Tag Archives: Costa Rica

So: Costa Rica, eh?

Friday 7th April 2023 – Rather later than the “couple of days” promised in my last post, here are some valedictory thoughts about Costa Rica, which are worth exactly as much as you’ve paid for ’em.

Overall? We would heartily recommend it for a holiday (or even for travelling). The people are amazingly friendly and helpful, the country is safe and the sights are interesting.  The wildlife is rich, varied and occasionally fascinating. There’s a great variety of microclimates to choose from – cool (and damp) cloud forest to hot (and humid) Caribbean beaches; as well as wildlife watching (which was the main reason we went) there are many activities to choose from –  swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, ziplining, lying around poolside, white water rafting, hiking. This site gives a good overview.

Some research is necessary to ensure your visit is as pleasurable as it can be.

Timing of your visit is important.

  • The rainy (or “green”) season lasts from May to November.  If you don’t like it when it rains, probably best to avoid these times – and anyway bear in mind that in many parts of Costa Rica it can rain at any time, which is why all the hotels provide umbrellas.  Outside the green season, the rain tends to be in sharp showers rather than continuous downpours.  You can find more information here.
  • If you want to see specific phenomena, check your seasons.  In Ostional, turtle season is February. In San Gerardo, Resplendent Quetzal season is March. And so on.

Location is important.

  • If you want to swim in the sea, the Caribbean coast is probably the best place to go.  It’s rarely safe on the Pacific coast, where rip tides are a feature.
  • If you want to have a base and drive around, then there are certain places to avoid, such as the Nicoya peninsula, where the road surfaces are not conducive to driving pleasure. Also, journeys take longer than you might think.  It’s difficult to average more than about 30mph anywhere and often this speed is aspirational rather than achievable.  Twisty roads, trappy road surfaces, and slow traffic due to heavy lorries all mean that patience is a virtue when driving from A to B.

Driving: the country is small enough that a car is a decent way to get around.

  • Every community (which may be as small as a handful of dwellings) seems to have a school for young children.  The areas around the schools are marked in the roads – “ESCUELA” – and on signposts.  The speed limit goes down to 40kph and then 25 kph around each of these areas.  I started off by observing these limits and then realised that no-one else paid them any attention at all so I stopped being so particular about this.
  • However, many (but not all) of these zones are guarded by speed bumps (“Reductor”), many (but not all) of which are painted yellow and/or signposted.  So it pays to be alert. Some of the speed bumps are aggressive.
  • There are also speed bumps to guard some (but not all) junctions with other roads.
  • Most major road surfaces are actually pretty good, although vigilance is required to avoid the occasional guerilla pothole or other degradation of the surface.  Once you get off the major roads, you’re either on dirt tracks, which are by and large fine provided you’re in a reasonably robust vehicle, or the surface is randomly paved and hence treacherous.
  • There was a reasonable supply of fuel stations wherever we went, and we covered most of the country.

Wildlife viewing: having a guide is essential, unless you are very sharp-eyed and expert at spotting small, well-camouflaged and occasionally deadly creatures.  Guides know what to look for when they hear the faintest noise; they know where to look for particular animals and they know the signs to look for that indicate nearby wildlife. And, once they’ve spotted it, they can tell you what it is that you’re looking at and will be able to use your mobile phone camera through a spotter scope to get a photo for you. I really believe that if you go walking unaccompanied you’ll miss 90% of the animals that are nearby.

Photography: if you want to take photos of these animals, for top image quality I recommend that you have with you a camera with the equivalent of a 400mm lens attached.  My particular kit was a Nikon Z6 with a 100-400mm zoom lens, which I used almost exclusively at the 400mm end – and I wished that I had a teleconverter to extend this to 560mm (but it didn’t arrive until after our return, regrettably).  There are other options:  a bridge camera such as the Sony RX10 IV will do a fine job; and increasingly there are mobile phones which will enable you to capture photos and video.  I can recommend the Samsung S22 (or, these days, S23) Ultra, whose 10x zoom capability will enable you to get good results if the light is adequate. And, as I said above, the guide accompanying you (you did arrange one, didn’t you? Good) can often get a decent photo using your phone and his/her spotter scope.

Spending money is easy.  Virtually everywhere we went was equipped to accept cards and, more often than not, phone transactions.  For cash, US dollars are accepted almost universally, and in one or two cases the dollar was the only currency accepted.  We did get some local currency (colones) out of an ATM, but never really needed them.  Some ATMs will dispense dollars as well as colones. It’s worth having cash available for tipping guides.  It’s not obligatory, but if the guide does a good job, I believe it’s the decent thing to do.

The only security tip we received was this: never leave anything in your car.  We were pretty careful and only left the car with anything in it a couple of times – and one of these was in a supermarket car park which had a security patrol.

Our favourite place? The Tranquilo Lodge. Superb in every way.

Our travel organiser? Pura Aventura. Equally highly recommended.

I’m a firm believer in the Reithian diktat which shaped the BBC in its pomp – I try to inform, educate and entertain and I hope I’ve achieved this in some small measure. These pages will go quiet for a while, until either something photographically notable happens to me or we go travelling again.  Whichever it will be, I hope to see you back on this site in the fullness of time. Until then…

Pura Vida!

Day 31 – Heredia: coffee in even more depth

Tuesday 21 March 2023 – We are staying at Finca Rosa Blanca, which is primarily a hotel/resort.  As well as the architectural quirks I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it has a nice line in decorative tiling.

and some other unusual touches in décor, such as this vine and Oropendola nest by reception.

It’s also billed as a coffee farm. There; that’s the revelation I promised in my last post, and it also gives you the tiniest clue as to what most of today’s entry is about. Yes – we had a coffee tour included in the schedule prepared for us by Pura Aventura.

Our guide was Paulo,

who was very knowledgeable and clearly passionate about his coffee.  We walked a few paces down the road to the entrance to the coffee farm

whilst he told us a little of the history of the place.  It was really not what I expected.

The original coffee farm is quite old, whereas the hotel part is relatively new, having been built in the 1980s. When the old coffee farm was put up for sale, the hotel owners decided to buy it, to prevent the land being used for property development.  Having bought what was a traditional, non-organic farm in 2002, they took the radical decision to make it organic.

This is not a trivial matter.

It involves ripping out whatever was there – all of the plants had been treated with chemicals, for example – and replacing them with a completely new plantation of coffee plants and other trees as well.  The process of being certified organic took six years, and so in 2008 they could start with the production of organic coffee.

They replanted coffee (Arabica, of course), as part of a mixed planting, with trees (eg Poro and Banana, underplanted with eg Monstera) to provide shade – important for temperature control, extra nutrients to the soil and to balance the water content, since Arabica is picky about soil moisture. Like the Nortico cacao operation, it’s a mixed system to provide the best growing environment and to preserve the richness of the soil.

The farm is small – 12 hectares – which makes it tiny compared to the 926 hectares at Aquiares, the biggest plantation in Costa Rica.  It’s so tiny, and so directed by the rigours of sustainable, shade-grown, organic coffee production that actually its main customer is the hotel itself. The farm sells a small amount of coffee in its own shop and possibly one or two other local sellers, but that’s it; it’s a sideline for the hotel, but an interesting one.

Listening to Paulo was to start to realise that the layers of complexity about coffee we’d started to peel back at Aquiares were, you guessed it, only a part of the bigger picture.

The Rosa Blanca farm produces sustainable, organic, shade-grown coffee, and it roasts its own – very different from the Aquiares operation which is not shade-grown, not organic and produces mainly green coffee beans which it sends to roasters for them to process.  This is not to say that the Aquiares products are at all inferior; but they are different; and it was interesting (and, yes, boggling) to understand this extra level of subtlety in assessing coffee.

We walked through the farm

towards the mill

with Paulo filling our already-boggling brains with more and more information.

For example: the farm had just finished its harvest.  This started in November, and consists of a first pass, where red cherries (i.e. good quality ones) are hand-picked for processing, followed by a second pass in January to (again hand-)pick any remaining red cherries.  Then in March, the final pass picks everything else – green or red., doesn’t matter; this third pass is destined for lower-grade coffee and it’s important that the coffee bushes are left stripped so they can start regenerating as part of preparation for the next crop.

Thus, when it started raining a couple of days ago, this was bad news, as the bushes started growing flowers again.

Flowers will lead to cherries, but they will ripen just as the rainy season starts (September) and will thus not be picked – not the right weather, and also no workers around to pick them.

We were already familiar with the distinction between Arabica and Robusta coffees. But – oh, goodness gracious me! – there was more to understand here, too.  There are some clear distinctions between the two sorts of coffees.

Arabica (originally from Ethiopia, rather than the Arabic part of Africa, actually) is picky about where it’ll grow – it has to be the right temperature, the right amount of rain (not too much, not too little), the right amount of sun, and it’s self-pollinating – in Costa Rica this means at a specific range of altitudes, between 800 and 2,000 metres above sea level. This sensitivity, by the way, is exposing the Arabica strain to considerable threat from climate change. According to some analyses, it won’t be long before Arabica coffee becomes a thing of the past.

Robusta is not a species, like Arabica, but a collection of species with similar characteristics.  They are, in a Ronseal kind of way, more robust about where they will thrive – so they will grow in lowlands, under a wider variety of weather conditions, and require insect pollination.  Robusta varieties are higher in caffeine which makes them more resistant to insect and other predators.

Robusta is lower quality than Arabica (right now there is no Robusta in Costa Rica). All instant coffee, everywhere, is made from Robusta strains. In Costa Rica, virtually all the top quality (first and second pass) coffee in the entire nation is exported; in the shops, the coffee will be on three shelves:  top shelf, $15 a bag, high quality; middle shelf, $4 a bag, lower quality; bottom shelf, maybe $1 per bag, is made from the third pass remnants. In Europe, supermarket (non-instant) coffee is all premium quality first or second pass coffee.

There’s a sort of Periodic Table of varieties. Here it is.  There will be a quiz later on.

Can’t read it? Doesn’t matter. It’s just too complicated unless you’re a complete coffee nut.

I was quite surprised to hear that coffee is not a principal component of Costa Rica’s export business. For all that most of their coffee is exported, it’s not that much in money terms. Costa Rica’s main export, it seems, is medical technology, an industry developed after Intel first came to the country in about 2005 and their presence catalysed the medical tech business here; it buggered off shortly thereafter, but the med tech companies stayed and are now Costa Rica’s main business.

Here’s the league table of coffee production (as of 2021):

Well, “there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”, as the song goes, so no surprise there. But – Vietnam? It turns out that Vietnam’s coffee is based on Robusta. So, surprisingly, is that of Brazil. If you factor quality of coffee into that figure, many countries, Costa Rica among them, float up that chart.

If you can recall our day at the Aquiares plantation, you’ll remember the bewildering scale of the operation to process the cherries, which involved large buildings, lots of bits of machinery and vast numbers of sacks of coffee awaiting their journey to all corners of the globe.

Here’s the Rosa Blanca operation:

Skinning and initial fermentation

Everything else

Inside the Everything else building are various bits of machinery for dehusking,

sorting by density

and roasting.  All their roasting is done by one expert, Charlie.

It’s not large-scale or high tech, but it’s what’s needed for Rosa Blanca to make their coffee; and their coffee has won first prize awards, too.


With all of these extra shades of subtlety about coffee varieties, history, production and quality, Paulo then boggled us further with a tasting session.  We went upstairs where the table was laid out for us

and Paulo ground two sorts of coffee for us to examine, first dry

to sample the aroma, and then with added hot water (between 85 and 91°C, 190°F).

On the left is medium roast coffee and on the right, dark roast. If you watched the video above, you might have inferred that medium roast coffee is denser than dark roast coffee, as more gases inflate the dark roast beans in that extra minute of roasting. This can be seen just by dipping a spoon lightly into each sort

whereupon you can see that dark roast grounds tend to float more than medium roast grounds.

Having sniffed the dry grounds, we then sampled each coffee, trying to identify the various overtones that are available. The lighter the roast, the more floral or fruity the taste; the darker roast has less acidity but more bitterness.  Paulo pointed us at a flavour chart in the (completely unfounded) expectation that it would help us

I could have told you it was coffee and that the two tasted different from each other; Jane got a bit further by identifying a couple of key tastes. But I’m as useless at such subtlety as I once discovered that I also was with wine.  So it was interesting to note this level of nuance in the tasting of coffee, but Paulo gave us the most important rule:

The best coffee is… the one you like.

The way coffee is ground (coarse, medium, fine), the way it’s prepared (drip, French press, espresso machine) and the amount it’s roasted (light, medium, dark) all affect the final product.  Like wine or music there is no good or bad, simply what you like or don’t.

There were some nice decorative touches in the mill

Traditional coffee transport – ox-cart

Various grinding solutions

and outside there were racks for drying beans in the sun.

Rosa Blanca do fully-washed and other processes – fermented, honey, natural, as shown by the colour of the beans.

Left to right – Fermented, Natural, Honey, Fully-washed

All in all, it was another absorbing, educational and intense education session for us about the intricacies of coffee.  We walked back to the hotel, where another cup of coffee was made for us, to round off the experience, whereupon we retreated to our apartment to mull over what we’d learned (and I tried to write it up before I forgot all the stuff that I’d just been told).


This has brought you up to date. I sit here, typing in the present tense after a late lunch and we now start preparing for our departure from Costa Rica tomorrow, because this was our last call on our 13-stop itinerary around an extraordinary country.

It has been extraordinary.

In 31 days, I’ve taken a smidge over 4,000 photos on my Big Camera, and 1,300 photos and 200 videos on my phone. Jane has recorded over 1,400 photo and 65 videos on her phone. 200GB of content. Thank you, Nikon and Samsung, for your help with the quantity.  It has been a pleasure seeking the wheat from amongst the very considerable amount of chaff, and dressing it up so you can read about the many wonderful things we’ve seen whilst we’ve been here; thank you for accompanying us as we’ve stumbled from place to place.

Our taxi arrives to take us to the airport at – oh, fucking hell! – 0515 tomorrow.  I shall try to pull together some valedictory thoughts over the next couple of days to close off this section of this blog.  In the meantime…

Thank you. Thank you for reading my blog.



Day 30 – Tranquilo to Heredia

Monday 20 March 2023 – As I said yesterday, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with our stay at the delightful Tranquilo Lodge. We had a relaxed schedule (nice change!) so could have a leisurely breakfast before saying our goodbyes.

The Lodge also had some last-minute wildlife for us. All the time we were there, Scarlet Macaws were flying to and from a tree in the far distance, in preparation, Sebastien told us, for mating. This was, sadly, the only chance to see them and we couldn’t get close enough for a decent photo.

A Broad-winged Hawk was a little more obliging.

But we had a couple of gigantic insects on our veranda: a couple of Giant Katydids – each about 4 inches long not counting antennae

and, most impressively, a Dead Leaf Moth, one of the Giant Silk Moth family.

Here it is with a light switch for scale – it was the size of my hand.

So we said goodbye to Sumi and Raj, and Matthew and Jean-Pierre (lovely guys, but expensive acquaintances, these two – discussions with them have simply increased the length of the list of places we now want to visit) and, of course, Sebastien and Christophe.

Our four days at the Lodge were a superb, relaxed, comfortable, enjoyable and good-humoured counterbalance to the intense days that preceded them. Sad as it was to leave, our next destination, the Finca Rosa Blanca in Heredia, beckoned.

Heredia is, like Alajuela, where we stayed on arriving into Costa Rica, a suburb just north of San José, not too far from the airport. Since Drake Bay has its own airport, a flight from one to the other is the logical way to travel between the two. But first we had to endure the road from the Lodge to the airport, which was quite as bad as anything we’d encountered when we were driving ourselves around, But we made it OK, to a very tiny aerodrome,

where we checked in and were given our boarding passes.

There was no air conditioning in the building, but a very hot and humid day was somewhat mitigated by the giant fans in the roof – three of them in total.

We were amused by the manufacturer’s name, which had a distinct Ronseal overtone it it.

Our aeroplane, we discovered, was a Cessna Caravan (C208B for the aeroplane afficionados among you), which flew in and was swiftly loaded with the passengers’ bags.

and we rather informally wandered out to it

and boarded – 12 passengers and the plane was full.

Jane made an inspired choice of window seat, so I brutally dragged her out of it so I could take photos as we went along the 40-minute journey.

We had to wait a few minutes in San José airport to make contact with the driver who was to take us onwards, but Jane eventually found her and off we went, past an example of a sign I had been wanting, childishly, to take a photo of ever since we’d arrived.

Get your ferrets here! 😉

Yes, I know it’s an ironmongery. It still makes me chortle because I haven’t grown up properly yet.

San José’s main roads are fine, but as soon as you get away from them the surfaces deteriorate alarmingly and we did a fair bit of crater and pothole slaloming as we went along. But we made it OK to Finca Rosa Blanca, which will be our final resting place in Costa Rica; we have two nights here. We were welcomed and checked in in a very smooth and professional fashion and whisked along to our room to settle in.

It’s a funny old place – architecture somewhere between César Manrique, as we saw on Lanzarote recently, and the confected appearance of Binibèquer Vell, where we stayed one night in Menorca.

The entrance hall to our apartment is, well, entrancing.

Our entrance hall

and the pool is a thing of joy,

lavishly decorated.

The site has an “Old House” – once the building where all the accommodation was, before more modern apartments were added.

It’s a resort, with reasonably substantial grounds, but based around a function that I will reveal to you in the next post. There. Can’t wait, can you?