Travel: A City Girl Volunteers In Costa Rica Countryside

By: Gabrielle Mills, Follow South Jersey Intern

A roadside view in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Gabrielle Mills.

My grandparents were sharecroppers in the American south. They spent their days farming, tending to farm animals, and devoting themselves to their children.

SImply put, travel was not an option. In fact, the only time I can recall my grandparents traveling was my grandfather fighting overseas, and their eventual move to Paterson, New Jersey, during what we now call “The Great Migration‘.” Traveling, especially internationally, has always been a dream of mine, and this year I’ve had the opportunity to see it realized.

Juan Gabriel showing volunteers from Amigos De las Américas how to pour sugar syrup into molds. Photo credit: Gabrielle Mills.

Sugar cane was the currency of the new world. Sugar and tobacco were the main exports of the Caribbean and South America in the last century. Currently, though, the production of most of the world’s sugar and sugar byproducts is handled by factories nestled in the verdant mountains of Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica where the family owned and operated sugar farm, “Dulce de Las Montañas” (which translates roughly to “Sugar of the Mountains”) lies.

The almost clinical buzz of the airport makes it difficult to tell what time of day it is. But we land, myself and my two good friends, Angely Francisco and Dalili Gonzalez. We make our way through Juan Santamariá International Airport, letting the bilingual signs direct us. After a short taxi ride, and a four hour bus ride, we’re greeted by our friend, and semi-guide, Juan Gabriel.

It’s dark now, and the nocturnal animals of the Costa Rican rainforest are making themselves known. Various coos and crickets are heard throughout our bumpy ride to Dulce de Las Montañas, our home for the week.

Dulce de las Montañas is currently run by three generations of the Zuniga-Rojas family. The farm and sugar plantation have been in the family for about 40 years. While the Zuniga Rojas family recognizes the importance of tradition, the youngest members of the clan have aspirations of expanding the farm into a destination for tourists to learn about Costa Rica in an authentic and sustainable way.

Outside our home for the week. Left to right: Angely Fransisco, Karol Zuniga-Rojas Virginia and Cosme Zuniga-Rojas, Gabrielle Mills, and Dalili Gonzalez. Not pictured: Juan Gabriel and Silvia Zuniga-Rojas.

Upon arrival we meet our gracious hosts: Virginia, who asks eagerly about our backgrounds, our families, and, of course, if we’ve eaten; Cosme, who has the patience of a saint while I struggle to speak my second language; Karol who is as quick to discuss her pride in her family’s farm as she is to play the latest Bad Bunny album; and Juan Gabriel, who’s humor and hard work help to propel his family. The youngest member, Silvia, is away at Amigos De Las Américas, a volunteer organization that works closely with the family.

In addition to the sugar plantation, the Zuniga Rojas family also hosts volunteers and have had visitors from all over the world.

“It has been about seven years since we started receiving volunteers,” Karol states. “We try to make the volunteers feel like another member of the family.”

And to that end they are successful. We spend our breakfast laughing as Virgnia tries to perfect our tortilla making technique.

Our week begins with a tour of the farm. We trek first up the driveway to see the process of sugar making. Old Spanish ballads play on a small transistor radio as Cosme and his father show us how the sugar goes from cane to candy.

The sugar cane grown on the farm is processed in a “tapiche” or a sugar cane press. The fresh cane is placed in the machine which then juices it. From there, the juice is strained and heated, killing any impurities.

Next, the Zungia-Rojas’ make a variety of products. “Melcocha,” a sugar cane candy with nuts and raisins, “Aguadulce,” sugar cane juice which is often flavored with fresh citrus and can be served hot or cold, and reduced sugar cane syrup which is solidified and is used in baking.

Cosme poses in front of the outdoor oven used to cook down sugar cane juice. Photo credit: Gabrielle Mills.

In addition to hosting volunteers, the Zuniga-Rojas family also hosts day trips for Amigos De las Americas. The organization provides volunteer trips to Central America for both teens from the US and locals.

We were lucky enough to witness one such day as a group from Amigos visited the farm. The kids, mostly ages 15 -17, expressed a simultaneous curiosity for, and understanding of, their place in the world, vastly different from my experience at that age.

Karol says though they don’t work directly with the organization, they enjoy the process of teaching teens about Costa Rica.

“We don’t work directly with Amigos de Las Americas,” Karol says. “What happened is that for whatever reason the three of us (her sister and brother) have volunteered and worked with the organization. We know the whole process, and therefore they keep us in mind when wanting to show volunteers an authentic Costa Rican experience.”

After a week of hiking, learning to make tortillas and aguadulce, and getting lost riding the Costa Rican transit system, our time at Dulce de las Montañas comes to an end.

Our final day begins before the sun rises.

Writer Gabrielle Mills “failing” at milking a cow.

It’s dark out, and the nocturnal symphony blares once again, but instead of sleeping, we’re up early, trekking up hills to the farthest reaches of the Zuniga rojas property. Just when we think we made it, Cosme smiles and goads, “un poco mas alto,” or “just a little higher.”

So, we climb with Musa, the farm dog in tow, slowly making it to the top.  The view is otherworldly, green hills as far as the eye can see, speckled by the golden lights of houses, just starting their day.  The sun is up, and Cosme has a final task for us. The greenery stretches beneath our feet, and I realize there are two female cows staring back at us.

“Were gonna milk those?” I stammer in Spanish. Cosme laughs and lifts the wire fence motioning for us to go in. Struck by being this close to animals we’d only ever seen on field trips, we’re not quite sure how to act. My friends and I laugh in nervous disbelief. Soon enough, with some guidance, the three of us, girls from Paterson and Passaic New Jersey, are milking cows in the Costa Rican rainforest at 6 in the morning

The Zuniga Rojas family offers an experience different from traditional forms of tourism. The time spent at Dulce de Las Montañas is slow and intentional, allowing visitors to get a grasp of lives outside of their home countries while making lifelong friends, memories and truly participating in daily rural Costa Rican life.

*All original answers in Spanish translated by Dalili Gonzalez.

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