It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas up in the hills above Heredia, north of San José. It’s not so much the blinking Christmas lights or the improbable (in the tropics) inflatable snowmen. The real harbinger of the season in this neck of the woods is the parade of Christmas trees strapped to SUV roofs, peeking out of sedan trunks and poking out of backseat windows.
Heredia is the year-round vivero for most of the cypress trees that will decorate homes throughout the Central Valley. The climate and the soil are perfect for cultivating the Tico version of Scotch pine or Fraser fir. All along the roads linking San Isidro and San Rafael de Heredia, homemade “Se vende árboles de Navidad” signs start sprouting as of early November.
If you’re in the market for a Christmas tree, why not combine your tree hunt with a day in the country? It’s not quite “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.” There won’t be snow or sleigh rides. But the cooler temperatures in the Heredia heights may put some roses in your cheeks. And while you’re hunting for your perfect Christmas cypress, you can also drive some scenic roads, visit two of the most picturesque churches in the country and stop at a cozy roadside café for hot chocolate and a cookie (see sidebar).
Christmas-tree country starts about 10 kilometers north of downtown San José, on the Guápiles highway. The first tree farm you’ll see, on the right side of the road, is Ciprés Benavides. Miguel Angelo Benavides has been growing and selling Christmas trees here for 11 years. He estimates that about 5,000 cypress trees of various heights are spread over his 2.5-hectare finca. If you don’t see what you want in the first field, you can drive the dirt road through the property until you find your chosen tree.
Benavides says it takes about four years for a cypress to grow from seedling to Christmas-tree size, about two meters. It’s a fairly sustainable crop, but for those who can’t bear to cut down a tree, Benavides also sells small trees in macetas (pots) that you can plant in your yard after their Christmas tour of duty inside the house is over. You can also buy seedlings and grow your own.
The next tree farm along the highway, Quinta San Luis, is less than a kilometer farther north. In business for eight years, this finca looks more like a traditional tree lot, very neat and tidy, with about 8,000 trees spread across 2.5 hectares. From the reception area, all you can see is a sea of cypress stretching east to the horizon. The average height is two meters, with a smattering of taller trees, destined to adorn atriums and shopping centers.
Just before the turnoff for San Isidro de Heredia, Vivero El Zamorano is the granddaddy of tree farms, in business since 1971. This highway location has about 7,000 cypress trees to choose from. But El Zamorano’s other claim to fame is poinsettias, or pastoras. Make the left turn off the highway onto the road marked San Isidro, go 200 meters and you’ll see the entrance to El Zamorano’s main garden center on the left side of the road.
Under an acre of greenhouse roof, thousands of potted poinsettias, arrayed in swaths of red, white, pink and speckled pink and white, make a dazzling display. This nursery devotes 67 acres to cultivating poinsettias, which take almost a year to grow to potted-plant size. Even if you’re not a fan of poinsettias, you may change your mind when you see how robust and beautiful these mountain-grown specimens are. (A confession: Instead of poinsettias or cypress, every year I buy a big red-and-green Christmas bromeliad here to deck my halls.)
From El Zamorano, follow the road west about 3 km to San Isidro de Heredia, one of the most picturesque coffee towns in the country. The smooth, paved road winds up and down past green pastures, fields filled with ornamental plants, prosperous homes and gardens with huge hydrangea blossoms, towering dahlias and blooming roses. San Isidro is famous for its exquisite, low-lying, neo-Gothic church built in 1895. Recently restored, the church is now as white as snow. Set against a blue sky, the white spire looks almost like a New England church on a Christmas card. The tropical giveaway, though, is the garden full of hibiscus with saucer-sized orange flowers. If you stop to take a walk around the church, look for the sculpture of a team of oxen over one of the front doors, a tribute to the coffee culture that generated the wherewithal to build this town and church.
Continue on the signposted road through San Isidro uphill toward Concepción de San Rafael de Heredia. This is as winding as a road can get, narrowing to one lane at a series of bridges. But it’s well paved and you’ll be rewarded with flashes of flower gardens and valley views as you climb up to 1,450 meters above sea level. Watch out for a slow-moving team of black-and-white oxen, one of the last surviving vestiges of traditional coffee farming in these hills.
About 300 meters past the red-and-white Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) tower in Concepción, you’ll spot a sign on the right directing you to Arboles La Amistad con Hilda Chávez. Take this road, called La Ciénaga, uphill past coffee fields and make the first left onto a dirt road. About 50 meters along this road, you will see straw-hatted men waving saws and motioning you to stop. It’s not a holdup, just enthusiastic tree-sellers, at the ready with their saws to cut down your tree for you. A source of great pride here when I visited last month was the six-meter tree tagged and presold to the Pozuelo company, of cookie fame – “¡Es muuuucho árbol!”
Just around the corner where the dirt road meets a wide paved road is Arboles Montealto, a much smaller enterprise, typical of the friendly, mom-and-pop tree farms throughout the area.
From here, follow the wide paved road half a kilometer south to the main Concepción intersection, where you’ll see the landmark Licorera y Super Camacho. A left turn will take you back to the Guápiles highway via San Isidro. A right turn will take you down into San Rafael de Heredia, home to another handsome neo-Gothic church, this one even more imposing, with a silver roof and walls the color of eggnog. From SanRafael, it’s a short drive down to Heredia, where you may encounter the throng of Christmas-shopper traffic heading to the Paseo de las Flores mall.
Christmas-Tree Tour Guide
Prices range from ¢2,000 (about $3.60) for tabletop trees to ¢100,000 ($179) for monumental trees. Prices also vary depending on branch density, so a two-meter tree – the average height – can cost ¢5,000 to ¢10,000 ($9 to $18). Weekends are the most active time for tree-shopping, but most tree farms are open during the week, too.
Ciprés Benavides: On the Guápiles highway, east side, just south of the turnoff to San Luis. Trees cost ¢5,000 and up. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone 2268-7751.
Quinta San Luis:
side, just south of El Aposento restaurant. Two-meter trees start at ¢6,000 ($11). Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone 2268-6524.
Vivero El Zamorano:
side, just north of Las Orquídeas restaurant. Trees run ¢7,000 ($13) and up. Closed Mondays. Gran Feria de Pastoras, Vivero El Zamorano, on the road to San Isidro de Heredia, 200 m west of Guápiles highway, open Monday to Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone 2268-8257.
Arboles La Amistad con Hilda Chávez: Concepción de San Rafael de Heredia, 100 m north on La Ciénaga road, then 50 m west. Trees run ¢2000 to ¢10,000 ($3.60 to $18). Open weekends, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Phone 2268-1269.
Arboles Montealto: 100 m north of Licorera y Super Camacho in Concepción de San Rafael de Heredia. Three-meter trees cost ¢8,000 to ¢12,000 ($14 to $21). Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To avoid any mis-Concepción: There are two Concepciones within a few kilometers of each other above San Isidro. Make sure you are heading north and west to Concepción de San Rafael, not Concepción de San Isidro, which is due north of San Isidro. From the Megasuper in San Isidro, turn right (north) at the corner, then turn left at the T-junction and make the first right (north again). As you climb the hill, past the urbanización with lions at the gate, follow the main road as it curves left and you will be heading toward the right Concepción.
And what’s a Christmas-tree expedition without a cup of hot chocolate to warm you up? Just 50 meters west of the Guápiles highway, on the road to San Isidro, Restaurante Bromelias del Río is the perfect roadside stop for tree-shoppers. For more on this café and repostería, see The Tico Times online at www.ticotimes.net/restaurants.htm.