Pura Montaña

What is a mountain if not impervious to the desires and endeavors of people?

Yo tengo sesenta y nueve años. Yo nací allí en el INVU. Allí vivió mi papá. Allí nos criamos nosotros y después nos fuimos a vivir a los Altos. Cuando papá se fue para allí, eso era pura montaña. Allí no había nada de casa, solo él. Mucha montaña.

I am 69 years old. I was born there in INVU (a part of San Luis, Costa Rica). My father lived there. There, we were raised and later we lived in Alto de San Luis. When my father was there, it was nothing but forest. There was not a house, only him. A lot of forest. 

Blanca Leitón Villalobos

It will be a long drive, I tell my students, up a winding road. They are excited and giddy. They have waited for hours in the airport café for us to arrive, after delayed flights and frustrating missed connections, slow immigration lines, and little food. At first, they comment on everything – the brightly painted walls, the city lights. They quickly tire of the topes, or speed bumps, that keep our trip slow and jostling. The nausea begins, the requests for Dramamine, and then they quiet. One vomits again and again, stopping us on the highway, in small towns, at the forest edge. They all drop off to sleep, exhausted from travel and the medication, but I remain awake, eager for my return after so many years. Darkness wraps us and, as we climb into the mountains, lights fade away. I feel glad when the trees begin to arch over the road, when the land becomes wilder.

As we turn onto the road to San Luis, my heart jumps at each familiar landmark. I know the edge of the road hides a long drop off the side of the mountain range. I don’t mention this unseen terror to my companions. I see the place where there was a rockslide. I see the cemetery. We must be there. We keep driving. I finally note the hand-painted circular signs pointing to our lodging for the next six weeks – Casitas de Montaña Cabuya. We head up, then steeply down to the small houses ready for us.

My daughter and I settle into our little house above the main campus, noting both the cheery bedspread and the holes in the walls, the lack of a mirror and the open kitchen. Our hosts assure us that the walk to the main campus is short, even if it was steep enough that our van spun its wheels and stalled multiple times trying to gain traction to climb the hill. There is no wifi, no lights outside, no sense of connection to anywhere but the little house we are in. We sleep together, eschewing the separate beds that have been made up for us in favor of curling close to the warm body and heartbeat of the other. It feels as if we are the only two people in the world, surrounded by a forest filled with unknown and potentially dangerous beasts. Instead of feeling familiar and comfortable, as I had on the drive, I absorb some of my daughter’s anxiety of being in a strange place.

Coffee plants line the road

In the morning, we see that we are next to another house, not so isolated after all. The main area of the casitas features two tremendous views, stretching out all the way to the gulf of Nicoya over volcanic hills and valleys. Coffee bushes, a small organic garden, and flowering plants grace the grounds. Our hosts are quick to point out the many bird species who call the area home. The flowers draw butterflies and hummingbirds. The casitas have porches that look out into lush plants that mask the dramatic drops to land below. Above us, cattle graze on a steep green slope, their hooves having worn narrow terraces into the thin soil. Vultures, swallows, and the occasional white hawk take advantage of the thermals and soar overhead. Clouds and rain drift in and out, sometimes exposing patches of blue sky or a mountain that was out of view.

One of our views

As I stand on the porch of the comedor, or dining hall, sipping their exquisite coffee, Don Mario approaches. We gaze out at the view covered by thick forest, clouds and fog, tall trees, and the occasional home. He says, “Forty years ago, everything looked like that hill,” gesturing towards the cows’ relatively denuded pasture. “You could walk for days and not come across tracks of a puma or of any animals. Now, if you walk even a short distance, you can see signs of all the animals, returning to the forest.” He explained the change began in the 1980s, only becoming more rapid as ecotourism began to take hold in the region. Now, people have organic gardens, small coffee holdings, and plants that entice birds and animals that tourists hope to see. He spoke with pride and enthusiasm about the changes and reforestation.

Cow pasture on the hill

Although I have translated his words as “forest,” the word he actually used was “montaña.” When I conducted interviews in San Luis in 2007, I heard the phrase “pura montaña” over and over again when people described the region in their parents’ and grandparents’ time. “Era pura montaña.” It was pure mountain. At first, I was confused. Had people altered the physical geography that much, leveling hills? I finally realized that native Costa Rican speakers were translating the word as forest. I knew the word for forest, though: bosque. In fact, I saw it used locally, where people talked about the bosque nuboso, or cloud forest, that supported a wide range of rare species. I also knew how people talked about wilderness – silvestre, selva (though the common desierto seemed unlikely in this context). Why montaña?

The class I am teaching involves learning to write about place. We emphasize that places are spaces made meaningful. Places contain relationships, symbolism, stories, histories. Likewise, landscapes encompass ideas about place for those who perceive them. Writing about the ancient Maya, Brady and Ashmore state: “landscapes are far from passive arenas or stage sets; then as now, they have played tangibly active roles in constant creation and shaping of Maya life” (2000, 126). Even areas seen as wilderness hold meaning for those who perceive them, and provide contrast in both positive and negative ways for those who live next to them.

What is a mountain if not impervious to the desires and endeavors of people? Inalterable, dark, steady yet giving way to landslides, obstructing views while simultaneously offering the very best vistas. Might it feel more correct to speak of land as pura montaña rather than as forest? Might it make the accomplishment of transforming the space into a town with fields and cattle and houses and families even more profound? And what does it mean to watch that same land return to being pura montaña? Has that meaning changed for those who now benefit from ecotourism and, very notably, the funds that support research scientists and academics from all over the world?

For my own part, I moved from elation at greeting that mountain wildness again to fear of the unknown to the reassurance of a known and maintained landscape. Naming the birds and the plants, learning the shape of the trees that attract the capuchin monkeys, relaxing about fearsome snakes and biting insects – all these actions help me reclaim this place as familiar. I move from being in pura montaña to viewing it comfortably from a safe distance.

For my students, the process takes longer. It all feels like pura montaña. One student from the Rockies reminds the group to fully exhale, to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude. Everything is unfamiliar, so they bond like ducklings to our hostess who feeds them and smiles warmly at them. The dark night hours take them back to the mountain, where insects invade their casitas and internet and their beloved phones are unreliable. They turn to each other, commiserating about hardships and asking about which foods they miss the most. They spend time calling parents, scrolling social media, anything to take their minds off the mountain.

Eventually, though, they find that they know the song of the rufous-and-white wren. They look forward to empanadas for breakfast. The spider in their casita gets a name. They begin to talk about what they will miss when they leave. The montaña in their minds becomes replaced by the casitas that feel like home. They discover the place, space made meaningful. When they first arrived here, it was nothing but forest. Pura montaña.

How to Eat Like a Costa Rican

Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough. 

I just returned from three weeks in Costa Rica where I was conducting research on aging with a small team of three undergraduate students and another professor. Costa Rica is known for healthy living in general, with a life expectancy slightly greater than that of the United States. One region in particular is known for extreme longevity, and we went to investigate factors related to that pattern. We were not looking at diet, because so much has already been studied regarding what people eat, but people often brought up food when talking about what was different when they were children.

Costa Rican lunch with pork ribs, potato, beet salad, rice, black beans, green salad, yuca, and watermelon juice to drink, at Rancho Doña Elena in Hojancha

They talked about how they ate what they grew – rice, beans, corn, vegetables, fruit. They talked about how what they grew had no chemicals or pollutants, and how all that is different now, even for farm animals. They talked about collecting food in the forest, and hunting for wild animals to eat. They talked about how life was hard then, but how it was also beautiful. One woman spoke longingly about the land she was raised on – un ranchito – that her father sold when alcohol landed him in trouble with money. She described the little stream there, the plants, the animals that they raised for food, the beauty of the fields. She said, “Now it is all gone and we can never return.” She cleans luxury houses for people from Canada and France, and some Costa Ricans too. And she can cook.

One afternoon, she had come to our place for our interview and to clean (walking over an hour up steep hills as she did not own a car or motorcycle). Since she was killing time before she went home, she rummaged around in the fridge and cupboard, pulling out chicken and rice and a plantain. She asked us if we would mind if she cooked for us. She walked outside and grabbed some wild herbs and cooked up an incredibly savory but simple feast for us. We were bowled over by how tasty it was, but also by her generosity. She, like so many Costa Ricans, had found a way to share with us.

I had warned my students that people would want to share food with us, and that they would have things ready for us to eat when we arrived. Even though I knew this, I am still startled by how much people give, particularly when they often have so little.

It started with mangos. Mangos were ripe and mango trees are big. We were sent home with bags and bags of mangos.

Emma with so many mangos. Photo: Becky Sherman

It might be easy to see this gesture as getting rid of what you have too much of, but this pattern repeated constantly. One day, we had just met a woman when a guy came in her office with a bag of small fruit for her, which she purchased from him. I inquired about what it was, and she insisted on giving all of us some to try. They were nances, a small, yellow fruit that tasted like nothing else I knew. When we interviewed her at her home later in the week, we could see how very little she had to share, yet she didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Another woman had prepared atol for us. The version we received was a light purple color from the corn she had used and was solid and sweet, like a pudding. She pulled out two big bowls and watched with pleasure as we consumed them. When we returned in three days to pick up some materials from her, she had prepared chicha for us to try, and sent us home with a two-liter bottle. Made from the same corn as the atol, she let the corn-water mixture ferment until it was alcoholic. She was also sucking on a small fruit to help with her sore throat. When I asked what it was, she pulled out a bag and insisted that we take a sack with us. They were mamón, and I just couldn’t bring myself to take more from her, as she was using them to help cure her cold while she was working.

Beautiful mamón

When we walked out of her house, we were happy to see another woman we had enjoyed interviewing earlier that week. She was visiting a relative across the street and called out to us. Just as she did, another woman came down the lane on a bicycle with the basket filled with homemade bread, pan casero. Our friend quickly bought some for us – the best kind, filled with papaya jam – and insisted that we take it and try it since we had not had the chance yet.

Let me emphasize: no one had money to spare. No one was free of worry about getting enough work. One woman we met with talked of borrowing enough money when she was truly desperate to make atol to sell on the street. Her resourcefulness allowed her family to eat. Her home had chickens running through it, and fruit trees outside as some security from hunger.

Street view of a home in Sardinal

But everyone shared, all the time. And I started making more coffee when I knew people would come by, and serving whatever we might have in the house.

Eating like a Costa Rican means being ready to feed other people. Eating like a Costa Rican means valuing the flavor of the fruit or the vegetable, and appreciating how it was grown. The food I miss the most are the naturales, the drinks made from putting fresh fruit in a blender with water or milk. They vary daily, because the fruit you have varies.

This is how you look when you drink naturales de guanábana.

Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough.  Take pleasure in trying something new and sharing something that a guest has never tried.  I can’t promise it will make you live longer, but I can promise it will make you live better.


Recipe Bonus: Watermelon Juice!

Fill your blender with fresh watermelon. Don’t worry about the seeds. Add enough water to make the blender go and puree. Pour the blended watermelon through a strainer into a pitcher to refrigerate. The strainer will remove the seeds and some of the pulp so you don’t have to worry about it. Sometimes I like to add mint. Enjoy the most refreshing drink of summer!