Volunteering Collections: Costa Rica

For those of you that read my latest post, you’ll know that I have been hesitant to share too many of my ‘highlights’ in an effort to keep things realistic in a world full of perfect media platforms. I have forever been a big emoter and find deep value in representing the full gambit of ups and downs in any situation. As Khalil Gibron says in The Prophet, seeking out ONLY life’s pleasures will leave you “into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.” This poem is one of my most treasured, and though it speaks specifically on love, I find that it applies to so many of the dualities we experience day after day. Before I go too far down that magnificent and bottomless rabbit hole, today I would like to share some of the incredulously normal things I’ve been up to- the good, the hard, and the biggest takeaways of my travels thus far (updated as I go!)

Stop #1: Rancho Margot, near Arenal Volcano,Costa Rica

In a previous post (accessible here) I spoke a bit about the mission and processes of Rancho Margot. If you asked me to boil down the experience into a sentence or two, you’d be awfully disappointed because I don’t think I could do it. It is a complex and wonderful paradise off the grid, steeped in the mission to experiment with nonconventional, natural living. The deal went something like this: work 6 hours per day, 6 days per week, and in return we had a place to lay our head and 3 amazing meals, 80% of which was grown on the farm (sometimes by us!).

  • My favorite part was the opportunity to be fully immersed in a natural learning environment- self study, reading, nature, farming, ecotourism, agrotourism, entrepreneurship, culture, language, yoga, sustainability, food cultivation….you name it, I learned it bit by bit each day. Another major attribute was living off the grid. We were about two miles of dirt road from the nearest town and had little to no internet access, cold showers, and the darkest night sky you can imagine. I enjoyed walks into town and occasionally shelled out some cash for a drink and a burrito (the BEST you’ll ever have…amazing), but to do so I had to reallllly want it. On most days, we just read or visited with other volunteers instead.
  • The hardest part of the entire five week stint was the weather. We had RAIN every. single. day. The first 10 days or so it rained with a vengeance, pouring buckets on all of our belongings and chilling us to the bone. Eventually we saw some sun and our spirits were lifted, but our clothes stayed mildly wet (and STINKY) throughout the entire stay.
  • Biggest takeaway? I had a lot of time to be with myself, away from distraction. Busy is a good word to describe the state of mind I brought with me, and though I haven’t quite ditched that habit, I’m working hard to overwrite it. The ranch taught me a lot about cycles, about humans in nature, and how to be a more natural human.
  • Must see/do: Hot Springs river at night! Although the La Fortuna area is riddled with Hot Springs tourism and resorts, there is free access to Rio Chollin (an entire HOT RIVER) just outside the Tabacon. One crystal clear night, 14 of the volunteers and staff pooled (*pun intended*) our resources and rented a shuttle to watch the stars from a hot, rapid river. It was unforgettable- a pitch black night, hot water rushing around you, floating in natural and bubbly minerals and gazing up at the stars. I lost track of what was water and what was air as I watched the trees move like seaweed in the wind agains the backdrop of an endless sky. That night we all slept like rocks as the minerals that were not to be washed off nourished our skin and spirit. Pure Magic.

 

Stop #2: Puerto Viejo (de Limon), Costa Rica

 

Traveling in Costa Rica has been very simple and pleasant, but you have to have the mental chutzpa to handle the bus system if you don’t want to spend all of your money on private shuttles. Generally speaking, you can get across the country for less than 15 bucks per person if you take the public bus system- but don’t expect to have a seat and be prepared for a FULL day of slow, sticky, travel. So, when we found out that a common way to travel from Arenal to Puerto Viejo is by white water raft, we were GAME. The Pacuare River is equidistant from three major cities, so they offer a free shuttle to and from the river. The trip includes breakfast and lunch, plus a full day of rafting Class III and IV rapids on the 4th best river in the world! They keep your luggage safe while you raft, and afterwards you grab your things and take the proper shuttle. Said and done, the trip costs $99/person, which is only about $25 more than a shuttle would have cost. The public bus would have been an easy $20 or less per person, but we would have needed to connect 3 buses over the course of a 10-12 hour trip. Given the circumstances, we splurged a bit and chose Rafting.

  • My favorite part was renting bicycles and staying just outside of town in Playa Chiquita. Chiquita is about halfway between the first beach (Playa Negra) and the last (Manzanilla). It is quieter than downtown Puerto Viejo but a quick 6km bike ride to the heart of the party if you want it. We had quiet nights and peaceful mornings, lots of yoga, and plenty of beach time. It rained a lot while we were here too, but we had at least a bit of sun each day.
  • The hardest part was certainly $$$$$. We spent a week here as a beach buffer between volunteer gigs, so this was completely on our own dime. Having been out in the wild for 5 weeks meant we were a bit too eager to shell out $5-6 for a craft beer. Everything in PV is for sale, and if you like the boho, carefree, surfstyle, you’ll want to buy it all. It took a lot of discipline and an acute awareness of the space in my backpack to avoid spending all of my money here. Oh yeah, and also this is when my two wisdom teeth started to come in, making it extraordinarily difficult to open my mouth and shooting pain down into my neck, ear, and jaw all day. Nothing some beach time couldn’t help!
  • Biggest Takeaway? Fresh food (besides fruit) in PV is hard to come by, so cooking our own meals was key. Find a fisherman (or go to Mopri Market) and get yourself some fresh fish. Make a simple flour/spice dusting on the outside of the fish and flash fry it in a skillet until flakey. All in all, we fed ourselves for a week on five fish (snapper, green jack, grouper), a massive pot of rice and lentils, and lots of fruit and chocolate. One night we went out for a sushi buffet at Chili Rojo….save your money.
  • Must see/do: Honestly, I really wanted our time at the beach to be completely unstructured and unattached- I didn’t want to have that feeling of “should” be doing something all the time…no one needs that FOMO, especially not on vacation. There is certainly a plethora of activities, shopping, and wildlife to experience, but my must see advice is to just CHILL with the PV vibe. Do Less. See Less. But definitely rent a bike 🙂

 

Stop #3: Hacienda Sur- Parrita, Costa Rica

Hacienda Sur is an Artisan Beef farm, specializing in the intersection of top quality dry-aged beef and cutting-edge sustainability. Our first task as volunteers was Cut Day, involving the preparation, packaging, and cleaning of nearly 700 steaks and over 200kg of ground steak over the course of a 15 hour day. Talk about an experience. Watching this small family-run operation work their well oiled machine (spoiler alert, its their own able hands!) is something to witness for sure. As we continue to find ourselves in a world divided by the horrors of factory farming and evangelistic veganism, I am happy to be learning about the good neighbor farms on the forgotten side of the documentaries. One major theme of volunteering on sustainable farms is that just as humans can be wildly destructive to the environment, so can we be supportive.

I have written and rewritten this section a handful of times, but can’t seem to figure out how to say it. The meat and potatoes is that meat and potatoes are becoming deeply divided on the plate- it’s hard to talk about meat production in a way that doesn’t severely offend most of the people interested in sustainability practices. What I can say is this: what is good for the environment and the animal is also good for the production of meat. Businesses that take extra care to take care of the environment are naturally going to have a better product. Though we may disagree and feel an emotional response to referring to and consuming an animal as a product, we also must refrain from generalizing too quickly. Whether or not you agree with meat consumption, you want more farms like Hacienda Sur out there. Even if the farmer’s intention is simply to create a higher quality product, his byproduct (and therefore what affects us directly) is clean and sustainable land stewardship. His deep knowledge of the grass and gentle eco-systems that go along with it will do more for this land than any protest we organize against him. The cows at Hacienda Sur are indubitably the happiest, healthiest cows I have ever observed (and I’ve seen a LOT). They frolic and romp with each other, explore the hundreds of acres of grass selected specifically for their nutritional needs, and live in an environment created to reduce as much stress as possible. They are cared for by three wonderful men and a rotation of eager volunteers life myself.

Though I’m on the brink of once again deleting the above, I’ll leave it for now. Perhaps I’ll write more later, or on its own page. But for now, I’ll open it to your thoughts, questions, ideas, opinions. I want to talk about it! One of the reasons we find it difficult to write on such divisive topics- and indeed one of the reasons they are so divisive- is that we don’t talk about it. So please, you know how to do it: comment below or send an email. The discussion is open.

Stop 4: Nosara, Nicoya Peninsula

If you are dying to see Costa Rica but afraid to be leaving behind your beloved American culture, look no further than Nosara. Playa Guiones, the popular stretch of pristine surf, is a part of a development known as the American Project. It is the only area of Costa Rica I’ve been to that has street names and addresses. Populated primarily by expats and surf tourists, Guiones has everything your organic/vegan/yoga/surf/party soul could want…as long as you’re willing to pay the price. We were lucky enough to be visiting a Nica friend who has been living there for seven years, so we had access to some of the cheaper, slightly more local hookups.

  • My favorite part was the sunset at Playa Pelada, just around the bend from Playa Guiones. There is one little bar and one nice restaurant on the beach, but it is much less inhabited compared to the tourist hotspot of Guiones. Grab a few beers and pony up to a bit of driftwood to enjoy the show.
  • The hardest part, again would have to be the $$$$. The town almost had an Austin-like vibe, full of young active people that do a lot of yoga, except here they also surf every morning. It amazes me that anyone can survive here with that cost of living. Oh, and the roads. Everything is dirt road, so getting there is nothing short of a mother*&^%. The bus from Samara to Nosara, at just 12km distance, takes nearly 2 hours on a hot and sweaty bus. To get here you have to really want it, but you’ll be glad you did.
  • Biggest take away: The vibe here is very laid back. Still a small town with all dirt roads and few cars (most people use dirtbikes or quads), everyone knows everyone…and looks after each other. As eluded to above, it is hard to comprehend how to make ends meet, yet most people seem to be extremely relaxed though underemployed. This combination brings a bit of peace to the mind that we can all survive on much less than we think, and a life that prioritizes peace and play will always trump a life spent worrying about income.
  • Must see/do: If you’re there, and you want a bit of boujeee….check out Bodhi Tree Yoga Resort. A drop in will be at least $15, but it is truly beautiful and well staffed with knowledgeable folks. It’s pretty easy to sneak in to their pool as well, so you can potentially get your money’s worth. We did a lot of home-cooking here too, so skip the expensive food and save your money for the 2×1 happy hour cocktails or aforementioned yoga class. Do not leave the city without trying some of Chocolate Dave’s chocolate at Pura Vida Raw Foods. You’ll also have an endless supply of healthy, organic, raw, vegan yummies at just about any restaurant in town.

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