Happiness is an Extra Plantain... My First Costa Rican Workaway
Updated: Jul 11, 2020
My first Costa Rican Workaway (work for trade), on the shores of Lake Arenal.
The bus driver wished me luck while heaving my heavy backpack onto the gravel shoulder, and sped off. I'd finally made it! After weeks of slowly deliberating on which Workaway host to choose while traveling my way through the shores and mountains of Costa Rica, and after nearly three days of travel to get to the Workaway host (only because I'd broken up the journey with surf stops), I was finally about to walk into my first Workaway position.
Workaway is a website that connects 'hosts' (usually local businesses looking for casual help) with 'volunteers' (usually backpackers looking for a free bed/meal). Work can range from reception to bar-tending to light construction, anywhere from 2 to 5 hours a day; while compensation can be anything from a free bed, to a free bed with all meals provided, or a free bed and laundry and coffee. It's a win-win match made in heaven, with zero dollars exchanged.
While I've noticed it's hard to not sound like a broken record about Costa Rica, it still bears repeating: this country is absolutely beautiful. And Lake Arenal is no exception - the winding road my bus took around the lake from the town of La Fortuna (I try to sit on the correct side of the bus for the best views - a rewarding strategy I've picked up on my travels!) showed a seemingly never-ending blue lake (it's the largest lake in Costa Rica), surrounded by lush green rolling hills and framed by constantly moving wispy clouds and weather.
My destination, Lake Arenal Hotel & Brewery, is an eco hotel & brewery situated on a 15-acre organic farm near Lake Arenal in Northern Costa Rica (conveniently located on the road between the popular towns of La Fortuna and Monteverde). Their 'eco' claim is supported by 100% of electricity for the brewery provided by solar power; organic gardens provide seasonal foods for the in-house restaurant; gravity fed spring water is sourced from nearby Volcano Tenorio ; the dairy and pig farm provides income, cheese, and milk while empowering local farmers; AND animal waste from the farms is processed using a bio-digester - providing methane gas for cooking and fertilizer for farming. In this mostly commercially minded day and age, it's a pretty hefty claim on sustainability and their making every effort to reduce their carbon footprint, and one of the reasons why I chose this particular Workaway opportunity.
I shouldered my heavy backpack and started walking down the gravel road to my destiny. I walked through rolling farmland, passing a sign for Tilawa Skate Park - one of Costa Rica's largest skate bowls (built by skaters for skaters!), right in the property's backyard. At first glance, the hotel looked like a big, unassuming, one level house surrounded by alternating farmland, pasture, and manicured jungle lawns (my attempt at describing the luscious landscaping). But after I walked up the wheelchair-accessible path into the hotel, I realized it was built into the hill and actually three stories tall. With a solid stone architecture of supporting pillars, hand-painted art frescoes on the walls, breezy open-air plan and fading ochre paint, it felt old, cozy, and faintly European. I later discovered that the entire hotel's architecture was based on an ancient Greek palace, Knossos. Pretty random, pretty awesome!
After introducing myself to reception, I was shown to my new home for the next three weeks. I'd be sleeping in a dorm room with a little patio, a beautiful view of the lake, and even a tiny fireplace - all simple but lovely. I had one new roommate, Alice, a friendly girl from the U.S. who kindly answered my many questions and offered to show me around (we became quick friends). The next day I met the hotel manager and the owner - both definite characters, and full of passion for the future of the unique property.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself painting signs for wild jungle trails, helping out in the restaurant and bar, playing tennis with Alice in a grand old tennis court surrounded by lush green jungle and howler monkeys (surprisingly small monkeys for the sound they make!), taste testing all eight of the micro brewery's spectacular craft beers, creating social media content and taking pictures of the property for the website, exploring the countryside and shores of the lake, watching skaters take on one of the steepest skate bowls in Costa Rica, and so much more.
Even with all of the projects, the calm and tranquil nature of the hotel and its surroundings allowed me to still find time to fully relax and spend time pursuing some of my own interests, like reading, writing, and hiking. It felt like the perfect balance of work and play, and I appreciated the management's confidence and trust in their Workawayers - we were given instructions and then left to carry them out, which I enjoyed. I think an atmosphere of mutual trust is always conducive to good work output! Traveling, and being in an isolated rural setting, helped me to appreciate the simple yet fulfilling joys of life.
I've found that when I let go of what I think my life should look like, and just revel in what my life is, it's much easier to take pleasure in the small things - trying to figure out if it's the wind growling or howler monkeys howling in the mornings, watching the weather change from sweeping rain to bright sunshine literally in minutes over beautiful Lake Arenal, finally making someone laugh at a joke I made entirely in Spanish, or an extra plantain on my delicious casado plate (which Alice and I ate for lunch every day with no signs of stopping). P.s. if you have never tried a plantain, casado plate, Workaway, or Costa Rica... I HIGHLY recommend them all ;)