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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

A week in the Merde

UNITED KINGDOM | Saturday, 21 June 2008 | Views [1116] | Comments [5]

What a view!  Rain rolling down La Cangreja (the crab) towards us

What a view! Rain rolling down La Cangreja (the crab) towards us

After our less than successful trip to the beach, it was good to get back to Mastatal, even if the last part of the journey back was a trip in the back of what was effectively a cattle truck (picture big flat-top with a wooden frame), as the landslide between Mastatal and the crossroads was still impassable to buses.  We get the impression that the locals with transport can earn a good occasional living from these eventualities, and who minds paying 40p per person to stand in a fumey and probably highly dodgy cattle truck when it saves you a 7km hike in the dark and rain?  

We met a few of the other interns in said truck – a couple from the states who have just finished architecture school, a student from Taiwan, a business student from Minnesota… and as the evening wore on the rest arrived.  In all there are 10 of us – six Americans, one Taiwanese, two English and a Welsh girl (who coincidentally did the same course as Rachel at Lancaster, and worked for Mike Webb at the RSPB on a contract – small world…).  For the first two weeks we also had a great couple from Belgium who were doing some volunteering before travelling further in Costa Rica.  They had already travelled down from Guatamala, so had some stories to tell and some advice on places to visit.

Tim and Robin (who own and run the ranch) acquired a baby girl (Robin gave birth through a caesarean, and luckily got out of Mastatal before the storm) in the first week we were at the Rancho. They were therefore away in Puriscal, partly because the roads were still dodgy, and also to allow Robin to heal a bit.  We therefore filled our time getting used to our surroundings and getting into the routines of cooking and cleaning around the ranch main house (which requires a large amount of effort for such a large number of people).  Rachel and I are sleeping in the main house, which was originally on the site and so modelled on a traditional tico bungalow with lots of outdoor space.  Recent additions have added a large outdoor kitchen and dining area on the back, which gives a lot more room for everyone, and has freed up a room inside for their extensive library collection.

The surrounding land has another 6 buildings which house volunteers, interns and visiting school/university parties, as well as a large classroom building.  All but one of these has been built by the Ranch over the last six years.  They are all unique constructions of local building materials and include cob, bamboo and timber frame structures – pictures to come soon.  All are open to the air – there’s no real point in having much in the way of walls out here, as its not cold, and you want as much air circulation as possible to keep you cool at night and stop your possessions from gong moldy in the damp air.  As long as you have a sufficient over-hang on the galvanised –steel roofs, to shed the torrents of rain we get in the rainy season, then all is well.

Once back at the ranch Tim got down to inducting us into the various elements of Rancho work.  This includes tending the gardens out the front of the house.  There are lots of new plants to identify and get to know, with some familiar to Europe, but I think that the climate here is so different that many food plants struggle.  Apparently even tomatoes don’t do well here unless they are under cover – the rain pounds them into the ground, and the damp gives the fruit mildew.  Even so, Rachel and I are looking forward to doing some pottering in the plots that we bagsied to look after.

Another large part of our work over the next few months will be furniture making and construction.  We’ve been inducted into their tool workshed, learnt how to sharpen tools and got the basics of simple joints.  I spent a fun day helping to cut up, plane and sand prospective legs for two tables we’re going to start on – one for the local school, and one for a Rancho employee who is about to give birth soon.  I can see myself enjoying working with wood, although I think I’ll leave cutting lengths of timber on the table saw to the professionals (its basically a circular saw inset into a table that you run your timber through) – my imagination is far too vivid, with images of fingers and hands being minced and boards getting kicked off by the blade into hapless passers-by.

Rachel and I have also helped in wattle and daubing work on a new timber-framed tool shed which is close to completion.  This involves making up a cob mixture (3 parts sand, one part clay, one part cow poo!) by treading all the ingredients together until they are uniform, adding some straw (I got splinters in my poor, soft insoles) then making the mix into bricks before applying it to the wattle walls (made in this case from split bamboo lattice).  Its smelly, but surprisingly satisfying.  The poo smell pervades you for a few hours after.  If you’ve ever trod in a cow pat bare foot, you’ll know the squiggy consistency of cob-treading, and the way it squeezes through your toes.  Am I selling it to you yet?

Rachel and I have also had goes at clearing one of the compost loos, which are dotted around the site.  The one that needs cleaning regularly is basically just a loo with a bucket – stick in some sawdust after your ablutions, and hey presto, no smell.  To clean it, said poo needs to go into a ‘humanure’ compost heap with plenty of sawdust and cut foliage, where it rots down in about 6 months to a nice soil. Most of the others have large storage areas underneath them that self-compost and only need raking every now and then.  As you can tell, our western sensibilities toward excretia are being quickly modified!  The humanure then gets used in the local tree nursery, as the Rancho gets grants from the government to for reforestation, with especial regard to some of the rarer species that have been logged out in many areas.

Still on the subject of ablutions, I have to say that going to the loo or having a shower is quite an experience at mastatal – where else can you sit with your pants round your ankles and watch a keel-billed toucan or a blue-crowned mot-mot perch five foot away from you?  Or take a shower with a direct, uninterrupted view of rain forest?  Ain’t bad.  Although running out in the dark, or in a rainstorm is less appealing.

I’m also getting into the local sport scene with futbol and Frisbee down the futbol field, with rancho residents, vol’s from other projects and local guys and kids.  Granted, my first futbol game saw me out injured with a massive bruise on my shin after an American vol’ took me out (the same leg with the sunburn, wound and splinters on – what is this self injury roll I’m on?).  The field is also known as ‘la piscina’ because in the rainy season it basically turns into a shallow pond from a local spring, so any run around gets you utterly soaked, and utterly muddy.  Still, tis fun. 

Another small adventure involved digging a minibus out of ankle-deep mud at the landslide on the Puriscal road - it was meant to be transporting the party of school kids who were here this last week, but unfortunately the driver decided to dice with the massively waterlogged yet-to-be-hardcored surface.  After we waded around in the mud, found a chest-sized rock wedged under the front axle, and lifted said minibus off offending rock, some local tico's in 4x4s managed to pull the damn thing out.  We retreated to the local river to clean up, and I got a ride on the roof rack of our landcruiser on the way back.  Yet another transport variation to add to my growing list!

Anyway, enough for this instalment.  Next time we should have stories of carpentry, baking, cob ovens and teaching in the local primary school.  Hasta Luego!

Tags: el rancho mastatal, frisbee, futbol, work



Hi Rachel and Daniel, My 18 year old son has a sudden opportunity to travel with friend to Rancho Mastatal for 3 weeks. Is the program at Rancho Mastatal geared for teenagers? Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated as he has traveled but not out of the country. Thank You!! Cheryl Foley/usa

  cjfoley Jun 27, 2008 11:18 PM


Hi Rachel & Daniel,

sounds like you having lots of fun? Does'nt sound to bad on the work front. Talking about rain we appear to be having a wash out seanson here at the moment.

Be interested to know how you get on with the teaching business? One hopes they are better behaved than the English versions?

Take care,

Andrew, Sandra, Katherine & Freddie.

  Andrew Jun 29, 2008 11:14 PM


Hi Rachel & Dan,

It all sounds great and appears to be a real learning curve from every standpoint! Are you getting the Yahoo emails? Thank you for the call on FD but we had left. Have just had Auntie V here for a week and it has been HOT - 36 C today. Desperately need some rain!

Hope your legs are better Dan - very tender there, especially feet.

Love to you both,

  Mum & Dad Lee Jul 2, 2008 5:45 AM


Hi Rachel and Daniel,
how is the community going in Mastatal?
how was the result of the first carpentry project, the computer table for the school?
After we left you, we went to Rio San Juan, Arenal (ways too touristic) and the perfect place to finish Puerto Cocles, next to Puerto Viejo. Now we're back for 10 days and discovered that it's invierno too in Belgium..
Say hello to everybody at the rancho! Cheers

  Stijn Jul 15, 2008 6:55 PM


Hi Cheryl,

Sorry for the delay replying, this is our first trip to Puriscal and the internet for a while. The Ranch can definitely keep teenagers occupied - we have various schoolgroups pass through some as young as 15. We´ve also had volunteers in recent weeks ranging from 17 years upwards. There is a lot of physical exercise for those who want it (various wattle and daub opportunities, construction of a hen coop etc, as well as hiking, ultimate frisbee and soccer). And there are plenty of people to hang out with and speak english or spanish. Obviously, there is also access to alcohol here and volunteers are expected to be reasonably mature about it.

It´s a beautiful place and definitely a fantastic opportunity to come here.

Best wishes,


  rachel_and_daniel Jul 20, 2008 3:16 AM

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