I have abruptly terminated my first try at WWOOFing in Costa Rica after only three days, as it was close to a total disappointment for me. And apparently I am not the only one who had a bad experience. I literally fled the place after having a bad argument with the owner. There was nothing organic there except the dirt. The owner portrayed the farm as a natural, organic place where she’d grow coffee, fruits and vegetables and take care of animals. It was nothing like this: she had the animals, and she may want to grow her own things eventually, but so far, she has nothing. And again, the cockroaches, only this time not the small ones, but the large ones, and I am not supposed to dislike them or try to kill them, but I am supposed to politely ask them to leave. SERIOUSLY.
A coffee farm in Costa Rica
I went there ready to do my share of work, but my understanding was that I would not be the only one having to work. It appears to me that the owner here does her own thing (who knows what? To me it seems like she did nothing and since the minute I walked in the property she would be on vacation, I would be working while she spoke nonsense to me) while I had to clean, scrub, feed the pigs, the horse, the dogs and the cat – who, by the way, are absolutely adorable and loving. So there I arrived, understanding that in exchange of my work I would be given 3 meals per day and a place to stay. I was getting a nice place to stay, indeed, but no real meals. Indeed, I was pretty much starving.
The owner is an obsessed and obsessive vegan who does not allow the consumption of any animal products there (no dairy, no eggs), and of course no alcohol. This would have been ok if she was not trying to swiftly but firmly impose her way of life on me. So, the reality was that she doesn’t really eat, and she won’t let others eat either. One thing is to be vegan, one thing is to starve! I was only given coffee and fruits in the morning, then no real lunch or dinner. I was preparing my own meals in the cafeteria that she had me working on so that – I am guessing – she can open it again.
My only memory of WWOOFing is the cockroaches
Everything was ruined, rusty, rotten, dirty and cockroaches are all around. The only working fridge was in her house, and I had no access to it. In order to have a working fridge, I had spent my days washing a huge professional fridge sitting unused in the cafeteria, which was completely rotten inside (and I was doing this using a mixture of vinegar, water, baking soda and salt) and still needed to be painted on the outside. Same thing with the oven and the rest of the oppressive, dark, dusty and rotten cafeteria.
I went to buy bread, and the owner pointed out that bread is processed and she expected I would want to eat all natural food. I told her I was starving, and she said we could bake our own bread. I replied that yes, we could, but not till I fixed and cleaned the (obviously) rotten, greasy, dirty oven, and meantime I needed to eat as fruit was not enough to fill me up. She was almost shocked. I am sorry, but having just fruit is not going to keep me going 4 hours, but 1 at most!
The gorgeous nature of Costa Rica
Another thing she did, which I think was crazy. I was expected to only consume coffee in the cafeteria. I like having my coffee by myself in the morning, it is my introvert moment, and I very much needed to recharge and prepare myself in order to be sociable. So I went in the filthy cafeteria in the morning and made myself coffee which I brought back to my room. She told me she was really disappointed, and she was shocked when she went to the cafeteria and could not find her “precious” French cafetiere. So, it looks I am only allowed to drink coffee in the cafeteria, which I do not want to as it is dark, mouldy, dirty and not cozy at all in there. I want some light, fresh air, and a clean place to relax while I have my morning coffee! What could be so wrong about it? Having noticed that she has several Italian coffee pots she did not use, I asked if I could use that instead, and if it was ok to take that to my room, and warned her that in order to use that I would have to run the coffee in the pot at least once in order for it to be drinkable (I know how Italian coffee pots work, you know!).
She said she doesn’t get the whole point, she said she knows a whole lot about coffee and the French press is, in any case, much better to make coffee (what does she care how I like my coffee?), and when I eventually asked her if I can buy the pot from her, she said no. 5 minutes later, she gave me some cheaper quality coffee, gave me the Italian pot, and put the coffee she normally uses in a bag which she took away to her place, as if I would “steal” it otherwise. She then justified herself the morning after, saying that she did it because, since we were not having coffee together in the morning, she’d also want to have it at her place. Yeah, and I am so fool I would believe it (most of all, as she barely drank coffee!). As if I had not been the only one working on her knees to clean scrub etc while she just stands there talking nonsense about organic, vegan etc (oh, btw, when we got out for a snack, she actually had mayonnaise on her tortilla, which is NOT vegan and is so processed that there is nothing natural about it!).
The best part was when at the market, while I was picking toothpaste, she “suggested” I should be making my own with baking soda and salt (btw, that is BAD for the teeth, it scratches them badly) as the one over the counter would have chemicals in it (this is the same person who is using regular detergent for her clothes and dishes, not organic one!). What when I asked her if she has an extra pair of gloves that I could use for cleaning, and she said she doesn’t as she never uses them. I guess, what she should have said is she never cleans, but demands her volunteers to do so.
A sloth in Costa Rica
The last drop was when, yesterday morning, my toilet leaked – it leaked everything (poo etc: she never fixes broken things!) so I ran to ask for a mop and other stuff to clean the bathroom. She gave me stuff (I then realise the mop was no real mop, but a rag!) and spent over an hour to wash away the poo, clean the bathroom and disinfect it till it would be fixed. I was obviously late for breakfast (yeah, she calls that breakfast), and when she eventually walked in and told me “this is not our schedule, so that you know!” I did not even attempt to reply, I just told her “I am leaving tomorrow” (remember, it was 1st of January, many things would be closed!), she said I would then have to pay the extra night, so I told her I was leaving the same day, and she said ok. I went back to my room, and packed, and after 5 minutes she was there, knocking at the door, saying I would have to pay the previous night. I told her she could forget it, as I worked so hard the last few days to get nothing in exchange, not even real food, and she started screaming, saying that she had been trying to make me more comfortable (how so? Putting me on my knees to scrub a rotten fridge?). I told her that her overall attitude is ridiculous, like with the coffee issue, and that I am not a child anymore, but I am a 38 year old who holds a PhD and she can’t bully me around. I then shut the door in her face and told her to leave me alone. She kept talking from outside, and said she was going to call the police (what for?). She then started carrying staff to my room, ie coffee, the left over fruits, etc, saying I should take them with me (I guess she thinks I am a miserable broke?).
I ended up leaving while she was crying (what for? I should be the one crying), saying “Please talk to me, I am sorry!” and I was just so infuriated that I ignored her. I hitchhiked to the main village (a police officer stopped!), then got information on a bus to Cartago, which would then connect me to San Jose. While waiting, she drove by – she had gone look for me – and again told me to go back, she asked me to talk to her (ie wanted to force me to do that), that I could leave tomorrow, when the buses would be running. I suppose she wanted me to stay longer (of course, when would she ever get other people to work for free and so well?), but I left. I am sorry, but I have to think about myself and my health first, especially my mental health!
Anyways, my take is that she wanted to open up a business, like a café-restaurant of sort, but she has no real money to do so, so she calls in volunteers which have to live by her absurd rules (ie starve) and do jobs which she would otherwise have to pay for. I eventually told her that, if she has no money to invest in a business, she would just have to give up, without having to treat people like thieves and slaves which she would try to indoctrinate.
WWOOF was created as a way to connect travelers and farms for a rich cultural exchange. My overall view though? Farms that can’t afford to pay for skilled workers exploit labour of travellers and make profit from it. This is not an exchange and I didn’t learn anything from it. Other than I should stay away from it!
Chepe, as Ticos lovingly call their capital, is the heart of Costa Rica. While most travellers do not spare it negative comments, I find that despite its messy architectural style, due to the economic boom and urban expansion, this modern city is a cool place to hang out for a few days and it offers some of the best things to do in Costa Rica. And even people who live in Costa Rica actually enjoy it, such as Samantha of My Tan Feet, who clearly states in her post on 50 things to do in Costa Rica that visiting San Jose should be one.
I suppose the bad reputation of San Jose is partially due to the fact that the lush nature of the rest of the country – with its sloths, crocodiles, volcanoes and rain forest – fascinates visitors and is unfound here. Yet, since most backpackers follow the gringo route and foreign residents opt to visit and stay in other regions where they can enjoy the nature of the country, this ends up being the best place to experience the true Costa Rican identity.
The city was founded in 1737 and it was originally called Villanueva de la Boca del Monde del Valle de Abra. The name was then changed to remember that of its saint patron. Interestingly, for a long time it was only of secondary importance to the bigger Cartago. After Spain took everyone by surprise by abandoning its colonies in Central America, Cartago and San Jose signed a number of treaties while preparing for war in secret. On 5 April 1823 San Jose won the battle of Ochomongo and became the capital of the country. Later on, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela attempted to ransack the city in a siege known as La Guerra de la Liga, but the capital managed to win and confirmed its status.
San Pedro is among the nicest neighborhoods of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
In more recent times, San Jose has undergone a vast urban development, as many Ticos and Nicaraguans moved to the capital in search of a better life. This has led to the creation of vast shantytowns and to the increase in criminality rates.
Chepe is a modern town, with a functioning transportation system, and compared to other cities in Central America, it will feel extremely European with its shopping malls, traffic lights, modern buildings and trendy restaurants. Despite being a large city, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are very friendly (a typical scene would be meeting someone, asking for information and eventually be greeted with a “Pura Vida!”) and ready to give a hand and directions to lost backpackers.
It is said that certain areas, especially in the city centre, may be dangerous especially at night, but I did not encounter any problems while visiting. Of course, it is important to always keep one’s wits about and pay extra attention.
Another reason to spend a few days in the city? Compared to the rest of the country, temperatures here are milder, giving backpackers a nice break from the extreme heat of the coastal areas.
Best things to do in San Jose Costa Rica
Costa Rica is by far the richest and most advanced country in Central America (certainly much more than Nicaragua), making it the most expensive too. But, since I like walking and don’t mind using public transportation, I was able to save my pennies and still enjoy the city.
There are a good bunch of places to visit in San Jose. The most interesting areas to visit are in the city centre, where I took a nice, long (and free) walk through Avenida Central, Plaza de la Cultura and Calle 8, as well as Boulevard Ricardo Jimenez south of Parque Nacional. The nicest “barrio” to visit is Barrio Amon, a colonial district which is still the residence of “cafétaleros” (coffee producers), with homes built between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Some of the buildings have been recently restored and turned into hotels, restaurants and offices, making it extremely pleasant to walk around. This is by far the most popular area among tourists.
Another charming visit may be that of the Mercado Central. Sure it may not be as great as the markets in Peru or Guatemala, but it is a good introduction to Central America culture, and it is lively and busy and has a great selection of fresh produce.
The center of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
At the top of Paseo Colon, Parque Metropolitano La Sabana is the best place to escape the greyness of the city and it hosts two museums, a lagoon, a fountain and a number of sports courts and swimming pools for those wanting to keep fit. On the east side of the Parque there is the Museo de Arte Costarricense, with a permanent exhibition of Costa Rican art of the 19th and 20th centuries and located in a nice colonial building. On the south west side there is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle, for those wanting to see embalmed animals and butterflies.
Plaza de la Cultura is considered by Ticos as the geographic heart of Costa Rica, and it hosts the Museo de Oro Precolombino.
Finally, San Jose is a good place to do a Spanish Course, and some travellers may want to couple the experience with volunteering.
Street life in San Jose – photo courtesy of Jean-François Schmitz (flickr)
At a 45 minutes bus ride from San Jose, Cartago may be an interesting city to visit for its religious significance and its conservative charm. Highlights include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, a byzantine style church which has been renovated in 1926 following the 1910 earthquake and where I could admire the famous statue of La Negrita (a black Virgin statue) and Las Ruinas de la Parroquia, the ruins of the Iglesia del Convento built in 1575 in honour of San Juan and destroyed by an earthquake in 1841. Reconstruction works were interrupted in 1910 after the earthquake.
Where to stay:
My choice in San Jose is Hostel Urbano, in the heart of the student and residential area of San Pedro. This is a great choice for backpackers on a budget, with dorms at $ 14 per night: beds are comfortable and have great lockers, rooms are spacious and clean, with large wardrobes; bathrooms are spotless; a pancakes and fruit breakfast is served daily; there is a very well equipped kitchen, a lovely backyard, a great common area, a game room and book exchange; the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly and will provide plenty of information on restaurants, transportations, courses, activities and what not, and the overall atmosphere of the hostel is so great that it made me want to stay longer just to enjoy it.
Not far from it, the cheaper Castle Tam is an option if one can bare its dirty dorms, a messy kitchen, the stench of cigarette smoke, a grumpy atmosphere and a moody owner and staff who change the prices of accommodation as quickly as their mood.
Where to eat, drink and enjoy nightlife:
Save some pennies by shopping in one of the many supermarkets – some of them are so upperscale that I could prepare a gourmet meal. This is especially true if lodging in Hostel Urbano: backpackers will find that great kitchen and cozy dining room will be perfect to enjoy their meals. If not, this student area offers plenty of budget eateries with set meals for as little as 4 US dollars.
Not far from the hostels, there is a very busy street packed with bars where students like having a drink. Pick any, they are all busy!
In Avenida Central in San Pedro there is the Jazz Cafè, the best bet for quality live music with bands that play from jazz to salsa. Going to the Jazz Café is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica!
The beautiful national theater in San Jose – photo courtesy of Randall Elizondo López (flickr)
How to get to San Jose
There is no real public bus system and no central terminal, but a number of private companies operate from hubs scattered through the city. The biggest stations serve entire regions: Gran Terminal de Caribe has buses to the Caribbean Coast; Terminal Coca Cola connects to the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast. Terminal San Carlos serves Monteverde, La Fortuna and Sarapiquì. Tracopa links to San Isidro de General and the South.
Tica Bus and Transnica are the best long distance, international companies that connect Costa Rica to Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Book the ticket in advance to ensure a seat.
If in Nicaragua, catch a Tica or Transnica bus from Managua through Rivas all the way to San Jose. The advantage is that it is much easier to go to through immigration if on one of these international buses, with the staff that clearly explains everything there is to do. For more border crossing information, check my other post.
Here it is possible to find complete information on the bus services and timetables in Costa Rica.
If wishing to explore an off the beaten place in Costa Rica, this would have to be my pick. Easily reached from San Jose through Cartago, not many visitors venture in this mellow yet appealing town, famous for its mountain air, strong coffee and what is known as Central America’s best white water rafting. The area is also great for mountain biking, kayaking, and canyoning. These activities may blow a daily budget (costing up to 100 dollars for the whole day), but they are worth a try!
Rio Reventazon has the most difficult rafts in the country: 65 km to keep your adrenaline going. Rio Pacuare has the most scenic rafting in Costa Rica, with a view of spectacular canyons, rainforest, and it goes past indigenous villages and will give anybody a chance to take a view at the great Costa Rican wildlife.
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