I don’t use the word spiritual often or casually, but that is exactly the word I would use to describe the small town of Providencia, Costa Rica, and the surrounding cloud forest region. For the last two years, 8th graders from the Lake Tahoe School have been lucky enough to attend a service learning trip to the area. Home to majestic mountains, dense forests, abundant wildlife, and one of the cleanest rivers in Central America, the backdrop is breathtaking. Sprinkle in a growing number of family-owned coffee farms, and the scene is set for Providencia, population 300.

This remote area of Costa Rica is known as the Los Santos region, and the coffee that is produced here is under the Dota label, a very sought-after coffee type known worldwide. To say that this part of Costa Rica is off the beaten path is an understatement. Of the millions who flock to Costa Rica every year, only a few hundred take the time to explore Providencia. With steep, dirt roads and limited amenities it is difficult for tourists to even find. During the rainy season, it is barely accessible to outsiders. As a result, it is largely untouched by modern development. As our Green Communities guide said, “It’s as if time stood still when you are in Providencia.” As the rest of the world seems to speed up, Providencia moves at its own pace.

With that being said, a growing tourism industry is budding in Providencia and the locals are greatly behind the movement. Coffee farming is the lifeblood here and it is incredibly hard work with limited payouts for most in the industry. This is why our trip operator, Green Communities, is helping to develop a sustainable tourism and job development plan in the region to diversify the local economy.

How do you do this without disrupting the traditional way of living and the pristine ecosystem? Green Communities put considerable thought into this question. An extensive plan that includes volunteer tourism and promotion of organic coffee farming brings people and money into the area, providing opportunities that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Local families prepare delicious meals from their homes for traveling volunteers. Small eco-hotels like Tami Lodge, where we stayed, are now available for extended stays. Naturalists lead hikes for those who want to explore the vast wilderness. Students seeking language opportunities are invited into homes to converse in Spanish. Traditional dance and cooking classes are taught. Artisans have a market to sell their products. Skilled drivers are needed to transport volunteers through the rugged terrain. All these jobs are a result of a steady flow of volunteers into Providencia who are there to help the organic coffee farmers grow and cultivate their coffee. As a result, organic farmers are able to compete with conventional farmers.

This is important because the conventional coffee industry is growing in Providencia due to high demand, resulting in forests being cut down and contamination of the pristine waters. And therein lies the main goal of Green Communities as explained by co-founder Carlos Cerdes, “The purpose of our work is to protect the cloud forest and rivers for future generations. Working for the forest and the people, that is what we do.” He gave the example of the various monkey populations that live in the forests above Providencia. By creating ecological corridors, the monkeys can connect more islands of their native habitat and coexist with sustainable coffee farms.

The reality is that leading the charge in organic coffee farming is not easy. The process is much harder than conventional farming and requires substantially more labor, hence the need for volunteers. Volunteers in return get to experience the cloud forest and culture in a very intimate way, thus creating the aforementioned economic benefits to the community. It’s an extensive and complex web of goods and services that is designed to benefit all parties. 15 years ago the founders of Green Communities embarked on an epic journey to make a positive impact in their local community. This was their dream and now it is a reality that our school is lucky enough to be a part of.

But for this outsider, the story is not about the incredible work of Green Communities or organic farming or even the fight to save the cloud forest. For me, the real story is the incredible people who call Providencia home. Those who are lucky enough to visit Providencia are treated like family. We were invited into their homes to eat meals prepared from their gardens. They taught us about the culture and helped us with our Spanish. We worked side by side in the fields and they looked over us as if we were their own. 15 eighth graders from LakeTahoe, 4,000 miles from our school and families, and somehow we felt right at home.

Our time at Tami Lodge was special. While we were there we learned Tami means “spirit of the mountain” in the indigenous language. I’m convinced the spirit of the cloud forest lives on in the hearts and minds of the people of Providencia, and now the kindness and happiness they shared lives within us. Live a little more simply. Be happy. ¡Pura vida!