Costa Rica is where American school buses come to die. Or, more specifically, they come to the town of Puriscal.
About five months ago, I boarded one of these ancient yellow Bluebirds. Knowing little to no Spanish at that point (I did start picking it up later), I was lucky to have found a young German woman who spoke English boarding the same bus, en route to another volunteer farm near mine. The weather in Puriscal, a small town about an hour from San Jose, had been sunny, but as the rickety bus slowly wound its way up into the mountains, a dense cloud cover set in. As I stared out at the puffs of white hugging the sides of the mountains, I felt as if I were in a dream – just two days ago I had been seeing snow. Two hours later, we had arrived, the bus having miraculously survived the trip, as it had presumably done in the past and would continue to do in the future.
The first thing one notices stepping off the bus in Mastatal is the penetrating, neverending drone of the cicadas. That, and the super-humidity. These are perhaps the best identifiers of the rainforest, apart from the lush walls of green.
This was my arrival at La Iguana, a chocolate and permaculture farm in the remote village of Mastatal (local population: around 150 people) – the place that was to be my home for the next seven weeks. La Iguana is owned by a family of Ticos (Costa Ricans) and has been around for about 10 years. The property includes the family’s house, where the chocolate is made, and a 4 hectare (10 acre) cacao farm that’s a 40 minute walk away. It was the perfect jungle retreat for the near two months I spent there.
The volunteers at La Iguana work five hours a day, six days a week. Each day we rose with the sun – it seemed like each sunrise was more beautiful than the previous day’s.
After we got up, we watered the plant nurseries, swept the yoga deck, prepared fresh, tropical fruit salad for breakfast, filled up on customary Costa Rican rice and beans (gallo pinto), and then got to work.
No two days at La Iguana were alike. Most days, something chocolate-related needed to be done – roasting and peeling cacao beans, making truffles, hand grinding chocolate, pouring chocolate into molds, making cacao butter and powder, packaging products for the shop or going to the cacao farm to prune trees and gather cacao pods.
Other days we planted, weeded and tended plants in the garden. Sometimes we peeled hibiscus petals for tea, chopped and ground ginger and turmeric, painted signs, or made bracelets.
After lunch, we had the rest of the day to hike to a waterfall, nap in a hammock, play ultimate Frisbee with volunteers from the other nearby farms, or grab ice cold Imperials at the one tiny bar in town.
There’ll be more pictures of our Mastatal shenanigans later, but if you’re curious about the whole process of making chocolate from start to finish, bean to bar, tree to truffle, take a peek at the story I made by clicking on the picture below.