One of the fears we have as travelers is going somewhere or doing something that is clearly cheesy. For example, in South Dakota lives a billboard-driven place called Wall Drug, a sort of roadside mall surrounded by fiberglass animals like a fake-looking, brilliant green 80-foot dinosaur, invariably surrounded by a family posing with a selfie stick thrust in the air. Cheesy is an underestimate – let’s just say locals do not take these pictures.
So it was with mild trepidation that I had stumbled into a classic tourist trap when I booked the Don Juan Coffee and Chocolate Tour in Monteverde, Costa Rica, located in the mountains three hours northwest of the capital, San Jose.
I could not have made a better choice.
The three-hour+ tour starts with an old rickety wood wagon, brightly painted in red and traditional colorful mosaics, pulling up to the modest waiting area. Twenty of us stared at this wagon, unsure if we were to hop on when a highly engaging bilingual guide helped a few of us onto the wagon as he began explaining the local history of coffee. To our guide’s clear surprise, Señor Don Juan himself walked by, offering a genuine greeting in Spanish, tipped his infamous hat, and carried on. With a chuckle of pride, our guide led us onto a dry, dusty path deep into the coffee groves.
Our first lesson began in our hands, holding newborn coffee plant seedlings. Complete with a chart hoisted on two posts, we felt the stiffening leaves of the coffee bush from infancy to its red ripeness. One daring soul tasted a freshly picked bean; his scowl and puckered face told us quickly not to repeat his experiment.
Ahead in a small clearing stood an airy building covered by a thick net meant to shield bugs and sunlight. Inside laid hills of drying beans sprawled across an enormous tarp. Without missing a beat, my youngest daughter immediately fell into the beans, giggling as she rolled across the floor. My shocked apology sputtered out before the guide laughed and confided he had told her to jump into the pile! In fact, my daughter’s rolls effectively loosened the chaff from the hard bean, evident by the sudden fluff of coffee bean shells drifting through the air. I glanced at the guide (wondering if we all were supposed to roll around on coffee beans?), as we were guided to a long wooden and wide trough, a handful of flat baskets, and a heavy, iron grinding machine that looked to be a hundred years old.
Soon the air thickened with chaff and the scent of freshly ground, raw coffee. My mouth began watering, and finally the real brewing began. Rich, dense aromas of coffee swirled in a tasting room where we sipped and practiced words like creamy or toasty, reminiscent of wine tasting. Some time later, while resting on 50-kilo bags of coffee beans ready for export, the girls and I agreed our appreciation for exquisite coffee was secured.
Then the chocolate.
From the plant to the pod to the harvest to the curing, we lolled in the intoxicating lusciousness of the creation of chocolate. In one room, we tried our hand at a heavy grinder, creating a thick, chunky paste of pure chocolate – bitterly dark that the girls decided would be better suited as body paint. The guide playfully helped them smear it on their hands, making a Costa Rican version of henna designs.
Next came the sugar cane, freshly picked from the mountain and now pushed through a pressing machine. This nectar – delicious, bright, sweet – was mixed with milk into the chocolate until finally the tasting began. Decadent and dark, semi-sweet, milk chocolate – all of it a gooey, frothy, stickiness, dripping from our fingers, smacking our lips together until our stomachs demanded we stop. We grinned mischievously with our new chocolatier friends, for we had just found the treasure in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Then our intrepid guide began sculpting chocolate creatures, and suddenly I’m snapping photos of the girls, mouths and hands smothered with deep brown paste, and our guide holding up chocolate rabbits and castles by their heads. Okay, maybe this was a moment of cheesiness, but languishing in coffee and chocolate with grins ear-to-ear made every moment worth it. I will reconsider Wall Drug after all.
PS: To add to the foodie nature of Monteverde, make sure to pick up ice cream at the Monteverde Cheese Factory, roughly 20 minutes from Don Juan’s place. Started by the Quakers in the 1950s, they make stunningly good ice cream and cheese inside the adjacent warehouse from local cows.