Thirdeyemom

The Art of Traditional Sugar Cane Milling at Trapiche Don Carmen

After our gold mining tour and delightful lunch with Juan and his family at Finca Las Minas de Oro, we got back in the car and headed to our next adventure, a tour of a traditional sugar cane mill. Sugarcane grows easily throughout most of Costa Rica given its plentiful amount of rain, warm sunshine and rich fertile soil. It also is one of the top agricultural products in the country after bananas, pineapples and coffee. However, traditional sugarcane milling is on its way out as more sugar is being processed by machines and not by hand.

I had never visited a sugar mill before and honestly had no idea how sugar was processed or that it could make so many different kinds of products. Our afternoon tour of the Trapiche Don Carmen in Rancho Quemado would be another fascinating experience into an art and tradition that may not be around in another ten or twenty years.

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The air was thick with humidity and the dark clouds of a potential rain shower were rolling in. So far the weather had been hot and humid yet without rain and I was hoping my luck would last for the rest of my visit.
We arrived at Trapiche Don Carmen a little after three to thick, bellowing smoke snaking up into the sky. There was a burning sweetness to the air which I would soon discover was the brewing sugarcane juice. Eytan introduced me to Johnny Rodriguez and his wife Noemy who were tending a large caldron of sugarcane juice. It had been brewing for over three hours now and was almost ready to be processed. We had arrived just in time!

raditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

Johnny tends to the the sugarcane juice which is boiling hard

As the sugarcane juice boiled, Johnny offered us a cup of coffee and walked us through the entire process of traditional sugarcane milling. He proudly showed us his sugarcane crop that is growing high to the sky behind his family home. The crop has been perfected over the years and today he uses only the highest quality sugarcane to make his products.

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Each piece of sugarcane is cut by hand, and the stock is gently pushed into the horse-powered mill. As the horse walks around the mill, it squeezes the juice out of the sugarcane stalk and the juice is collected into a large bucket. Nothing is wasted. Even the tip of the sugarcane is replanted to grow new crop.

Once the juice is expelled, what is left over of the stock is used to feed the fire that will boil the sugarcane juice for the next three hours, while the liquid transforms in consistency.

There are three products made by the sugarcane juice and each product must be made at the exact right moment in time or it will not be the right consistency and quality. The first product is the sugarcane juice or miel de jugo. This is made first and is placed into bottles to sell as a drink.

When the sugarcane reaches the perfect consistency and color, it is ready to be removed from the fire to make the other two products. If you are a moment to late, you could ruin the entire pot and will have lost an entire’s day work and crop. That is the art to making sugarcane by hand. No chemicals are used. No machines. Just your hard labor and skill.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

In the beginning, the sugarcane juice is runny and yellow in color.

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Demonstration of Johnny tending the sugarcane juice. It takes a lot of stirring and mixing so the juice doesn’t harden on the bottom of the caldron. 

Once it reaches the desired thickness and color, it begins to slowly evaporate and becomes a honey-like consistency and color.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

The juice is starting to thicken and turn darker. Here is Noemy tending the juice. The spoon is rather heavy and the work is hot and smoky.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

I give it a try but discover it is not at all easy.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

Finally the liquid begins to thicken, darken and evaporate.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

It is almost ready

The next product they make is a kind of sugarcane candy or “tapas” out of the thickened sugarcane.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

Johnny pours the thick sugarcane onto a wood platter to cool.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

Next, Noemy spreads it out and adds some nuts.

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I get to sample some of it and it is thick, rich and sweet.

Traditional Sugar Cane Milling in Costa Rica

Up close…Mmmm so good and so sweet

The last product is a cone-shaped dessert that they individually sell in town and at local lodges. The thickest part of the sugarcane is poured into round molds and then comes out shaping a little bit like a coned volcano.

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After sampling all the sugarcane products I feel slightly giddy but am also so honored to have spent the afternoon learning about the traditional art of sugarcane milling. It is definitely a sweet labor of love and makes me nostalgic for the days when more things were made by hand. It is also nice to know that my visit helped promote a dying art. That is the beauty of rural, sustainable travel.

This post is a continuation of my series on the Osa Peninsula. I traveled for a week visiting rural communities with Lokal Travel.

40 comments

  1. What a fascinating insight Nicole. I had no idea about sugarcane and the art that goes into it. Definitely a labor of love. Another wonderful part of your adventure. Loving it.

  2. Hi Nicole!
    What a labor of love for sure. It must be so sweet and a far cry from the education in our country about reducing sweets in our diet. I think they must employ more moderation for it not to be such an issue for them.
    A fascinating look at life there.
    Thank you for more great insight from you and your adventure, my friend 💐💕

  3. hmunro

    “After sampling all the sugarcane products I feel slightly giddy.” That’s how I felt after reading your post! I had never heard of any of these elaborate processes before — so much work, and requiring such precise timing. But the results look absolutely delicious. What a cool way to spend a day! Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Thanks so much for reading all my Costa Rica stories! It has been so wonderful to have you along with all your excellent comments. Yes the sugar did go a bit to my head but I also had just eaten an enormous homemade lunch at the gold mining tour so I was so stuffed.

  4. Fascinating, Nicole. I had no idea about this process. I imagine you did have a bit of sugar high after sampling all that. But I also bet it was pretty good. 🙂 As for making things by hand, sometimes I guess it’s more nostalgic for those of us who don’t have the hard work of doing it by hand! I do know what you mean, though.

    janet

    • Yes, it is a lot of work. It takes all day to make the sugarcane products and it is hot, hard labor. But the best of all it is made without being artificially processed and is pure and real. That is what I found so wonderful about it.

  5. Pingback: Sugar…Mmmm! – Site Title

  6. Wonderful! It reminds me of the process of making palm sugar that I saw in Cambodia (where the liquid is similarly boiled for hours), and also of a horse drawn grinder to extract peanut oil – also in Cambodia I think it was.
    Alison

    • Thanks Alison! Yes that must have been pretty similar. It was really fun to watch. Amazing how such simple things are lost in processing. I had no idea how sugar cane was made into juice or treats.

    • Yes it is. They seemed to love it too and showing us the whole process. A labor of love indeed! 🙂 Hope you are well LuAnn. Missing your beautiful blog. 🙂

      • We will be taking to the road soon so I will begin to blog again. To be quite honest my focus of late has been as that of an activist and peaceful protester. But for my own sanity I need to step back and get back out on the road.

      • We are heading out for some of the Utah parks, then ending up in Yellowstone for the summer, where we will be volunteering as program assistants for Yellowstone Forever, formerly Yellowstone Association. We will be assisting the naturalists who conduct the field seminars. We will be staying out at Lamar Buffalo Ranch in a cabin, so it should be an interesting, educational summer. We will then head to Glacier NP in the fall. 🙂

      • LuAnn, that sounds like a dream come true! How wonderful!!! I’m trying to remember now if that is the park that Debbie’s son (Rewind and Retired in Nicaragua) works at but not sure. Sounds absolutely wonderful to the soul. 🙂

      • We think it will be a relaxing and educational summer. I desperately need the distraction. I am trying to do my part on the political front but it is driving me crazy!

      • Yes I had to take a big step back LuAnn. It was threatening my mental well being too much. I feel much better. I still fight but just can’t consume my life with it. Your summer plans sound amazing! 🙂

      • I was always feeling a constant level of stress so I needed to step back and spend more time in nature. We have friends visiting so we are out on the trails more, which is my happy place. I am ready for a summer in Yellowstone where internet will not be plentiful.

      • LuAnn, I had felt the exact same way. I was feeling anxious all the time and so I finally decided I had to just give in. I still fight but I can’t follow and read all the news. I have connected more with nature and am much happier. 🙂

      • Glad to hear I am not the only one. I was feeling like I am not supporting the cause. I still make calls and sign petitions but I have had to back off of where I am. Now to refocus and start blogging again. 🙂

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