I had my first Costa Rican coffee in a small cafe about 100 yards west of the Museo Nacional in the capital of San Jose. My brother and I were there on a business trip, and one evening, after buying a fragrant loaf of bread at a corner bakery, we went for a cup at a local diner. The server set two glass tumblers on the table. Then she poured thick, aromatic coffee from a steaming metal pitcher. From a second came hot milk. Black and white curled together like smoke through the transparent glass as we tore chunks of crusty bread to dunk in the savory liquid.
Costa Rican coffee is among the world's finest. It is the country's second-largest cash crop, after bananas, but its most important contribution to international amity. In Costa Rica, coffee plants flourish because of the perfect blend of climate, elevation and soil. Harvested by hand at least twice a year, red coffee "cherries" dot bushes that carpet the mountains. They're sent to roasters and then, usually, shipped abroad.
But enough remains in Costa Rica to keep locals and tourists suitably caffeinated. You'll find it readily available at stands scattered through the city and along the major roads leading to Costa Rica's many natural attractions. We stopped at one of those roadside shops on our second day, while on a tour to a nearby volcano. There, at La Casa del Cafe, we sipped espresso whose beans had been grown on the fields stretching out before us.
For a more complete treatment, you can sign up for the Cafe Britt excursion. You see Britt, the dominant local brand, everywhere: in the airport, at the supermarkets, on kitchen counters. When you reserve a spot on the company's tour bus, you'll wind along mountain roads through farms and fields and end up at the plant, where you'll learn more than you ever thought possible about the history of coffee. You can also observe first-hand the fine art of coffee manufacturing, and visit--surprise!--the cafe, where you can fill your travel mug.
A slightly less polished presentation occurs in San Jose's Mercado Central, a destination for tourists and Ticos alike. The market spills out onto Avenida Central through many openings, any one of which will lead to counters devoted to selling beans or brew. There you can sip samples or exploring the delights of a typical Latin market: Across from the coffee vendor, you're likely to find Cuban cigars, freshly plucked chickens or T-shirts featuring Hanson.
Step outside the market and drift a few yards to Cafe Trebol, a small shop dominated by an authentic--and old--coffee roaster. Its enormous cylinder turns slowly, cooking beans that fill the place with an aroma thick enough to climb. Coffee in Costa Rica has a special twist: Beans are typically roasted with sugar, giving the finished brew a distinctive and pungent flavor. If you prefer your java unaffected at the source, ask for cafe puro. There's plenty on hand for gringos. And take your beans unground; otherwise you'll get a powder too fine for your filter back home. A pound of premium beans will set you back about two bucks.
Every Costa Rican restaurant from humble to haute features coffee, with milk (con leche), black (negro), decaf (descafe nada) and so on. At an ordinary chicken place, we had a most extraordinary treat: Coffee was made right at the table. Our server used the traditional chorreada, a fabric pouch suspended in a wooden tripod. Two scoops of ground powder in the pouch produces cafe suave; three spoonfuls ensures a night on high alert. When hot water splashes into the pouch, brewed coffee seeps through the fabric into a ceramic mug.
"Chorreada means 'sock,'" translates Robin, a long-term resident. She is explaining the brewing process. "Sometimes, like when we're camping," she confides, "we'll actually use a real sock."
As I say, in Costa Rica they are passionate about coffee.
Expediciones Tropicales offers day trips from San Jose to Volcan Poas; call 011-506- 257-4171. The trip to Cafe Britt from San Jose takes about two hours; 1-800-GO-BRITT, www.coffeetour.com.
The Mercado Central is at Calle 8 and Avenida Central. A little north of Central on Calle 8, you'll smell Cafe Trebol.
For a refreshing stay in an elegant place, try the Hotel Grano de Oro (011-506-255-3322) on the west side of San Jose. Its 36 rooms begin at $75 double.