eyes twinkle.

Directed by Jaime Conlan.

We leave Gilberth’s house and head up the road to La Bella Tica Café and meet Oldemar, who explains to us the different processes he uses to make his coffee beans. He grows his coffee in the shade and hand-picks the coffee cherries. He then can make two different types of coffee: a “washed coffee,” made from drying the beans for 25 days, and a “natural coffee,” a much sweeter coffee made from drying the beans for 50 days.

At the end of the demonstration is the treat we’ve all been waiting for: real Costa Rican coffee. We line up and choose from a diverse collection of eager mugs, and give adamant thanks to Olmedar’s wife, Elsie, who has been preparing the coffee spread for us. I pour myself a cup and hesitate, but end up adding a generous amount of powdered cream and sugar, because at the end of the day, I’m no coffee purist. I take a sip, and it’s the best coffee I’ve ever had. Starbucks has nothing on La Bella Tica Café, a coffee haven in the middle of the jungle.

I had to steal Malorie’s cup to take this photo because I had already drank my entire cup.

I end up buying a bag to bring home to my family, and start to head back to campus, more than ready for lunch. However, about 5 minutes into our walk, I stop short with a sharp sense of dread. I realize that I’ve forgotten my rain jacket back at the café. My brain struggles to think of any option that would not require me to walk right back up the steep hill we just walked down, but it comes up with nothing. Being in Costa Rica during the rainy season, with no umbrella, means that my rain jacket is my most prized possession.

Luckily, one of the tour guides says she’ll walk back with me to get my jacket. I feel terrible for being the reason she might be late for lunch, but she assures me it’s no problem, and honestly, I’m glad to have the company. She tells me her name is Carolina, and that she’s interning at the UGA Costa Rica campus as a naturalist. We talk about our lives, sharing facts about ourselves in between our labored breaths.

Carolina, naturalist and one of the translators for the day.

Carolina is from the Mexico side of El Paso, Texas. She says she’s studying environmental science, and has always known she wanted to work outside in nature because she spent her entire childhood running around outside. She talks about how she loves animals and has three cats of her own, as well as a herd of strays that her family feeds from their porch. That’s why she hates the part of her job that requires her to shoo wayward dogs off of campus.

We talk about our brothers for a while, who are nearly the same age (hers is 15, mine is 16). She’s close with her brother, just like me, and she talks about how his birthday is coming up and she wants to spoil him with presents.

Once I retrieve my jacket and we’re almost back to campus, the conversation shifts to how important it is for scientists to be able to communicate to the masses and break down complex concepts into more simple ideas that everyone can understand. I think back over the day spent at Finca La Bella, how at each stop we made, every aspect of the coffee making process was explained in easy to understand concepts. Gilberth and Oldemar took the time and care to ensure that the complex science that is coffee production wouldn’t be lost on us. The world could use more passionate scientists like the coffee creators of San Luis.

When Carolina and I make it back to campus, we are happy to see that there’s still a line out the door of people waiting to grab lunch. I thank her again, and we part ways for the day, both of us fanning our sweaty faces.

I try to resist the small white mugs at the front of the line, but it’s no use. I’m fully on the coffee train now. I pour myself another piping hot cup, and go off to find my friends.

A friendly cow moos at us while we tour the coffee farm.