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