Florida is known for being a tropical paradise, but you haven't seen tropical until you've been up in the rainforests of Costa Rica! It's such a beautiful country. And not only is the vegetation wild and exotic, but so is the wildlife. From toucans and hummingbirds to sloths and monkeys, this Central American country is full of surprises.
One of those surprises is coffee! Costa Rica is one of the largest exporters of coffee. In fact, some of the highest quality beans are grown in high-altitude farms where the air and the soil create the best environment to produce the richest, boldest flavors.
Coffee is also the reason I went to Costa Rica. During my spring break in March 2011, a team of 11 volunteers and I took a weeklong trip as members of Florida Alternative Break, a volunteer organization funded by the University of Florida.
Florida Alternative Break
Florida Alternative Break, or FAB, is a philanthropic organization that chooses specific humanitarian issues and designs a type of volunteer vacation to work on a project that helps raise awareness about those issues. The issue our trip was based upon was fair trade and organic coffee farming. Our focus was to learn about ways that we can channel first-world demand for the crop to benefit small community farmers who make a conscious effort to grow the coffee plants in the best way possible for the environment.
Here's a picture of our group out on a hike during one of our first days there. We stayed at a research facility that houses graduate students and scientists who are dedicated to learning everything there is to know about rainforest ecology. It was called the Organization for Tropical Studies located in San Vito, Costa Rica.
Though our trip was educational and involved daily hard labor on mountain-side farms, it was an experience I'll never forget. The air was dry and cool and the dew-soaked tropical flowers were a breathtaking sight in the mornings.
What's more, our interactions with the people there were just as important to the experience as the landscape. Our project coordinator, Rodo, was one of the most gracious and passionate people I've ever met.
This is a picture of our farmer, Ricardo, whose farm we worked on every day for a week. He lives on his five-acre farm with his wife and two daughters. His wife works full time in San Jose, a five-hour drive from San Vito.
Since it was not harvest season while we were there, we helped him with other farm maintenance chores. For example, here he is showing us how to pull the moss off of the coffee plant stumps so that they can grow fresh new branches. We also helped him clear plant debris from his crop rows and build a compost pile.
Even though our trip lasted only a week, it was an emotional departure. Our small, quirky group had become very close very quickly, and we were all very fond of our new Costa Rican friends. From our volunteer group, I made a few acquaintances on the trip that I'm lucky enough to still have today!