Pura Montaña

Esperanza, nestled below

But back to the farm. After we’d toured the rows of coffee and the sugarcane planted above, Geraldo still felt like he hadn’t shown me anything worth seeing, so he offered to take me up to the top of the mountain to a cow pasture that looked down onto the town where we’d all gone for the futbol game last weekend. Never one to turn down a good jaunt through the jungle, I nodded, “si, por supuesto!”

Turns out, we were both unprepared.  I was quickly reminded of the two cardinal rules of the jungle 1) never leave home without your snake/mud proof rubber boots. (You might end up knee deep in the jungle). 2) Never leave home without your machete. (You might end up knee deep in the jungle. Where you might run into someone else with a machete.)

I was wearing sneakers and shorts. The coffee rows are not particularly rugged, and the roads up and down the mountain to the farm are actually in pretty good shape; sneakers are certainly sufficient. I also see weekends as a welcome vacation from my boots (which are like wearing Goodyear tires on your feet. One of the other volunteers calls them my “Batman boots” because they have a yellow strip along the bottom. So I guess that makes them super hero all terrain boots?) so I really hadn’t considered wearing them. But, after the rows of sugarcane ends, the “pura montaña” starts. We were following a “path,” which was essentially the route someone had cleared with a machete once upon a time, (watch out for the poisonous spiders that build webs across the space!) But, the ground of the ‘path’ was the same as in the rest of the jungle- still the ever sliding mud that I’d experienced on my last pura montaña excursion. Not only were my sneakers far from ideal for trying to leap from slippery rock to slippery rock, but my exposed legs were being pretty much massacred by all the slicing leaves and mosquitos and biting fighter ants (which I learned today are called chopas). I was actually not bothered by that, as long as a snake didn’t attack me at the ankles.

At a few points as we climbed I thought I heard cracking branches or falling vines behind me, but here everything sounds like footsteps, like rain plopping on malanga leaves, or especially the dead banana leaves brushing against the trunk. I was mostly focused on not stepping on all the malicious snakes that were surely waiting to get me in this vulnerable moment. A few times Geraldo turned around to make sure I was alive, commenting things like, “sweating like this is good; that’s why people have little holes in in their skin- so all the fat can come out, “or “if you did this every day you’d be so skinny when you get home that no one will recognize you- like a Barbie!”

Finally, the ground leveled out and we saw a pile of cow dung, so I figured we were near the picturesque pasture. As soon as we turned to follow the cow tracks, we heard definitive crashing footsteps, a machete slashing through jungle growth, and a loud man’s voice shout. Geraldo turned to me, “eh, that must be the owner of the land that joins ours. Sometimes he’s ok with us using his path…but sometimes he gets mad.” The man’s voice shouted again, and Geraldo shouted back, something like “hey there neighbor!” About 6 seconds later, the jungle to our right started to fall away, and a man emerged onto the path, machete brandished. My first thought was of General Zaroff. This jungle was not pura montaña,” it had nothing on this guy. HE was pura montaña. I thought the men who worked on the finca were real gritty campesinos, and they are, but this guy was an entirely different level of rural. I’ve read literary descriptions of things as ‘sinewy’ but this guy was in fact the definition of sinewy. Lifetime outdoor labor tanned skin stretched tight over lean muscle, but mostly sinew, stuck out of his grungy sleeveless t-shirt. I could see every tendon of his arm articulated as he swung his machete to slash away a vine. A threadbare red bandana was tied around the back of his neck (the same way the boys’ were tied in the independence day parade, as costumed caricatures of farmers. Stereotypes/archetypes DO come from somewhere) and a flattened straw cowboy hat hung against his back. He had a scraggly gray mustache and a scragglier, grayer head of hair. His face was all creases of even tanner skin, with light, darting eyes.

Behind him were his sons. The first to emerge was probably 15 and looked like the psycho kid in every movie I’ve ever seen (think the one who kills the dog in the Butterfly Effect). He immediately thrust his machete into the mud as he stepped onto the path and glowered through a thick black unibrow. The second was probably 10, also wielding a good 16 inch machete, but he didn’t have quite the poker face of the other two. The second he saw me his jaw dropped, and for the duration of the conversation between Geraldo and the mountain man, he stood and gawked at probably the last thing in the world he ever expected to see at the cow path on the top of the mountain: a gringa with shorts, sneakers, and an orange LL Bean fanny pack.

Geraldo immediately told the campesino that he was Jose’s uncle, which seemed like a good line to open with. The guy was pretty much calm as soon as he saw who we were, because the first thing he said was, “I thought you were the hunters!!” Quite clearly, I’m not hunting anything. They had a conversation I couldn’t quite follow about what Jose was doing lately, the evil hunters who’ve been on this guy’s land lately (although hunting what I couldn’t catch), and someone selling of pieces of his farm. Geraldo gained his blessing for us to take pictures in his pasture, and we turned down the path. A few (muddy) minutes later, we climbed through the barbed wire and into what really was a beautiful pasture, made even more beautiful by the fact that it was surrounded by the starkly contrasting pura montaña. As I clicked the last frame of my 360 panarama and took the camera away from my face, I saw the younger son standing 3 feet in front of me. By now he’d managed to close his mouth. He just looked at me. Without taking his eyes off me, he swung his machete back and forth, the tip just slicing the top off of the short pasture grass. It was like a slow motion Western scene, but I was like, don’t worry, I know who wins this fight. Geraldo turned around and, clearly surprised, paused before asking about the weather. The boy then escorted us out of the pasture, lazily swinging his machete and slicing the grass as he went.

After making sure that we did indeed start down the “path” back toward Geraldo’s farm, he disappeared in the other direction. All I could think to myself was, “holy shit. Those guys are the real deal. Rough people who don’t work for a gringo, who don’t sell stuff to tourists, who haven’t heard of Brittney Spears, and who live every single day to make sure that their land is protected and productive.” This is the jungle, and if you own the land in the jungle, you have to own the jungle. Those kids are not being raised to do their homework and brush their teeth before bed; they’re being raised to keep hunters (and ill-clad gringas?) off their land. Living in New York and selling large slices of one’s soul every month for a 10×15 room, we tend to forget what it means to lay claim to land. Laying claim to a corner of a mildewy 5th floor walk up is hard enough, and establishing ownership of the jungle is no short order.

As the trail looped back to the farm, there were several excellent photo ops; I could even see little Esperanza nestled below. Geraldo certainly felt that he had shown me something more interesting than coffee. My sneakers and ankles were entirely caked with mud, but Geraldo’s mother still invited me in the house for lunch (leftovers, we’d been gone longer than expected).  While I munched on arroz con verduras, I thought about my earlier prediction. I had been partially right; Geraldo had wanted to talk about something less trivial than soccer uniforms, and less romantic than living with the rhythms of the earth. He wanted to show me, a foreign visitor, something he deemed more worthy of tourism than boring, mundane coffee plants. I still happen to think that coffee plants are cool, but I certainly did see something out of the ordinary, even for Costa Rica. Plenty of people living in San Jose and working for Pfizer have more electronics than I do and have never run into anyone holding a machete. But, if you drink coffee, you need coffee farmers, and you need coffee farms. For that, you need land. And to own land, you should probably have a machete. Because your neighbors do. And they have sons.



  1. Weren’t you frightened, Rachel?
    When we were in Costa Rica about 8 years ago, we also visited coffee farms. They were most interesting to us to see how they grew the coffee beans. We were on a bird watching trip with the U. Of Rochester Medical School group and needless to say, saw lots of birds, butterflies, flowers, and howler monkeys.
    I enjoyed reading your articles.
    Aunt Patty Hoskins in Cleveland Heights, Ohio

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