Farm at a Glance
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."
a new global traveler to the pages of our web
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
to find contact information.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer
in Pittsburgh, PA.