Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Punta Mona
Sustainable U
Surrounded by primary rainforest and fronted by the Caribbean Sea in the southeastern corner of Costa Rica, U.S. high school students, local Ticos, and others learn about living off the land and in harmony with nature, as one teacher’s dream for community and outdoor education becomes a reality.

By Susanna Meyer

*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003
 

Farm at a Glance

Punta Mona
Manzanillo, Limon

Location: Punta Mona is located in the southern part of the province of Limon, about 5 km south of the town of Manzanillo on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Size: 85 acres

Operation: Sustainable living and education center

What is grown: fruit, vegetables

 

 

 

 

"This spinach loves heat. Neil and I take note—perhaps this prolific variety could supplement our spring and fall crops in the states."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome a new global traveler to the pages of our web site
Pennsylvania resident Susanna Meyer is on the road, WWOOF-ing her way through Costa Rica.

World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – an organization that facilitates visits and volunteer labor on organic farms around the world – proved to be a good guide for Jason Witmer in his visits to Thailand, Laos, India, Nepal and Spain earlier this year. And Jason proved that overseas farms and farmers have rich stories to tell.

To revisit those farms, go to Jason’s first column, published back in February, 2003.We pried Susanna away from a cold, wet autumn in Pittsburgh to spend nearly three months on organic farms in the rainforests, coffee plantations and lush mountain pastures of Costa Rica. Actually, she decided to go on her own and offered to invite us – and you – along for the quest. She’s looking for agricultural principles that will work in her organic farming learning curve on an urban farm back home at the Three Rivers.

Her travel plans are somewhat tentative, as she juggles hitting the coffee harvest, finding the right bus, and contacting farmers who tend to be in the field more than by the phone.

But she’s already filed two reports that show the ingenuity of U.S. immigrants to Costa Rica who are learning all they can about their new micro-climates. They are combining their knowledge of organics with indigenous farming culture. In an economic climate of falling prices and diminished agricultural opportunity, they are helping to craft cooperative techniques of production and marketing to find profit in high-value products from sustainably produced crops.

As Susanna’s visits solidify and her reports come in, this list will grow

Next:

Home Farm
San Gerardo

A sprightly middle-aged man known for his bagged lettuce mix and specialty breads, Robert is the only gringo selling at the huge San Isidro Farmers’ Market, and his booth is at the far end, in the short row of organically farmed produce. He’s surfer-cool and friendly, though he has a reputation for being a hard worker and expecting the same from his volunteers. After a short conversation, Neil and I agree to visit his farm – to spend a week working and getting to know Home Farm at the base of Costa Rica’s highest mountain.

 

August 31, 2004: Just as the daily downpours of Costa Rica’s rainy season wane, Neil and I head to the Caribbean coast. The Talamanca Mountain Range cuts Costa Rica geographically from north to south and separates the Caribbean coastal regions from the majority of the country. Culturally in this region, most of the population has Jamaican rather than Spanish heritage. The weather patterns here are also different—here the rainy season is just beginning.

Neil and I arrive in the small coastal village of Manzinillo, on a sunny day as luck would have it. The transparent ocean is calm and refreshing blues and greens laced with white waves. It’s hard to believe we’ve come to this place to farm. We ask at the local grocery store for Baco—a fisherman who loads us up in his boat. We buzz across the sea, Baco weaving expertly around coral reefs, and slowly motor into shore on a secluded sandy beach lined by forest and palms. Only a small wooden ramp and a tiny hand-painted sign let us know we’ve arrived.

Punta Mona, or Monkey Point, in English, is a peninsula that juts off Costa Rica’s southeastern edge, about an hour’s drive north of the Panama border. A sustainable living and education center bearing the same name nestles into the tip of the point.

Up the ramp and through an arch of wild vines, we’re greeted by a couple of large, airy, thatch-roofed constructions. Built from locally sourced materials, these buildings house volunteers and more long-term community members of the Punta Mona Center, and provide living, cooking, and dining space.


Beyond these first two buildings, the 85-acre property opens into gardens, a greenhouse, and more dwelling spaces. Paths weave through fruit trees (many labeled with brightly painted signs) and vegetable beds. The trails cross irrigation ditches, and one eventually winds through rainforest to more open fields. The quantity of growth, both cultivated and natural, is extensive. In the beginning, it’s easy to get lost. But within a couple of days, we know our way through the property and forest.

The lifestyle on Punta Mona also takes some getting used to. We drink rainwater from the roof (it is the rainy season), wash clothes by hand, and eat huge communal meals. Neil and I sit in on several community meetings during our week-long stay. Some aspects of the farm are new, but not hard to adjust to: We take swim breaks in the ocean after work, ‘cooling down’ in the warm Caribbean Ocean. We hike along the point on the beach and wade into the river that empties into the ocean from the property. We take walks through the farm to find a mid-day snack.

The founder of the Punta Mona Center, Stephen Brooks, has a penchant for fruit trees; more than 120 varieties are planted on the property. On work mornings, we break from pushing back weeds with machetes and sample several fruits, savoring their exotic names, shapes, and tastes. One of the favorite fruits now ripe on the farm is the biriba, of the Anona family. It looks similar to a large artichoke—spiky and rounded—and when it’s mature, its green skin takes on a yellowish tinge. Inside, the flesh is white and has the texture and taste of custard.

The farm community provides its own fruits and many vegetables as one aspect of self-sufficient sustainability. While we are at the farm, the number of volunteers—short- and long-term—stays steadily at around 15 people. This means a lot of salad for dinner. I pick a hefty amount of Malabar spinach, which vines up trellises throughout the gardens. Its dark green leaves are broad and provide a substantial amount of salad fodder with minimum picking. This spinach loves heat. Neil and I take note—perhaps this prolific variety could supplement our spring and fall crops in the states. We fill the salad bowl with asin-asin, a common Costa Rican bushy plant that has small, oval, vitamin-rich leaves. Asin-asin is a farm-meal staple, as it’s easy to grow, nutritious, and tasty. Yuca (or manioc), coconuts and bananas also grow prolifically and appear on our plates often.

The Punta Mona community has strong incentive to provide much of its own food, as supplies must be brought in by boat. An old government road leads through swamp from Manzinillo to the point, but it’s impassible other than on foot.

In the mid-1800s, Punta Mona was a small fishing village settled by Jamaicans. By the 1970s, however, with the construction of the government road, the village moved to Manzanillo. The coast was deserted, except for one stubborn lone fisherman, Blas Martinez, whom everyone called “Padi.” Padi, in his 70s, continues to live on the coast—his home and property merge with the Punta Mona Center. He is a reminder of the site’s history, a unique tie to stories and advice from times past.

In 1995, Stephen Brooks came from the United States searching for an appropriate site to hold classes for North American high school students. Stephen had connected with Costa Rica’s ecological beauty on a previous visit, and this time he found Punta Mona and Padi, who took Stephen under his wing.

In 1997, Stephen purchased land adjacent to Padi’s in order to develop a sustainable living center and organic farm. In 1999, several buildings were constructed on site, fashioned from local fallen trees and thatch. Solar panels provide the farm’s electricity, and one burner on the gas stove functions on methane piped from the composting toilets. Through Stephen’s project, more than 2,000 U.S. students have connected with sustainable agriculture and living skills in Costa Rica. The Punta Mona Center also works with Costa Rican school groups, teaching the next generation skills for living off the land.

When Neil and I visit, Stephen is in the midst of a biodiesel tour from California south through Central America and others are running the center. Alexandra, a peppy Costa Rican woman who has lived at Punta Mona for eight years, is the main administrator. José, a Panamanian, organizes farm work. He’s in his early 20s, has a halo of beach-weathered hair and a quick laugh, and admits that he’s feeling overwhelmed. Many volunteers speak only English, and often he can’t communicate his extensive botanical and tropical farming knowledge with his limited English vocabulary. Manuel, a shy middle-aged Nicaraguan, works full-time in the fields and speaks only Spanish.

For more consistent farm management, Alexandra dreams of hiring a Tico (Costa Rican) farm manager—someone who would organize full-time and bring more focused traditional Costa Rican farming skills to the learning center. The gardens are extensive and promising, but it’s evident that much organization will be needed to keep the planted areas healthy and in production.

Beyond the housing and living areas is a thick jungle forest, complete with leaf-cutter ants marching in quick file and white-faced monkeys swinging above our heads. Throughout the landscape stand stately trees thick enough to remind me of California’s sequoias, their massive roots winding over the earth.


The trail through this primary rainforest leads to a 2-acre milpa, a cleared area filled with crops. Sweet potatoes, beans, squashes, herbs, flowers, and peppers grow all around in small, interspersed plots. We pick shiny red peppers, occasionally biting off a tip to check for spiciness, and toss them in a feed bag for dinner. Much is planted, but there’s room for more: I wish I had more time to dig in here.

Many volunteers have budgeted months of time to spend at Punta Mona. With extended time commitment, the cost of living at the center decreases. Some work for months at a stretch, form bonds with the community of volunteers and long-term workers, and end up returning. The option also exists for interested people to join the community permanently.

The Punta Mona Center brims with possibility, offering a beautiful space for self-motivated farmers to spend time experimenting with tropical agriculture. On its way to self-sustainability, the Center is powered by enthusiastic and determined folks who love the farm.

You’re invited to get involved. Check out the website at www.puntamona.org, to find contact information.

Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer in Pittsburgh, PA.