From May 17 – June 19 we were in Jaco, Costa Rica volunteering at a small hotel, Hotel Catalina, on the south end of the beach. This was a great experience for us and allowed us to settle into a routine, get pretty good at surfing, provide our hosts with some quality manual labor, and overall just enjoy the weather and lifestyle on the beach in Costa Rica. Continue reading to hear the details of our workaway, our small daytime adventures, and how we cooked and ate while in Jaco.
Workaway.info is a website that connects hosts and “workawayers” online. It is not a site for booking hostels, or any real payment whatsoever. The hosts put an “ad” of sorts up for members to browse and respond to. There is then a conversation between you and the hosts to see if it is a good fit, and to finalize details and arrangements. Jenny heard about workaway in Cusco, Peru from our airbnb host, quickly got hooked on the site (costs $30 to join), and found us the Costa Rican opportunity. She reached out to the host and we were quickly welcomed to work at a beach front hotel doing odd jobs.
The location – Hotel Catalina, Jaco
Jaco is a beach town in Costa Rica that is very popular with ex-pats and tourists. While it wasn’t really on our list for visiting while we had a car (since it’s not terribly beautiful and pretty touristy), it would make a great location for a month long stay for us. It is the beach town closest to the biggest city, San Jose, so it gets lots of weekenders from the city. Lots of families come just for the weekends which makes for busy crowds.
The hotel was in an amazing area south of town, so it was quiet, less crowded and it was right on the beach.The owners also have a cat and a dog which helped make it feel like a home. The rooms have kitchenettes, two beds and a nice little porch with table and chairs. A nice place to stay if you like a bit of quiet, good surf out your front door, and to cook.
Our arrangement was to work a few hours a day, five days a week in exchange for a free place to stay. While some workaways include food as part of the arrangement, this one did not. The tasks we were involved in were: sweeping the grounds, weeding, varnishing, oiling the wood (chairs, doors and ceiling), cleaning out light fixtures, scrubbing the rust stains off the front wall, scrubbing lounge chairs, and other general cleaning. So mostly manual labor and cleaning.
It was very eye opening how harsh the sea air can be on the property! Their hotel needs to be painted at least once a year, they varnish the woodwork once a year, and it’s constant sweeping and raking to keep the grounds looking nice with the large amount of vegetation on the property! Wow, it was a lot of work.
In addition to ourselves, there was another couple doing the same thing, but different tasks. It was nice having another couple to chat with, and there was definitely enough work to go around. We enjoyed this workaway experience and would recommend adding it to an extended travel trip especially if you are on a tight budget. We are looking forward to our next workaway in France!
How we lived in Jaco
What are the things we did for fun in our free time?
- Surfing/boogie boarding – We rented surf boards from a little tent that was literally right outside our front gate, on the beach. We were able to rent a surfboard and a boogie board for a week to start, and then we extended that rental for another three weeks plus we added an additional board for the last 5 days so that we could both be surfing together. I surfed 25 of 30 days, and Jenny surfed or boogie boarded every single day we were there! Amazing! We were both able to improve our skills and while we started off with an 8′ board, at the end Jenny was riding a 6’2″ board (a “fish” style) and I moved all the way down to a 6′ short board! While both still beginners, we were out on our own in the surf lineup catching waves and thoroughly enjoying ourselves while doing it. We both had the goal of improving our surfing skills and we succeeded. Jenny and I are both hooked and can not picture our lives without more surfing in the future.
- Swimming – Of course, every now and then we’d just go swimming in the waves. For one week we were accompanied by devil rays swimming all around us in the shallow water. It was freaky when they touched you and Jenny was not a fan. She ran into lots of them when riding the same waves boogie boarding. They are harmless and essentially filter feeder fish. Pretty cool seeing them in the waves.
- Running/Hiking – Since we’re training for the Dingle Marathon in Ireland, we had to keep running (and we really enjoy running). It’s a great way to start the day – plus you can only run in the mornings because of the heat anyway ;). We completed beach runs, road runs, and our favorite: trail hill runs. There was a great trail that headed up and over a little mountain to another beach that we visited quite often. It was popular with locals and tourists alike, and we saw mountain bikers, runners and walkers almost every time we went. We also used that same trail to do some hiking/walking on.
- One day we walked all the way from Playa Jaco to Playa Hermosa up and over the mountain on this trail. It took us a couple hours to complete, but we were rewarded with some relaxing time to watch the good surfers at Hermosa where the waves are much bigger. We took the bus home 🙂
- Animal Sightings: On this trail we were blessed to be able to see incredible wildlife every day. It got to the point where seeing monkeys was routine (but still awesome). The animals that we recall seeing while hiking or running this trail were: poison dart frogs, white faced capuchin monkeys, lizards, toucans, dolphins (in the ocean below, from the lookouts), coatis, and macaws.
- We often took beach walks as well. Unfortunately, like I mentioned above, this is a very touristy beach, and with tourists comes trash. The beach wasn’t all that beautiful, and you couldn’t go too long without seeing some kind of manmade object on the beach – sad, really. A lot of the beach had pebbles all over, too, which made for less that desirable walks.
- Other free time activities:
- Our phones: Reading/Crosswords/Words with Friends/Skyping
- Watching TV shows/movies that we downloaded or got from the other workawayers
- Lounging by the pool or laying in the sun
- Taking a nap
- Exploring town or going shopping
Food: Grocery Shopping, Restaurants, Cooking
Mas x Menos (Mas por Menos, or More for Less) was the main grocery store that we went to. It had all the staples, and it was just close enough that we could walk home with a full backpack and two extra bags without too much issue. We also went to Pachi’s Pan for doughnuts and rolls from time to time. The other place we shopped was at the Friday Farmers Market held on our side of town which featured great fruits and vegetables, some amazing locally made ginger beer and the best cinnamon rolls we’ve ever had.
Since we had a kitchen and the restaurants in town featured American prices, we cooked and ate at home most every meal! We did go out a few times to treat our selves to breakfasts and some local lunches at a place called “Rustico” which featured typical Tico food – meat, rice and beans, plantains, and some sides. It was delicious and the plates were huge (we just split one every time). We also didn’t go out to dinner but once when we met another couple from Australia and went to Sushi. Like I said, we ate mostly at home.
We didn’t have an oven, and it didn’t feel like we were there long enough to invest in a lot of specialty spices and cooking accompaniments, so we ate simple. That was actually just fine with us, and plus it was also really healthy.
The basics: coffee, eggs, pancakes, cereal, fruit. Pancakes were made extra delicious by adding cinnamon, bananas, peanut butter and apples to the mix by Jenny. We used the traditional coffee maker in Costa Rica, a pour over method that proved to be delicious day after day.
We didn’t often eat proper lunches, instead it was mostly snacks between 10:30am and 2:30pm. We ate things like: turkey, avocado, tortilla chips, fruit, leftover dinner, black beans, crackers and peanut butter.
Since we weren’t spending a lot on entertainment while in Jaco aside from surfboards, it turns out we naturally gravitated to spending more on alcohol. Happy Hours at our place were great, and usually followed our afternoon surfing sessions. We fell in love with pineapple juice with vodka, mojitos in a can (mixed with vodka and lime juice), cheap tequila and juice, and of course an Imperial Silver tall boy! Our happy hours often included a game or three of cribbage while waiting for a possible sunset.
As mentioned earlier, it was simple eating. With a limited choice of pots and pans and with finicky plug-in table top burners, we couldn’t afford to be too fancy. For the most part it was some fried protein in oil – fish filets, chicken breasts, turkey burgers, or black bean burgers plus some sautéed veggies or a salad. The often cooked up a large batch of sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, onions so that we’d have some leftovers for the next day. We also found the broccoli at the supermarket to be of pretty good quality. I also made a new dish (for us) a few times that is a new favorite: southwest chicken. Neither of us got sick from eating raw lettuce salads for the whole month! Costa Rica cuisine was a success!
Without much to do in the evenings, we usually watched an episode of a show we’d downloaded and eat some dessert. Since we rose early (5am-ish) nearly every day, it was to bed early, too. We did go out in town a couple times for some dancing and drinks, but that was rare. Our desserts included: fro-yo, store cookies, home baked cookies (on the stove!), hot chocolate and tea. We’ve developed a pretty good (bad?) habit of wanting dessert most every night now! Our favorite new cookie from Costa Rica reminds us both of the taste of E.L. Fudge cookies (you know, the ones with the elves)… delicious and very easy to eat a bunch.
In addition to baking cookies on the stove, Jenny also learned how to make sweet fried plantains! After some experimentation, she found the right combination of ripeness, oil, heat and cinnamon to make an incredible little treat! We’ll be making in the future, for sure.
That’s a wrap!
That’s it from our workaway experience, feel free to ask us questions about it and we hope to come back to Costa Rica one day!
Some extra pictures…