How Don Carlos started a durian farm in Costa Rica
Don Carlos decided he would start growing durian before he’d ever seen a durian fruit in real life. Although durian has grown in Costa Rica for at least 30 years, they were really really really not at all common in 2006 (things are rapidly changing). Don Carlos had to go looking for them.
His Durian Adventure started when he retired from his job as an elementary school teacher in San Isidro Del General, Costa Rica, and decided that to keep active and healthy in his senior years he would start a fruit farm. He purchased property a short distance from his house, and starting Googling what he could grow.
That was 13 years ago, and now he needs more land if he’s going to keep Googling.
The Farm in San Isidro Del General
Don Carlos’s farm is a narrow strip running down from a ridge into a gully with a burbling creek and then back up the other side. It’s considered on the higher side of durian’s elevation range, with the top of the farm sitting at about 740 meters (2,430 feet) above sea level and the bottom at 700 meters (2,300 feet). The upper limit for Durio zibethinus is considered around 800 meters.
The land was once a coffee farm, but was already abandoned and covered in weeds and small trees when Don Carlos took it over. It took about a year to clear it and prepare for planting, so his first trees were popped into the ground in 2007.
For their age, the oldest durian trees are surprisingly large. This one, planted in 2007, was a seedling from the very first durian that Don Carlos ate.
The tree was growing near Dominical Beach, planted from a seedling tree in Honduras, which in turn came from a Mother Tree in Java, Indonesia, many, many, many years ago.
It was not exactly love at first bite, since the fruit he purchased was overripe and starting to rot. But, it was interesting enough to plant the seeds. And keep planting.
Since then, Don Carlos has planted seeds mailed from Thailand and the Philippines, so he has seedlings of some very well-known durians like Ganyao and Arancillo. When grafted trees became available in Costa Rica he snapped up Musang King, D99, Chanee, Monthong, and a mysterious tree known as Menta.
He also has Durio kutejensis and Durio graveolens, although those trees are still young.
When we visited in early October , Musang King and D99 had already finished dropping for the season, but there was still plenty of Chanee durians hanging on to the trees.
Soon, Don Carlos is going to be overwhelmed with durian. The overwhelm already started, he says, as he had so many durians his first fruiting year that he had to feed perfectly good fruits to his Tilapia fish since he couldn’t find customers.
But now his phone pings non-stop for durian, and with more than 50 durian trees planted he’s on his way to revolutionizing the durian scene in Costa Rica.
Being a Durian Don was not really planned, it just sort of happened – one tree, and then one more, and then one more – and now, he’s got an impressive farm that’s he’s considering opening up for farm tours.
Costa Rica Durian Farm Tour
Don Carlos accepted our request for a farm tour in part because he’s interested in opening his farm to visitors when the pandemic is over.
We were honored to be among his first durian farm guests as we headed down the hill into the trees to see his durians and other exotic trees, with a durian tasting promised after the trek and many things to taste along the way 😋
Below I’ve shown the fruits that were in season when we visited the farm, but he has many other trees including cempedaks, jackfruits, bananas, mangos, lychee, other sapotes, and more.
Chupa Chupa (Quararibea cordata)
Our first stop was a Chupa Chupa tree that was dropping these huge, round fruits shaped like Santol onto the ground. Squeezing them makes the rind burst and the fruit crack into two pieces, revealing a juicy, segmented orange sphere with a flavor a lot like very ripe cantaloupe with something carrot-y or pumpkin-y. You eat them by popping a whole seed into your mouth and sucking the sweet juice from the fiber.
These fruits originate in Colombia and Peru, but are common in Costa Rica, so of course Don Carlos had some.
It was a refreshing start to the farm tour and we headed off down the hill with our cheeks full.
Olosapo (Couepia polyandra)
Next we came to an Olosapo tree, which was exciting for us as we had never tasted one before.
Olosapo are native to Central America, growing in lowland areas from Mexico south to Panama. Don Carlos’s land was a little high elevation for this tree, and the tree didn’t look like it was super in love with its location.
But the fruit was very tasty. In appearance, it reminded me of an American pawpaw – an elongated, snub-nosed banana – with a fragile yellow peel that we skimmed off to reveal a creamy orangey-yellow interior that tasted a bit like caramel and pumpkin pie.
Borojó (Alibertia patinoi)
Toward the bottom of the gully, we tripped across the squished fruits of Borojó, another fruit native to Costa Rica.
If you gave sour tamarind paste the texture of smooth clay, and then sprinkled cheese all over it, you would basically be recreating the flavor and texture of Borojó.
I enjoy its sticky pastiness and unusual flavor, but it’s definitely best when blended into a thick sweetened drink with cinnamon and coconut milk.
It also smells really strange. If you’ve ever tasted `Wood Apple from Sri Lanka, you know what smell I’m talking about.
Aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa)
At the bottom of Don Carlos’s gully, the ground and creek bed were littered with scaly oblong fruits scattered around an enormous trunk.
Picking one up, we were able to flick off the reddish scales to reveal a creamy yellow interior. These fruits fall off the tree hard and need moisture to soften into edibleness, sort of like Dabai fruit in Borneo.
Here the gully had provided enough moisture that we could eat them off the ground.
The trees are only 10 years old as of writing, but are already enormous. They’re planted in the very lowest-lying part of the farm, but tower over the other trees anyway with their very noticeable explosion of palm fronds.
Don Carlos doesn’t care much for the fruit, but he likes the tree. Personally, I liked the fruit a lot. The flesh was very thin, with a fatty, savory, umami flavor that again reminded me of Dabai, but with a cheesier flavor.
If these were ever made available in the local markets, I would definitely be a regular buyer.
Pataxte (Theobroma Bicolor)
As we headed up the hill on the other side of the gully we came across fallen fruits of Bataste – a species of cacao.
Besides the durian, this was the most exciting discovery for me personally – because the fruit pulp is DELICIOUS! Between me and our friend Jake, we gobbled up everything on the ground as Don Carlos looked on with consternation.
“Really, you like that?” he kept asking. Yes, very much! The flesh around the seeds was plump and creamy, with a texture and flavor that reminded me a lot of cempedak.
Not like an ultra-sweet Cempedak King – more like a wild, kind of fibrous and mildly sweet cempedak that you find in thee kampungs.
Friends have told us that out of the chocolate fruit species, Theobroma bicolor has the flavor most similar to durian. I am not sure I’d agree with its duriany-ness, but it is for sure a little funky and very plump.
Lipote (Syzygium curranii)
Last, on the top of the hill we came across a fruiting Lipote tree, a fruit from the Philippines that I had never seen before.
Don Carlos got the seeds as a bonus when he received his Arancillo durian seeds in the mail from the Philippines.
The fruit was a beautiful dark blackish purple color, but tasted extremely tannin and tart. We tasted one each and that was enough.
Besides, it was time for durian.
Tasting Costa Rica Durian
After the farm tour, Don Carlos led us back to his house for the most exciting part of the day.
Eating Costa Rica Durian! Durian grown in the soils of the Western Hemisphere!
Don Carlos had saved 3 fruits for us to sample; a Ganyao seedling, a Chanee grafted tree, and another grafted tree with mysterious origins he calls Menta.
This was the first fruit ever from his Ganyao seedling tree. How lucky is that?!
What an honor to be present when the tree started dropping!
We could totally tell by the long stalk that this has Ganyao genetics, but the flavor was totally different. It was pale and richly creamy, without the nuttiness of Ganyao and to be honest, without a lot of flavor or sweetness.
It was still really good, but I would be curious to see what this durian tastes like next year as the tree matures.
Currently, the majority of Don Carlos’s durian crop is Chanee as those trees have fruited heavily despite their young age.
These are from grafted trees, and the durian lookes exactly how a Chanee durian would look in Thailand.
The durian was very nice. Some parts had a good yellow color, but overall we noticed that the fruits were paler, a bit unevenly ripened, and were not as sweet as we would expect for Chanee. We didn’t have a brix meter with us, but I would guess these were in the 25-27 range. But, it was creamy, a little bitter, and totally enjoyable.
We still enjoyed them very much, and again I wondereed how they will taste next year when the trees are a little more mature.
The last durian was especially special, because it was the last fruit of the season for his Menta tree.
Menta is a grafted seedling that’s origin has been lost. It’s suspected to be a variety from Indonesia, but who knows. Because of it’s slightly menthol flavor, Don Carlos calls it “Menta” or “Mint.” It’s his own naming, but let’s stick with it so you can ask for this durian.
Of the three durians, this was all our favorite EVEN THOUGH it had been cut-harvested instead of tree-dropped. It was super rich and thick-creamy, with a delicious bitter, minty flavor.
Next season, I would be waiting for Menta.
How to find Don Carlos
So now you’ve finished this article, the first thing you want to know is “How do I find Don Carlos?”
The good news is that he has agreed to join the Durian Season App, so you’ll know when his trees are flowering and fruiting and can make your travel plans accordingly.
His farm is only a 15-minute drive up the hill from the Feria del Agricultor Pérez Zeledón in San Isidro town. But you’ll need an appointment. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT just show up unannounced hoping for durian. This is all kinds of bad manners.
Instead, if would like durian or a farm tour, you can send him a WhatsApp message.