Hacienda El Viejo Wetlands Refuge

Hacienda El ViejoWetlands Refuge, is a Costa Rican family-owned private wildlife refuge spread over 5000 acres. This reserve has adopted part of the Palo Verde National Park located on the banks of the Tempisque River. The estate offers three different types of activities: a boat ride on the Tempisque River to observe the wild life, local Costa Rican cultural experience and Rum Making! You can spend the entire day like we did with not a single dull moment! If you want to experience some local Costa Rican culture, understand the rum-making process, and see nature and wildlife, then visiting the Hacienda El Viejo Wetlands and Cultural Refuge is a must.

La Casona House- A former home of Presidents

As we arrive at the vast Hacienda El Viejo, we see a traditional heritage Costa Rican Home. The La Casona House has been the former home of both Costa Rica and Nicaragua Presidents! The home has wood flooring and sloping roofs covered with traditional terracotta or clay tiles. A water fountain at the entrance, with beautifully landscaped gardens, makes for a picturesque setting. As we climb a small flight of stairs and arrive at the house, staff dressed in traditional Costa Rican costumes welcome us with a platter of fresh fruits. The house’s terrace where lunch will be served overlooks the estate.

La Casona House @Rafiq Somani
La Casona House @Rafiq Somani

Boat ride on the Tempesique River/ Palo Verde National Park

We are four groups and will experience the three activities in rotation to avoid overcrowding. The boat ride on the Tempesique River/ Palo Verde National Park is what we will be doing first. There is a separate travelogue for it, so please read it. After the boat ride, we head back to the La Casona House for a buffet lunch. There is buzz and excitement as we discuss our activities and share interesting titbits. Rafiq is trying to make the most of the lunch break by clicking pics of the birds. He was spotted atleast a dozen species of birds including few common seen Great-tailed Grackles and Groove-billed Anis. The other interesting species species he spotted were Spot-breasted Oriole, a pair of Hoffmann’s Woodpecker feeding its juvenile, Rufous-naped Wern, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Tropical Kingbird and others. He saw a Variegated Squirrel playing hide-and-seek every-time he was about to click.

Boat ride on the Tempesique River @Rafiq Somani
Great-tailed Grackle (female) @Rafiq Somani
Groove-billed Ani @ Rafiq Somani
Spot-breasted Oriole @Rafiq Somani
Rufous-naped Wern @Rafiq Somani
Yellow-throated Euphonia @Rafiq Somani
Tropical Kingbird with a catch @Rafiq Somani
Variegated Squirrel @Rafiq Somani

Sugarcane Mill Visit

Post lunch, it is time for our Cultural Experience. A girl in a traditional costume welcomes us and is our guide for the experience. She is wearing a white off-shoulder top with frills and a red skirt, while a floral ornament adorns her hair. Our 1-hour cultural experience begins with visiting the sugarcane mill. The sugarcane is passed through rollers, crushed and juice extracted . An ox with its head attached to a forked wooden part of the trapiche drives the trapiche or sugar mill. As the ox moves around the trapiche, the rollers move and extract the juice from the sugarcane pushed into the rollers.

We have seen in Indian villages oil extraction in a similar way where the bull moves in a circular pit. But the wooden bar is attached to the bull’s back, not the head. We wonder if the pressure and stress the animal experienced on his head versus back were enormous, and perhaps some might think even cruel.

Sugarcane mill @Rafiq Somani

Reminiscing Indian gur, ganna and juice

Our guide explains the remaining process of heating the extracted juice to yield brown sugar and molasses. Post the sugarcane juice extraction our hostess serves us a glass of sugarcane juice, some sugar cane slices to chew on and brown sugar. While the other colleagues find this a unique experience, we smile as it is reminiscent of how even to this day, we drink sugarcane juice, eat ganna/sugarcane and use gur or jaggery in our kitchens in India. 

Sugar cane juice @Rafiq Somani

A traditional home

Next, we head to a traditional home and are shown around the various rooms. The kids’ room has traditional musical instruments and toys. The kitchen has a grinding stone similar to India’s ‘sill batta’ or grinding stone. The ceramic pots and cups remind us of the Indian terracotta ‘matkas’ or pots used to store water. The metal lamps with cotton wicks are reminiscent of the kerosene lamps used in India. Indigenous cultures worldwide have more or less similar tools and paraphernalia. 

Traditional House Painting @Rafiq Somani

Making tortillas and savouring local delicacies

It’s time to try our hands at tortilla making. The guide invites volunteers to roll the maize dough into flat circular tortillas. It is amusing as two volunteers are Indians who never cook but are trying hard to make tortillas. I tell their wives to capture this moment on camera as evidence that they can make tortillas. The next time the husbands feign ignorance about making rotis (Indian flatbreads similar to tortillas), they can show them the video recording of them making tortillas. We savour the tortillas.

Our hosts serve us some corncake, biscuits, and Costa Rican coffee made using a traditional coffee maker. Since it is summer, we are lucky to be able to savour some mangoes. The house’s backyard has thousands of mangoes strewn on the ground creating a yellow carpet appearance. Iguanas are roaming around. We can see a miniature of a traditional Costa Rican home in the backyard.

Iguana @Rafiq Somani
Iguana @Rafiq Somani

Rum Making

It is now time for us to Rum Making tour. Hacienda El Viejo estate produces its own rum, ‘Sabandi’ using the sugar cane grown on the estate. The rummilier or rum expert (just as we have sommeliers for wines) explains the rum-making process. First, the sugarcane juice is extracted, cooked and then yeast added. The yeast brings about the fermentation of sugar, producing alcohol and by-products called congeners that give the rum a unique flavour and aroma. We then head to the distillery house. Here the mixture of alcohol and water is boiled, which gives off vapours. The vapours are condensed and ultimately distilled to make rum. The rummilier serves us rum for tasting.

Making your own signature rum

Next, we head to the Rick House, where the rum is aged in wooden barrels. The rummilier asks us to take a whiff of the rum from one of the barrels. Next a glass of rum is served. Our rummilier asks us to choose different flavourings like orange, clove, pepper and others to add to the rum. After waiting for a few minutes, everyone sips on their rum, noticing how the flavourings have added flavour and aroma to their rum. You can even have your signature rum with your chosen flavourings sealed in a bottle for you to carry home, we are told.

The Rick House porch provides a panoramic view of the landscape comprising lagoons, hills and grasslands. We spend some time there, click pictures and then head back to the bus. Our Hacienda El Viejo Wetlands Refuge trip has come to an end. Whether you are a wildlife enthusiast, a connoisseur of rum or someone wanting to experience the local culture, then this experience with a medley of offerings is worth having.

Getting There

Nearest Airport: Liberia Airport is located 60 km away. It will take you 1-1 ½ hours to reach Hacienda El Viejo Wetlands Refuge from the airport.  Where to Stay: You can check for hotels on the net depending on comfort and budget. We stayed at the El Mangroove Autograph Hotel. Best Time to Visit: The dry season from December to April, as one is likely to see more migratory birds.