Costa Rica’s Coffee History

How King Coffee & the Sugar Cane Queen ‘Democratized’ Costa Rica

By Stephen Duplantier & Gene Warneke
In the middle of the 19th century, the population of Costa Rica was 80,000, mostly concentrated in a region roughly 50 km west to east and 20 km north and south. This was the population cauldron of San José and its surrounding settlements.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a steady trickle of emigrants left the San José area and moved westward along the southern slopes of Volcan Poás and the northern cordillera. As in most pioneer migrations, these were mostly campesinos and yeoman farmers looking for room to expand. Coffee, it had been discovered, grew very well in the western Central Valley, or the Occidente. The virgin mineral-rich volcanic soils and cooler high elevations produced bountiful high-quality coffee. These pioneering coffee farmers were trying to cash in on the beginning world interest in exported Costa Rican coffee. However, there was a problem with getting the processed coffee out, since at that time, there was only one all-weather year-round road. This road, completed in 1853, ran through Atenas, San Mateo, Esparza and then to the coast. Connecting to this rough, but serviceable, road were muddy creek-bottom cart paths winding through farms and towns.
The pioneers who headed west settled in Naranjo de Poás (now Naranjo) in 1835, Poás (now Grecia) in 1838, and San Ramón and Palmares in 1842. At the same time, Sarchí was growing in reputation for its local population of craftsman and cart-makers who were key to making and repairing the main transport vehicles of the day.
The good coffee-growing areas in the Occidente were handicapped by the bad roads, yet the oxcart fleets of carretas and the huge lumbering, oxen with their all-weather, four-hoof drive power made it possible, if not unpleasant. Secondary roads connected the highland coffee towns to the main oxcart road in Atenas. Getting the coffee out after the picking started also coincides with the end of the rainy season and challenging between-season weather.
Coffee was planted in San Ramón, Grecia, Naranjo, Palmares, and Sarchí. Coffee did not do as well in the lower elevations of Atenas, so Atenas grew sugar cane to make molasses and tapa dulce—the molded raw sugar rounds. The sugar cane was fed to the oxen along with pasto, or forage grasses. Yeoman farmers and smallholder cafeteleros also grew cane which fed the oxen, sweetened the coffee and provided the agua dulce of daily life. Families lived well on their ancient and nutritious diet of maize, beans, plaintains, yuca, garden vegetables, and their pigs, chickens, and wild game.
These western migrants were independent thinkers used to pioneer hardships. Few of the coffee-growing elites of the Central Valley from San José and Cartago moved into the Occidente. These new remote westerners lived out from the Central Valley and its controlling influence. However, in time, the Occidente produced its own coffee and sugar cane elites. As they and their region grew in wealth and power, they demanded more and more equality and less corruption from the Central Valley governing and political establishment.
Unlike sugar cane and bananas grown by corporations on enormous tracts of land, the growing of coffee was considered the more democratic crop of Costa Rica, since coffee was grown and produced by a broad variety of people and classes. Sugar and bananas required large plantations and production systems, and especially, field hands by the thousands. But coffee can be grown for profitable on smaller plots of land with less labor-intense methods of growing and harvesting. Often, a family could do all the picking of coffee by themselves. Just as coffee can be grown on large or small fields, sugar can also be grown for home use on smallholders’ plots of land. After cutting, farmers loaded their cane onto oxcarts for the ride to a local oxen-powered trapiche, or sugar mill, for pressing the cane juice and boiling it to make the caldo, or “soup,” that was poured into the wooden molds to make the tapa dulces.
Therefore, in Costa Rica the idea of yeoman, or independent, farmer became a broad leveling category. Essentially, someone barely above peasant status in terms of economic dependence and sociocultural rank, could grow coffee and sugar cane on small patches of land and somehow logically aspire to the categorical equivalence to the aristocratic descendents of the Spanish conquistadores who might own thousands of hectares in coffee and live in mansions in San José. Both were cafeteléros, and both achieved a kind of equivalent brotherhood. The differences were enormous, but the myth of egalitarianism was born.
In 1944, José Figueres, a westerner born of Catalán immigrants in San Ramón, far outside of the inner circles of power, formed a revolutionary army that was eventually instrumental in overthrowing the corrupt government. Following the revolution of 1948, his junta abolished Costa Rica’s armed forces, broke the control of the coffee elites, gave women and Blacks the right to vote and had the constitution reworked to create a foundation of a political democracy guaranteeing more social justice. Figueres eventually joined the brotherhood of coffee-growers and cemented the alliance between coffee and democracy. Myth and reality became fused in the dark brew of Costa Rican coffee.