Every year, millions of people make the 22 km walk, known as the romería, from the capital of San José to the basilica in Cartago. They do this in honour of La Negrita. This tiny black stone statue of the Virgin of the Angels, depicts Costa Rica’s patron saint. For many who make the pilgrimage, it’s a story of coming home.  Instead of walking the 22 km, I did the approach to the altar on my knees, following in the wake of others before me.

According to Catholic Church documents and popular lore, the icon of La Negrita, a 20-centimeter dark colored stone statue of mother and child representing the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, appeared to a woman of African descent – a parda/a or free black person – in 1635.  The woman decided to go to the local Catholic priest, and the icon was placed in the church, but it kept reappearing to the woman in its original place. After the icon appeared to the woman three times in this way, the priest commissioned a church to be built for the icon on the spot where she was found. The Catholic Bishop later, in about 1637, established La Confradia, a lay organization of free Blacks charged with maintaining and venerating the icon.

For over 200 years, the Catholic Church felt that the devotion to this icon was something “only blacks were interested in.” There were highly ritualized African-based celebrations around the veneration of La Negrita.  During their fight for Independence from Spain, the Church and colonial politicians took La Negrita out of the hands of the Blacks who had maintained and worshipped her and re-named her La Virgin de Los Angeles; the symbol of the hard-working Costa Ricans or Ticos in the face of colonial Spain. Independence was won in 1821 and slavery ended in 1824.

In 1950, the shrine was looted and the security guard killed. This made the news in the New York Times. Since then, things have been calm. The new church, opened in 1924, replaces the old one, which was destroyed three times in earthquakes.

According to a popular legend, there were two brothers who lived in colonial Cartago city. One of them was a single, nice and loved person, and the other a priest. A rivalry arose between them as both fell in love with the same woman, who chose and married the lazy brother. The priest was infuriated, and did everything he could to destroy his brother. Then, in 1577 during the New Year’s mass, he saw his brother in the church and killed him with a knife. In penance for his mortal sin he built a church for the city, but one year afterwards an earthquake destroyed it. Each time it was rebuilt, another new earthquake destroyed it, until 1910 when it was canceled and thought to be a cursed site. It is also said that in foggy nights, it is possible to see the priest, headless, inside the ruins, wandering for eternity as his penance for desecrating a holy site.

Buses come from San José every 3-5 minutes, so the town is well-served. Public transport around the city works well. The traffic is a bit of a nightmare, but the buses are there. Cartago is a stop off point for the Irazú volcano (expect to pay about $40 for a taxi to take you up and back plus $15 admission fee). We took the chance but when we got to the edge of the park, the attendant told us it was socked in. We’d see nothing. Our second attempt to see a volcano up close and personal has failed.

But we did get a tour of the countryside and lots of information from our driver, Davíd. The mountains were suspended in mist as the farmers worked the fields with horses and ploughs, barely able to see a foot in front. The soil is rich and dark and the crops are plenty. The people seem happy, something borne out by their ranking in the Happy Planet Index. In 2016, it was voted happiest country in the world. And Cartago seemed more laid back than San José – the watchfulness was missing – that sense of people waiting for something bad to happen had gone.

Perhaps to compensate us for our disappointment in not seeing the volcano, Davíd took us to see the old hospital, a mecca of faded colours and former glory. El Sanatorio Durán is said to be one of the most haunted places in Costa Rica.

Built in 1915 by Dr. Carlos Duran, the Sanatorium’s location was deemed to be ideal for those suffering from consumption. It operated as a hospital for tuberculosis patients for many years, as well as an asylum for the mentally ill. After 1963, the Sanatorium ceased to be operational, since tuberculosis was no longer an issue and the mentally ill could be treated in bigger, more humane hospitals. For awhile, the place operated as an orphanage, and then later it was turned into both a maximum and a minimum-security prison. The Duran Sanatorium shut down permanently in 1973 when it retained serious structural damage from an eruption of the nearby Irazú volcano.

It’s said to have three ghosts: a nun, an old woman, and a child. As we took refuge from the teeming rain and thunder, wandering through the old rooms, we heard a child laughing but never found her. The ghost thing did pop briefly to mind but it wasn’t until we were telling Steve, our friendly receptionist at Hotel Don Carlos, we’d been to see it that he told us it was haunted. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was there. Am way to susceptible to flights of fancy.

Forget your French roast, or your Italian espresso, or your Breakfast blend. Forget your Arabica or your Robusta. When it comes to classifying coffee, Costa Ricans have made it easy – everyday, weekend, and special occasions. And if everyday is a special occasion, you’re in luck.

Coffee accounts for just 2.9% of Costa Rican exports. Back in the day, it was as high as 90%. [Trivia question: Top export from CR? Medical instruments. Followed by bananas and tropical fruit. It even exports tulips to Holland.]

We bought some coffee at the market on Sunday and were assured, as was to be expected, that it was the best in Costa Rica. This was before we knew as much as we know now.

Part of our day trip to La Paz to see the falls and the toucans, was breakfast at and a tour of the Doka Coffee Plantation in Alajuela. Marco, our guide, gave us a quick rundown of the history of coffee in the country. It arrived around 1820 and initially, the government sought to compete regarding production with Colombia (75 times the size of Costa Rica) and Brazil (100 times the size of Colombia). This was obviously a non-runner so instead of quantity, they now concentrate on quality – and exclusively Arabica.

The Vargas family have been growing coffee since 1931 – three generations – hence their brand name: Café Tres Generaciones. Of their annual production, 60% of their green beans go to Starbucks to be roasted and blended and whatevered. The rest, they roast themselves. Starbucks has its own plantation in the vicinity  – Hacienda Alsacia – where it is experimenting with bean varieties in an effort to stop the coffee Apocalypse.

The origins of coffee are well known – the Ethiopian goatherder whose goats got a little jumpy after eating a red cherry from a plant. The same goatherder then burned the plant, inadvertently roasting the bean, and ending up smelling the coffee. The rest is history.

Coffee plants are grown from seed on the Doka estate and take four years before they produce berries.

Each coffee plant will produce for 25 years or so. At Doka, they keep their plants for just 16 to ensure good quality beans.

The harvest season runs from November to February when 500 workers come to the farm to pick the red cherries only from the plants. They get $2 for each 10kg basket they turn in – the good ones can pick 20 baskets or so a day. And from each 10kg picked, only about 2kg will end up being used.

The berries then go through a second selection process in water, where the good ones, the ones with beans, sink to the bottom and the empty ones float. The sinkers are further graded into A, B, and C – with A&B sold on as green beans or roasted on the farm.

The beans need to be dried out for 9-11 days after their 36 hours of fermentation. Costa Rica gets a lot of rain so if it doesn’t stay away, they can be dried inside in just 2 days.

Beans are stored in 50kg bags for up to 2 years. They’re dried again for a couple of days before being roasted. The difference in texture of the grades was like sackcloth (C) and 1000-thread silk sheets (A).

Some of the cherries only have one bean, not two. These are the peaberries. They’re handpicked and make up about 5% of the total production.

When it comes to roasting, white beans (parchment), green beans, and peaberries go into the oven and roasted for 15 minutes for light, 17 for medium, and 20 for dark.

I’ve been mistakenly thinking that dark roasts (Italian espresso comes to mind) are best to wake me up while light roasts are better later in the evening so as not to keep me awake. But caffeine is liquid and the more time the bean spends in the oven, the less caffeine it holds. So I’ve been getting it ass backwards. There’s nowt wrong with my dark Italian roast in the evening and it’s the light ones I need for the morning.

And something else I learned. Coffea is a genus of flowering plants whose seeds are called coffee beans. Okay. I knew that. But it’s a member of the family Rubiaceae,  which also includes citrus trees. So the flowers, when the plants are in bloom, will smell like jasmine or orange or lemon. Something new to add to my list of things to do before I die – smell the coffee blossoms. [Note to self: Try planting a coffee bean and see what happens.]

Tours come in various packages and while there are no prices on the Doka site, other sites list package prices from €50. The breakfast was great and being able to sample all eight coffees from light to dark was an experience. Mind you, the condensed milk killed the flavour but I couldn’t bring myself to have it black. All their blends are classed as weekend coffee. Am all set now for the slow wake-up when I get back.

On our way to La Paz, we stopped off to buy some Montey Copey specialty coffee from the much-touted Dota Tarrazú region of Costa Rica. It is one of the top-three world coffee-producing regions, up there with Kona (Hawaii) and Blue Mountain (Jamaica). [A piece of trivia: In 2012, Tarrazú Geisha coffee became the most expensive coffee sold by Starbucks in 48 of its US stores.] But like other successful regions, it has its issues with people cashing in on the quality:

A lot of the Tarrazú coffee being sold around the world is either a knock off or ‘hopeful-by-proximity’.

Hopefully, I got the real thing. Roll on those special occasions.

I can see it now. The hummingbird at a bird convention denying all claims that it dies each autumn and comes back to life each spring. Or that it travels across oceans and seas by hitching a ride on the back of a goose. This little bird certainly attracts its fair share of myths and legends. To be so close that I could feel the air move as it hovered – that was special.  I didn’t know that all 341 species of hummingbird live in the Western Hemisphere. Or that they can eat twice their body weight – every day. And there’s more:

At La Paz yesterday, I checked out the birds, the butterflies, the frogs, the orchids, and the cats but left the snakes alone. We’d already see some butterflies at the national museum but they’re so lovely to look at, I happily went again. The Blue morpho is particularly attractive. It looks brown until it opens its wings and then you get a glimpse of the stunning blue.

I had my heart set on seeing a toucan up close and personal and was not disappointed. They’re quite the bird and a stellar example of how nature has given us an ability to cope with the heat. Most noticeable for their bill, the largest of any bird in the world when compared to their size, this bill is actually a heat regulator. When the toucan gets hot, arteries in its bill expands and release heat. How great would it be if every time I opened my mouth in the summer and stuck out my tongue, I could cool down!

 

I’m fascinated by big cats and leery of small ones and have been ever since I saw an old B&W movie about a woman with a house full of cats. Her kids knocked her off to inherit her millions and her cats sought revenge by picking them off one by one. I’ve never been able to sit comfortably in a room with a cat since and take good care never to speak ill of them within earshot. But the big cats, those I like.

A day trip from San José sits La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Animal Refuge. It bills itself as the…

…#1 most visited privately owned ecological attraction in Costa Rica featuring the best hiking near San José, the most famous waterfalls in Costa Rica, animal sanctuary with over 100 species of animals, and an environmental education program.

The animals there have been rescued. The jaguars, for instance, were found during a police raid on a drug dealer’s house. He’d been keeping them as pets. It’s illegal to keep wild animals as pets in Costa Rica and every so often, the police go on a rampage. The animals they find are taken to La Paz where they’re looked after. They’ve lost their instinct and so can’t be rehabilitated into the wilds. They do the usual animal things and have kids, born behind bars, but with acres of room and plenty of variety. They look happy. And they’re beautiful.

For the Americans among us, the bigger attraction was wildlife celebrity, Jack Hanna, who was there along with his camera crew. Me? I never even noticed the palaver.

As we descended to the falls, a light mist hung over the place. The skies were grey and rain threatened. The nearby Poás volcano has been active since April 12 and so is closed to the public. The grayness was suggestive of volcanic ash but that was probably my imagination. The dense vegetation is quite spectacular and I had little trouble taking a machete-wielding flight of fancy through the rain forest. And there is a rain forest, but there’s also a cloud forest – which explains the mist. Something new on me.

A cloud forest, also called a fog forest, is a generally tropical or subtropical, evergreen, montane, moist forest characterized by a persistent, frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover, usually at the canopy level, formally described in the International Cloud Atlas (2017) as silvagenitus.

There are five falls in all. And while they’re pretty spectacular, Bridal Veil falls in Valdez still gets my vote as the top falls I’ve seen to date.

Of the 120+ people working in La Paz, 95% of them come from towns within a 12-mile radius. It’s only been open since 2000 but takes its mission seriously.

…to preserve and protect the natural environment of the area for the education, entertainment, and enjoyment of all ages of people.

Entrance fee is $42. The **** buffet lunch is another $14. A taxi there from San José would be in the region of $60 so your best bang for your buck is to arrange a tour from your hotel which will take in breakfast and a tour of Doka Coffee Plantation, too, with pick-up and drop-off to your hotel. It’s well worth it.

I’m not quite sure why I was so surprised. Driving in from the airport to San José last night, I was quite taken aback to see McDonalds. Taco Bell. Denny’s. All the American favourites. I know Costa Rica is in Central America and the clue is in America, but I still didn’t expect quite as much Americanisation.

We’re staying at Hotel Don Carlos, a family-run hotel that has been in operation for four generations. Don Carlos himself came over from Liechtenstein back in the day and after working at the main hotel in town, decided to open up his own. It’s a gem of a place. A warren of nooks and crannies with steps and stairs everywhere. The food is good and the bar does a mean Whiskey Old Fashioned.

What I’ve seen of the hospitality business in Costa Rica and the level of customer service is impressive. Nothing is too much trouble. People are quite happy to spend some time chatting. And they’re very appreciative of the business they get. The central market is closed on Sundays so we took ourselves to the National Craft Market up by the National Museum. Here, about 100 families exhibit their stuff. And setting aside the disappointment I felt when I realised that the chap in Cuba had fibbed when he said he’d carved the hummingbird I bought, it’s impressive. All sorts of arts and crafts and all sorts of prices. Speaking Spanish gets you a long way here. Anyway, there we met Don Maximilien and his chocolate-covered coffee beans. [Turns out that Maximilien Peynado used to play with TICO – a great defender, apparently, who was retired by injury. And he never said a word]. And we chatted and we dealt and he thanked us for helping him keep his business going. Now, call me gullible if you want to, but he seemed pretty genuine. As did the waiter in the great little restaurant across the road with its fabulous steak and excellent cocktails. As did the priest we met in the Cathedral. Genuine Costa Rican.

 

The Cathedral was full. We caught the tail-end of mass. And afterwards, many of the people lined up to hug the priest. Most peculiar. It’ll take some investigating to find out who he is – he did tell me (of course I had to queue, too) but I must have gotten the name wrong because I can’t find him anywhere on the Net – a Fr Victor Hugo. Still, everyone seemed rather in awe. We dropped by another church later that morning and this time, all the kids were dancing the altar after communion. It, too, was full.

We spent a few hours in the National Museum (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica), a fascinating place that was once a barracks. Laid out in rooms around a rooftop courtyard, it charts the history of the country with lots of interesting stuff on display. From flying panels, carved out of a single piece of volcanic rock, symbolising various belief systems dating as far back as 1-500 AD, to the sixteenth-century mortuary panels that decorated graves.

I was particular taken by the packet bundles, also known as secondary burials. After the tissues had decomposed, the bones were packed neatly and wrapped in tree bark tied up with woven fibres. Quite something.

The museum dates back to 1887 when it was designed to ‘provide the country with a public establishment to deposit, classify, and study natural and artistic products’. Its current location, the former Bellavista Headquarters, is its fourth. It moved here in 1950. I was amused to see that the old latrines were one home to a display of religious objects. And that the cells still have original graffiti on the walls. It’s all rather spectacularly done with some excellent facts and figures about the men and women who made Costa Rica what it is today. Well worth the $9 entrance fee.

Perhaps most interesting of all is that to get into the exhibits, you have to first pass through a butterfly farm. The butterflies here live anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months and vary in size and color and timidity. Some are quite bold. One woman had a massive one attached to her jean pocket. Others were completely camera shy. More again were so quiet they may well have been dead.

 

We had intended going to something in the National Theatre, but it was in Spanish, no music, and the audience had to wear blindfolds. But we did luck out and get tickets to see the musical Chicago. I’ve seen my fair share of musicals and this was one of the better ones. Everyone could sing AND dance AND act. It’s a shame it was in Spanish because I don’t remember Chicago being laugh-out-loud funny but tonight it was. I have a theory though that the Spanish language and the animated delivery means that the actors didn’t have to act – they just had to be themselves… and sing and dance.

San José is a walkable city with some nice parks and green spaces. It’s home to about 280 000 people. Add the suburbs and it houses nearly a third of the country’s population. There’s a definite element of Spanish Colonial mixed in with some odd metal-tiled palatial manses (the building in pink below) and its fair share of grunge. It’s not the cleanest place I’ve been or the prettiest but it’s lived in. And the people are lovely.

There’s a serious homeless issue though with someone sleeping rough on every street. While one of the safest cities in the region, unemployment and a widening gap between the haves and the have nots are shaping up to cause problems.

But the most disturbing thing I saw when walking around today were the advertising billboards featuring a pig with human teeth. Now, that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.