It was my last day in Nosara before beginning the trip down to Pavones, a near-complete north-south tour of the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. I had grabbed an abbreviated morning surf and packed up my few belongings in order to head over to Playa Pelada early for my meeting with the people at Costas Verdes – and by meeting I mean tree-planting, not a cup of coffee somewhere in town.
Founded in 2009, Costas Verdes is committed to planting trees and restoring beach environments in Costa Rica. Their two areas of focus are in the Central Pacific around Jaco – including Esterillos, Hermosa, and Guacalillo – and in the Guanacaste around Guiones, Ostional and Cameronal.
I found Costas Verdes through my contact with Amigos of Costa Rica, which is a great resource for people looking to find groups in Costa Rica to connect with either for donating money or volunteering their time.
As it turned out, I was able to plan the first part of my trip around Costas Verdes last tree planting of the season. This was in June, and they would taper off their program as the rainy season approached.
I showed up around 7:30 to find a large group of kids from a local area school waiting to get started. There was all of the usual chaos involved in wrangling school kids who are clearly the same anywhere you go. Lots of noise and talking, groups of girls sitting under trees and waiting for their instructions while groups of boys ran off and chased each other with the shovels they were given. You want to get a nice early start if you’re going to be working outside in the Central American sun, and time was ticking as the organizers tried to work with the teachers and parents to get things moving along. I tried to make myself as useful as possible, but considering my Spanish skills, the best thing I could do was just take care of myself.
Our staging area, as it turned out, was in a narrow strip of land that had been illegally cleared by developers of a group of condos so that they could include the profitable term ‘Ocean View!’ in their marketing materials. Now they were working with Costas Verdes to replant the area so they could also claim to be supporting reforestation efforts in the area. Pretty interesting.
We weren’t going to be working in this area but you could see the efforts that the full time staff was making. Blistering work in the scorched, unshaded soil. Later in the day I would help plant some trees here after all the school kids had left and would last about half a hour before getting light headed. It’s tough work planting trees in the tropics, as I would find out.
As part of our introduction, we were told about different varietals and shown the proper way to plant the saplings which Costas Verdes grows in their own nurseries. They want to avoid a monoculture environment, so there were a variety of tree species that were natural to this particular part of the the Guanacaste. Most importantly, we were warned about how much work had already gone into getting these saplings to this stage and that we needed to treat them with the utmost care if they were to have any chance of survival in these harsh conditions.
As it turned out, while I always assumed that here in the tropics you could just stick anything in the ground and it would grow, the survival rate of these young saplings isn’t actually that great due to the immense competition among plant life here. Once shade trees are removed, other ground cover and choking creepers go crazy, making life difficult for these little trees to get started. Later I would see our guide come across a broken sapling and become almost overcome with frustration and sadness. He gathered the entire group around to point it out and really hammer home the gravity of this. We all needed to be more careful, and try to care half as much as he clearly did.
Our chaotic little circus left the staging area and headed toward the azure water at Playa Pelada before hooking around to the north to find our designated planting area. I must admit, already sweating in the heat and glad for my wide-brimmed hat, it was difficult not to just keep walking right into the beckoning ocean, slowly stripping away all of my clothes like a desert wanderer coming across an oasis.
I quietly sympathized with a group of kids who stared longingly at the water, shovels in hand, but kept moving – trying to keep up the enthusiasm and lead by example. I would earn my swim with a bit of work and it would be all the sweeter for it.
We worked for the next few hours in a few different areas just in from the beach on the north end of Pelada. The kids did their best, some more into it than others, and I tried to help where I could. Hundreds of trees would be planted that day. It was interesting that the parents and teachers involved clearly had no intention of getting their hands dirty, and the organizer spoke to me about the lack of leading by example in many cases. Part of the mission of Costas Verdes is to educate the youth as well, because for all of its notoriety in the world as an environmentally friendly country, there is still that demographic that doesn’t see conservation as a true priority.
As the energy waned, and saplings to plant were planted, the kids focus became harder to keep. I understood. It was hot and dirty and even I was tired and thirsty, my water bottle almost empty. All in all it had been a long morning for everyone between the tree planting and the kid managing.
The school packed up and I stuck around for a bit to help and also to have a chance to talk and learn more about the program and its goals. Costas Verdes is doing amazing work in Costa Rica and it was really eye-opening to get a sense for the scope and difficulty of the work they do.
Next time I’m in Nosara I hope I can volunteer again, and I’ll be sure to bring my kids along for a tree-planting session too. They offer an amazing opportunity to take just one morning of your vacation and connect deeper with the community and the environment. Despite what most of us see when we visit Costa Rica, the land we love there can still use some help.
Now, it was time for that swim before I hoped in the car and started the long trip to Pavones .
And it never felt sweeter.