One of the best things about Costa Rica is the variety of things to do. One day you can be zip lining through the forest canopy or rafting on a river, and the next, you can be exploring local wildlife and beaches. In the Manuel Antonio area, the list of activities can be almost overwhelming. In this post, we’ll share one tour that is often overlooked. The Villa Vanilla spice farm tour is low key and great for a variety of ages. This interactive activity will let you see, touch, and taste the rainforest of flavors growing nearby.
Villa Vanilla is a 155-acre (63 hectare) farm located about 30-minutes outside the popular tourist destinations of Quepos and Manuel Antonio.
This area and the small town of Villa Nueva, where the farm is located, is quite different from the touristy beach towns. A drive out here will give you a glimpse of everyday life in Costa Rica’s countryside. The town has a small school, church, a few basic supermarkets, and a friendly community of locals.
Villa Vanilla has an interesting history. It was founded in 1987 by Henry Karczynski. Henry was born in Germany but raised in the United States. His interest and studies in agriculture led him to Costa Rica where he started what was then a conventional vanilla farm.
While he had some initial success, Henry’s farm was practically devastated by two consecutive years of flooding rains. The soil was saturated and crops ruined. But he did not give up easily.
Henry learned about biodynamic farming and how surrounding his vanilla with other plants and trees could give new life to the soil.
Biodynamic farming, in general terms, creates an intricate ecosystem that works together to stay healthy. The farm and surrounding environment are looked at as a whole to make the entire property more sustainable.
Now, the farm is planted with a mix of herbs, spices, tropical fruits, flowering trees, and medicinal plants. This has created a healthy ecosystem, less susceptible to environmental changes, infestation, and disease. It also has drawn back local wildlife common to the area, like monkeys and birds.
Villa Vanilla Spice Farm Tour
When you arrive at the spice farm tour, you will immediately understand that Villa Vanilla is a special place. There are beautiful gardens with exotic flowers and thick forested parts of the property as the backdrop. If you’re lucky, a few special spices may be drying in the yard.
A Refreshing and Surprising Start
Under a covered tin roof, our tour started with Joyce, a local spice farm guide. Her passion for the property and what was growing around us was apparent from the start. Joyce quickly passed around tiny glasses of a special cold tea.
We won’t ruin the surprise by telling you what the tea was made from, but we can say that we were quite surprised when our picky 2.5-year-old son guzzled down the entire glass.
While the rest of us sipped the tasty tea, Joyce showed us some cured vanilla beans. We learned some interesting facts about the vanilla and gained a whole new appreciation for it.
One fact we won’t soon forget was about the origins of imitation vanilla. Joyce shared that the knock-off vanilla you buy in stores actually comes from the anal glands of beavers!
Needless to say, we purchased some real vanilla extract from the gift shop at the end of the tour.
The Origins of Chocolate
As we found out, not everything we would learn about on the spice farm tour was a spice. A large cacao pod was the next thing Joyce held in her hand.
Joyce explained the origins of the fruit and how chocolate has been used for thousands of years in different cultures. We then got to taste the gooey white insides of the pod, which are delicious but don’t taste much like chocolate at all.
After learning how the slimy cacao seeds get fermented, dried, roasted, and eventually made into chocolate, we got to taste some of the rich chocolate nibs. And then we were off on our walk through the property.
The first stop was a tall cacao tree just outside. Joyce pointed to the tiny flowers on the bark and explained how they get pollinated and grow into the large, colorful cacao pods.
We learned that Villa Vanilla has around 1,500 of these trees. They each produce 40-80 cacao fruits per year. One fruit is about the equivalent to one small chocolate bar.
The Spice Trail
With a moderate rain falling now, everyone in our group was given umbrellas and led to the entrance of a trail. The afternoon rains common in the rainforest keep everything so lush and alive. While a bit wet, we were all still happy to follow Joyce and learn about what was growing along the trail.
The major crop on the farm is, of course, still vanilla. Though we had been told previously how it grows on vines, we still had a lot to learn. Joyce pointed to some of the vines on a nearby tree. They had many long, green vanilla beans growing on them.
Joyce explained that the reason that real vanilla is so expensive is because the process to grow, harvest, and refine it is very labor intensive. The vines need to grow in 50 percent shade and 50 percent sun. Additionally, the flowers need to be hand pollinated.
Hand pollination wouldn’t be so bad; however, the vanilla plant only flowers once per year. And the flower must be pollinated in a window of just seven hours. For this reason, each vanilla vine is trained by the farm workers to stay low to the ground, within an easy reach. Each one is also labeled so they know what stage it is at.
After the vanilla beans mature, the work is not nearly done. The beans must go through a five-month process of curing. The process involves rotating them back and forth between drying in the sun and sweating in a moist environment.
Of course, we would soon find out that the labor-intensive process is well worth it.
Along the heavily forested trail, we saw many other spices mixed in between flowers and native trees.
There was ginger, growing as a root below a patch of thin stems. Clove, picked off a medium-sized tree. Peppercorn, forming a long row of green balls. Cardamom, in sort of oval-shaped seeds. And the bark of cinnamon, which Joyce scraped right off the tree with her knife.
Joyce passed around each spice for us to smell and gave tons of facts about how long they take to grow, how they are harvested, their uses, and much more.
At the end of the trail, a tall, covered platform came into view. This was the tasting part of the tour that we had all been waiting for.
We climbed the stairs and took our seats on the lofty structure. The view of the thick jungle as the rain let up was spectacular.
Local Rainforest Flavors
Joyce, along with two colleagues, made sure we were comfortable and told us about the tasting menu. Each item was made using local ingredients, and of course, the spices and fruits from the farm.
We were then presented with three mini-courses of delicious treats.
Our first course was a curry masala cookie served with golden milk. The second was an oatmeal-cacao nib cookie with homemade vanilla bean ice cream. And the last course was a flourless cacao cake with xocoatl, the chocolate drink of the gods.
Each bite and sip was spectacular. Joyce elaborated on what spices and rainforest flavors were in each recipe, but we honestly didn’t take good notes because we were too busy enjoying them.
After a little time to relax and enjoy the view, we made the short walk back to the reception area and bought some rainforest spices to bring home.
Planning Your Visit to Villa Vanilla
Tours of the Villa Vanilla Spice Farm are offered twice per day, Monday through Friday at 9:00 a.m. or 1:00 p.m. On Saturday, only the 9:00 a.m. tour is offered. Sunday the farm is closed.
Reservations are required for tours, but you can stop by the farm during business hours to visit the gift shop and buy spices.
You can book a tour directly through their website.
$45 per person adults. $25 per person children ages 5-12. Children 5 and under are free (option to pay $5 to let kids participate in the tasting).
With Transportation from your hotel in Quepos/Manuel Antonio – $55 per person adults. $40 per person children ages 5-12. Children 5 and under are free (option to pay $5 to let kids participate in the tasting).
About 2 hours
The trail is fairly flat and very easy, but there are some rustic stairs in one spot. It’s also a walk up some stairs to the tasting platform.
The tour is not handicap-accessible.
Though often overlooked because of the many tour options nearby, Villa Vanilla/Rainforest Spices makes an excellent addition to your Costa Rica itinerary. Learning about the farm and how these spices grow in harmony with the rainforest is a fun and tasty experience that you won’t forget. Especially when looking at that imitation vanilla on the shelf at the grocery store!
Have a question about visiting the Villa Vanilla Spice Farm or want to share your experience? Leave a comment below.
Looking for more information to help you plan your trip? Check out these posts:
Rainmaker Conservation Project: Unspoiled Nature Near Manuel Antonio – Looking for another unique experience near Manuel Antonio? This park is much less busy that the national park and offers some hanging bridges and a small waterfall.
Manuel Antonio Restaurant Guide – Looking for tasty eats, beautiful sunset dinners, or some comfort food? We’ve eaten our way through Manuel Antonio many times and share our favorites.
8 Things to Do in Dominical – Just a little south is the jungle-backed surfing town of Dominical. Check out some of the best attractions nearby.