My time with the Juanilama community in Costa Rica will always stay with me

written by Rachael Sarra June 19, 2024

Rachael Sarra is a First Nations artist from Goreng Goreng Country in Queensland, Australia, specialising in contemporary Aboriginal art. On Intrepid’s Costa Rica Experience trip, Rachael visited the Juanilama community for a homestay and described it as one of the greatest experiences of her life.

As dawn breaks over Santa Rosa in the Northern Plains of Costa Rica – not far from La Leona Reserve – the small, rural community of Juanilama wakes up to chirping birds and rustling leaves. Sunlight peeks through an emerald rainforest canopy onto fields growing crops like pepper, cocoa, pineapple, turmeric and ginger as another day begins with a shared sense of purpose. 

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to spend some time here on a homestay with the families of Juanilama. Seeing snippets of life in a Costa Rican village, understanding their self-sustainable ways and learning from generational knowledge resonated with my First Nations heritage.  

In the beginning, I felt nervous about the visit. You don’t know what to expect when going into someone’s home. For most people, it’s such an intimate space and you’re essentially entering a family in their home with shared spaces and that feels really scary in some ways.  

After arriving in the village, the homestay quickly became the highlight of my trip. We were welcomed by what I would describe as all the aunties of the community and it felt like home in no time. My time in the village included plenty of dancing, cooking staple dishes like gallo pinto and Casado with aunties, testing my Spanish and celebrating life with shots of homemade moonshine. In a lot of ways, it was like being on Country back home with my aunties. 

These are the kinds of moments that are always my favourite part of Intrepid trips. You can visit all the big touristy places in the world, but it’s those special and intimate moments in local communities that mean the most – when we’re totally immersed in culture and communities. 

The tight-knit community of Juanilama are farmers by tradition. For generations, they have been cultivating their land for agriculture and dairy too while focusing on sustainable farming techniques that work in harmony with their natural environment.  

Living near the protected, biodiverse La Leona Reserve has its perks – fertile soil, a stable microclimate and natural water resources – but it comes with responsibilities, too. The Juanilama people also safeguard the rainforest’s wildlife, medicinal plants, waterfalls and rivers. Being close to the reserve also provides opportunities for eco-tourism, which can bring in extra income and support the local community. 

I learned that the village is part of the Integrated Development Program – an initiative designed by the Costa Rican government to provide land and support for sustainable agricultural and eco-tourism practices. The people can then build homes, farms and gardens that maintain and rebuild the land’s agriculture, and in return, these communities are able to host guests.  

Most inspiring of all was the power of the community. We learned about all the different businesses that are community-led and run. The village is about collective thinking and how we can better live off the land. 

I started to see the similarities in art and cultural ways of thinking between my roots in Goreng Goreng Country back home in Australia and the Juanilama community. 

Our community is also centered around family but it’s not a western way of thinking about family, it’s different for us. We have the biggest families because our idea of family is different. Our family bonds go beyond immediate and extended relations. There’s a lot of humour used and people coming together and putting on a big feed. Like the Juanilama community, I think that’s how we show we care for people back home too, by welcoming them in and putting on a big feed.    

Though my visit was more focused on food and harvesting rather than creative techniques, being in nature and seeing different colours, textures and scents was moving. Travelling as an artist is a really different way to travel. It can be overstimulating because everything is inspiration. What I love most is experiencing different cultures and ways of storytelling, and how that manifests. 

Wherever I go in the world, I carry the stories, colours and of each place. Travel is not just about seeing new places but about allowing those places to become a part of us and however we choose to express ourselves. 

Rachael visited the Juanilama community on Intrepid’s Costa Rica Experience trip.

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