We pull up on a gravel road and are immediately greeted with warm smiles and a tray of freshly prepared fruit smoothies that quickly quench our thirst. The staff at Finca Luna Nueva, a beautiful retreat center just east of Arenal Volcano, introduce themselves and tell us about the sustainable rainforest eco-lodge hotel that seamlessly blends biodynamic farming with the natural jungle habitat in Costa Rica. As if on cue, we notice a sloth and her baby hanging from the branches of a nearby tree. We are excited to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of such a vibrant landscape for the next five days.
After we settle in, we meet for dinner in the restaurant, which is adjacent to an ozonated swimming pool, filled with natural, chlorine-free waters. Dinner, as with all our meals, is replete with fresh fruit juice, rice and beans, fish, avocados, vegetables, nourishing soup, and fresh salad with greens from the garden. The flavors are deep and satisfying. Téana began each meal by reading contemplations from the book, How to Eat, by Thich Nhat Hanh. We reflected on: What is our relationship to food? To those who tend the land? To the plants themselves? Can we appreciate the work of the hands and the earth that produced what is on our plates? By bringing awareness to our physical nourishment through these meditations, our aim was to develop a deep appreciation of and gratitude for our blessings in that moment.
Téana David, of Six Petals Retreats, has been hosting an annual Plants and Pilates retreat in Costa Rica for the past six years. She returns for the “Pura Vida” energy that can be felt from both the surroundings and the people. Téana is also a Pilates teacher, and at each morning class she offered she cited the work of Joseph Pilates, who, although there is little known about his personal life, wrote a great deal about the philosophy of movement and well-being. He emphasized how our core muscles are what keep us upright; strengthen them, and we can be strong in the rest of our body; strengthen our thoughts, and we can stand centered and grounded in our convictions.
To compliment Pilates, we breathed and stretched through a grounding yoga class led by Lea Bender in the afternoons. Téana and Lea have been friends for years, complimenting each other’s practice and style. As we moved through the poses, aligning our breath to our movements, we were able to bring awareness to any tension in our bodies. Heart-openers can release heaviness we’ve been carrying, downward dog can bring awareness to the fear we hold onto in our kidneys in our lower back, or child’s pose can remind us of childhood comforts. We moved in tune with our bodies and as we breathed in we brought in strength and as we breathed out we let go of anything that did not serve us.
As I find is often the case, a week in Costa Rica can pass very quickly. We indulged in the time to swim in the pool, receive a massage, or swing in a hammock. As part of the retreat schedule, we were led on a tour through the extensive property, learning about the native ecosystem, tasting local medicinal plants, and seeing more curious wildlife, including a coati or pizote, a small mammal that looked like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. On one of the clear evenings, I also participated on a night walk through a jungle trail. With flashlights in hand, we delighted at the sight of a tiny green frog resting on a palm leaf, a spider wrapping its prey in web, and a stream of leaf-cutting ants returning to their nest. At one point, we switched off our lights and stood in complete darkness, perking our ears to hear rustling sounds, soft and distant. Nighttime in the jungle was both enthralling and eerie.
A highlight for many of us was an on-site cacao tour. Carlos, a local who works at Finca Nueva Luna, guided us through the property and shared his extensive knowledge of the cacao tree. White, delicate flowers that grow directly from the tree trunk are pollinated by mosquitos (who knew!) and grow year-round. The cacao pod is collected when ripe and the seeds inside, whose flesh can be eaten raw, are fermented for several days before they are dried. We tasted both the raw and fermented seeds, and found the flavor increasing in richness.
After the fermentation process, the seeds are roasted in a large pan for several minutes. We took turns stirring the seeds until they were fully crisp and then sat around the table to peel off the outer shell, a practice that was commonly performed as a family ritual. We used a stone mortar and pestle to grind the seeds into a smooth paste, adding a touch of home-grown brown sugar, vanilla, cayenne, and cinnamon. Once creamy, he poured it into molds, but not before we indulged in a spoonful of the purely divine dark chocolate. I could not get enough of it! The molds would harden in the freezer for a couple hours before ready to indulge as solid pieces of chocolate.
A few of us also participated on a Sacred Seeds tour with Roy, a local employee studying to be a biologist. His knowledge of local flora was impressive as we meandered through the garden meeting – and sometimes tasting – plants that have been used for centuries as medicine. Some of the plants we explored include Solamum mammesum, or “Pichichoo”, a plant in the nightshade family which is toxic when eaten raw, but is very helpful for sinus infections and headaches when cooked. Citrus arantium is a fever reducer that can help lower high blood pressure and has anti-coagulation properties that combat high cholesterol. Tecoma stans is an anti-inflammatory stomachic that can help lower high blood sugar levels in diabetics. Lipia alba, which looks like mint but tastes like oregano, can be used for ulcers, gastritis, and spasms. Mexican Tree Spinach, known as “Chaya”, has anti-cancerous properties in its leaves, which we were later surprised to see as part of our dinner.
The list is endless… The variety and complexity of plants that exist can support our health and well-being, and the importance of preserving ecosystems and medicinal traditional cannot be overstated.
We were able to discuss in more depth about the role of biodynamic farming in protecting ecosystems when the co-owner, Thomas Newmark, spoke to us about how Finca Luna Nueva is playing an important role in combating climate change. During the past 50 years alone – and he blamed his own generation – the earth has warmed to dangerous levels by an increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Tom was detailed in his explanations and genuinely concerned – there is no time to waste. Having served as chairman of the board of Greenpeace for many years and frequently invited to speak on panels, his knowledge about the earth crisis is both impressive and, quite honestly, very bleak.
“What are we to do?” someone asked him directly. He urged us to get involved with our government representatives and ask them how they are addressing the crisis. He urged us to contact companies and ask them what they are doing to eliminate wasteful practices. Can they be more sustainable? Can they forgo the traditional farming methods of tilling the soil and instead of planting endless rows of crops, leave the soil untilled to encourage healthy bacterial growth and grow plants besides plants, growing in harmony, with no soil left naked to the sun? He offered the example of a forest whose soil is always covered; the roots can more easily communicate with each other, more mycelium can grow, and new soil can be created. If the forest floor is constantly alive, then why not a farm floor?
It wasn’t until the very end of the retreat that we asked what Finca Luna Nueva translated to – deep in the jungle, at the very center where Pangea brought two continents together billions of years ago – we learned that “New Moon Farm” was the very beginning of a fresh chapter. For each of us as we would return home to the promise of spring in New York City, for the renewed energy we felt for our purpose in life, and for the work still needed to ensure that there would be many more moons to come for future generations.
The hope is that we take a collective deep breath – planting our feet firmly on the ground, engaging our core, and looking straight ahead – to care for each other and our one beautiful home.