This is an extended post that elucidates my month abroad in Costa Rica. It highlights the major events of my trip, what I did while working on a farm, and shares some of the most beautiful moments I experienced there:
What Made Me Take a Random Trip to Costa Rica?:
I am 23 years old, I never took a gap year, and I jumped into a corporate Manhattan sales job right after college. After I quit that position, I was feeling a little directionless, unsure of what I wanted to do, so I followed the advice of one of my favorite professors: "When you're unsure of what to write next, just write what feels good." I felt stuck on what to write next in my life story. For me, the only major decision I was able to make that actually felt good was to travel.
More specifically, I wanted to work on an organic farm in the tropics, completely unplug, reconnect with Mother Earth, and learn a thing or two about growing my own food. Though I'm a seasoned traveler, it would be my first time traveling alone and I was scared shitless. I even cried before my flight, while my partner lovingly nudged me out the door at 3 am so I wouldn't miss it.
And yet as soon as I beheld the glory of JFK airport at 3 am, a crown of burning white lights on the top of a dark hill, thrill replaced dread and I immediately remembered why I decided to go.
Here's a recollection of my month living on a farm in the middle of the jungle:
Week One: Arriving on the Farm
My first 24 hours in Costa Rica involved navigating the country's capital, sleeping nervously in a co-ed dorm that ended up being me and ten other men, catching a 4-hour bus to the south-pacific city of San Isidro, and the unshakable, irrevocable feeling of being a foreigner.
When I finally arrived to the farm, I was greeted by Walter, a 58-year old German who ditched his European life as a stock broker to run a farm in the middle of the nowhere, and also his four adorable dogs. After showing me around the volunteer quarters, I realized I was the first volunteer to have arrived for the month, and the next one wouldn't be there until the following day. There was no T.V., no wifi, no radio, nothing to keep me company for the evening except the dogs and unbelievably massive spiders. I would have to put on my big girl pants and rough it through the night.
The next few days were spent with the second volunteer to arrive, an Australian named Harry. It was just the two of us for the first week. We would take daily walks through the jungle with Walter guiding us and teaching us about the various fruit trees and how to harvest them. In the jungle there were bananas, plantains, coffee, cacao, limes, several varieties of oranges, grapefruit, starfruit, mangosteen, avocados, lychees, rambutan, a weird type of Costa Rican peach, and much, much more. Often times, Walter would hand me a machete before entering the forest and instruct me to cut down certain vines or hack down a dead banana tree—side note: carrying a machete is a surefire way to feel like a badass.
At the end of the work week, Harry and I decided to take an hour-long bus down to Dominical, a recommended beach. With a rocky shore and staggering waves, the water there wasn't safe for swimming but was definitely a surfer's paradise. I enjoyed hula-hooping on the beach and eating the delicious food served in the local restaurants, but I was definitely looking forward to the next beach trip, hopefully to a different beach.
Week Two: Settling in and Meeting the New Volunteer
In the beginning of my second week on the farm, we picked up our newest volunteer, Sarafina, a 29-year old woman from Connecticut who, much like myself, quit her much-resented job and came to the farm eager to learn about food, health, and sustainability. Her and I immediately hit it off and the spent the next day chatting the morning away as we weeded the garden together. I finally had a female companion and another occupant in the women's dorm room.
Our work days began at 7 AM and were typically over in the late morning, around 10 or 11 depending on the amount of work that needed to get done that day. Our afternoons were spent cooking our lunches, tidying up, laying in the hammock, reading books, etc.
Most afternoons, I would walk about twenty-five minutes uphill to a local soda (in Costa Rica a "soda" means an informal restaurant/lunch spot where you can hang out with friends over a cafecito) and get a home-cooked Tican meal and access wifi. This soda became an integral part of my routine. The woman who ran it was unbelievably kind and accommodating. I tried nearly everything on the menu, but quickly developed a favorite— vegetarian casados and guanabana (soursop) smoothies.
Two days after Sarafina's arrival, hurricane Nate swept through Central America, causing the river on our property to triple in size. The current was so strong it was turning boulders the size of SUVs, producing a constant rumbling thunder you could hear from the main house, about 1,000 feet away. Our power cut out early that morning and Walter instructed us to store drinking water in several 2-liter bottles (just in case our water line cut out) and to pack evacuation bags in case the river grew any larger.
Luckily, that morning was the height of the storm and we were able to stay on the farm and wait it out. After raining for 48 hours straight, Nate finally left us alone. We soon learned that there were numerous landslides in the country, and damages to the beaches, hindering our ability to travel or sight-see that weekend. The storm also delayed the arrival of our fourth and final volunteer, Grace, who was stranded in San Jose because busses weren’t running.
But that first day after Nate was absolutely gorgeous and sunny, so the four of us took a walk through the jungle to enjoy the weather and assess the damages.
Week Three: Gang's All Here
During my third week on the farm, Grace was finally able to access bus service from San Jose and arrived to the farm long at last. The three girls and Harry got along swimmingly. All of us seemed struck by wanderlust and shared a lot of the same views on life.
The four of us would walk the jungle with Walter each morning, picking fruit as Walter led us along, the pack of dogs trailing behind, veering off to hunt squirrels and small birds. We harvested the ripe cacao, bananas, and anything else that we needed in the kitchen—often it was limes and oranges for fresh juice. We frequently collected aloe vera for sunburn.
We also carried on with Walter's mission of planting 800 baby coffee trees in the jungle, a project that was interrupted by the storm. Some of the coffee trees on the farm were over fifty years old, and Walter wanted to plant the next generation of trees to invest in the farm's future production. Our days consisted of digging holes in long lines, transporting baby coffee plants in a wheelbarrow (these little babies were heavy), and carefully planting them in the soil. You could tell these little plants meant the world to Walter, who in his stern German accent would state very matter-of-factly, "if you step on the babies, I will kill you."
Our hard work paid off and Walter gave us Friday off so Grace, Sarafina, and I could all spend a long weekend at the beach. Harry decided to hang back at the farm and catch up on some reading. We packed our bags Thursday night and caught a bus to Uvita late Friday morning.
Uvita is on the South-Pacific coast of Costa Rica and was by far the most beautiful beach I have ever visited in my life. After my underwhelming experience in Dominical, I feared Costa Rica's beaches were overrated. Man, was I wrong.
We stayed in an adorable 2-story mini eco-cabin in south Uvita. For $40 U.S. dollars per night the three of us had our own tiny house with a small kitchen, bathroom, enclosed outdoor shower, a kitchen table, and a single and double bed. There was no air conditioning or hot water, but we were well adjusted to living without either of those amenities from life on the farm. We didn't get settled in until it was already dark (it gets dark around 5 PM in Costa Rica), so we spent our first day grabbing dinner and getting a good night's sleep.
Saturday was probably my favorite day of my entire month in Costa Rica. We were warned it was supposed to storm all weekend, but it didn't rain once all day. Our hostel was surrounded by the most gorgeous, ancient looking trees with canopies so interconnected by vines and interwoven foliage, it blocked out the sky. Call me a hippie, but this land was sacred. You could feel it.
The first beach we visited was just a three-minute walk from the hostel. Because of the recent storm, the beach was "closed," meaning there was no national guard waiting to charge us an entrance fee, but the beach was still filled with locals spending time in the sun. The beach was kissed by jungle, trees fallen from prior storms lined the back edge of the shore. Grace and I climbed and explored these fallen beauties, only to later realize their crevices and hallow spots are homes to giant iguanas and other creatures.
The ocean was as warm as bathwater—there was no bodily adjustment necessary to embrace its temperature. Grace and I bought a couple of coconuts from a local selling them, and sipped on fresh coconut water as we talked about life and dug our toes in the sand.
Eventually, Sarafina found us on the beach and the three of us walked into town for lunch. There was the most adorable soda with vibrantly colored decor, a relaxed atmosphere, and delicious casados.
After eating our fill, we still had a few more hours of sunlight left and decided to visit the infamous "Whale's Tail" beach in Bahía, the delightful beach town bordering our hostel. The beach is a national park and from an aerial view, is a peninsula shaped exactly like the tail of a whale.
Walking down the beach, I could look both to the left and to the right and see waves rolling on the shore. It was as if I were inside a mirror reflecting paradise. There's no other way to describe it. The two other girls went off to explore the rocks that comprised the bottom of the tail, but my feet kept slipping on the rocks so I decided to go for a swim instead.
Looking back up the length of the "tail," I delighted in having to choose from which side of the beach I should enter the water. It was low tide and the sun was just beginning to sink lower in the sky. The waves made gentle splashes on my skin as as I walked deeper into the water. The ocean was enveloped by lush, immense mountains and I felt an overwhelming rush of exhilaration and independence brought on by beauty of the moment, from having brought myself to this magical country completely on my own accord, and for deciding to stray from the pack and go swimming by myself—something I wouldn't have done before this trip.
After an hour, I found the girls again on the beach and Grace and I decided to go for yet another swim as we watched the sunset from inside the water, the jungle’s dark green and the ocean’s deep blue and the blush of the sunset all melting together—I felt like we were inside a painting. It was starting to get darker and together, the three of us walked back to the park's entrance in the twilight. It was one of the best days of my life.
Week Four: Ready to Leave, But Not Quite Yet
The Monday after returning, Walter had us harvesting coffee from the adult trees; their beans were just starting to ripen into a deep red. We went off with our buckets to collect the coffee beans. At first, I was getting bit by ravenous ants who had made colonies on some of the coffee trees’ thin branches. But eventually I learned how to work around them and started really enjoying picking the berries in the jungle's shade. I felt connected with the life around me and it ended up being a really quiet, beautiful morning.
The four of us and Walter got together again and combined all our berries. Walter showed us how to shell and clean them, and walked us through the rest of a coffee bean's production process, which as it turns out, is fairly simple.
Thursdays are market days, so that Thursday, the five of us squeezed into Walter's jeep and drove into San Isidro to visit the farmer's market there. On our way back, however, the car broke down. We pulled over, knocked on a stranger's door, and the gentleman who lived there agreed to let us keep the car on his property overnight and Walter would could back the next day to pick it up. The bus stop was directly in front of the man's house and while we waited to catch a bus back to the farm, his two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, came out and naturally, I ended up playing with them. My Spanish had been improving leaps and bounds and I was able to talk to them while the three of us played hide and seek, tag, and hand games while the other volunteers, Walter, and the kind stranger chatted.
We got home seamlessly. It amazed me how smooth the entire process of the car breaking down can go when people stay positive, strangers look out for each other, and everyone lives life a little (a lot) slower.
The rest of the week was spent working in the garden, making homemade chocolate from our own cacao beans, cooking and sharing recipes, and enjoying the company of our four trusty dogs. Amongst the volunteers, we all decided to stay at the farm for my last weekend, but had a nice going away party for me, as I was the first volunteer to leave the farm. We played drinking games, walked into town, grabbed some food and a few beers, and made our way home. It was a lovely way to say goodbye.
Leaving the farm was strange; I was ready to go home. I was ready to have a hot shower. I was ready to see my boyfriend. But I wasn't ready to leave my simple life. I wasn't ready to replace the feeling of soil in between fingers with the feeling of hard cement under shoes. I wasn't ready to leave the heat for New England winter. I wasn't ready to leave the dogs. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to my new friends and go back to the city where I can tend to feel a bit friendless. And I wasn't ready to go back to a world where my purpose equals productivity. The jungle taught me that there's nothing wrong with not knowing everything—that there's nothing wrong with taking time to be uncertain and undecided and that you're just as valuable as a human being during the liminal times in your life.
Regardless, I headed home. Because the car was broken, Walter drove me to the bus station on the back of his motorcycle, which he was able to do because my only luggage was a hiking backpack and a small bag. The journey back to New York was literally and emotionally very long, but I entered JFK airport physically carrying myself with more confidence than when I had left. And sure enough, my partner surprised me at the airport, holding a hand-made sign with my name on it, and suddenly, I was home.