Some like it hot…..

Sugar cane certainly does! More of that anon.

This morning we left at  8.00 and set off into the hills to the west of San Jose, looking for a sugar cane farmer and his processing plant. Again the views were spectacular and the roads steep and windy.



Eventually we pulled into a yard to discover it was not the right one. We left and bumped down mud roads until a small processing plant emerged from the hillside surrounded by cane fields. The sweet smell of sugar filled the year, but it is a lot more pleasant than the smell of sugar beet being processed.


We met Don Alberto who owns the farm and helps run the co-op which now has 65 members all producing organic and Fairtrade dulce. This is not white sugar but brown and uncontaminated by chemicals. Locally it is sold in moist blocks. It is used to make ‘sugar water’ which is very popular in Costa Rica. But most of it is sold in granular form to markets in Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy. Some of it is used in the chocolate industry.


First we watched the cane being crushed to extract the juice. Much of the fibre that is left is used to fire the boiler to heat the juice. From there e juice goes into vertical boilers and heated to about 130C…very hot. It should then be pumped into an open vat where it is heated again until it is ready to crystalise. It should, but the pump had broken so bucketfuls had to be poured in by hand.

When the boiled juice is ready it is emptied into a metal trough. It is stirred in different ways depending on whether it is to form crystals or to be poured into moulds to make blocks.


Either way the result is delicious. If has a very rich flavour, more like a muscovado sugar. The crystals are put into sacks or or small bags for sale. Fairtrade has made a real difference to thus community as the premium has been used to invest in the business and develop the processing plant. It has also helped to build a local secondary school for the poorest in the local community who couldn’t afford the bus fares into the secondary school in the local big town. It was a fascinating morning. If Sugar Kane had had a good education she wouldn’t have ended up with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators!

We retraced our steps back to San Jose and had an interesting lunch in a restaurant in the centre of town. No rice and beans but a fried egg and a slab of cheese with cassava chips and a salad…. Rather yummy! Then we hit the National Museum which begins with a butterfly hall where the most beautiful species flit about, breed, pupate and die. The museum is in the old barracks, no longer needed as Costa Rica doesn’t have an army!


We walked a little way around the town centre and visited the National Theatre. If we had known we could have looked around it for $10 a head, but we were running out of time. Now back at the hotel we are preparing for our farewell dinner…..where did the time go?

This may be the last blog,but I may have time to do one tomorrow. If I don’t,  forgive me, and remember, “nobody’s perfect”!


Coffee in the mountains

I probably shouldn’t mention the excellent meal we had last night at a pasta place just up the road from here called ‘Passion’. I won’t touch on the salmon ravioli with almonds in a lemon sauce which I had nor the portobello mushroom and interesting salad including pears poached in wine that Christine put away. You might be envious of the Oreo cheesecake and the chocolate mousse that followed and might think us extravagant if I refer to the bottle of excellent Cava that was the cheapest wine on the menu. But hang it all we’d walked six kilometres in torrential rain and cold, so we’d earnt it.

Breakfast this morning was coffe and two slices of toast just to show I am not a total Hedonist! Then we set off into the hills to the south of San Jose to meet with some Fairtrade coffee producers. We rendezvoused at a log cabin which was in fact an organic cafe.


We met with Christian who was a local organiser for Afaorca the local co-op who own the cafe as well. We heard from a local grower how explained how he and his fellow farmers had benefited from Fairtrade. Small farmers particularly find real strength in getting together with Fairtrade     in marketing their coffee. Here thay not only sell the beans, but also roast it for local consumption. We sampled a cup and very good it was too!


Then we set off to a farm in the mountains. The roads were vertiginous and Gatto swung the bus around the bends with glee! The views were stunning as we climbed up to the tops and then worked our way down into the valleys and the streams that filled them. Finally after a long climb we reached the farm and the processing plant for the 25 farmers that belong to Afraorca.


It is an impressive operation producing Fairtrade and mainly organic coffee. We were shown the whole operation from start to finish. It is very sustainable and great care is taken not to damage the environment.

From there we came back to the cafe for lunch, which was excellent, although rice and beans featured again.


More coffee followed and then Marco from Shared Interest explained how they help local farmers with loans to tied them over until they are paid by producers or to enable them to buy equipment. Shared Interest was established by Traidcraft and anyone can invest in it to enable it to support farmers around the world. Returns on investment are small, but your investment does a lot if good. Certainly we shall be looking at it when we return.


Throughout our stay at the cafe our nostrils were teased with the delightful smell of coffee roasting from the room below. Needless to say we spent a fair bit on coffee beans and chocolate as well as other gifts.

We hit San Jose at the beginning of rush hour but managed to skirt around the edge back to our hotel. Most of us needed a bank so we strolled up the quiet street our hotel us in to the frenetic main road at the end. Turning our backs on the large McDonalds (a break, I assume, from rice and beans for the locals) we found the ATM and milked it for dollars. Christine had spotted a chocolatier on the otherwise of the road, so we prayed, took a deep breath and crossed. The chocolate was worth the risk, but very expensive! We then walked back to the hotel, not a risk free journey considering the state of the pavements. These are not for the elderly who must presumably remain housebound once they reach seventy!

Tonight another meal! I may not be allowed on the plane!

The cloud forest

The hint is in the name ….’cloud’. We shoukd have been better prepared, but it was a bright sunny day when we left our lovely hotel and headed into central San Jose. The traffic is horrendous and I have to say it is not a city of enormous charm and architectural merit. There are, however, some interesting museums we hope at some point to visit. In the centre we picked up Arnoldo who works with Heiner at the University and is a botanist.


The route to the cloud forest seemed devious to put it mildly. We went through numerous barrios of varying prosperity before beginning a steady climb up the side of mountain.


We were heading for the Braulio Carrillo National Park and in particular the Barva Volcano sector. The road became steeper and the houses more Alpine in design as we wound our way up and up. Eventually we came to the park gates where we parked, used the loos and started our 3km walk to the Barva Volcano Lake. By now it was drizzling heavily and it felt distinctly cold. We were at over 9,000 feet and even in the tropics it can get quite cool at that altitude on a sunless day. The path climbed up through the cloud forest and Arnoldo stopped to show us various plants and explain their importance to the ecosystem.


Although Costa Rica only has 0.2% of the world’s land area it has something like 5% of all the world’s species. We passed gigantic oaks with enormous acorns and stopped to look at the range of bromeliads on the trunks an branches of trees.


And the rain became heavier as we climbed. The path was good in places, but very boggy in others and several members of the group got wet feet. Finally we branched off to the right and climbed a little before descending to a beautiful crater lake some 230 foot in diameter. The far shore was just visible through the mist and rain. Occasionally a chill breeze blew across the lake to our shelter and we all shivered.


Heiner had had brought some cookies and Cassava (Yuca) crisps and we greedily wolfed them down. Arnoldo fed us with the flowers from a plant which were quite tasty but hardly sustaining. When we were told it was time to head back we set off with a spring in our step back down the mountain side. The descent was completed a lot faster than the climb of course and soon we were back in the coach pleading with Gatto to put the heater on.

The cloud forest is noted for its range of wildlife, Jaguars, leopards, tapirs, monkeys, deer, etc. . We saw a few birds including a couple of humming birds. To be honest we saw more wildlife in the last hotel’s grounds! Still it was good to walk through the forest and see its complexity and for me it was satisfying to realise that what I have taught for the past 38 years actually was true!

On the way down, we stopped at a local restaurant and warmed ourselves with coffee and hot chocolate before tucking in to plates of …’ve guessed it…rice and beans with cheese, plantain and for some a range of meats. Still cold we huddled in the bus as it trundled through the heavy traffic back to our hotel. A hot shower and some clean clothes and we shall be ready to hit the town for a light supper.

As Arnoldo told us viewing the cloud forest is largely a matter of luck. If you can get there very early on a sunny day it can be wonderful, but equally you may see as little as we did. Never mind it was an unforgettable experience one way or another!