Costa Rica Journal - January 2018

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Sitting outside at the bar by the pool at the Doubletree Cariari. It’s windy but mostly sunny and the temperature in the shade is excellent. The Costa Rica national soccer team (I assume) is here and they are all going to some event in their uniforms. I’m sure they are popular, like NFL players are in the US, but no one seems to care.

There are four boys in the pool and one on the side and they are playing ball. Brings back happy memories of the weightlessness of being a kid, being wet in the warm wind, the stark contrast between in and out of the water.

Yesterday, I found Ricardo Gurdian waiting for me outside the airport. Ricardo took me to his farm in a pickup that is much too large for Costa Rican driving. “I made a mistake,” he told me. The drive was maybe 45 minutes and upon entering the farm, there was a spring-fed river, called Las Pilas, flowing over rocks into little pools among the verdant grasses and trees common in the tropics. Ricardo uses an old abandoned milling factory and office + house to run the business and for his nursery and covered drying beds called parihuelas. This area is owned by Volcafe, and his relationship with them is tenuous. The place is in ruins. It’s interesting – like walking through an ancient place.

We drove around the farm and Ricardo explained the different methods he has been experimenting with to prune the trees. We saw the trucks bringing the the day’s picking into the receiving station. And then he showed me the large greenhouse he built to dry coffee on his own property. It is large, and half is set up for patio-drying naturals while the other half has African-styled raised beds for drying the honey coffees.

I enjoyed talking to Ricardo and getting to know him a little. He has a good family history and seems like a good, honest guy. I trust him and hope we can do business together.

Ricardo took me to a lodge called El Choyote. It is on what used to be a 2-hectare farm high up on a mountain with a view of San Jose. The cabins are shaped like receiving stations and the inside is nice with a big window and patio overlooking the Central Valley. Much of the decor inside is made of coffee tree stumps and branches. Very cool place. I felt like I had it all to myself.

Ricardo and I ate dinner in the lodge restaurant and I had the typical platter. It was fine – rice and beans, vegetable hash, plantain, salad and thin overcooked beef. I stayed up way too late even though I was falling asleep early. Too nice of a view, and the wind was howling. I was freezing.

This morning I woke up at 7 a.m. and made coffee. I brought La Pastora Natural. It was good. Got cleaned up and went to breakfast. Since the entire lodge was coffee-centric, I decided to try their coffee. That was a mistake. It’s terrible. Sat outside and had pineapple, watermelon and cantaloupe. Then scrambled eggs, gallo pinto and garlic toast and a strip of bacon that tasted more like ham. The local dogs sat nearby and occasionally nosed my hand like a bold beggar in the street wanting a scrap of anything.

Ricardo came to pick me up right on time and remarked later that he hates when people are on Tico time. We drove at least 30 minutes to a farm called Volcan Azul. The owner of the farm, Alejo Castro, showed us around their large wet and dry mill. The farm has huge old cypress trees and they claim to preserve a lot of the forest. The mill was very clean and Alejo says they produce a lot of micro lots for companies in Germany and Japan, Korea, etc. We went there because they have a good relationship with the milling/export company that Ricardo is using and they let us use their office for cupping.

When we arrived, the samples were being roasted. Preparation for cupping was painfully slow. Hot water wasn’t ideal and it took a long time to get all saturated. We cupped two tables of 7. The Marsellesa coffees I didn’t care for, but the locals seemed to love them. I did like three naturals – Sarchimor, H1 and Obata – in that order. I liked the Obata Red Honey also, but I think it is wise to stick with naturals in this case.

We ate lunch in Grecia – fried fish, sweet corn and rice with a mixed juice: pineapple and guanabana. Tasty.

Long, confusing drive through town – with big city traffic in a small town. Ricardo told me the church was built in Germany and shipped in pieces, and it was supposed to go to South America (Brazil?) but it stopped in port and they unloaded it in the wrong place and put it in Grecia.

Ricardo battled traffic in his Land Rover Discovery (we drove around the farm in a Defender 90 and he told me they’ve been using Land Rovers on the farm since his dad was younger). And he dropped me off at the gates of the DoubleTree. The beer is so lackluster, I’m drinking a michelada. Not sure what to do. I have all day tomorrow here to relax and recuperate before I get back on the farm visits.

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Breakfast buffet at DoubleTree.

Having gallo pinto, plantains, potatoes, bacon and pineapple, with OJ and my own coffee. Yesterday after breakfast, I ran 8.1 miles. The neighborhood here is nice – grand houses and good views into the mountains. I’m at 3100 feet here.

Had hard chips and guacamole and a couple beers with Jim afterward. He says Minor is doing a lot of tiny experiments now. He said La Minita bought all his coffee last year.

The pineapple here is delicious and sweet. I fell asleep for a few and then went to the gym to lift weights. Discovered I’m down to 180 pounds – have lost weight, a lot in muscle mass.

Then I decided to go back out through the neighborhood to take some photos of houses. I didn’t see things the way I did on my run so the photos are not great.

Soon it was dinner time. I went back to the Happy Cow, Argentinian steakhouse. Had beef and a pork chorizo with the typical sides.

Hurried to the grocery store and got sunscreen (I’m burnt already) and some local IPAs, then went to get a massage.

Massage therapist was strong. She beat my legs up, and at one point was kneeling on my back.

Then I stayed up too late reading and having local beer.

In a few minutes we will go to San Marcos and see Minor. I brought a DoubleShot mug and a pound of his natural coffee for him. Time to go. I’ll be back.

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Sitting on the front porch at La Minita. Yesterday Jim and I left the DoubleTree around 930a and drove to La Minita. I had been talking about running to a place called Puente Negro, so Jim decided to go there, which he called “a shortcut.” I tried to memorize the turn off the main road and landmarks along the way so I could try not to get lost along the route. Puente Negro is a bridge spanning the Candelaria River. It was built in 1932, and feels as if it might collapse at any moment. A cable span with old boards that are broken and bent, creeping across, trying to stay on the runner, cables creeping loudly. My stomach was tight as we were crossing.

We arrived at La Minita and ate lunch – steak and french fries. Then we drove to La Pastora. Johnny went with us and sat quietly in the back seat. Minor’s daughter Nitsi greeted us wearing a Costa Rican floppy hat and a bandana draped over her neck. Minor arrived and had his familiar smile. After taking photos of honey coffees on raised beds and lots of photos of the family, we went to see a cupping room he’s building up the hill, overlooking the patios. Next to the future cupping room is an entertaining area, where we all gathered to have some beverages. We started with coffee.


Just had dinner. Pork, salad, baked potato, and some sort of vegetable that was between squash and potato (choyote, or pear squash)

There are three other people here now. Jim picked them up in San Jose today. One works for Daybreak Coffee in Lubbock. I know Scott Gloyna, who owns the business. I really like him. She brought her husband. They are nice people. I can tell they run business differently than I do. The other guy is a barista at a place called Frontside. He is wearing the company hoodie and has a beard. He’s a talker. A vegetarian, and he doesn’t drink. No one is drinking except me and I’m having wine.

After coffee with Minor and his wife and daughter, we had a little tequila. Then we went down to collect the coffee in the truck from the day’s picking. Not sure how big the farm is, but they filled the truck in just a few minutes. After returning to the milling area, I asked about a hand-crank machine that was sitting nearby. As I suspected, it is for squeezing sugarcane. So I asked if we could use it. Off they went with machetes in hand, and three men brought back 12-foot stalks of cane. They washed them and then one guy turned the crank while another fed the cane between the rollers. As it was smashed, the cane juice poured out and filled a small bucket. They call it jugo de caña or caldo de caña. I cranked the next cane, and it got tiring. Halfway through I stopped and ripped off my pearl snap. They seemed to like that. The juice was green, and we poured some in small cups and drank it. Mildly sweet, it tasted a tiny bit green – so maybe it wasn’t quite ripe? Then we proceeded back to the entertaining area, which really is a small kitchen with a table and chairs. We poured cane juice with some rum and drank it. Jim and I were ready to leave but Minor said his other daughter was coming. So we waited. And it turned out to be his wife’s brother’s birthday. So we sang and clapped Feliz Cumpleaños, and ate birthday cake. Then we had a michelada. And we were definitely ready. Minor’s other daughter, China, is beautiful. Big, striking brown eyes.

A few more photos and we were off. It was interesting that everyone in the room was on their phone the whole time. Different than a couple years ago. Times change. We stayed much longer than planned and drove back to La Minita in the dark. Can’t remember what was for dinner.

Today we had breakfast. The eggs here smell like a barnyard or wormy. I had to make an egg-bacon sandwich. Jim and I chatted and I shared some of my Pastora Natural with him. I took a pound of the Pastora to Minor along with a coffee mug. I think they liked it. Jim left for San Jose at 1030a and I went inside to change into running gear. Brought my running vest so I grabbed 3 bottles of water, some peanut butter crackers, and Clif Bloks. Put on sunscreen this time, and I ran off down the dirt road toward the mill. It’s about 2.5 miles to the river. I crossed over the footbridge into the Beneficio and greeted the mill manager, Esteban, before trotting off up the paved road. The climb was long, hard, hot. A man stopped and gave me a mandarina. He tried to give me three, but I only took one. I chewed each lobe and sucked the juice and then spit the fibrous pulp out. I blew a snot rocket from my right nostril and it was blood red.

Which reminds me that Minor said he separates the natural coffee out by color – reds from those “sangre de toro,” the color of bull’s blood, and those are the only ones he uses.

I continued to climb up the paved road, jogging when I could and walking when I had to. I was beginning to think I had missed my turn as I saw it the day before coming from the opposite direction. I took a wrong turn down a hill that brought me to the road again across a switchback. I finally stopped to check the map on my phone and couldn’t really tell. But a few yards ahead was a road that looked promising. I walked up to it and saw a sign I remembered from the day before – round with a recycle symbol in the center. So down I went, past familiar houses and transitioned onto a dirt road. At the bottom, I crossed a river on an old bridge high above the deep-cut channel. Then I climbed again for a bit before descending a short distance to Puente Negro. This means Black Bridge. It’s so old and rickety that it even creaks walking on it. I went down to the river below and looked at rocks and put my hand in the dirty water. After hopping around a bit I went back up and crossed the bridge. Painted on the metal uprights is “Dios mio Puente Negro.”

The steepest climb was yet to come. Up into coffee trees again and past invisible pickers and Toyota Land Cruisers half-loaded with bags of coffee cherries, the road went straight up the side of the mountain. I thought to myself, Costa Ricans say switchbacks are for pussies. Up and up. A dead red-and-black striped coral snake coiled on the road. A blue sign with a white telephone receiver on it, like the ones we used in the 80s. I wonder if kids even recognize that symbol any more. When I first started coming here I remember the girls used to stop and call their friends on a pay phone. Now everyone has a cell phone.

Ricardo Gurdian said to me that Costa Rica has always put a great deal of importance on education. Now people have more money and nicer cars and better jobs. But no one wants to pick coffee. The children of his farm workers want to work in the office or go to school for agronomy. He says this is good for the people but bad for the farmers. Their manual labor comes from Nicaragua and Panama. Indigenous Indians come from Panama to Tarrazu, and Nicaraguans come to the Central Valley to pick. How can the industry survive without willing laborers? And the “problem” with illegal immigration both in the US and here. I thought Ricardo had a very simple and logical solution.

After climbing back into the fringes of Bustamante, I came to dirt again and the entrance to La Minita. I snuck through the walkway and greeted the guard. Trotted downhill past colorful painted eucalyptus trees to the farmhouse at almost three hours and 10.62 miles after I left. It was a good run.

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Orange fruit shaped like a boat – Huevo de toro – only good for birds to eat seeds. The white milky substance coming out is poisonous. Smelled a bit like tangerine and I wanted to eat it.


Had eggs and beans on tortillas and fruit for breakfast. I made coffee. Afterward we got in the back of the truck with Belman driving and we toured the farm standing in the back of a utility truck, holding onto the rail as we descended 4WD roads, legs as shock absorbers and balance stabilizers. Jim, my salesman from La Minita, told us about the farm’s history and landscape and agronomy.


Lunch was pork chops and fried yucca. After, we went to pick coffee for an hour. I am amazed at how much Roya is on the farm. Much of the area seems to have been decimated by the leaf rust. Picking was mostly strip-picking because of the defoliation and the fact that so much of the coffee was ripe/overripe. I picked 1.5 cajuelas in an hour and earned 1950 colones ($3.40).

Much coffee will have to be replanted after harvest has ended. The coffee trees are sick and the wood brittle. I’ll be curious to see the effect on the farm. First, quality must be less and production will drastically decrease in the next 2-3 years as new coffee will be growing where older trees would’ve been producing. Also, I guess they probably didn’t anticipate this outbreak and probably don’t have enough coffee in the nursery to replace all that lost. Surely the guy who didn’t spray fungicide has lost his job.

After picking, we rode down in the tractor trailer and got paid for our harvest with the other pickers. Dirty and sticky with coffee juices and covered in roya, we went to the receiving station just down from the house and then walked up the road.

Dinner was at the mill, so we put on warmer clothes and rode in the truck with Belman down the road and across the river. Looked at coffee drying on raised beds. Iit was mostly Gesha yellow honey from Pradera. I’m interested in it. Johnny had the grilled chicken all ready to go. The limes here are orange on the inside and have a more rounded taste than ours. Lime on the chicken. Tortillas with rice, beans, pico de gallo, and avocado. So good. We walked through the mill and saw today’s coffee being processed. I got to see a kid take a hose and spray out the coffee in a fermentation tank to the washing channel. I thought, “This kid is washing the coffee and he doesn’t even know the impact that has on so many people.”

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Have had a relaxing afternoon, sitting on the porch. Yesterday I got impatient waiting for the others to climb out of the tractor trailer, so I jumped over the side and landed 10 feet down on the ground, tweaking my right knee. Walking down to the mill today seemed to loosen it up, but I had to be careful about how I stepped. It’s sensitive now but I’m resting it and feel like it should be better in a couple days.

We toured the mill and cupped coffee with Sergio and his assistant Antonio. We did the usual cupping of 1st, 2nd, 3rd and green coffees. The other people in my group had clearly not cupped, so it was a little awkward for them.

We also cupped the trademark coffees – La Minita, El Conquistador, La Magnolia, El Indio, La Pradera, La Lapa, and Rio Negro. La Pradera was the only new one. It smelled like cocoa, but was dry and had a bit of an unpleasant finish.

I lay in the hammock for a while and read my book. Worked a bit. Chatted with Jim about coffee, the coffee industry, and ridiculous people in the coffee industry. Now the girls are making dinner. Lunch was awesome – fried shrimp and french fries.

We are watching a fire on the mountainside across the valley, spreading downhill quickly, it seems.


Just saw a bright shooting star. The cell service and internet have both ceased to work here. I sat out on the steps to enjoy the night, but now I’m in by the fire. The fireplace here is huge and awesome. Jose builds a fire each night as the sun sets and the temperature plummets. He brings seasoned split logs and medium-sized branches in a large basket about 4 feet in diameter.

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This Sunday is the presidential election in Costa Rica. There are 16 candidates from all different political persuasions. Sergio said he doesn’t know yet whom he will vote for, but he says each promises everything to everyone and they always deliver nothing.

Jim says they had two containers of El Indio stolen and the coffee was taken and replaced with rocks and dirt, which they didn’t know about until it reached port in the US.

Apparently this Sunday is also the Super Bowl. I forgot who is playing. So serene sitting on this porch. It’s all about to end. The whisking sound of a machete trimming grass and bushes. The breeze rustling taller trees. Whiney buzz of a fly circling around. The metallic clank and gravelly roll of trucks occasionally coasting downhill. Stationary clouds shading the mountainside. And the lone bird swooping down the drafty hill.

Packed my bag and was happy to get the coffee samples in from Miramonte and a commemorative plastic La Minita coffee cherry basket that Sergio gave me. About time to go. I need to tip the staff and I want to get a group photo.

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It’s hard to think when I have my phone – still connected, thinking about work, about friends.

I was upgraded to first class on both flights home today. Not sure why. But I like it. The food is good, the drinks are free, the elbow and leg room are ample. I have the screen in front of me on the flight path, and I like to see where we are and look out the window at the land below. I can see cities connected by highways – long white lines on a dark green pallet of trees. It’s comforting to see so many trees, and I can’t imagine trekking hundreds or thousands of miles in such dense forest by foot. We are approaching the coastline of Mexico now and entering the Gulf. The coast is very populated and a long bridge reaches out into the ocean to what appears to be a port. Two large ships are cruising away. On my map, this looks like the city of Progresso. Only water now until we reach Texas.

In the airport I had some ceviche and a couple beers,  a local “tropical blonde,” but it smelled like a lager. I was hungry. On the flight I had beef, vegetables, salad, potatoes (which I didn’t eat for fear of milk), and a multigrain roll. I had an IPA when I got on, but have been drinking red wine since. I have a three-hour layover in Houston. I’ll likely go get fried calamari and a beer while I wait.

We were flying at 37,000 feet and over 500 mph, and now we are at 12,000 feet and 340 mph. Descending and slowing. Full cloud cover below. Looking forward to getting home and relaxing in my comfortable environment.