From a distance, the farm looks like it could belong anywhere. Black-and white Holstein cows stand on lush green hilltops, while the sound of oinking pigs floats in from the nearby corrals.
This pastoral scene is the home of Hacienda La Ponferrada, a dairy farm near the mountain town of Coronado, about a half hour northeast of San José, and has been in the hands of a Costa Rican family for generations.
Marcela Marques, 32, studied marketing, so she had a hunch her grandfather’s 98-hectare dairy farm could be more than just a milk producer if she advertised it well enough. Her grandfather passed away recently, and her uncles took over the farm, giving her the opportunity to try out her experiment of turning the dairy into a tourist attraction.
The farm is never quiet: 380 cows make a riot of moos, and that’s not taking into account the pigs, goats, mules, geese and sheep that also call the farm home. The dairy has grown from a conglomeration of cows and pigs to include a small petting zoo in Marques’ efforts to turn it into the country’s premier place to learn about and experience rural life.
“When kids come, they can touch them and they can get on the horses and mules and take a little ride,” Marques says of the farm’s animals. “The idea is that people can learn a little about rural life in Costa Rica, animals, and above all about dairy production, all within an environment of conservation.”
The petting zoo includes smaller creatures such as rabbits and gerbils, as well as two impetuous billy goats, several sheep (including a small black sheep) and a tranquil-looking mule. The animals look a bit cramped in their small living spaces, but Marques says they are exercised by their caretakers. Visitors can feed and touch them.
Petting zoo aside, the cows are an interesting attraction on their own. These bovines are on a tight schedule. They eat at 5 a.m., lined up in a long row with their heads between bars to reach down into the trough of water and food, and are milked immediately afterward. Then they eat again at noon and are milked at 2 p.m. In between feedings and milkings, they spend a designated amount of time resting in pens and roaming the hillsides.
To make the dairy’s organization more understandable for kids, Marques labeled the cows’ separate pens from “kindergarten” to “workforce,” with all the levels – elementary school, high school, university – in between. The cows are grouped according to age and are not milked until they’re in the “workforce” and are artificially inseminated for the first time.
“We divided the cows so that people understand (the process) as if this were something academic, like a school,” Marques says.
In the milking room, four mechanical machines are connected to two large containers by a series of mesmerizing pipes.
If tourists come at milking time, they can watch each cow get marched efficiently to the machines, hooked up and milked in a matter of minutes.
The milk goes into one of two behemoth containers, one able to hold 5,000 and the other 3,000 liters of milk. The dairy produces about 4,000 liters a day.
“People come and see what the cows eat and they see the milking place,” Marques says. “They can manually milk them, give them food, see the whole production part of the dairy, and learn and ask, especially the little ones.”
Marques has used her marketing skills to reach out to Costa Rican schools. Several groups have already made the trek to the dairy since it opened to the public last month.
In addition to playing with the animals in the petting zoo, taking a horse ride and learning about how the dairy works, the kids can take a hayride through the farm and a tour of a little wood within the property. A walk over a footbridge across a river and to the top of a hill rewards visitors with a panoramic view of San José and environs. The farm also has a small cafeteria, where cheese empanadas and sodas are for sale at reasonable prices.
Marques says she and her family are concerned with helping the local environment.
Five years ago, they planted a slew of trees to connect two little woods on their property to create a biological corridor for birds and wildlife. They are also working on building a biodigestor to convert trash and animal waste into energy.
“We have plans to expand, but that will be decided by the market,” Marques says. Possible expansion items include more animals and corrals, a canopy tour, a larger restaurant and even the construction of a hotel.
Hacienda La Ponferrada is a member of the National Tourism Chamber. Tours cost $8 for children and seniors and $10 for adults.
Getting There, Info
To get to Hacienda La Ponferrada, visitors need a vehicle, preferably four-wheel drive, as the road to the farm is not paved. From the church in Coronado, go 550 meters north to an intersection and take a left. Go 1 km down this street until you reach a crossing, where you take the right-hand road 600 meters to a fork in the road. Stay right and go 1.4 more kilometers. The entrance to the farm is on the left.
The farm is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays, and on weekdays by reservation. For information, call 2292-1313, 8992-2261 or 8821-8375, or e-mail email@example.com.