OROSI, Costa Rica - It was dark by the time we reached the valley. No streetlights to show the way. We wound along the narrow road beneath the stars.
At the southern edge of the small town, we spied a single bulb illuminating a sign: "Ambrosia." Our bed-and-breakfast.
We threaded up the dark, steep driveway, climbing for what felt like forever, and finally came to a clearing. Lanterns danced on the porch of a small wooden house. And two hand-hewn cabins clung to the edge of the mountain.
In a cozy dining room, the owner served squash soup and garlic chicken. The next morning, she promised, we would see clear across the Orosi Valley.
"Welcome to paradise," she said.
We had been to Costa Rica before. We had seen the surfers at Jaco, the monkeys in Manuel Antonio.
So when we traveled back to the Central American country this spring, we wanted to go somewhere different. Somewhere far from McDonald's golden arches that have invaded Costa Rica's larger cities, far from the tiki bars that line the beaches.
Somewhere authentic, untouched by franchises.
We asked friends living in Costa Rica: "Where do the locals go?" Everyone agreed: the Orosi Valley.
You don't see many Americans there, they said. Most businesses are owned by Ticos -- natives. "It's beautiful, historic, uncrowded," one friend said. His wife added, "The perfect escape."
Set in the center of Costa Rica, about an hour's drive southeast of the San Jose airport, the verdant valley is rimmed by steep, coffee-covered mountains. The country's largest river, the Reventazon, tumbles along the small village's eastern edge. A single road loops above it all.
There, friends told us, you can tour a coffee farm, bask in thermal pools, ride a horse right through town. Orosi is one of Costa Rica's oldest settlements. The area has survived centuries of earthquakes. There, you can admire art in an 18th-century monastery, climb a volcano, meet men who helped build the House of the Dreamer.
Or you can slow down. Just perch on a porch and count butterflies. More than 200 species float through the valley.
We woke with the sun that first morning. Below our cabin window stretched an ocean of clouds. A storm had blown in overnight, engulfing the village.
But up on the mountain, we were high above it all.
We walked along a gravel path lined with hydrangeas, to the dining room where breakfast was waiting. Bowls of mango and papaya. Toast with guava jelly. Scrambled eggs from a neighbor's chicken.
"In the last few years, people are starting to discover us," said Ambrosia's owner, Jainie Murray, who, like many locals, speaks English. "We get mostly Ticos and Germans. And we are proud that it is still private here."
By the time we had finished our hot tea, the clouds had cleared. Far below us, emerald farm fields framed the red tile roofs of town.
Murray pointed out the old white church on the west end, the soccer field in the center. There was the school, the sole taxi stand, the fruit market. To the north, she showed us the volcano Irazu. "You must get up early to see it," she said. "Before it is cloaked in clouds."
We thanked her, paid $25 each for dinner, and $95 for each cabin, which included breakfast. Then we wove back down the mountain to check out the town.
Sidewalks stretch along both sides of Orosi's straight streets. Here, more people walk than drive. Men carrying long loaves of bread, old ladies leaning on canes. Everyone taking the time to greet each other.
A brown cow munches weeds outside the ice-cream parlor. Chickens cluck by the barbershop. Friendly dogs roam freely.
There are no chain stores or restaurants. Just small, boxy shops owned by local families. A hardware counter. A dentist's office. A handful of "sodas," little eateries with porches and picnic tables. And on every corner a shrine to some saint: painted statues with outstretched arms and locked donation boxes.
The single-story homes are set close behind metal gates. Their walls are sunshine yellow, mint green, sky blue. Every window is swathed in lace curtains.
Orosi was named for the Indian chief who ruled the valley when Spanish colonists discovered it. Enamored of the river and rich soil, the Europeans brought in a Franciscan priest and, in 1743, built a church.
The Iglesia de San Jose is squat, white, unassuming. It included a monastery, which is now a small art museum. The oldest church still in use in Costa Rica, its doors are open daily from 1 to 5 p.m., with Sunday services. Suggested donation: $1.
Inside, the sanctuary is dark and cool, 16 rows of carved wooden pews facing an elaborate altar. The beamed roof peaks above a second-story balcony. For 268 years, the tower's bells have tolled through town.
We toured the entire village in two hours, on foot. By then we were hungry. So we drove east across the river, to the Truchas Kiri -- a trout farm where, for $10, you can catch your own rainbow trout, have someone else clean and cook it, and drink green apple juice on a covered deck dripping with orchids. The waiter served the fish whole, still steaming, with generous sides of rice, beans and plantains.
That night, we found a motel, the Tetey Lodge, on the south end of town. It had free WiFi in the courtyard, TVs in every room. With breakfast, it was $65 for two people.
We wanted to go out for a drink, but the village has no nightlife. Just a couple of corner bars that close by 9 p.m.
Day two was coffee day. Though the valley is revered for its rich beans, only one place in town brews cappuccinos. The Orosi Lodge is a homey, two-story motel with an open-air lobby and gift shop full of local art. But its best draw is the long coffee bar tended by a friendly young German named Sebastian Veirt.
"Our coffee is roasted at an organic farm up there," he said, pointing toward a peak near the volcano. "The farm is owned by Americans. They give tours."
So we drove 45 minutes through the mountains that morning, past a park overlooking the valley, by a gallery featuring pictures painted with coffee. At the 30-acre Finca Cristina, for $10 each, we were guided through the lush fields and taught how coffee grows: In high altitudes, with at least 6 feet of rain annually. How coffee matures: Trees take three years to produce fruit.
At the end of the three-hour tour, Linda Moyher, who bought the farm with her husband in 1977, served samples. For $8, you could buy a pound of beans to take home.
That afternoon, when we returned to thank Sebastian, he told us about another way to experience coffee up close. A granddad named Pancho Martinez, who lives behind the lodge, leads horseback tours through the coffee fields. For $13 each, he handed us the reins to two gentle nags and steered us up a steep slope. A couple of hours later, when we clip-clopped back through town, everyone waved.
The Orosi Lodge had two open rooms that night, $53 each. Both had double beds and hot showers. For $6 more, Sebastian made breakfast.
The lodge has free maps of the loop road. Hand-drawn with cartoon icons of sloths and boys in bathing suits, they show the two-lane highway circling the entire valley.
Our plan for that third day was to do the loop: Explore the volcano, turn south and find ruins of the country's first church, then cross a lake to meet the men who carve their dreams.
Sebastian assured us we could rim the whole area in a few hours. "But if you want to see the volcano, you'll have to hurry," he said. "By 10:15, it's gone."
"Irazu" means "thunder point," and is Costa Rica's largest active volcano. Its ash buried the town of Cartago in 1723, and since then it has erupted 15 times. The drive through the mountains takes almost an hour.
Once you pay the $10, you park and hike into the park, where the ashy plains are as vast and barren as a "Star Wars" settlement. At the edge, you can peer down into the yawning crater: It's more than half a mile across, almost 900 feet deep, filled with a glowing green pool.
On a clear day, the ranger told us, you can see both of the country's coasts from this overlook.
But by then it was 10 a.m. and the clouds were rolling in. So we headed back down the ridge to finish the loop.
A few miles east, in the center of the circle, we came upon the towering ruins of a mud-and-mortar church. Its roof and much of the walls were gone, but the majesty of the architecture still showed.
Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Limpia Concepcion was built in 1693, on the site of a miraculous painting of the Virgin. More than three centuries later, people still lead annual processions to celebrate Mass in the open-air sanctuary.
Some visitors apparently come for more than prayer. A sign near the whitewashed arch warns, "Avoid excessive public displays of affection."
East of the church, on the other side of the dam, a pale, roughhewn house leans over the road. Two life-sized wooden women peer from the upstairs windows. Wooden faces grin from the walls.
Macedonio Quesada was a renowned Tico woodcarver who, 25 years ago, built this ramshackle gallery of cypress and bamboo. "He dreamed it," said his oldest son, Hermes, 52. "It was a place to create, to teach others to carve."
Macedonio died in 1995, but his two sons carry on his tradition, turning the twisted roots of coffee plants into saints, sinners and walking sticks. Their tiny, tilted house is filled with figurines they sell for $10: unpainted, straight from their homemade chisels. Pregnant women and self-portraits. Coffee pickers and crucifixes.
"We study the branches," said younger son Miguel, 47. "We ask the trees, 'What do you want to be?' "
From the dreamer's house, the road stretches southwest, past trout farms, then back across a hanging bridge and into the valley. On this south end, two scenic roads lead into wildlife parks: Tapanti and Monte Sky. Another row of thermal baths beckons.
Guidebooks devote only one page to the Orosi Valley. Most travel companies never mention it. But even after three full days, there was so much more to take in. So much more unwinding to do. The next morning, we had to head back to tourists and traffic and golden-arched familiarity.
We spent that last night rocking on the lodge porch, sipping local beer from the minibar, basking in the dark and the quiet and the way Costa Rica used to be. The way it still is. When you know where to go.