The fertile flanks of Costa Rica's Poas volcano, just outside the capital of San Jose, have been generous to the Vargas family who have produced an award-winning caffeine hit since work started on their Doka Estate coffee plantation more than 70 years ago.
The green coffee bean first reached Costa Rica in the late 18th century by way of Ethiopia, and by 1832, Costa Rica's coffee golden age, the UK was buying up most of the country's coffee via its export and packaging in Chile. In fact, the UK remained the biggest importer of Costa Rican coffee until the Second World War.
My tour of the Doka family estate was a great chance to see the life cycle of the highly prized bean, and the processes that create the hot cup of coffee that forms a daily ritual for most of us!
As we toured the plantation, we were shown unripened green Arabica beans (they turn deep red when ripe) dangling from the rows of bushes that undulate across the hilly Doka estate. The guide told us that at the height of the coffee harvest in November, some 3000 workers collect around 20 baskets of beans (around 25lbs per basket) per row. The raw coffee cherries are then taken to be classified, dried in the sun, hulled (a process which removes the dry, papery skin from the bean), and then roasted. We were taken to the estate's roasting room – Cafe Tres Generaciones – and when we went in rich, roasted coffee smells filtered through the air. The tour ended with the chance to buy the estate's own ready packaged roasted coffee.
After visiting the Doka estate, we drove south to the the town of Sarchi, home to the largest oxcart in the world, and to an antique factory and workshop which craft the beautiful and colourful painted oxcarts. Dominating Sarchi town square is the world's biggest oxcart - listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Made of laurel and cedar wood, it weighs a monumental two tonnes, and is 14 metres long and very prettily decorated in painted flowers and swirls. The oxcarts, known as "carretas" in Costa Rica, are now protected by UNESCO as part of the intangible heritage of humanity.
Between 1832-1888, Costa Rican coffee producers moved their coffee across the country in these oxcarts until the trains finally took over the haulage. Each oxcart was painted differently and each region of the country could be identified by its colourful patterns.
Today, the oxcart, apart from being the target of many tourists' photos, is a beautiful vintage relic still manufactured only by a handful of workshops. At the Eloy Alfaro factory in Sarchi (makers of the world's largest oxcart), we were shown the original water system that still powers the hand-crafted manufacture of the cart and wheels since the opening of the workshop in the 1920s.
The painting workshop is also open at the back of the factory and we could watch the craftsmen carefully decorate the carts in beautiful primary colours surrounded by all their open pots of paint! After pottering about the antique workshop among all the tools of the trade, and watching the painters at work, we had the chance to buy oxcart replicas and other souvenirs in the large shop in front of the factory. Our shopping experience was fuelled by free cups of coffee!
All in all, the Doka Estate tour, and the visit to the oxcart factory was a great experience giving an insider view on Costa Rica's rich heritage and traditions. Each time I drink a cup of my Doka Estate coffee, I think back to this memorable day.