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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Panama Canal Cruise — October 1, 2010 – Day Eight

This would be one of the best days of the cruise. After arrival in Puntarenas, Costa Rica we would board our tour bus and head for the mountains of Costa Rica and a coffee plantation. Kathy and I were looking forward to the tour. Gwen and Lisa were going to go Zip Lining over the Costa Rican Rainforest. This would be quite a day.

We arrived in Puntarenas at 0730 and after breakfast we boarded our bus for the eight hour Costa Rican Traditions shore excursion. Tiny Puntarenas, on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, is situated between the volcanic beaches of the Golfo de Nicoya and some of the country's highest mountain peaks. Within a half-hour's drive from the port, tropical jungles give up their secrets to the casual observer. Puntarenas is a paradise for eco-tourists. You can explore the rain forest on a horseback ride through the enchanting Valley of the Monkeys, where hundred-year-old trees are draped with orchids, ferns and bromeliads. You might see howler monkeys, butterflies, parrots and other colorful birds.

The port of Puntarenas was once the main port for coffee exported to England. Today, coffee continues to play an important role in this country's economy. Most visitors to Puntarenas will not want to leave without taking home the delicious flavor of Costa Rican coffee. Puntarenas offers wonderful arts-and-crafts shopping as well. Several craft stands are located ashore near the pier. The walk along the waterfront is pleasant, but be prepared to be approached by a variety of street hustlers selling local crafts and private tours.

This is my fourth visit to Costa Rica. I was here in the late 1990s and 2000 to do navigation approach surveys at the San Jose and Limon airports. At that time I thought Costa Rica would be a great place to retire. It is really a very beautiful country with well educated and civilized people. Unlike the other countries in Central America Costa Rica did not have an indigenous Indian population to mix with the Spanish colonizers so the Costa Ricans have lighter skin and are more European in appearance than their neighbors to the north or south.

Costa Rica was always the land bridge connecting North and South America. The country is about the size of West Virginia with a population of 4.5 million of which 11% are expatriate U.S. citizens who have retired here. In the 1990s, when I was here, the population was 3.7 million and the percentage of expatriate Americans was the same.

In 1990 you could buy a three bedroom house overlooking the ocean for about $150,000, Today the same house would run almost $400,000. The locals blame the influx of Americans for driving up the prices. This is same as the south where the retirees from the rust belt states have driven up property values in North and South Carolina.

Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates in the world at 97.5%. Education is compulsory up to the sixth grade with most children graduating high school. All school children are required to wear uniforms to school and must come to school neat and clean. English is a required course all through the grades.

Costa Rica’s second largest source of income is from tourism with pharmaceuticals, clothing and pineapples being third, fourth and fifth. If you want to know what number one is you will have to read to the end of this post.

Our shore excursion was to take us to a working coffee plantation up in the mountains above 1,000 meters, We were told that coffee grows best between one and two thousand meters and needs plenty of rainfall. Costa Rica gets on average 150 inches of rainfall per year and we got about an inch while at the plantation. Fortunately we were under cover when the rain came and it did not hamper our enjoyment.

After a two and a half hour bus trip through the hills and villages surrounding Puntarenas we arrived at the Doka Estates coffee plantation. We had to take some of the narrow back roads as some of the main roads were blocked by mud slides from the recent rains. This worked to our benefit as we saw more of the little villages and hamlets along the way. In the photos you will see almost all of the houses with bars and gates and think there is a very large security problem in Costa Rica. To some extent this is the case, but it is more in the Spanish tradition to have the gates and bars. Our tour guide, Julio, explained that this tradition dates to the Moorish occupation of Spain. The Spanish, in fear that the Muslim Moors would creep into their homes to steal items or worse, barred their windows and gated the entrances to their homes.

Some houses were small dilapidated looking shacks while others were very neat and proper looking houses. Due to the hilly and rough terrain almost all of the houses were very close to the road. Another note of interest is that all of the homes, with a rare exception, had corrugated metal roofs. This is due to the earthquake belt Costa Rica sits on. The weight of the roofs is less with the metal and will cause less injury in the event of collapse.

Julio identified many of the trees and other flora as we passed but I cannot remember most of them. One of the things I do remember, however, is that there are two fruits that have their seeds growing on the outside of the fruit. Can you guess which ones they are?

We arrived at the Doka Estates coffee plantation around noon just as the skies were darkening and there was a sound of distant thunder. We all knew the rain was on its way. Doka lies at 1,500 meters above sea level on some fairly hilly terrain. You can see the coffee trees, with their emerald colored leaves, covering the surrounding hills. Juan Valdez has a pretty tough job picking these coffee beans. By the way, the pickers here do not use donkeys.

It takes about four years for a new coffee plant to mature and begin producing beans. The beans do not ripen at the same time. The growing beans are green and the ripe ones are red. It takes several passes of picking to gather the beans form a coffee tree. The pickers hang a wicker basket around their waist and climb through the rows of coffee trees picking the red beans as they go. Each basket will hold twenty-five pounds of beans, which will cull down to about seven pounds in the selection and processing phase of the coffee making workflow. For this work a picker earns $2.00 per basket. In Costa Rica their monetary unit is the Colon, which is tied to the U.S. Dollar so a dollar is a dollar.

The average picker can fill twenty baskets in an eight hour day. This will earn him $40 dollars per day for his arduous work. Almost all of the pickers come from Nicaragua, Costa Rica’s northern neighbor. You see every counter needs a Mexican, Costa Rica has Nicaragua and Honduras; the oil rich Arabs have the Palestinians and Indians, and so on and on.

The tour was very interesting and informative as we passed through the various stages of coffee production. Most of he process is carried out by machines imported from Germany. One little known fact is in the making of decaffeinated coffee. Doka sends it dried, but unroasted beans to Germany where the Germans use a natural water-based process to remove the caffeine. They then send the beans, sans caffeine, back to Doka. Doka pays for the shipping but not the removal of the caffeine. The Germans do this for free and then sell the caffeine to Coca Cola, Pepsi and other soft drink bottlers. This is called free trade.

Doka roasts only ten percent of the beans. The remaining beans are exported with 70% going to the United States. Each coffee seller will have it’s own blending and roasting formulas. Doka blends and roasts five different types of coffee onsite and for the Costa Rica market. The coffee is very good. Suffice it to say we bought four bags of this great coffee to take home with us.

After the tour of the coffee plantation and processing facilities we were served a lunch in the La Cajuela restaurant. We were served a very traditional Costa Rican meal of rice, beans, salad, meat, vegetables and fruit. We had an option of chicken, beef or pork for the meat. It was a very tasty and filling lunch.

After lunch we spent 45 minutes walking about the plantation taking photographs and enjoying the mountain air after the rain. We then got back on the bus for our two hour ride back to the ship. It did take long before I was asleep on the bus and before I knew it we were back in Puntarenas and the Radiance.

This was one of the better shore excursions I have had with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The guides were great and the transportation comfortable. The staff at the coffee plantation was helpful, informative and friendly. There was only one hitch in the day. On every tour there is always one obnoxious person in the group. Our group had two. One was the signer for the few deaf persons traveling with us. She constantly was getting in the way of my photo opportunities and seemed not to pay any attention to anyone. The other was a blond, pushy woman who pushed in from of everyone to take her photo and then stay there blocking everyone else from getting their shot. She was completely oblivious to her surroundings or just did not care. I have posted her most flattering photo to my gallery. I should have gotten her back side, it would have better illustrated her character.

Costa Rica’s number one source of income is computers; the big electronic firms like Intel have large manufacturing and R&D facilities in Costa Rica. Our guide told us the when Intel was opening their plant here and recruiting workers they put an ad out requesting engineers and technicians with a working knowledge of binary code. Twenty-five thousand people applied for positions. Intel was amazed at the level of skill and knowledge that existed in Costa Rica.

Strawberries and cashews are the two fruits that have their seeds growing on the outside of the fruit. How about that? The next time you eat a strawberry you will be eating the seeds.

Click here to view an updated version of my Panama Canal Gallery.

1 comment:


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