Costa Rica’s nature-immersive experiences have long been an antidote for adventure-starved travellers. Now, the revival of farm-to-table traditions is stirring up a new reason to get there fast and take it slow.
In recent years, agro-ecotourism experiences – from cheese-making classes in the tropical highlands to bean-to-bar chocolate workshops near San Jose – have emerged alongside a new generation of imaginative chefs. The adventures here now extend beyond the rain forest, from finca (farm) to dining table.
“Costa Rica has become a culinary destination – it just hasn’t swept the world yet like Peru or Mexico, but the secret is going to explode any time now,” said Glenn Jampol, artist and owner of Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort.
The 30-year-old boutique hotel, located 20 minutes north of the San José airport, was one of Costa Rica’s first sustainable boutique hotels, thanks to its solar panels, greenhouse and 100-per-cent-local staff. When the Jampol family noticed the neighbouring plantation was up for sale, they purchased the land and cultivated it as a shade-grown organic coffee farm.
The aim to grow as many products on the property was more of an economic decision than a marketing ploy – sourcing organic produce from sustainable farms in Costa Rica is expensive – but it’s turned out to be an experiential travel perk for guests. Today, visitors can tour the coffee farm or sample the java-infused tasting menu at the on-site restaurant, El Tigre Vestido, which has attracted travellers and locals alike ever since Chef Jose Pablo Gonzalez, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, lent a hand in creating the menu.
Gonzalez has since gone on to open his own farm-to-table restaurant, Al Mercat, in San Jose’s trendy area of Barrio Escalante. Foodies flock there to sample his creations, such as yucca ceviche and grilled plantains with cumin ice cream, and tour the restaurant’s own finca where all the local produce is grown. Following Al Mercat’s arrival in 2014, the neighbourhood has been transformed into an epicurean hub – complete with gastropubs serving craft beer from Costa Rica’s more than 50 microbreweries, such as the Costa Rica Craft Brewing Co., Bri Bri Springs and the environmentally sustainable Lake Arenal Brewery.
For a comprehensive overview, travellers can hop on a craft-beer crawl such as Intrepid Urban Adventures’ tour, which covers the area’s brewpubs and local craft beers – best paired with quesos artesanales (artisanal cheeses) and fried green plantains.
Cheese fortuitously became an integral part of the country’s culinary fabric after Quaker settlers arrived in the 1950s and opened the Monteverde Cheese Factory. In recent years, Monte Azul, a small cheese producer owned by artists Carlos Rojas and Randy Langendorfer, has garnered attention for its chèvre goat cheese and educational experiences including week-long intensive workshops focused on the art of making raw-milk cheeses. For the more casual dairy enthusiast, eco-resort Rancho Margot near La Fortuna offers hands-on cheese-making classes for guests.
“The dairy products here are made by hand with minimal cultures, so they’re typically much easier to digest. So many people come here and are amazed they can eat the dairy even though they haven’t been able to for years in other places,” said Kristen Sawyer, an educator and volunteer at Rancho Margot.
The revival of agricultural traditions isn’t limited to cheese and coffee. Cacao production, a once-thriving industry that was quelled by an invasive fungus that spread throughout Costa Rica in the 1970s, has been reinvigorated. At Sibu Chocolate in San Jose, founders Julio Fernandez Amon, a historian, and journalist George Soriano put sustainability top of mind by sourcing their ingredients direct from farms and even creating their own recyclable packaging from cacao fibre, which is usually thrown away as a byproduct in the chocolate-making process. A half-day chocolate tour takes guests on a tasting journey that explores the role of chocolate in Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian past and in its future.
The range of Costa Rica’s ancestral ingredients – from aromatic herbs to wild mushrooms – has slowly emerged as a focal point of menus and excursions. At the sustainable Arenas Del Mar Beachfront & Rainforest Resort, tours to spice plantations and a Dock to Dish-certified selection of sustainably caught seafood makes eating as rewarding as spotting wildlife in the surrounding national parks. As part of the resort’s guest chef events, international restaurateurs such as Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav and Alison Trent and Alexandre Ballouard, the husband-and-wife duo behind Los Angeles’ Ysabel, have flown down to get creative with the country’s bevy of fresh produce.
“Costa Rica is a mecca for people looking for quality ingredients because everything under the sun grows here but for years, we were missing the artists to paint that canvas,” said Jampol, the artist and resort-owner.
The writer’s accommodations were courtesy of the Cayuga Collection. It did not review or approve this article.
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