Costa Rica and COVID-19: Six things you can do

Costa Rica pennants

I’ve been fielding some questions about the new coronavirus in Costa Rica, and a client who runs a tourism-dependent business here in San José asked if I would write about the current situation for the benefit of her clients and students, so here goes.

At the time of this writing (2:45 on Friday afternoon), there are 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Costa Rica, and the government is ramping up its mitigation measures in hopes of flattening its curve and maintaining the outbreak within the capacity of its public health care system. Earlier this week, any workers eligible for telecommuting were urged to do so; public events have been cancelled; and 344 of the country’s schools will be closed for two weeks starting Monday. This measure shows how the rise of COVID-19 has intersected with the ongoing water shortages due to an unusually dry rainy season last year: most of those 344 schools have been prioritized for closure because they have no water, with the rest closed because of cases related to the student body.

It’s hard for me to give an accurate picture of what things are like out there because I’ve been totally sidelined by a horrible virus whose symptoms do not align at all with those of COVID-19, and am staying home. However, I can hear people playing in the park outside and traffic in the streets beyond. I also hear that for the time being, life goes on, but much more quietly and with many fewer people and cars in the streets. It’s still summer here, the dry season whose end – usually in April – marks the start of flu season. It’s lovely out, and easy to get some sun and a walk without coming into close contact with anyone. All in all, Costa Rica as a whole is pretty high on my list of places in the world to be at a time like this, and there are many tourist towns, especially in the countryside, that would be higher still. If anyone’s son or daughter, including mine, were here in Costa Rica at this time, I would definitely tell the parent not to panic. You know, insofar as that’s possible anywhere.

The problem is getting here.

The economic impact within Costa Rica’s primary economic motor, the tourism industry, will be massive, because many people who would be perfectly willing to continue their trips around Costa Rica do not want to subject themselves to the flights in and out of the country. In many cases, with travel restrictions in place between regions, they don’t have a choice. More than 8,000 hotel stays have been cancelled as of this writing, according to the National Tourism Chamber, and this will grow, even if Costa Rica manages to flatten its own curve.

Here are five things I recommend:

  1. Call: For concerns about this issue within Costa Rica or to report symptoms, call 1322, a Health Ministry hotline established exclusively for this topic, or 911. Of course, follow all government recommendations, which at this point are similar to those around the world: hand-washing, social distancing and common sense.
  2. Check: If your trip is still on or you live here and you have any sort of public (or private) event coming up in the next few months, definitely check its status.
  3. Pay up front, if you can: If you’ve had to cancel your Costa Rica trip, consider postponing it instead, even if the hotel’s conditions allow you to pull out entirely. I know some hotels are charging people the cancellation fee (or full amount, depending on the lead time) but allowing them to use their stay later in the year. Consider doing this even if the cancellation policy allows you to cancel full-on right now: having that income at this devastating time will make a huge difference for small tourism businesses and will allow you to look forward to rescheduling your trip later in the year.
  4. Do some shopping or start a tab: Consider buying a “gift certificate” to a Costa Rican business that you can’t visit right now, but plan to later on. (Are you coming in 2021 and always hit up the same gift shop, or do you live here and always buy holiday presents from the same place, as I do? Maybe you could support them now and pick up later.) Again, this support could make a huge difference. I plan to set up a tab for myself at Santo Café and The Gift Sloth, for example. You can also buy products from Costa Rican microenterprises at Local Keeps and you don’t even have to wait to pick them up! Here’s my recent piece about them.
  5. Drink coffee: Consider this creative idea from Green Communities, the community organization I highlighted last week. The small mountain communities were crushed when nearly all if their spring tours were cancelled because of the virus, with untold economic implications for families and coffee farmers. You can order 50 bags (or fewer, of course) of their delicious organic coffee and sell it to their friends. Or do what I I would probably do, which is tell myself I’m going to sell it to friends and then drink it all myself. You’ll support rural coffee farmers who depend on these sales from tourists and volunteers. Learn more here or write You can also donate to Green Communities’ Emergency Fund.
  6. Donate: In addition to supporting your favorite small businesses directly, you can also check out Amigos of Costa Rica‘s page, where you can make donations to CR nonprofits that are tax-deductible in the United States. Many of this organization’s affiliates depend on donations from tourists and could use your support. If you love an organization that you don’t see there, maybe it would be a good candidate to apply to become an Amigos affiliate!

All the best and a safe, restful, healthy weekend to everyone. Un abrazo.

Green Communities via Facebook

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and March’s is women’s rights, so browse recent posts for more on this issue.

Los Santos, part II: The case for organic coffee

If you’re like me, you saw this title and groaned. The need to buy organic seems like a constant drain on the wallet and a niggling worry, since I live in a country with the highest rates of agrochemicals per hectare in the world and often can’t find organic options here for products that might be available in a U.S. city. As I prioritize, health-wise – for example, I try to find organic strawberries, thinking about those porous skins that sit right on or near the ground – organic coffee is way down my list. Not even on my radar, to be honest.

But I’d never stopped to think about the benefits organic coffee might be bringing to a region I love, Los Santos, and the people who live there. Until a rural tourism advocate named Jonathan Cerdas, whose region I visited thanks to Travel with Ann, explained it to me.

Travel with Ann volunteers make an organic pest-repellant substance to spray on coffee plants.

The coffee farmers of Los Santos are nervous. The climate crisis and other factors have started to skew weather patterns, causing rainy-season dryness and dry-season rain, fatal for coffee. Water is in short supply in the towns, yields are down, and some of the outrageously gorgeous rolling green hills are bare on top as farmers expand their farms to make up the difference. Overall, coffee monoculture – like any monoculture – has driven down biodiversity in the region. Farmers tend to like “clean”-looking farms without other plants around the coffee, or they plant foreign trees like eucalyptus for price reasons, all of which keeps away vegetation that could help the soil with a host of positive consequences for the region.

The lush vegetation of an ecological coffee farm.


Cerdas and the Green Communities project he co-founded with Carlos Marín are boosting local economies by bringing volunteers to stay with families and help farmers go organic. They’re planting indigenous species to boost farm biodiversity and protect crops from unseasonal weather. They’re making organic fertilizer and pest-control substances to protect water supplies. Cerdas says that with time, these changes actually improve yields, and of course the organic market brings higher prices. (I’m also here to tell you it’s very delicious.)

Jonathan demonstrates how the first farmer to go organic volunteered at a community meeting.

I have to admit I had truly never thought about the fact that choosing organic coffee was about much more than my health. I can’t promise I’ll always go organic, but there’s some in my grinder right now – and I’ll never look at the choice the same way again.

Read Los Santos, part I: The case for homestays at all ages. And stay tuned for part III, The case for Costa Rica.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and March’s is women’s rights, so stay tuned for posts focusing on this issue.

Los Santos, part I: The case for homestays at all ages

When rural tourism leader Jonathan Cerdas, presiding over a community hall packed with international visitors and their host mothers, announced that our “mamás ticas” would be sending us off to our activities the following morning fully breakfasted and carrying a snack in case we got hungry, a little wave of laughter rippled through the group of travelers.

“That’s right!” said Jonathan, noticing the reaction. “You’re like little kids again! Your moms are going to take care of you!”

I swear there was an audible sigh of relief. Set the cultural exchange aside for a moment: there’s a business idea here. Tired mothers or grandmothers, being mothered for a change.

Green Communities, the organization that – thanks to the experiential adventure initiative Travel with Ann – took me under its wing for 36 terrific hours last week in San Pedro de Tarrazú, reminded me of a lot of what’s good about Costa Rica. It also showed me that homestays, a staple of travel in one’s high school and college days, are quite possibly wasted on the young. We should all be doing them when we travel.

Moms and travelers work together to make dinner at the community hall.

Here’s why: when you stay with a family in your teens or early twenties, you’re still in the midst of being parented yourself. You don’t fully appreciate, or maybe even resent, the early nights, the restrictions, the “Eat your fruit!” If you’re 41 with a seven-year-old, all of this is like manna from heaven. My host mother, Margarita, and her husband, Emilio, welcomed us with the outsized kindness that rural Costa Rica is known for. An early bedtime was no longer an imposition: I went to sleep shortly after dinner every night, suddenly exhausted by the dark night of the small mountain town and tantalized by the twin bed. No clothes to pick up. No lunch to prepare. I relaxed more fully than on just about any vacation I can remember, because something very important was taken away from me: my responsibility for making any decision whatsoever.

More important than all of that, however, is the way that homestays unite cultures and support Costa Rican families. It was much more work for both Green Communities and Travel with Ann to coordinate all those homestays for the members of Ann Becker’s group than it would have been to stick everyone in a hotel – but the investment pays off in spades. The visitors know they are contributing to the local economy in the most direct way possible, and they gain more insight into Costa Rican life than they could in a month of hotel stays. The families get to watch people discover their beautiful town, delicious coffee and homemade food over and over, and take obvious delight in this process. Many of them build relationships that will last a lifetime; when I got back to San José, I almost immediately went to visit don Memo and doña Hannia, the papás ticos who changed my life when I was 21.

No matter what your age, think about a homestay the next time you travel (with responsible travel entities that know how to do it properly and compensate families fairly, of course). It’s truly a gift. And if anyone out there wants to create a “Mothers, We’ll Take Care of You As If You Were Toddlers” tour, I’m happy to donate the idea. As long as you take me along.

Travel guide extraordinaire Alex Alvarez and I (left) with Margarita and Emilio at their home.

Coming soon, Part II: why my visit to Los Santos changed the way I’ll view coffee farms. Forever. 

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and February’s is marriage equality, so scroll back through the month to see several posts highlighting people and organizations working on behalf of this issue in Costa Rica.