Nightfall had descended on the Talamanca Mountain like a dark shroud as we turned off the highway onto a dirt road. We trundled uphill in a Toyota four-wheeler towards Biolley, a little hamlet, located at the edge of the La Amistad International Park. The inky blackness of the surrounding jungle enveloped us; we listened to the noisy cicadas and the wind rustling through the dense cover. Our destination was Jardin Coffea Diversa, a coffee plantation owned by our dear friends, Fanny Garcia and Gonzalo Hernandez. Located in a remote part of Costa Rica, close to the Panama border, this would serve as the venue for a meeting of a close circle of friends from many years ago.
In the three days that followed, we learned a lot about this rural community; their interconnected lives and the bountiful nature that sustains them.
After an hour’s drive, we reached the hacienda, a spacious log cabin, perched in an idyllic clearing. Viewed in the morning sunlight, the windows framed open vistas of the sprawling valley below. The log cabin had been built by the local folk, with pine logs felled from the land on which it was built. The garden was lush with laden guava trees; white and red varieties of Ixora; brilliant red Heliconias and banana plants. Vines of Thunbergia framed the big picture window, it’s beautiful yellow and maroon blooms hanging like garlands, inviting hummingbirds to whirr around them.
We were welcomed with a warm traditional Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, a rice and black bean dish with peppers and cilantro accompanied by warm tortillas prepared by Lili, the farm help. This was followed by a farm fresh fruit salad of mango, papaya, bananas and completed with freshly brewed coffee grown at the plantation. The aroma of coffee was everywhere as were reminders of how central coffee is to the world’s culture. The dining room featured an arresting photo collage: black and white photos of world leaders, pop and movie stars drinking coffee. Another wall showcased vintage coffee collectibles from grinders to decanters and mugs.
Coffee in Costa Rica
Coffee has shaped Costa Rica’s economic and political landscape ever since its arrival from Jamaica in 1808. But the coffee farming in Costa Rica is very different from other Latin American countries where elite barons own large plantations and oversee a huge labor force. Given its rugged terrain, coffee farming in Costa Rica has stayed on a smaller scale, undertaken by families with small independent holdings.
After breakfast, we followed our hosts, Fanny and Gonzalo, for a tour of their plantation. Lili’s two girls accompanied us, leading the way quickly like the nimble pumas found in the forests above. We came to know many of the little children that lived on the hillside. Fanny told us that their families were all related to each other.
Gonzalo pointed out that the plantation, located at 1350 meters above sea level, was a perfect ecological setting for growing coffee: the taller cedars provided the much needed shade for coffee plants, protecting them from the rain and sun, preserving the soil and habitat for an incredible variety of natural animal and plant species.
The sign “Jardin Coffea Diversa” at the entrance, Fanny said, was made by Pancho Quesada, an award winning artist. The sign, made using mortar and recycled bottles, looked like a large undersea creature. We learned a lot about Pancho and his unique lifestyle in the next couple of days and happened on a lot more of his art on the property, and elsewhere in the country.
Jardin Coffea Diversa is a boutique plantation. Many different varieties of coffee are cultivated here: Gesha, Mokka, Purpurascens, Erecta and others, which have rare and unique flavors. This is unlike other plantations that only grow one botanical variety of coffee. The different varieties are grown in separate little plots, bordered by flowering shrubs like Brunfelsia. Signs designed by Pancho indicated the variety grown at the start of each plot. Gonzalo explained that while all the cultivars began their lives as little saplings or soldiers, their phenotypic variations became apparent later: they differed in their height, length of the branches, internodal length and leaf area.
Yellow buttercups nodded in the breeze, as we threaded our way down to the place where the coffee was processed from de-pulping to drying to finally storing in labeled bags, before being shipped off to their final destination.
We followed the migrant worker’s trail through the plantation past a bubbly fresh water spring, where tadpoles swam in the clear water. Fresh puma paw prints from the night before around the spring alarmed the little girls and it was reinforced why they never walked up to the hacienda after dark. The farm had lost many chickens in the recent months.
Our equestrian tour of the hillside on the second day was perhaps the most quintessential Central American experience of our visit. The horses were owned and operated by a local family; their children rode up like seasoned gauchos, to lead us downhill. We were as exhilarated to be on horseback as these kids might be on an escalator in San Jose. We stopped at the local farms as we cantered slowly down the slope and through the surrounding woods.
As we rode back to the hacienda, swallows swooped above us, and misty clouds gathered around the crown of the mountain.
Picking For a Living
Fanny and Gonzalo employ a number of local people to work on the plantation all year round. During the coffee-picking season, migrant workers traveled across the border from Panama into Costa Rica. Each year, the same families arrived to live in the houses on the plantation. The coffee pickers are mostly illiterate, our hosts told us. They live close to the land; their weathered hands pick the cherries, dry them, sort them, but cannot count them.
Medical help is almost never sought, even though the Costa Rican government does have a health provision for migrant workers. Fanny told us about a coffee picker’s son who she took to the Children’s Hospital in the capital San Jose for treatment of filariasis that he had contracted back in Panama. It turned out that this was a trip of a lifetime for the little boy who rode his wheelchair like a car in the hospital hallways, and warmed the nursing staff with his wide eyed, open thrill of all the comforts that the hospital provided him.
A Hard Life
The lives of the people in this rural part of the world is paradoxical: most people in Biolley have never left the hillside, have only had an elementary school education and yet, they are very adept at using smart phones and very active on social media sites like Facebook and Whatsapp. We learned that the government provided monetary incentives for families to encourage their children to finish high school, as a rural development measure. Lili’s girls had sweet ambitions of becoming musicians or school teachers. As we were to witness later, the government also provided similar incentives for small, independent farmers to buy equipment and increase their productivity.
It is a hard life for a farmer in Biolley, despite the government subsidies. Dona Rosita grew the most delicious pineapples: sweet, succulent and bursting with flavor. Her life however mirrored the outside of the pineapple: thorny and prickly. Her husband had died seeking a laborer’s life in the United States, and Rosita had raised her daughters alone. They now have enrolled themselves in college in San Jose, she said, her face crinkling up in a smile.
Ice Cream, Jam and Honey
In an effort to use the resources and talent in the region and to provide opportunities for the community, Fanny has initiated some innovative joint ventures with the people of Biolley.
The Heladeria Artesenal is one such undertaking. It is a charming ice cream shop co-owned by Fanny and Roxana, a shy girl from the village. Fanny secured government grants to begin this enterprise and has employed Pancho the artist to create a whimsical mushroom shaped hut in the clearing; like an underwater fairyland with brightly colored toadstools and umbrellas.
Fanny makes the ice cream in the farm house with fruits from the local farms and Roxana manages the shop and attends to the customers. The shop also sells small pots of jams and special honey made by a variety of stingless bees that are unique to the region, a contribution of Roxana’s mother. Gonzalo told us that the bees produce only small quantities of honey and are not considered to be economical to harvest on a commercial basis. It was simply the best honey we had ever tasted.
The ice cream shop is a meeting place in more ways than one. The community gathers here in the evenings and holidays to eat delectable ice cream in many local flavors: berry, guava, passion fruit, banana and chocolate.
An Artisanal Lifestyle
A steep dirt road up from the Heladeria leads to Pancho Quesada’s studio and tree-house, where he leads a hermit’s life. The story goes that he drove his car out of the gates of National Biodiversity Institute in San Jose into the mountains, giving up a career and an urban lifestyle to pursue his vision. He built a house on stilts with a huge translucent tarp for a ceiling. He created art from objects-trouve: collections of empty bottles, fishing buoys, cleaned bones of animals, truck tires, twisted metal, dried gourd, every possible kind of shells and hollow reeds represented an organized chaos in his house. On his property, he cultivated seeds from indigenous plants, vines and trees. He has also designed a seed polisher from used parts.
These very seeds were used in another joint venture that Fanny organized to empower the local tribal women: the Artesanas del Bosque or the Artisans of the Rainforest. This was a social welfare organization that enabled these rural women to use the polished seeds to craft natural, sustainable and entirely charming jewelry to be sold in the international marketplace. A trip to the big fair in the Osa region or up in San Jose was a treat for everyone in Biolley, a way to experience the outside world. The ice creams, jams and jewelry were sold there and the profits shared among all the women.
At night, the full moon rose like an illuminated disc, its quiet light spilling down the mountain, its penumbra obscuring the stars of the Milky Way.
As the local children slept on the hillsides below, we wondered how many of their dreams would be fulfilled; how many of them would move away from the mountain to seek an education; how many of them would live a life entertaining the “spring breakers” in the nearby Manuel Antonio Park and how many of them would come back to serve their community. It was a hard life for the people of Biolley, but they had taken necessary initiatives towards progress and a better life, and were very fortunate to be a part of a land of abundant natural beauty and biodiversity.
Rama Shivakumar is a short story writer who has published her work in numerous literary journals, magazines and anthologies. Rama lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and eight year old daughter. She works as a scientist in a biotechnology firm and has participated in workshops at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.