The story of Costa Rican coffee: from the Central Valley to your mug

Costa Rican coffee is famous the world-over for its rich, intense flavours. Grab yourself a cup of the good stuff and discover the story behind its development in this Central American gem...
Costa Rican  coffee beans. Photo: Shutterstock
Costa Rican coffee beans. Photo: Shutterstock

When white coffee blossoms blanket the fields of Costa Rica's Central Valley, filling the air with sweet jasmine-like fragrance, the Ticos call it 'Costa Rican snow'. The country's coffee is world-famous, and for good reason...

You might well surmise that the crop is indigenous to Costa Rica, but it is not. The Spanish, French, and Portuguese brought coffee beans to the New World from Ethiopia and Arabia. In the early 1800s, when seeds were first planted in Costa Rica, coffee plants were merely ornamental, grown to decorate patios and courtyards with their glossy green leaves, seasonal white flowers, and red berries. Costa Ricans had to be persuaded, even coerced, into growing them so the country might have a national export crop. Every Tico family was required by law to have at least a couple of bushes in the yard. The government awarded free plants to the poor and grants of land to anyone who was willing to plant coffee on it.

The Central Valley has the ideal conditions for producing coffee: altitude above 1,200 meters (4,000ft); temperatures averaging between 15°C and 28°C (59°F and 82°F); and the right soil conditions. Coffee estates quickly occupied much of the land, except for that needed to graze the oxen that lugged the coffee-laden carts. As the only Costa Rican export, the country’s financial resources were organized to support it. By 1840, coffee had become big business, carried by ox-cart through mountains to the Pacific port at Puntarenas, then by ship to Chile and on to Europe. By the mid-1800s an oligarchy of coffee barons had risen to positions of power and wealth, for the most part through processing and exporting the bean, rather than by actually growing it.

Price fluctuations and debt

Despite its early successes, Costa Rica’s coffee industry has been a mixed blessing at times. The country incurred a heavy debt borrowing US$3 million from England to finance the Atlantic railroad so coffee could be exported from the Caribbean port of Limón. And when coffee hit bottom on the international market in 1900, the result was a severe shortage of basic foods in Costa Rica that year.

This dependency on an overseas market has left Costa Ricans vulnerable on many occasions. Throughout the 20th century, coffee prices fluctuated wildly and the health of the nation’s economy varied accordingly.

A Costa Rican coffee plant. Photo: Shutterstock

Harvesting coffee in the Central Valley

Traditionally, banana, citrus, and poro trees were planted in the coffee fields to provide nutrients and shade for coffee plants. Later coffee hybrids did not need shade, and treeless fields produced more yield per hectare. These varieties, however, depleted the soil more rapidly and required fertiliser to enrich it, adding to the cost of production. Today, many coffee-growers have returned to the traditional shade-loving plants, pleasing environmentalists who advocate shade-grown coffee. Begin and end your Costa Rican holiday with a stay on a coffee plantation: with Insight Guides' Costa Rica Eco Adventure you'll stop off at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort

The coffee plant itself is grown in nurseries until it’s a year old, at which time it is transplanted to the field. Two years later it bears harvestable berries and, with care, will continue to bear fruit for the next 30 to 40 years.

Since coffee grows best in a mountainous climate, many of the hillsides in the Central Valley are covered with rows of the bright green bushes, reflecting the sun with their shiny, luxuriant leaves. Explore a coffee plantation for yourself on Insight Guides' Costa Rica: Coast to Coast holiday, to learn the planting, harvesting and roasting techniques used today. 

Some fields seem almost vertical and it is difficult to see how pickers keep from tumbling down the slopes as they collect the berries. The answer lies in the ingenious solution of planting the trees directly behind one another so that the trunk of the downhill tree serves as a foothold for the pickers. Coffee is harvested from November to January, during school vacation and Christmas holidays. Traditionally entire families in rural areas picked coffee together, some of the money earned going for Christmas presents and new outfits. But today, most coffee is picked by migrant workers from Panamá and Nicaragua.

Costa Rican coffee had been traditionally mixed with other coffees destined for worldwide export. But today, coffee growers are concentrating on producing shade-grown and certified organic beans, along with only the best high-altitude, top-quality specialty coffees from highland regions around Poás, Barva de Heredia, Tres Ríos, and Tarrazú, rated by many aficionados among the best in the world.

Take a tour

An entertaining way to get a taste of Costa Rica’s coffee culture is to take Cafe Britt’s Coffee Tour, in Barva, the heart of traditional coffee country, 1km (0.6 mile) north of Heredia (signposted from Heredia centre). This theatrical tour de force takes visitors through the entire process, from growing the coffee cherry to correctly tasting the final product. Combining elements of professional theatre, a multimedia show, a farm visit, a processing-plant tour, and tasting session, Cafe Britt whirls the visitor through the world of coffee in about two hours. 

Have Insight Guides add this experience to your Costa Rican trip itinerary: talk to a local expert to create your adventure today

Colourful Costa Rican Ox Cart loaded with coffee bags. Photo: Shutterstock

Taking a holiday to Costa Rica: how to get started

Insight Guides can help you with planning, organising and booking your trip to Costa Rica. Simply, get in touch and share your budget, interests and travel style. Our local experts will create an itinerary exclusive to you and your requirements, which you can amend until it's just right. Alternatively, browse and modify ready-made holidays to create your dream trip today. 

Looking for more Costa Rica trip ideas?

5 fabulous reasons to go to Costa Rica

How to stay in an eco-lodge in Costa Rica

The best beaches in Costa Rica

From zip-lining to city touring, 30 Costa Rican vacation ideas