If you’re anything like me, then you will find Rancho Mastatal to be a place of incredible beauty, endless inspiration, and powerful community. Even if we have very little in common, you will certainly find it to be unique. Among ecovillages and permaculture communities, over the years Rancho Mastatal has developed a reputation for its intricate systems, well organized educational programs, and gorgeous natural buildings that sprinkle the 200 acre ranch.
Mastatal is a small rural community in central Costa Rica near the Pacific Coast, roughly a four hour drive from the capital, San Jose. In Mastatal things come in singles: there is one dirt road lined by the local bar, one restaurant, a school, community center, convenience store, and a soccer pitch. Although the community center technically provides wifi, it usually doesn’t work, which can add to a sense of isolation that can feel simultaneously liberating and stifling. Despite its size, the ranch sits in the heart of the community. From the main house, you are a stones throw away from the bar, and you can often hear music echoing across the valley as the locals unwind in the evening over one of the two Costa Rican brews.
To orient oneself in Mastatal, especially coming from an urban hub like Los Angeles, requires a letting go of one’s typical expectations. Many of the core staff describe this experience as “losing oneself in a humble task,” or to be more accurate, a series of humble tasks. Fortunately, on the ranch this is easy. Days here are filled from dawn until well past dusk, leaving precious little time to contemplate how or why someone has arrived in this space. Although often simple, each task requires focus and care in order to do well and avoid personal injury.
As an apprentice, our mornings begin at 6:00 am with “life skills.” These individual pre-breakfast chores make up the basic activities that are necessary to keep the farm running. These include managing the firewood, bio-digester (more on that later), and chickens; harvesting salad greens, caring for the main house/kitchen, nursery, zone 1 gardens, and orchards. To ensure that we gain experience in each system on the farm, the apprenticeship program is designed for us to rotate among the life skills on a monthly basis.
These tasks need to be completed by 8:00 am when we have a group breakfast, which depending on the number of visitors at the farm can range from 12 to 50 people. Cooking and cleaning shifts are also traded on a rotating schedule. After breakfast, all the apprentices chip in on a “work party” to help complete the larger projects around the ranch. This can include trail building in the orchards, weeding and prepping new beds in the gardens, harvesting jackfruit or bananas, processing food for the kitchen, or even helping to build a new structure on the property.
At 1 pm everyone breaks for lunch. Nearly every meal served on the ranch includes rice, beans, and a fresh garden salad prepared each morning. To add a little variety to the meals, each dish also includes something a little special. Whether it’s emplatanados con queso, freshly hand pressed tortillas or homemade dosas, each meal comes with a treat to avoid the monotony that is risked when eating arroz con frijoles three times each day. On the side, fresh salsa and a kefir dressing made from local cows milk and fresh herbs make each dish a true delight. To drink, there is fresh coffee from local shade grown beans, water kefir soda filled with pro-biotics to improve digestion, and a house-made rehydration drink (think homemade Gatorade) that is packed with electrolytes to prevent dehydration during long days working under the sun. In the evenings, there is even country wine or “hooch” as it is called here, that is fermented using yeast, water, local unprocessed sugar, and whatever fruit happens to be in season (jackfruit and passion fruit are two of the local favorites).
Afternoons at el Rancho are more varied. Three days a week this time is reserved for Personal and Practice Time. On the ranch, one quickly realizes that these are extremely valuable chunks of time and can be used for many things, although jerking off in the apprentice house while a tour goes by (as the orientation packet mentions) is not one of them. It is however, a great time for writing, taking a nap, swimming at the local waterfall, calling family, or sharpening one’s tools, just to name a few examples. During the rest of the week, the afternoons are reserved for additional work parties, community check-ins, or cooking depending on the day.
Dinner is served every day (except Sunday) at 6:30 and begins with “circle time,” one of the oldest traditions on the ranch. This time is nothing more, and nothing less than an opportunity each day for the entire ranch community to come together, hold hands, and offer thanks (if one is so inclined) for anything/everything they are currently feeling grateful for. It is a brief yet powerful ritual that allows everyone to slow down, take a deep breath, and appreciate the wonderful space and community everyone here is privileged enough to enjoy. Afterwards, dinner is served! The only rule is, be kind and respect those behind. This usually means there is more than enough for everyone, although specialty items (like guacamole) can mysteriously disappear rather quickly. The last person through the line rings the bell, meaning seconds are up for anyone still craving more.
After dinner and clean up, if you’re not ready for bed at 7:30, which is often the case, there are always a plethora of interesting people to chat with over a beer or glass of hooch, and any number of board games to be played until late into the evening (and by late I mean 9:30, because by then you will DEFINITELY be ready for bed). After lying down and becoming one with your mattress, dawn will come suddenly and this routine will repeat itself seemingly on end. At the time of writing, I have now been here for two weeks and I can already tell that one day soon I will look up, only to realize it’s already December, time to pack my bags and head back to the “real” world. One lesson this experience has already taught me, however, is that for the individuals who make up this community, Mastatal is the real world, not just a temporary excursion. For those who choose to step outside the typical expectations of industrialized society and reconnect with the roots of human civilization, this is an obtainable lifestyle. Whether you want this world or the chaos of our modern cities to be more real, is up to you to decide.