It might not be the au current term for a collective of volunteers working the land together and sharing in the profits, but ‘commune’ seemed about right as I toured the grounds of Essence Arenal in El Castillo, Costa Rica. Mind you, I’ve always understood that commune and cult are two different animals so don’t get me wrong – there is nothing disparaging in my calling it that.
Far from it, in fact. Essence Arenal is doing something quite enlightened and sharing their ideas and approach with anyone interested enough to ask. On the outside, this hotel/hostel might just look like a well situated and affordable accommodation on the edges of the Arenal National Park. And for anyone who just wants a bed, it can be that – they’ve got rooms and dorms and are happy to arrange tours or suggest treks out their back door.
But, it would be a shame if that is all you got from this amazing place. There is so much more than accommodations for 40 on this sprawling property. The jungle trail leads to a clearing where the (mostly) volunteers are working to create an organic farm using biodynamic agriculture around the cycles of the moon that is also symbiotic with the surrounding forest.
We were lucky enough to be in a test group for a sunrise tour that Alan (a Mexican agriculture expert) and volunteer farmer John (an American with a degree in outdoor education) gave of the grounds. They showed us the way the forest was interacting with their garden, what they were attempting to do with the land and shared with us the principals of the co-op. We tasted native herbs, met the chickens who had laid the eggs for our forthcoming breakfast and wandered through the still young coffee plantation.
It wasn’t perfect (the tilapia pond had been partially drained and they weren’t sure what they were going to do with the three generations of fish in it since the onsite restaurant is vegetarian) but their enthusiasm and passion for developing the grounds was infectious.
The co-operative approach isn’t just for the farm. If you want to dine at the hotel, you have to pitch in too. Dinner is a three course set meal and is served communal style in a single seating. If you think you’ll have nothing to talk about with your fellow travelers, fear not – there is also a group activity. The chef along with the facilities manager, Kelly, include a mini cooking class. The whole group learns how to make one course of the meal while preparing it for the group. If you don’t do a good job, don’t worry – you likely won’t get your own creation and nobody will know it’s yours!
The food was delicious, and there were no complaints about the messiness of the red-wine-marinated apples stuffed with coconut, oats and chocolate that we’d all had a hand in making. Communal dining was just the icing on the cake of the experience at Essence Arenal. I would happily return and take a room at the commune.