Coffee, Volcano, Waterfalls

Our last day in Costa Rica! We had left ourselves a free day in the San Jose area at the end of our trip, just in case something went wrong with our travel arrangements. Of course nothing did go wrong, so we had to decide what to do with that day.

We were staying in the Casa Tago hotel in Alajuela, which was a nice little place and had the advantage of being close to the airport—this was important because our flight left early in the morning. So we asked the owner of the hotel what we should do, and she found us this tour. It included three locations: the Doka Coffee Plantation, Volcán Poás, and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. And besides that it included breakfast and lunch and took up basically the whole day. The price ($100 US per person) seemed a bit high, but when you added up the price of entry to those three locations it really wasn’t that high. So this tour was exactly what we were looking for.

Doka Coffee Plantation

The tour company, Expeditiones Tropicales, was to pick us up at the hotel at 7:45 am. They were a little bit late, and we had to pick up another couple from another Alajuela hotel, but finally we were on our way. There were 21 of us on board our van, with tour guide Donald and driver Cristian. Donald was a very good guide, telling us everything in great detail in alternating English and Spanish.

At the Doka coffee plantation the first thing we did was to have breakfast. With the exception of the eggs, which were incredibly salty, the meal was good. Their gallo pinto was one of the best we had had on our holiday. After that Donald took us over to the processing plant and told us everything there was to know about the harvesting and processing of coffee beans.

The seeds take about two weeks to germinate and when they are three months old, two seeds are planted beside each other in the same hole. One coffee plant is not sturdy enough but two plants protect each other and form a bush. After three years the plants produce coffee beans each year until they are about 25 years old. The pickers are usually from Nicaragua and they earn $3 for every 12 kilograms of beans that they pick.

In the processing area, a very large machine is used to peel the beans and expose the two halves. The beans are then put into a washer which removes the gelatinous material around them, and then they are spread outside in a concrete area to be dried. After that they are mechanically dried for a couple of hours and put into 60-kilogram sacks. Doka exports most of their beans to companies worldwide which roast the beans themselves, but they keep a small quantity which they roast themselves for sale in their shop and restaurant.

There was no processing going on there today, because the harvest had ended in February. We wondered whether the ancient-looking machinery was actually what they used or whether it was just for demonstration purposes.

As usual the last stop was the gift shop. We bought a package of the “peaberry” beans. This is a special type of bean which represents about 5% of the harvest. Rather than being a seed which comes in two halves, the bean is a single round unit (like a pea). The taste of the roasted peaberry beans is said to be less bitter than the ordinary beans.

Volcán Poás

From the coffee plantation we headed up to Volcán Poás. It took about 40 minutes to get there over ups and downs, around sharp corners, using roads which were generally paved. Once we were in the parking lot, Donald tried to organize our rather unruly group. First we walked up to the crater overlook on our own, which took about ten minutes. The crater is 1500 metres across, so looking down into it was very impressive. And the whole area around the lake was devastated rocks with no vegetation. At the moment the volcano is quiet, with only a plume of steam rising from one side of the lake.

We were really lucky with the weather—not only was it not particularly cloudy but the temperature was quite warm. Usually the clouds build up as the day goes on, but today that process hadn’t gone too far yet. Donald gathered us together to tell us some of the history of the volcano. The last major eruption was in 1900, but in 2009 there was an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 just west of the volcano which destroyed a village, killing 34 people.

We had time to walk to a viewpoint over a secondary crater which was located about 800 meters away from the main viewpoint. In this crater was Lago Botos, which was quite lovely to look at. It had a nice-looking beach, too. The trail continued on from here through the cloud forest, so we decided to carry on walking for a while. But soon we realized that we had to turn around to be back at the van by 12:30 pm. Going down the trail seemed to take longer than going up, but by walking quickly we managed to get back in time and (more importantly) there were four other members of our group who arrived after us.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

From Volcán Poás it took us about 40 minutes to get to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. (We stopped briefly at a store where they gave us the hard sell for Costa Rican wines and T-shirts and all sorts of souvenir, but we just bought some bags of plantain chips.) When we got to the gardens, Donald explained the routine and then we headed to the lunch buffet. The food was good and there was plenty of choice. And then, having eaten, we went out to see the sights.

The Waterfall Gardens was a beautiful place. We started in the upper gardens, visiting the aviary first. The aviary had a collection of Costa Rican birds—but they hadn’t collected these birds from the wild. The birds had all been confiscated from people who were keeping them illegally as pets, and they couldn’t survive in the wild. So the Gardens had permission to keep those birds in the aviary. Likewise there was a monkey house with two species of monkey and some sloths, and a wild cat house with jaguars, pumas, and some smaller cats. Without exception the cats were all pacing their cages, which was rather sad.

There was also a butterfly house where they were raising butterflies. Initially it was cool to see a big room full of blue morpho butterflies, but soon we noticed that they were paler and lazier than wild morphos. They spent most of their time sitting and eating, and they didn’t avoid people at all.

And outside there was a hummingbird garden with feeders. Of course the hummingbirds there were wild birds, which was much better. Watching the hummingbirds was fun and we saw three species which we hadn’t seen before on the trip. One of those three was the Coppery-headed Emerald, which is endemic to Costa Rica.

We met up with Donald again and he led us on the last section of the tour. The walk down the pathway to view the waterfalls was really nice. Our route went down 400 steps (or so Donald said), some of which were cantilevered over the edge of the canyon walls. By now the clouds were lower but we were lucky that they weren’t producing rain, only mist. There was a lot of water in the Rio La Paz and so the waterfalls, which were 20 or 30 meters high, were quite spectacular. When we reached the bottom we had to climb up another 90 steps, which brought us up to the gift shop and the parking area where the van was. Once again we found nothing to buy in the gift shop, so we went outside to watch a group of about eight coatis playing in the parking area.

We left about 4:30 pm and headed back through the clouds and mist until we were far enough down the hill. The weather then improved, so by the time we reached Alajuela it was fine. The van dropped us off at Hotel Casa Tago at about 5:30 pm.

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