¡Hola! After 2 months of speaking no Spanish (for the first time since 8th grade), I arrived in sunny San Jose, Costa Rica. Spring break 2016 wasn’t like your usual 7-day party at PCB, Cabo, or Gulf Shores. Instead of sipping on piña coladas by the beach and shotgunning cheap beer with my fellow classmates, I traveled to Altamira, Costa Rica with 14 other Vanderbilt students for a service trip with Manna International.
Altamira is a small, humble town of about 300 in the mountains of Southern Costa Rica. Our 8-hour drive from the San Jose airport to Altamira (which apparently could’ve been 4 hours, but our driver took us on the “scenic route”) was filled with views of colorful yet modest homes, occasional blue waters, and lots of green mountains. We arrived in Altamira at 11:30pm after leaving Vanderbilt at 5:00am. Our destination was Asoprola – a sustainable coffee farm project in Altamira.
The Asoprola project began in 2004 with a vision of creating a completely sustainable environment in which the people could produce food for themselves, as well as coffee for profit. Despite the million plus dollar coffee economy in the world, the farmers as a whole make less than 5% of the trade. Asoprola and Altamira sit near “La Amistad” National Park, or “The Friendship National Park”. Asoprola truly embraces this with a campus filled with the feeling of friendship. In true Costa Rican fashion, we were greeted (even at our late arrival time) by Yessica – one of the ladies (age 23) who runs the Asoprola campus. Of course such a greeting wouldn’t be complete without food – something that acts as the center of Costa Rican life. Our first meal was a classic Central American mix of white rice, vegetable soup, and plantains – clearly delicious. We then grabbed our bags and headed to the lodge to sleep.
Asoprola is the unifying force in Altamira. 12 years after its opening, poverty no longer exists in Altamira and their coffee business draws farmers from across the country and even as far as Panama. Asoprola’s coffee farm grows, picks, peels, dries, cooks, grounds, and bags coffee beans. Essentially, they do everything. This allows them – and the farmers who contribute to the business – the opportunity to profit more since they can simply sell their coffee to a vendor, rather than paying someone to convert the plant to selling point. While we were there, we contributed to this process by bagging soil for coffee beans and we also planted cilantro and green bean seeds. Additionally, the Asoprola farm grows palm, black beans, corn, and all of the other ingredients they use to cook.
With such sustainable farming comes the absolute most amazing meals. As a self-proclaimed Texmex connoisseur, I am quite a fan of black beans, rice, salsa, and all other foods associated with Central American cuisine. Each meal we had included a different combination of meat, rice, starch, and vegetables. Breakfast was more American than I expected as we had eggs or thin corn-based pancakes with papaya jam and yogurt most mornings. Regardless, everything was delectable. Meals were coupled with fresh juice ranging from pineapple to mango to maracuya to lemonade. Breakfast included the fabulous Asoprola café, as did the 3:30pm coffee break that came with a different Costa Rican pastry each day. Meals acted as the structure of our days with breakfast at 8:00am followed by lunch at 12:00pm, a coffee break at 3:30pm, and dinner at 7:00pm. As you can see, Costa Ricans love to eat. They also love to rest. We frequently had siestas between lunch and working, as well as between coffee and dinner. But let’s get to the work – the purpose of our viaje.
During our stay, we focused on three aspects of Asoprola – painting a mural in the schoolhouse, creating a ceramic mural for the main lodge, and working in the vivera, or greenhouse. I spent the majority of my time in the greenhouse as I “became one with the land” bagging dirt and planting seeds. I also helped create the ceramic art, which will be placed on a pillar in the lodge – leaving our mark on Asoprola forever. A few of our more talented group members tackled the mural and did a fabulous job doing so. The Asoprola schoolhouse – which is used for educating new employees and volunteer groups, not students – now has a little more character on the right-side wall than it did before.
As for the Altamira school, it was about a 15-minute walk from our lodge. We went to the school twice during our stay: once to play soccer with some local hombres, and another time to play with the kids. Being able to get to know the Altamira people and community was one of my favorite parts of the trip because it gave me the opportunity to view an entirely different perspective of life. I was able to see that living simply isn’t always synonymous with living in poverty. I saw a world where time didn’t dictate every step and friendships were as strong as family ties. In Altamira, I was given the chance to forget about my busy life and see how different the world is just hours south of Nashville.
Between working in the greenhouse and making our mark on Asoprola through ceramics and painting, the Asoprola staff took us on some authentic Costa Rican adventures. Anna, a 19-year-old girl from Berlin, quickly became our go-to guide for everything Costa Rican, as she spoke both English and Spanish. Anna is currently doing her gap year in Altamira before going to university in Germany – clearly she’s much cooler than us typical American college kids. Our first adventure involved heading to the goat farm of one of the Asoprola cocineras, chefs, with Anna and Scott (a 20-year-old Altamira boy who works at Asoprola). Here we saw how the Costa Ricans get their cheese and we got to hold an adorable baby goat who attempted to leave with us because he loved our snuggles. The next day, Anna and José (a 17-year-old Altamira boy) took us to a river. After riding for 20 minutes in the back of a pickup truck, we hiked for another 15 minutes to a clearing filled with beautiful rocks, a nature-made water slide, and ice-cold water (that might’ve been warmer than our showers). Other adventures in Altamira included a trip to the hot springs, as well as visiting el bar for a few nights.
After we left Asoprola, we headed toward the Manuel Antonio National Park and Beach. Although we did not spot any sloths, we were greeted by many monkeys and beautiful scenery. The water was crystal clear and as warm as a bath, and the sunset was as breathtaking as we expected (even though it was cloudy at sunset). After the beach, we made the trip back to San Jose for our final night in Costa Rica at a quaint hotel.
The next morning, we awoke bright and early for our last day. After having a classic breakfast of rice, eggs, and bread with jam, we made our way to Volcán Poás. Despite the fact that the early morning fog entirely blocked our view, it was a nice final hike in the Costa Rican mountains. We then enjoyed a fabulous lunch – beans and rice, who knew? – and rode to la capital, San Jose.
San Jose was cultured to say the least. Although I considered it to be sketchy at a first glance, especially after Anna warned us to watch our Iphones carefully, after seeing the central plaza and the quaint markets, I changed my mind. I did see a cab literally run over a human being and drive away (it was just his foot, but still), yet as a whole San Jose was a perfect end to the trip. It combined everything we had learned over the past week from adapting to new surroundings to putting my life into perspective to appreciating a world much different from my own.
I left Costa Rica at 1:00am that night with a little bit of sadness and significantly more coffee in my suitcase. Altamira left a mark on me, and I don’t mean my freshly tanned skin. The people and character of our little Asoprola lodge reminded me of the importance of hard work, friendship, and most significantly, simplicity. I immersed myself into another world leaving all homework, internship applications, and social media behind. What started as a fun spring break adventure became an enlightening week that probably affected me more than I impacted Asoprola. Until next time, I’ll miss my little slice of paradise in the tiny town of Altamira hidden deep within the mountains of Costa Rica.
Adiós, Costa Rica.