Cerro las Vueltas

Last weekend I took a three-day field trip with my Ecotourism class. Field trips are heavily integrated into the curriculum here at Veritas University. They are used to help us apply what we learn in the classroom to the outside environment of Costa Rica.

Our trip was to Cerro de la Muerte, a mountain area about two hours outside of the city of San José. We were going to stay at an ecolodge called Cerro las Vueltas. I knew nothing going into this experience. All I knew is that we were probably going to be in the middle of the forest and were probably going to go on a hike. Awesome. I borrowed rubber boots from school and packed warm layers. I charged my Airpods. And we left.

Upon arriving on one of the bumpiest roads I’ve ever driven through, we were greeted by a smiling blonde family standing on the porch of a beautiful wood lodge. Four dogs of various sizes milled around them, equally excited to see us. The head of the lodge was Wendy, and her family included her two sisters and their daughters. The view from the lodge was breathtaking – rolling hills and foggy valleys, clouds that seemed to be at eye level on the horizon. They had one horse grazing in a pasture below, and the outside of the porch was generously decorated with various hanging plants.

For whatever reason, I immediately felt at home there. I was curious to hear about the family’s story and what made the farm a sustainable ecolodge. It turns out that the family legacy in Costa Rica began decades ago, in the 1950s. Wendy’s mother and father grew up in Michigan and hated the political environment of the United States. They were pacifists and did not want their children to have to enlist, and they were environmentalists and saw the country being destroyed around them. They decided to hop on a bus and travel somewhere they’d only heard of – Costa Rica. The main drawing factor was the fact that Costa Rica does not have an army. It was abolished in 1948, on December 5th. I actually am sitting down to write this on the anniversary of Abolition Day. Costa Rica also plays against Germany in the World Cup, so there is expected to be a giant celebration downtown throughout the day.

Anyway, Wendy’s parents made it to Costa Rica not knowing a lick of Spanish and decided it would be the perfect place to make home for their growing family. They set up camp at Cerro de la Muerte, high in the mountains in a region colder than most of the country. Since then, they’ve saved an entire forest from logging, had their home taken away from them, rebuilt using only found fallen trees, and created a fully functional, sustainable organic farm and home.

The weekend was a balance of downtime for reflection and relaxation, and adventure lead by Wendy while she shared her knowledge of nature and farming. The farm has several animals and collects their waste in a biodigester. This was one of my favorite parts of the lodge. The contraption collects the waste in a large plastic bag and allows methane gas to be released. The bag slowly fills, and the gas is transported through a tube up to the main house to be used as fuel for cooking!! They obviously drink the milk produced by their cows, and use it to make cheese and baked goods. Pigs are eventually slaughtered and eaten as well. Talk about a closed system!

I could probably write for days about Cerro las Vueltas because the experience caught me by surprise. The family was so warm and welcoming, and worked tirelessly to maintain the farm with smiles on their faces. Their children were all homeschooled and the house had no TV. They were some of the most driven, hard-working people I’ve met, 1000 times better-versed in plants,  natural remedies, animal care, and cooking than I am.

I’ll end by sharing some photos of the gorgeous view from the lodge so you can hopefully feel some of the peace I felt while visiting.


Cows, Clouds, and Canopies

My alarm went off at 5:45am. To spare you the details, I had only been asleep for three hours and I wasn’t feeling at my best…due to my activities the night before.

I lurched out of bed and threw the last few things I needed into my backpack, forgetting several things in the process. The bus left at 6:30. An Uber ride later, my two friends and I were standing in a long line in the terminal, breathing sighs of relief that we had just barely made it. That relief was quickly squashed when Izzy boarded the bus first. The driver took one look at her ticket and wagged his finger at her. “That bus has already left,” he told us.

I can laugh about it now, because it’s been four days, but at the time we were completely crestfallen. The lack of sleep and dehydration did not help.

Our second attempt went much better, and I didn’t forget anything this time! At 2:30 that afternoon we were finally on our way to Monteverde, Costa Rica. You may have heard of it – the Cloud Forest Reserve is likely the country’s most popular and most advertised ecotourism destination. It’s higher in elevation and therefore colder than San José, and while walking through the Monteverde Biological Preserve you feel enveloped in clouds – hence the name. The area is home to dense rainforest, beautiful rolling hills, and farmland. I had booked an Airbnb a few days prior. It was located a bit outside of Santa Elena proper (the small town near the reserve) and unlike in more urban areas here, Ubers were not available. Thanks to our bus fiasco that morning, we were arriving much later than anticipated and I was worried about finding transportation from the bus station.

We ended up calling a few phone numbers for taxis that we found online, and finally struck gold. Little did we know that the man who answered the phone, Jorge, would become our best friend for the weekend (though we were initially nervous getting in his car late at night). It was drizzling as he took us up a steep, pothole-riddled road and eventually turned off into a dark gravel driveway. This was the entrance to Finca El Paraíso (or Paradise Farm). A woman who we would later know as Yolanda waved him down towards a cabin at the bottom. Jorge paused when the path turned to grass and became even steeper, but then barreled down and stopped with a jerk at the front door. Orlando, our Airbnb host, met us there.

“If I had seen you coming down, I would have told you to stop at the top,” he told Jorge. After we all introduced ourselves and brought our luggage in, we realized that that it was going to be a huge task getting that van back up the muddy hill. We ended up all piling into the back row as he revved it – apparently it just needed more weight and more traction in the back. That’s a strategy I might need in the future.

After calling him several different times to drive us to and from the town and the farm where we stayed, my friend Taylor saved Jorge’s WhatsApp number and he became essentially our on-call Uber. He still took care of us even after the hill incident, and even after Taylor left her phone in the backseat and made him drive all the way back. Shout out to you, Jorge.

The Airbnb was on a sustainable farm, hosted by a family that consisted of an elderly grandmother, her daughter and her husband, and their two children, Orlando and Carolina, who were both in their early 20s. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all available to purchase for $6 a meal, and they were prepared by Orlando’s mother, Yolanda. She poured her heart into that food. It was delicious. Every meal also came with great conversation with the family. The son and daughter spoke English, but we practiced our Spanish as much as possible.

We also paid to take their farm tour and cheesemaking class. I milked one of their cows, Matilda (who is three months pregnant!!) and got to bottle feed a calf. If you know me, you know that I am just a bit in love with cows – so this was a dream come true. Orlando walked us over to their pasture area and told us all about how they had once used pesticides that negatively affected his father’s health, and how Orlando had pioneered the switch to organic farming. He learned everything via YouTube and Netflix. Now, he said, the animals and the family were healthier and they were able to repopulate their land with native trees and vegetation.

Roberto, their farm cat, looking out at the view.

Hanging out on the farm was the highlight of the weekend, but my second-favorite adventure began Saturday morning. While Izzy and some of our other friends who were staying at a hostel went bungee jumping (!!), the two other girls and I decided to go slightly safer and zipline instead. There are several ziplining canopy tours in the Monteverde area, but we chose the “original” one – which also happened to be the cheapest. Four guides took a group of us into the rainforest canopy, and we zoomed along cables VERY high over the forest floor. The view was incredible, and I felt secure even though at times I was literally dangling from one caribiner.


I’ll skip over the rest of our stay, but it all went better than planned or expected. While some of my other weekends have left me feeling disappointed that I wasn’t able to fit in more activities, I felt fulfilled by every moment in Monteverde. After ziplining, we had lunch and then hiked in the cloud forest. Sunday, we did the farm tour, then shopped a bit in Santa Elena and that night went on a night tour to see wildlife. Early Monday morning we left the Airbnb early this time and hopped on the bus back to San José.

Sunset our last night at Finca El Paraíso