An Unforgettable Coffee Tour At Finca Rosa Blanca In Costa Rica

finca rosa blanca coffee tourCoffee! It’s the most addictive drug in the world. Many of us could barely function without it, but have you ever toured a coffee plantation? I hadn’t until I stumbled upon a coffee plantation and inn called Finca Rosa Blanca near San Jose last week. We were set to arrive in Costa Rica just before nightfall and the idea of immediately heading south to our first stop, Manuel Antonio National Park, in the dark didn’t seem enticing.

Finca Rosa Blanca (FRB) is only about 25 minutes from the San Jose airport and they offer coffee tours twice daily, so it’s an ideal place to start or end a trip to Costa Rica depending on your itinerary. Glenn and Terry, the American owners of FRB, moved to the country in 1985. Glenn’s mom purchased the land where the inn sits intending to build a vacation home, but she died and Glenn decided to open an inn on the land she purchased. Twelve years later, they bought some adjacent land that had been part of a commercial coffee estate with the intention of expanding their business to produce organic, shade grown estate coffee.

finca rosa blancaThe inn is set in a lush, tropical forest in hilly Heredia. At night, the temperature dips and there is no need for air conditioning. We slept with the windows open and woke to the sounds of chirping birds, a delightful novelty for city dwellers. After a delicious breakfast, we met Leo Vergnani, our coffee guide, along with three other visitors who’d be joining us on the 2-1/2 hour tour. ($35 per person, kids are free) Our group included two Leos, two Nicks, and two Jens, plus me and my son, James.

As we walked across the street from the inn toward the coffee plantation, Leo told me that he was born near Venice, Italy, and his father, an engineer, moved the family to Costa Rica in 1978, after he was offered a two-year contract to work in San Jose.

“But we liked it here, so we decided to stay,” he said, before pausing and adding the phrase, muy bien.

In the roasting room, Leo gave us a primer on worldwide coffee production. There are 103 coffee species, and about 6,000 varietals, but only three species have commercial value: liberica, which makes up about 5% of the world supply of coffee, robusta, (23%), and Arabica, ( 72%).

coffee beansNicholas, a Frenchman who was on the tour to learn more about coffee for his job at a New York restaurant, made a joke about robusta coffee but Leo quickly corrected him.

“We never say robusta is terrible coffee,” he said. “It’s just a different species.”

Leo said that Norwegians drink the most coffee, while Brazil produces the most, at about 53% of the world’s supply. Vietnam is #2 in production at about 17%, though they only produce robusta, which was illegal to produce in Costa until 1978. Costa Rica produces only about 1.5% of the world’s supply of coffee.

finca rosa blanca coffee tour“We used to be thought of as a banana republic and a coffee country,” he said. “But these days tourism is by far our most important industry, followed by high-tech and coffee is considerably further down the list.”

Leo told us a little bit about the lengthy process of becoming a certified organic producer and about how some corner-cutting producers add all kinds of nasty things to their coffee.

“Producers used to mix in arsenic but it was killing their customers,” he said. “Some used blood, iodine, and other things and then in 1894, they started using sugar.”

Nick, a thirty-something New Jersey native, told the group that his employer was conducting research on the dangers of sugar and scared the hell out of us all when he said, “The coffee you drink from Dunkin’ Donuts could kill you.”

coffee beans“When you go to the store, the labels on the coffee usually don’t tell you anything useful,” Leo explained. “You want to know what region the coffee is from, the altitude of that place and lots of other things. You need to buy from reputable specialty stores and ask questions.”

He said that it took FBR 7 years to become certified as an organic producer and complained that the cost of the process unfortunately has to be passed onto consumers.

“Basically, the industry made such a huge mess, using sugars and all these things that today we have to pay more just to go back in time to produce coffee the way our grandparents did 60 years ago,” he said.

banana treeWe trekked through the lush, tropical plantation, with Leo stopping to show us things, like how banana trees were essentially living “irrigation systems” (see photo) and offer insights, usually punctuating each sentence with the phrase, muy bien.

It was a perfect morning. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the temperature was about 75, the birds were singing, and there was a light breeze sweeping through the green terrain of banana plants and trees. I couldn’t have been happier.

Leo told us that in 2012 FRB produced 148 100-pound sacks of coffee, 80% of which was sold or consumed at the inn. FBR had just concluded its harvest in mid-January but there were still some beans left on the trees unpicked. Leo said that a typical workday for the coffee pickers was 6 a.m. – 2 p.m. They are paid based on productivity and good pickers make about $25-30 per day. Unroasted coffee sells for about $1.28 a pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

“Once roasted, we get about $16 a pound for our coffee, retail, or about $6-7 a pound wholesale,” Leo said, before noting that about 7-8% of what they produce goes to the U.S. and Canada through an importer called Café Milagro.

coffee tour finca rosa blancaAfter our walking tour, we returned to the inn’s restaurant for a coffee tasting. Leo put a big scoop of cheap coffee from a producer that uses sugar in a glass of ice water and then put a scoop of FRB coffee in a second glass.

“You see,” he said. “The sugary coffee turns the whole glass of water a murky brown, but our coffee, it sights right on top of the water.”

So there’s a litmus test for you to find out how good your coffee is.

“Coffee tasters have no manners,” Leo said before giving us two FBR varietals to try. “I want you to put your nose to the drink, then moved it along the whole cup to breath in the aroma. Then I want you to slurp as fast and as noisy as you can. Pay attention to the tip of your tongue.”

My little boys, ages 3 and 5, loved Leo’s noisy slurping and then when he spit his coffee, they were truly thrilled (see video above). Leo gave us an introduction on how to taste for sweetness, acidity and bitterness and as the tour drew to a conclusion, there was only one more thing I wanted: more of their damn good coffee.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

GeoEx Family Adventures Provide Experiences Of A Lifetime

GeoEx Family Adventures designed for all agesAdventure travel company GeoEx is one of the best in the business when it comes to organizing unique excursions to the far corners of the globe. For more than 30 years they’ve been planning trips to some of our planet’s more off-the-beaten-path locations, giving travelers experiences that simply can’t be found elsewhere. In fact, we recently shared five new destinations that the company is adding to its catalog for 2013, expanding their already impressive line-up even further.

While it is commonly known that the company caters to the experienced adventure traveler, not everyone is aware that they also offer a number of fantastic options for families. The GeoEx Family Adventures are designed for travelers of all ages, providing fun and adventurous options for everyone. These trips move at a bit more of a leisurely pace, allowing small children and older members of the family to stay together at all times. They also feature accommodations and activities that are geared for a wide range of ages, making it much easier for a multi-generational clan to enjoy traveling with one another.

Just because these trips are focused on the entire family doesn’t mean that they’ve dialed back on the adventure, however. Options include a hiking, biking and rafting excursion to Costa Rica’s rainforest, a trekking expedition to the Himalaya kingdom of Bhutan and family safaris to both Kenya and South Africa. In short, these are full-blown adventure travel experiences, complete with culture, history and wildlife, that just so happen to also be well tailored for both young and old. And just so parents can rest a little easier on these trips, GeoEx has a 24/7 safety network standing by to lend assistance should the need arise.

If you’re starting to plan options for family travel in 2013, the GeoEx Family Adventures are a great option. Check out the full list of available itineraries by clicking here.

[Photo Credit: GeoEx]

Mandatory Car Rental Insurance: Watch Out For Bait-And-Switch Pricing

scamMandatory insurance. Those are two words that I hate to hear when I’m renting a car outside the U.S. On Thursday night, I spent an hour and a half in a Thrifty Rent a Car location near the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, trying to understand how an eight-day rental that I expected to pay $394 for was somehow going to cost me either $786 or $946. I’m an experienced traveler and I should have known better. Here’s how I got scammed and how you can avoid the same fate.

I spent a huge amount of time shopping around for a deal on a rental car for an eight-day trip to Costa Rica and the best price I found was through Thrifty, which quoted me a price of $394 for an automatic transmission SUV. By American standards, this was no bargain, but in Costa Rica during the high season it was the best deal I could find.

I received a confirmation email from Thrifty that listed my estimated “mandatory charges” (base rental price, one-way drop off surcharge, vehicle license fee) plus optional charges (booster seat for child), and then the “estimated grand total” price. Two days before we arrived in country, the local branch also confirmed the reservation and the price via email. Even in the fine print of both emails there is no mention of any additional charges or mandatory insurance costs.We arrived at the Thrifty location near the San Jose airport on Thursday night and, despite the fact that there was only one person in front of us in line, we waited 40 minutes to find out that our $394 rental car was actually going to cost $786 if we opted for the lowest possible level of insurance or $946 if we chose the more comprehensive coverage. We spent nearly another hour unsuccessfully trying to untangle the mess and it quickly became clear why we’d waited so long to get to the counter in the first place: everyone was arguing with them about the same issue as they were shocked to find double the rates they expected.

I thought it was a scam because the agent was jotting down all these prices on a scrap of paper as though he was making it up as he went along. I’ve been hit up for mandatory insurance in other countries before but those costs were more an annoyance than the budget buster this was. So I walked out and tried two other rental car places, both of which quoted similar rates.

Rather than pay nearly $100 per day to rent the car, we took a cab to our hotel and I studied the confirmation email from Thrifty. Even in the fine print and “terms and conditions” of the confirmation email there was no mention of the mandatory insurance. I called Thrifty to complain and all they could manage was their contention that my rate was only an “estimated grand total” and not an “actual grand total.”

I went back to Thrifty’s website and tried to make a new reservation, this time studying all the fine print in the terms and conditions section and still couldn’t find any mention of the huge mandatory insurance cost.

I also checked the section on car rentals in my guidebook (Frommer’s) and there is no explicit warning about the exorbitant mandatory insurance, only a boilerplate sentence about checking to see if your existing insurance in the U.S. will cover you in Costa Rica.

I’m sure that Thrifty isn’t the only company guilty of this sort of bait-and-switch pricing, and as an experienced traveler, who has rented cars in a variety of countries, I should have clarified that their “grand total” estimate really was going to be the grand total. But I took the term “grand total” at face value. Next time I’ll know better and you should too. In the meantime, which way to the San Jose bus station?

[Photo credit: jepoirrier on Flickr]

Human Hammocks And Howler Monkeys: Visiting Costa Rica’s Jaguar Rescue Center

Encar García, Founder of the Jaguar Rescue Center“Why don’t they like me?” my travel companion huffed in frustration, abandoning what he had hoped would be a welcoming hand gesture toward a group of rehabilitated baby howler monkeys. Maybe they sensed our initial apprehension. After all, we had been nervous to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center, given the world’s alarming amount of faux sanctuaries that operate more akin to zoos and tourist destinations, but many locals in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town in the southern Caribbean of Costa Rica, spoke highly of the experience in Playa Chiquita, telling of the daily free-range policies where the animals may decide for themselves if they are ready to leave.

So we rented bicycles in town: cruisers – the kind with large baskets and banana seats that position the rider as almost a parody of leisure (our uptight go-go city bikes would never forgive us for crossing over). Truth be told, the lazy cycling on stretched lanes along the Caribbean with backpacks snug in our front baskets seemed like perfection when compared with the pre-traumatic stress of avoiding car doors that so often invade Chicago’s bike lanes.
No – here things were different. Here, tranquility was the goal. Costa Rica sinks into the bloodstream like a rich dessert – best enjoyed slowly.

After a 20-minute ride down a sun-drenched road dotted with open-walled cafes, vegan restaurants and yoga schools, we rolled into the Jaguar Rescue Center for an 11:30 a.m. tour.Founded by Barcelona Primatologist Encar García and her herpetologist husband, Sandro Alviani, the rescue serves as an educational beacon along Costa Rica’s Caribbean edge. Jaguar strives to rehabilitate its residents with the end goal of releasing sloths, toucans, ocelots and howler monkeys back into the wild.

We joined the dozen or so in the small crowd and were immediately greeted by Encar, a serene and natural beauty whose eyes smiled and set in exhaustion on the horizon of her cherub cheekbones – a ringer for a young Jane Goodall on several counts.

Perched on her hand was a toucan whose beak had been mangled by a feral dog one year earlier. We were pleased to learn that the complicated operation of gluing its beak back together at the facility had allowed the strange bird to heal properly and once again enjoy a staple of fruits. Soon, Encar explained, it would leave the sanctuary like many before.

A guide directed us through an exhibit of venomous snakes and small tree frog habitats. The intimacy of the tour allowed its guests to share their own stories in between the cooing and chittering of happy travelers facing a sloth’s crooked smile.

We excitedly approached the baby howler monkey lodging, realizing for the first time that we were going to be allowed to touch them. But suddenly, our guide directed his attention to Encar who let out a surprised cry.

The tour followed, surrounding the sanctuary’s founder. She was calling to a wild adolescent howler monkey that had scurried in from the deep canopy. The animal recognized her and ran in for a full embrace, Encar holding it to her chest and crying. “This is a special moment,” she revealed to the crowd. “I have not seen her for a long time; we raised her and she left into the wild.”

The monkey who came back was Cuca, one of the original animals housed when the rescue center first opened. At the time she was a tiny baby, malnourished and ill. “We did everything we could,” the founder explained. “We were not sure if she was going to recover.”

She did recover, and three years later left the rescue center on her own accord. This return was touching (Encar later emailed that not long after, Cuca joined a wild troop and is now fully rehabilitated); it only further fueled our excitement to hold a howler ourselves. Our guide ushered us into the cage and we extended our arms and waited, but to no avail.

“Am I doing something wrong?” I asked in concern. The small faces could not answer beyond sharp chirps.

A volunteer leaned in with an insider’s tip: “They like it if you make a hammock shape with your arms.”

We folded them into cradles and before I could finish asking, “Like this?” four howler monkeys jumped into our arms, channeling a cartoon dust cloud of pushing and fighting, all vying for the ultimate comfort of resting one of their apple-sized heads in the palms of our hands. We smiled from ear to ear, happy to oblige as one winner wrapped its digits around our “pillows,” fluffing for comfort and allowing us to study the similarities of our fingernails.

It was peculiar to be so close to an animal whose more wild brethren stirred us from our cabinas each morning with a startling bellow. In time, perhaps these little heads would soon echo the chant throughout the canopy and only vaguely recall the time spent here at the rescue center.

The Jaguar Rescue Center offers tours ($15 per person) Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. They accept volunteers for a minimum commitment of three weeks. For more information visit

[First image courtesy of Jaguar Rescue Center; second by Robin Whitney]

Costa Rica Named Happiest Country In The World

costa rica Looking for a travel destination where the people are always smiling? You may want to consider Costa Rica for your next trip.

The New Economics Foundation has announced the findings of their Gallup World Poll in their Happy Planet Index. First the poll asked people to rate their quality of life on a scale from 1 to 10. Then, life expectancy and the amount of land necessary to sustain the country’s way of life were factored in. The top 10 happiest countries were found to be:

1. Costa Rica
2. Vietnam
3. Colombia
4. Belize
5. El Salvador
6. Jamaica
7. Panama
8. Nicaragua
9. Venezuela
10. Guatemala

Additionally, the unhappiest places in the world were found to be Qatar, Chad and Botswana.

[image via José R.]