One of the most popular beverages in the world, millions of coffee lovers worldwide can’t be wrong – there’s something special about it. It’s no accident that there are nearly 30,000 Starbucks locations worldwide. In North America, we drink a lot of coffee from Central and South America, mainly because the region’s geographic proximity to us makes it easy to import. To make one sweeping generalization, the coffees from Central America are the classic, medium-bodied coffees that most drinkers are used to, with cocoa or nutty notes.
Coffee growing regions exist in more than 50 countries around the world, stretching all the way across the globe from Africa to Asia. The diversity in growing conditions, microclimates, soils, and altitude all has a role in the taste of the end product, and the processing methods used in the region can have an impact as well. In other words, while different Central American coffees certainly have different flavor profiles – there’s a diverse array of tasting notes found in brews throughout the region – different coffees from different Central American countries may have more similarities than when compared with those exported from the other side of the ocean.
While some coffee drinkers might not care where their brew hails from, there is a new and growing trend of coffee enthusiasts who not only care where their coffee comes from, but want to experience it for themselves. To satisfy the masses, coffee plantation and tasting tours have popped up all over the world, and for enthusiasts and casual drinkers alike, a tour in Central America is a worthwhile cultural experience that you’ll never forget. No need to pack your portable French Press if you're traveling here!
Boquete, Panama: Home of the Geisha
Little known fact: after Black Ivory coffee – made from beans that have passed through an elephant – and Kopi Luwak – produced from beans that have passed through a civet – Geisha coffee beans, grown exclusively in the Boquete region of Panama, are the most expensive coffee beans in the world. A cup of the silky tea-like brew will set you back just $9 in cafes in Panama City, $18 in New York, and a staggering $68 in Dubai. The dearest geisha beans come from the original family-owned plantation, Hacienda la Esmeralda in Boquete, whose beans are sold exclusively in private international auctions (usually at a price point of around US $600 per pound), which means they only turn up at coffee specialists, like Intelligentsia in Chicago and Seven Seeds in Melbourne. Even then, the brew is often only available at special tastings with limited seats that often sell out well in advance of the event.
What is it that makes geisha so special? To begin with, the varietal is a member of the Arabica family, which differs in taste from the robusta species, from which a lot of mass-produced coffee is made. Arabica is hard to cultivate – it requires more water and more shade than robusta, making Boquete a prime location for Arabica plantations. The region boasts soil enriched by volcanic ash, it rains nine months out of twelve, and the cloud forest that surrounds the plantations offers shade and shelter to temperamental coffee plants.
When ripe, the plump, red geisha coffee cherries are handpicked; it’s hard, backbreaking work, with long days navigating slippery, dangerous terrain that is home to unsavory critters like fire ants and snakes. Then, the cherries are sorted, fermented, washed, dried, aged and hand sorted once again before they are packaged and finally sold to roasters. It’s a painstaking process.
Ultimately, the taste of geisha is what sets it apart. Lightly roasted to preserve the geisha beans’ delicate flavor, the brew produced is smooth and fruity, somewhat reminiscent of tea with floral undertones. It’s unlike any coffee you’ve ever tried. The flavor is world-renowned; it stole the spotlight in 2004 when it made its debut, and continues to dominate international tasting competitions year over year. While $9 may seem a little steep for a cup of joe in Panama, it’s worth the splurge. If nothing else, you’ll be joining the
If you want an even closer look, several geisha-growing farms in the Boquete region offer coffee tours, though Hacienda la Esmeralda is sadly not one of them.
This working coffee farm is the first to ever have been established in Panama. These days, it’s also a hotel surrounded by a 500-acre private reserve. They also offer an excellent coffee tour where participants can see the coffee crops and production process, followed by a tasting at the end of the visit.
Finca Don Jefes
Get a hands-on experience touring the fields, and sampling a couple of roasts. Then, roast and pack your own custom bag of beans to take home with you. Tours run most mornings and afternoons and last two to three hours.
This farm offers three different coffee tours, but the best of the three is the high-end tasting, where they walk guests through the complexities of coffee in all its varieties. It’s a 90-minute experience, with limited availability (call to find out when the tour is being offered), and very strict rules. These folks are so serious about their coffee that they request that all participants come completely free of scent – no perfume, cologne, aftershave, body lotion, or sunblock allowed.
Costa Rica's Central Valley: The Golden Bean
Mention Costa Rican coffee to any coffee aficionado (if you’re not one yourself), and you’ll quickly learn that the small Central American country is known for producing high quality beans. Coffee, known locally as the “golden bean”, is an important part of Costa Rican history, and today, the country produces around 1% of the world’s coffee – most of it Arabica. In fact, for 30 years, it was illegal to grow any other coffee varietals here. To protect the reputation and quality of their coffee exports, in 1989, the government prohibited the cultivation of the robusta plant – a ban lifted in February 2018.
The excellent quality of coffee yields here has meant that not only have global names like Starbucks taken notice, but some now own plantations in Costa Rica. In recent history (March 2018), Starbucks announced they were opening the doors of Hacienda Alsacia, their 600-acre coffee farm, to the public, offering visitors the chance to experience coffee from seed to cup, and see firsthand the work that Starbucks has been doing at the farm, which has served as their global research and development facility since 2013.
If you're looking for a coffee tour, Costa Rica is the place to do it. And while there are plenty of experiences for coffee connoisseurs to enjoy here (the Starbucks plantation is definitely a highlight), Finca Rosa Blanca offers a
Nestled in the hills above San José, just 20 minutes from the international airport, this unique and quirky, yet spectacularly beautiful eco-lodge rests on a 35-acre shade-grown coffee plantation that produces some of the finest coffee beans in Costa Rica. All guests are encouraged to take a coffee tour to learn about coffee production and do a cupping and tasting with an expert. You’ll sip two different roasts of Finca Rosa Blanca coffee, and learn how to evaluate aroma and flavor profiles. Plus, there’s nothing quite like waking up in a beyond-luxuriously appointed room, and taking your morning coffee – no milk or sugar needed here – on a private balcony overlooking the Central Valley. Sign us up.
Matagalpa, Nicaragua: The Highest-Grown Coffee in Central America
With recent features by companies like Starbucks, the last couple of years has placed Nicaraguan coffee on the map. The crop has long been one of the country’s largest exports, topping a list that includes beef, sugarcane and peanuts, with more than 45,000 family owned and operated coffee farms, in addition to hundreds of commercial coffee plantations spread over three main growing regions all located in Nicaragua’s north – Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Matagalpa. Only Arabica beans are grown in Nicaragua, and almost all of the crops are cultivated at altitudes above 800 meters (2,500 feet). The country produces the highest-grown coffees in Central America.
Jinotega is the largest producer, followed by Matagalpa and Nueva Segovia, and each region boasts coffee with distinct characteristics. Some brews are citrusy and bright, while others have a fruitier flavor. While much of the flavor profile is due to the roast, the high altitude at which the beans are grown has an influence on taste as well.
While most of the beans from Nicaragua have similar tasting notes, coffee from the Matagalpa region is known for large beans, smooth, medium body, and attractive bittersweet flavors. The locals refer to the mountainsides of Matagalpa, where the coffee beans grow, as La Zona del Oro, or the zone of gold. Here, most crops are shade-grown, in rich, volcanic soils. Comparative to Nueva Segovia and Jinotega, the tourism industry in Matagalpa is relatively well developed, and along with a diverse array of accommodations, there is a variety of coffee tours and experiences, where guests can visit plantations, learn about the growing and processing of coffee, and discover the importance of the crop to the Nicaraguan people.
Finca Esperanza Verde
This working coffee farm is located on 247 acres of cloud forest, with a rustic but comfortable eco-lodge, best suited for adventurous travelers. If visiting the farm for the day, you’ll need to add US $6 to the activity prices listed on their site, but even at $21 per person for an English language tour, the coffee farm tour is a steal. The optimal time to visit Finca Esperanza Verde is in mid-December through mid-February, when guests can get their hands dirty and participate in the harvesting and wet milling of the beans. Tours run Monday through Saturday from 8am to 2pm, and they do accept walk-in guests. To participate in the milling process, they require 48 hours notice.
Discover coffee from bean to cup at La Hammonia Farm, operating since 1974, which produces Selva Negra Estate Coffee, an organic, Rainforest Alliance certified bean. You’ll visit the nurseries, and learn about the sustainable and organic farming methods, see how the coffee cherries are picked and weighed, and then head to the mill to watch the wet milling process. Daily tours available. Reservations are recommended.
For coffee lovers looking to get even closer to the process, after spending the day exploring the process of coffee from bean to cup, plan to rest your head at Montebrisa Boutique B&B. This small locally owned inn (featuring the nicest accommodations in Matagalpa, exceptional personalized service, and a delicious daily breakfast, all for a reasonable nightly price), surrounded by a private (if small) coffee plantation with over 300 coffee plants. Breakfast is served with coffee brewed from beans grown on the property, and if a couple of cups per day are not enough to satisfy your caffeine craving, you are welcome to request a fresh pot at any time!
Copán, Honduras: Coffee & Mayan Ruins
The world’s fifth largest coffee producer by volume, Honduran coffee has spent years in the shadows thrown by neighbors Costa Rica and Guatemala, usually acting as a low-priced and unremarkable base for coffee blends, largely due to lack of quality control.
After a long and arduous process to improve coffee quality, in 2017, an expert panel of nine judges evaluated Honduran grower José Abelardo Díaz Enamorado’s coffee as the “best of the best”, awarding the beans the coveted Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award.
How did Honduras morph from a low-priced commodity used mainly as filler to the main attraction? It wasn’t easy. In the 1990s, the Honduran government implemented a tax on coffee exports, and used the resulting money to improve roads to the country’s six coffee-growing regions. They also implemented a program that provided fiscal incentives to coffee farmers, resulting in improved quality of the product, and increasing growing yields. In 2000, the government founded the Instituto Hondureño del Café (IHCAFE), an organization that promotes Honduran coffee locally and abroad, provides training and funding for farmers, and trains young Hondurans in coffee quality control through their national cupping school.
The flavor profile of Honduran coffee is aromatic and fragrant with notes of vanilla or hazelnut, has a medium body, and acidity that is generally well balanced. The six growing regions each produce uniquely flavored coffees, which range in flavor from tropical fruit to chocolate. For this reason, it is often difficult to pick out a Honduran coffee in a blend. Of the growing regions, Copán is the most tourist-friendly, easily accessible to travelers crossing over from Guatemala, and a can’t miss stop for visitors looking to explore Mayan ruins in Honduras.
Known for a cool, temperate climate, the flavor profile of Copán coffee typically has notes of citrus, chocolate and caramel. It has a delicate acidity and a bold and creamy body with a lingering finish.
Hacienda San Rafael
In the hills outside of Copán, Hacienda San Rafael’s Farmstead Estate Coffee is shade grown, harvested, roasted and packed onsite – never blended with coffee from other farms or producers. They offer daily tours, though the information is not yet available on their site. Call for a reservation.
Finca San Isabel
Finca San Isabel produces some of the finest coffee available in Copán, served up at Café Welchez just off the Parque Central. Daily tours are available with bilingual guides, and include transportation from the town, departing at 9am and 2pm.
Finca Santa Elena
If you’re hoping to see a little more than just coffee on your tour, Finca Santa Elena is a good bet. On this two-hour tour, not only will you visit the coffee plantations and nursery, and get an opportunity to see the warehouse and processing facilities, but you’ll also have a chance to check out diversified crops on the property including bananas, plantations, coconuts, bamboo, tropical fruits, as well as the beekeeping and honey extraction facilities.
Antigua, Guatemala: Notes of Chocolate
With highlands famous worldwide for growing top-notch coffee, any coffee lover should be chomping at the bit to pay a visit to Guatemala. The country is the tenth largest producer of coffee in the world, half of the beans produced in Guatemala are exported to the United States, so it is more likely than not that if you have never tasted one, you’ve at least seen a Guatemalan coffee in your local coffee shop. As part of their Starbucks Reserve offerings, most Starbucks locations carry a whole bean Antigua coffee for sale.
The typical Guatemalan brew is sweet, with a medium to full body and notes of chocolate, lending themselves well to a darker, espresso-like roast. Most cups will have a bittersweet taste reminiscent of cocoa, or a sweet, milk chocolate taste – fitting, as many consider Guatemala to be the birthplace of chocolate, where Mayans worshipped the cacao tree and called chocolate “the food of the gods”.
There are seven distinct growing regions within Guatemala, spread mainly throughout the southwest of the country, each with its own set of unique growing conditions, microclimates, altitude and soil. All produce excellent (if varied) coffees, but of the seven regions, Antigua, Huehuetenango and Atitlán are the best known. Coffee farm tours are a popular tourist attraction in Antigua, a picturesque colonial town nestled in a valley enclosed by three volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. Not only is the region responsible for the highest output in Guatemala, but it is also home to some of the oldest coffee estates in the country, many passed down for generations.
Arguably the most popular coffee tour in Antigua, despite the rather steep price of $20 per person, Finca Filidelphia’s plantation has been producing coffee for 130 years, and leading tours for more than 15. You’ll visit the plantation and nursery, continue to the wet milling and drying patio where coffee beans are processed and sorted, then finish the tour in the cupping lab for a taste of some truly delectable R. Dalton Genuine Antigua brew.
San Miguel Escobar Cooperative
About 6 kilometers (4 miles) from Antigua, San Miguel Escobar is a small town nestled at the foot of Agua Volcano, and today home to a 30-member cooperative of coffee farmers, whose shade grown estates stretch up the slopes of the volcano. Daily tours offered by De la Gente Coffee, give participants an opportunity to experience a day in the life of a farmer – you’ll be invited into their home to learn about and utilize the machinery that they use to process coffee, before enjoying a cup made the traditional Guatemalan way, over the fire, with the farmer and his family.
Available Tuesday through Friday, this hour and a half tour is led by a coffee expert, and includes a walk through the plantation and nursery, where you will learn about the different stages of growing, and a visit to the processing facility to discover how the bean is processed to prepare it for packaging and sale.