MOVE over, Mr. Coffee. Hear thosefootsteps behind you, Chiquita Banana?Young Señorita Piña has edged into thenumber-two spot on the Costa Rican agriculturalexport charts.Though commercial pineapple plantationsdidn’t get off the ground here until1986, pineapple exports are now soaring at695,000 metric tons per year, worth $256million, just behind bananas and ahead ofthe country’s world-famous coffee crop.It’s only fitting, then, that the ingenuepineapple, like the glamorous golden beanand svelte banana, should have its ownagricultural-product tour.SIGNS for the new Pineapple Tourstart at the Guápiles highway headingnortheast out of San José, and lead ultimatelyto Hacienda Ojo de Agua, a privatepineapple plantation seven kilometers eastof the Caribbean-slope town of Siquirres.Nobody knows pineapples better thanthese folks, who grow 33 million piñas ontheir 1,500 hectares each year. Now theyhave pulled out all the stops to make theirtwo-hour tour an informative and mouthwateringexperience.The inspiration for the tour, says plantationgeneral manager Ricardo Gaspar,came from Hawaii. One of the plantation’sowners was attending a pineapple growers’conference there, with former U.S. SenatorBob Dole as the featured speaker. Talkingabout his family’s famous pineapple links,the senator mentioned that the Dole plantationsin Hawaii are now earning as muchfrom visitors touring their plantations asfrom their pineapple production. The ideaseemed like a natural for Costa Rica.The Pineapple Tour starts at RanchoLos Laureles, a large, open-air receptioncenter facing acres of sun-baked pineapplefields, and shaded by ancient laurel treesbacked by phalanxes of phoenix palms.Tour organizers immediately get your fullattention by handing out juicy rounds ofgolden, sweet pineapple from flower bedeckedtrays.WHILE you savor the flavor and trynot to let the juice dribble down your chin,guide Maricruz Delgado points to a muralmap of the country, explaining that thehot, low-lying Atlantic region actuallyonly accounts for 25% of national pineappleproduction. The vast San Carlos plainin north-central Costa Rica produces awhopping 44%, and the El General valleyin the Southern Zone pitches in 31% – thefirst useful facts you’ll learn on thePineapple Tour.Out in the demonstration field in frontof the rancho, Delgado details the acceleratedgrowth cycle of a farmed pineapple,showing each stage, from first shoots toflowering to fruit, in just 420 days. Withthe aid of chemicals, fungicides and insecticides,each plant will produce at least twopineapples in less than two years. Uponclose questioning, Mariela González, generalmanager of the tour, is quick to affirmthat the finca closely follows allInternational Standards Organization (ISO)rules on safe chemical use.After offering some tips on how toshop for a ripe pineapple (see sidebar),Delgado led us onto the group’s tour busfor the short ride to a scenic viewpointoverlooking the Río Cimarrones and acresof pointy pineapple plants. Here you get asense of the vastness of the plantation,where more than eight hectares of newpineapples are planted each week.THE next stop is the processing plant.Outside the massive building, you’ll watchhuge metal containers holding about 300pineapples each being fork lifted into a bathand then sluiced along a churning canalonto conveyor belts. Before entering theplant, you must don a fetching hair net(good photo opportunity), wash your handswith a cleansing gel and walk through adisinfectant shoe bath.The selection process here is like abeauty contest, says tour guide FernandoQuirós. Perfect pineapples with straightcrowns and unblemished skin are rankednumber one and destined for export.Slightly less perfect ones will be solddomestically. Blemished or slightly askewspecimens will be peeled, sliced anddehydrated. The least beautiful will be sold and crushed for juice.Inside the plant, you’ll follow thepineapples as they wend their way throughvarious processes, ending up in boxeslabeled Del Monte. (The independent fincahas a long-term contract to sell its exportpineapples exclusively to Del Monte.) Theboxes then sit in a cold room until they areloaded onto container trucks bound for theport at Limón, on the Caribbean coast, andshipped across the seas to Europe, theMiddle East and North America. Likebananas, pineapples have to be picked andpacked with an eye toward arriving ripe attheir destination.NEXT, it’s on to the dehydration plant,where an ace team of knife-wieldingwomen, looking themselves like upside downpineapples in bright yellow apronsand green rubber gloves, deftly slice upincoming pineapples riding on a conveyorbelt. Yellow-aproned men line up hundredsof pineapple rings on huge metal bakingtrays and promptly insert them into multi-rackeddrying ovens set at 64 degreesCelsius, where they will dehydrate for 24hours. The aroma of fresh pineapple minglingwith the baking fruit here tantalizesyour taste buds. Thankfully, as you exit theplant, you are treated to generous samplesof the finished product.Last stop on the tour is, of course, thesouvenir shop, Saborcito Tropical. Apartfrom the joy of air conditioning – it getshot in the Limón lowlands – this shop ispleasant and spacious, painted with charmingpineapple details and equipped withwelcome, clean bathrooms. Items for saleinclude jars of pineapple preserves (withno preservatives), bags of 100%-naturaldehydrated pineapple, pineapple-shapednapkin holders, fruit bowls, candles and ahuge selection of pineapple-themed T-shirtsand decals. My favorite souvenir isthe big ceramic coffee mug textured andpainted to look just like a pineapple.The two-hour tour, including pineappletastings, is offered in English, Spanish and,by advance request, French. The cost iscurrently $15 per person, but will go up to$17 starting in October. Discounts areoffered for student groups and childrenunder 12. A catered breakfast or lunch isavailable by request. Tours are availableMonday to Saturday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., andSundays by special request. You can justdrop in, but it’s a good idea to call ahead tosave waiting time. Be sure to bring a sunhat and sunscreen. For more information,call 282-1349 or 765-8192, or visitwww.agritourscr.com.Pineapple TidbitsHOW did pineapple become such amajor player in Costa Rica’s exportmarket? The first large-scale pineappleplantations in the late 1980s plantedthe traditional Hawaiian – or whitechampaca – variety, says MarielaGonzález, general manager of thePineapple Tour. But about eight yearsago, Del Monte introduced a new,sweeter hybrid scientifically known asMD2, and commercially known as DelMonte Gold™ Sweet Pineapple.“Costa Rica has the perfect climatefor growing the new variety, which ismore reliably sweet,” González said.Knowing they won’t be disappointed,consumers abroad are happily plunkingdown $3 or more for a sweet taste ofthe tropics.Some other pineapple factoids:• Costa Rica is the number-oneexporter of fresh pineapples to theUnited States. In 2004, the UnitedStates consumed almost 384,000 metrictons of Costa Rican pineapples.• Brazil is also a top world player inthe fresh pineapple market, but CostaRican producers say Brazil ranks higheronly in quantity, not quality. Thailandand the Ivory Coast are heavy producersof canned and juiced pineapple.Hawaii, traditional home of the pineapple,is barely in the running anymore.• On average, 80% of HaciendaOjo de Agua’s pineapple crop is exportquality, while 5% goes to the nationalmarket, 8% ends up in juice and 7% isdehydrated.• Whole pineapples marketeddomestically are sold without theircrowns to prevent buyers from plantingand harvesting their own secondpineapple.• Forget about pulling the spearsout of the top of a pineapple or smellingit to determine if it’s ready to eat. Theonly way to tell a ripe pineapple is by itscolor: golden yellow from bottom to top.