Volunteering Coffee Country-Style…

Volunteering in Costa Rica was one of my favorite travel experiences ever.  I truly felt like I became part of the family I stayed with (Luis and Martina!), & their entire, tight-knit community.  We laughed, we worked hard, we spent hours in the sunshine, and began & ended every day together, around the table ~ sharing stories in spite of our language differences.  From the beginning of my day to the end, I felt one thing so palpably, that is often lacking in our society: Community.

I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.  If spending 8+ hours per day in front of a computer screen is the norm for you, this just might be the experience you don’t even know you need.  

Here is a “Day in the Life” of a coffee farmer…

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

Welcome to Coffee Country…

A Day in the Life of a Coffee Farmer

4:45AM = Alarm goes off.  Hawaiian music wakes us up.  All the “girl” volunteers are bunking together in a beautiful log cabin, high up in coffee country, in a tiny little town called San Jeronimo, in southern Costa Rica.  Andrea, our Volunteer Coordinator from Maximo Nivel, a Costa Rica volunteer organization, pushes snooze.

5AM = Alarm goes off again. Breakfast is at 5:30AM.  We begin to rise and get ready for the day.

5:30AM = Breakfast.  We eat together with our host family.  Our house mom, Martina, is an extraordinary chef ~ she prepares huevos mixed with veggies, fruta, jugo.  And of course ~ coffee.  The same coffee we’ll be picking in an hour.  It’s pretty damn great.  And makes Starbucks Coffee (“America’s Favorite”) taste like mud in comparison.

6AM = Luis, our house “Dad” and head campesino, leads us up the mountain.  His horse makes the trip, too.  It’s a steep, 30-minute hike up a gravel road.  As we walk, the sun rises over the peaks of the mountains.  A river meanders through the valley below us.

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

Sun rising over the mountains as we climb the hills to reach the best coffee beans.

6:45AM = After the steepest stretch, we arrive at the family’s land, surrounded by coffee trees.  Some beans are green (not quite ripe), others are rich and red (the best beans ~ ones they will sell).  And we see some yellow beans tinged with brown, which means they’ve been infected by disease, and aren’t usable. Today, our job is to clear one parcel of ALL its beans: green, red, and yellow.  Everything needs to go, because coffee season is nearly over; these trees will be chopped down in order to regenerate.  

In two years, after re-inventing themselves, Luis says, these trees will be filled with the highly coveted red beans.

7:00AM = Don Luis gives us each a huge basket with a strap attached.  The basket sits just underneath our waist ~ the strap goes around our low back and attaches with a hook.  He makes sure each of us has the correct size.  That means that it fits very snugly around the waist.  Now, we’re ready to begin our work.

Time to Begin Our Work!

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

Luis shows us how to strap on our basket for coffee picking. Once filled, the basket will weigh about 20-30 pounds.

7:00AM – 9:30AM = We set to work, picking coffee beans ~ no dainty task.  You grab a branch and in one, sweeping motion, you pull the beans brusquely off the branch, towards you and into your waiting basket.  Most fall in ~ some scatter on the ground.  Luis picks these up later, much faster than we ever could.  

The better we get ~ the faster we go.

9:30AM = More than two hours of picking, and our baskets are filled ~ we’ve already dropped off one load.  We’ve got to find our big, blue rucksacks so we can dump our beans into them…but getting to them is the hard part.  Try climbing a steep hill with an extra thirty pounds strapped to your waist.  I feel like a fat walrus, trying to waddle up a hillside.  No bueno!  Once we finally get there (the relief is immediate), we remove our straps, place the sacks around our baskets, then tip them over.  

With any luck, all the beans land in the sack ~ not on the ground.

9:45AM = Short break.  Don Luis climbs a tree and picks some oranges.  We sit briefly, eating our oranges in peaceful silence.  All around us, the mountains slope down toward the valley.  Birds chirp and soar overhead.  Below us, a young bambino is getting scrubbed by his mother in an outdoor tub.  We’re surrounded, everywhere we look, by brilliant, green wonderland.  

There’s nowhere to be, but here.

Grab the Machete ~ It’s Break Time!

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

We peel our oranges with a machete! Who wouldn’t?

9:55AM = Back at it.  I’m eager to get to work.  Something about picking coffee beans is extremely satisfying, though I couldn’t tell you exactly why.  It’s visceral, and I guess provides some measure of instant gratification.  I strap my basket on and head down the slope.  It’s steep.  Trees here have TONS of red beans.  I greedily pull them into my basket, grabbing the branches firmly, pulling with force.  I’m getting the hang of this. Never have I filled my basket so quickly.  I brace my core as the basket keeps filling, trying to stabilize on this steep mountainside.

10:30AM = As I pull the beans towards me, I think about how many people would benefit from volunteering for a week or two out here ~ particularly the typical American office-dweller.  The early rising, the clean food, hearty exercise, filling the lungs with good, clean air, being surrounded by beauty, and simply, helping out.  How beneficial are all these things for those who’ve become so removed from the land, for those who experience anxiety, or for those who spend 90% of their waking hours involved with technology of some kind?  

I wonder…

10:45AM = Articles begin to write themselves, in my mind.  I’m feeling the flow.  Out here on the top of a mountain, in the clear air, I feel inspired and grounded all at the same time.  I am clear in my mind.  I feel peaceful.  And more than a little like Maria in The Sound of Music, somewhere in Austria, happy on a mountaintop…

The Hills are Alive…

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

My coffee-picking view….makes me feel like Maria in “The Sound of Music” ~ these Costa Rican hills are alive.

11:00AM = Just when we think we’re done: we look up.  The top of the trees hold the mother lode: millions and millions of beautiful, plump red and green beans…so beautiful we just want to ravage them!  Getting to them is tricky though ~ especially if the tree is tall.  You take its strong branches and bend them towards you, so that you can get a better handle on them.  Once your grip is good, you pull those little guys towards you and it starts raining beans….tinkle, tinkle, tinkle!  They scatter wildly, filling the basket fast.  

For some reason, this is SO satisfying.

11:30AM = We empty our final basket into the blue sacks.  Mine is nearly full, and weighs close to 100 pounds at this point.

11:45AM = We hike down the mountain.  Pleasantly tired ~ we’re almost in a trance, thirsty, ready for food.  We take in the view fully now, coming down the mountain.  Luis straps sacks full of beans onto Mulo, the horse.  

Out here, animals aren’t just pets ~ they have jobs to do.

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

Mulo’s got a job to do ~ carrying our hard-earned coffee beans down the mountain!

Lunch Time!

12:30PM = Lunch.  Martina has prepared delicious spaghetti with roasted chicken and a yummy green salad filled with fresh veggies.  We eat in a trance and talk just a little.  We’re tired.

Four miles walked,100 pounds of coffee beans picked = a good morning.

1:00PM = Siesta.  After lunch, we wander back to our cozy log cabin.  I try to read, but my eyes betray me, and I fall into a sound sleep, along with the others.  They’re so tired, in fact, they both snore.  Loudly.  As loud as any man I’ve ever heard.  At first, I can’t sleep.  Then, I’m blissfully knocked out.

2:30PM = Wake up ~ time for afternoon coffee!  We sit at the table together, sip our coffee, and discuss the events of the morning.  Now that we know what it takes to collect and produce this coffee ~ it tastes even better.

3:00PM-6:00PM = Afternoons are free for our own pursuits.  Some days we attend town meetings or visit other coffee farms, other days we read in the hammock, or wander down to the “Tree House” to write.  Though our afternoons are free ~ Luis is always busy.  He needs to transport all the beans we picked down the mountain, and says he doesn’t need us to help him.  This means several trips up and down the mountain for him and Mulo.  There’s no fancy machinery out here, except at the roasting house.  

Which means humans or animals are transporting all those beans, up and down the mountainside.

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

The fruits of our labor, roasting in the sun…

5:30PM = Everyone’s back at the homestead now, and we sit on the porch, chatting about the day.  Ron wanders up from the men’s cabin.  He’s a delightful man from Canada who likes to say “Eh?!” a lot, and whose backpack is so heavy that no one can pick it up but him.  “What the heck is in there?!” we ask.  “Well, eh ~ I’ve got my bongo drum, my folding chair, a blender for my protein shakes….” We all laugh, but he’s so good-natured, you can’t help but like him.

6PM = Sunset.  From their porch, sunset is beautiful and dramatic ~ we can see it play out across the entire valley.  I’m enthralled, fully awake and revivified from my deep slumber of the afternoon.  I run around the hillside like a child, searching for the finest vantage point.  Again, I’ve stepped into my own version of The Sound of Music…I feel like a kid running around the mountainside, happy.

Volunteering Coffee Country, Costa Rica

6:30PM = Dinner.  Martina says, “Listo!”  Dinner’s ready!  We all march into dinner, completely surrounding her table.  Dinner is fresh zucchini, squash, and mashed potatoes, with more of the brilliant salad from lunch.  Healthy and straight from the garden ~ I know because we picked the zucchini on the mountainside this morning.  

How much would this “locally-sourced” dinner cost at Whole Foods. I wonder?

8:30PM = Melanie is already asleep with her eye mask on, and Andrea’s in her beautiful “Princess Jasmine” bed with its big, white mosquito netting surrounding her while she texts and replies to work emails.  She says happily that she’s a “workaholic.”  I take one of my favorite books, Women Who Run With the Wolves to bed with me ~ which means I’ll have dreams of mountainsides and wild hills and the defiantly joyous Maria Von Trapp running through my head while I sleep.

The End : )




How to Volunteer in Coffee Country
  • Contact IVHQ (International Volunteer Headquarters) & ask about the “Coffee Projects” in Costa Rica.  My project was based in San Jeronimo, near San Isidro.
  • Contact Maximo Nivel (a Costa Rica volunteer organization) directly, & ask to speak with Andrea DeLuz about the Eco-Agriculture/Coffee Project.  IVHQ partners with Maximo in Costa Rica ~ so you can volunteer through either organization.
  • If you want to visit coffee country & stay with a host family, but don’t want to volunteer ~ I’d highly recommend it!  You can chase waterfalls, horseback ride, learn about coffee-making, or hike to Costa Rica’s highest peak ~ all for about $28/night (including meals).  In this way, you can help local farmers by bringing tourist dollars into their small communities, particularly during non-coffee season.  Contact Aturena for more information.