After an incredible week living like we were truly on vacation, we dropped our friends off at the airport and set off for the next (and final) stop on our trip around Costa Rica. About a month ago we started looking into volunteer opportunities as a way to save money and, after some research, we came across WWOOF. WWOOF is an organization that connects organic farmers and growers to volunteers from around the world. In exchange for several hours of work a day, the host farm will typically provide food and housing for volunteers. We found a farm that looked interesting, filled out an application, and were accepted.
We set off from San Jose to spend two weeks volunteering at an artisan beef farm on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, Hacienda Sur. Neither of us know anything about cattle or agriculture, but the description online for volunteers seemed interesting and we figured why not. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, got settled in the farmhouse we’d be staying in and met some of the other volunteers. We learned there was no WiFi, no hot water, and pretty sketchy phone service. Fortunately it was so hot that a cold shower felt amazing. As annoying as not having WiFi was, we got used to it. We had no idea what to expect as far as work, just that we had to be ready at 6:00 am the next morning.
Our typical day started with a 5:30 am alarm, a quick cup of coffee, and meeting everyone out on the porch at 6:00 am. The regular staff running the farm didn’t speak any English, so we did our best to understand and usually picked up enough key words to half understand what we were supposed to do. Fortunately a few of the other volunteers spoke more Spanish than we did and filled in the gaps for us. We’d work from 6:00 to around 8:00 am and then have a half hour break for breakfast. After breakfast we’d work until 12:00 pm and then have the rest of the day to ourselves.
One of the biggest perks of the living situation was having a fully stocked kitchen with plenty of food, a real stove, and a full size fridge. After 6 months of living in an SUV, a van, or jumping between Airbnbs every week, having a full fridge to make what we wanted was nice. Even better, we had a freezer full of ground beef and a few steaks from the farm, which was all excellent. After finishing work at 12 we’d usually make lunch and then relax around the house for the afternoon, or drive down the road to a cafe to use the WiFi. At night we’d take took turns cooking dinner with the other volunteers.
The farm was beautiful with huge tropical trees, green pastures, and plenty of wildlife. You could hear birds all day and crickets all night. We heard scarlet macaws liked to hang out in the huge trees, and even sloths (less so during the dry season, which we are in, unfortunately). Every group of cattle also had their own pack of white birds (cattle egrets according to the internet) that hung around with them to eat insects. A river and large swamp ran through the center of the farmland.
For the first few days, everyone on the farm was scrambling to prepare for a big meeting, where representatives from the UN would be coming to the farm and potentially partnering with Hacienda Sur on a project. Everyone took this as an opportunity to clean up the place and make it look nice. So for the first few days our jobs included raking leaves and hundreds of fallen mangos from around the farmhouse, painting window and door trim, and cleaning. After the UN visit, which seemed to go well, things went back to a more normal routine.
Our favorite job was getting to help Mario, one of the full time staff on the farm, check on the cattle each morning. This involved riding horses around the entire property, counting the cattle in each group (harder than it sounds), and sometimes moving them from one pasture to another. Mike got to ride a horse for the first time, and we loved spending time with Mario and asking him questions about the farm. He knew so much about the trees, plants, and animals and everyday would find us a new snack, like sugar cane or guaba (guaba looks kind of like edamame, grows on trees, is sweet like a fruit but is technically a legume). He spoke zero English but was patient with us and when we didn’t understand him he would just smile and laugh at us.
Other mornings we helped mix, bag, and distribute food for the cattle. During the dry season, in addition to grass, the cattle get a mix of rice flower, coquito, minerals, and silage. The cattle are used to the sound of a tractor (which usually means food), and relatively calm around horses, but people on foot make them nervous. They are curious and will stop what they’re doing and stare at you. They are huge, but fortunately don’t know their own strength.
We spent several mornings walking electric fence lines throughout the farm to remove anything growing into the fence and make minor repairs. One morning we set off with Mario armed with our machetes, and after understanding about 70% of his instructions, set off on our own. While walking along a fence line that separated the farm from an adjacent banana plantation, Mike jumped. We were staring at a fat, 6 ft long golden brown snake with dark markings. We stared at it, trying to memorize the markings since we weren’t sure what it was exactly. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, eventually the snake slowly slithered into a hole near the base of a tree and disappeared. We were even more careful about walking the fence lines after that. When we met back up with Mario, we tried to explain what we saw in broken Spanish, and he just gave us his signature smile. After heading back to the house for lunch, we flipped through a Costa Rica wildlife book to figure out what kind of snake it was…
One of our favorite parts of living on the farm was the seemingly never ending supply of fresh coconuts (pipas), limes, and other tropical fruits. There was a row of palm trees along the side of the house with tons of fruit and a long metal pole with a blade on the end to get them down. Mike mastered opening them with a machete without losing any of the water inside. We drank fresh “agua de pipa” almost daily. We also found lime trees throughout the farm and would collected them on our walk back for lunch to make fresh limonada.
On the weekend, halfway through our two week stay, we took a day trip to the towns of Uvita and Dominical, about an hour drive south along the coast. We spent Saturday afternoon at a cafe drinking coffee and catching up on things that require WiFi. It started raining and we decided to wait it out for a few more hours. After the rain stopped we drove to Dominical, a small town full of surfers. We stopped in a few shops, walked along the beach, and then to a brewery for a beer and sunset. There were tons of cars parked among the palm trees just behind the beach with people hanging out for the weekend, which reminded us of tailgating for a football game or concert.
Throughout the next week we helped with various tasks around the farm and learned a bit more about cattle. Some days were tough (hours of shoveling dirt for a drainage ditch) but fortunately everything was done on “tico time”. That meant not rushing and taking plenty of breaks. With the sun and relentless heat, this felt necessary. Some tasks were more enjoyable, like getting to feed the horses.
One day the second week, a little black dog started hanging out around the farm. She seemed scared and nervous at first, and would lower her head to the ground when you approached her, but slowly started to warm up to us. After feeding her some dinner, she was hooked. She spent the rest of the week hanging around the back porch and would instantly light up any time a human came around. She truly just liked being near people.
On our last day of work, we joined Mario on the horses in the morning. We were lucky enough to see two pairs of scarlet macaws (they stay with their partner for life). Later that morning we saw 6 more, hanging out in a giant tree in one of the pastures. Mike was pumped. To top of our day of wildlife sightings, while back at the house after lunch we saw a troop of squirrel monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
We spent our last night on the farm drinking Imperial and Cacique (cheap liquor made from sugar cane), hanging out with the other volunteers, and teaching them our favorite drinking games. The two weeks went by fast, and we had actually gotten used to waking up at 5:30, taking cold showers, and being basically off-the-grid. On Saturday morning we packed up our stuff, said goodbye to our new friends, and set off for San Jose.
We spent two days in San Jose at an Airbnb relaxing, catching up on laundry, and getting Covid-19 tests. After 2.5 months, our time in Costa Rica is coming to an end. We never anticipated spending this much time in one country on our year off, but being here this long has given us a glimpse into so many places and neighborhoods that we never would have been able to experience on a quick one or two week trip. That being said, we can’t wait to move on to a new place. Onto the next country!