Puerto Viejo, Sarapiquí, Costa Rica… first impressions



April 30 I arrived in Costa Rica to serve as a missionary and pastor in the Lutheran Church of Costa Rica. I live in the town of Puerto Viejo, in the region of Sarapiquí. This is a tropical rainforest region two hours north of the capital, San José, close to the Nicaraguan border. Sarapiquí is home to monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, and colorful birds like toucans and parrots. The region is known for its endless fields of pineapples, coconut trees, bananas, plantains, cocoa, yucca, and more.

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The rainy season is May through November, so I arrived just in time to see more rain than Noah ever saw. Everything is a deep rich green and plants and food grow quickly.  In the photo are dozens of bromeliads, plants growing on a host tree.

In front of our house we have loaded banana trees, a 25 foot avocado tree, a lime  tree, and an almond tree. In the back we have plantain trees and a coconut palm. I learned that it is dangerous to hang clothes to dry underneath the coconuts. They fall from more than 30 feet and can knock a person unconsciousness. One of the hazards of doing laundry!

The weather in Sarapiquí is a challenge. May was extremely hot with up to 95 degrees and 95% humidity, which is great for my complexion. I have learned that cool showers are actually welcoming and the intense heat and rain produce amazing fruit! Living in a place where very few people or businesses have air conditioning, I am more conscientious of how so many people in the world live without what we Americans would consider basic comforts. Full transparency: I did buy two fans for the house and one for our church.


My congregation, La Esperanza, is in the small town of Chilamate, less than a 10 minute ride by bus, at the foot of a hill. We are a small congregation with many more children than adults. The little ones fill up the tables in church on Saturday for Bible study and crafts. They are followed by the teens who come for English class. Several parents in the community want their children to be baptized or be prepared for communion. I expect the parent(s) to come to the preparation classes with their child so soon we will have some new faces. As it often happens, the children come first, and then bring the adults.

La Esperanza kids - Copy

The church is cement block, with a cement floor, and like most buildings down here there is a corrugated metal roof that amplifies the sound of the rain so I have to use my outside voice inside when it rains. The windows have no glass, just the bugs, the sunshine, or the rain, and us. I still jump a foot when I open a shutter to find a huge toad, a 4 inch long black grasshopper, or a lizard sitting on the sill. We always have a few dogs, cats, or birds coming to visit. The view outside the windows is incredible, with beautiful birds, flowers, and banana trees.

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I wear a clergy shirt and insert the collar one minute before worship. I put on my stole for communion. And still, I am soaked by the end of the service. I realize how much money, energy, and emotion we in the US spend on church buildings, heating and air, decorations, and worship, yet the end result is the same. These people love and praise God with joy! The children play instruments when we sing and we are sometimes accompanied by the call of a rooster. My favorite moment was when an eight year-old girl followed me to the table when I began to prepare for communion. She stood next to me and watched me, imitated my facial expressions, gestures, and then recited the Lord’s Prayer with me. I felt so close to God, who sent her to us to remind us of the power of prayer, of humility, and of being an authentic Christian. There is nothing more beautiful than the innocence of children.

The families in La Esperanza have huge hearts! I get hugs when I visit and when they come for classes and worship. When I go to their homes I am offered a fruit juice that was squeezed just for me, usually from a fruit tree in the yard, or a green coconut with the top removed so I could drink the water.  This drink is called ‘pipa’.  If you have a machete you can prepare your own (coconuts are extremely hard) or you can buy them on the street from a vendor or I get some from my neighbor.


My week is filled with more children and more joy. I live next door to an elementary school so I offered to help children with their English and have several classes with 1st through 6th graders. We meet in what was the garage, an open space between the house and the street. Like many other homes and businesses, it has an iron grillwork in front for security, yet the space is open for people passing by to see us, to ask about the classes, or the other ministries we are offering. The children call me Ticher, and bring me pictures they drew, and sometimes fruit or candy. They give me a kiss on the cheek when they leave class.

I realize how important English is in the world, and particularly in this country where tourism is so important to the economy. Not only are a great number of tourists from the US, but many other countries know English as a second or third language so knowledge of English is almost a necessity for jobs in tourism. I am glad not only to help children get good grades but also to increase their chances for better paying careers later.

Another Lutheran woman and I are preparing a class to help non-literate adults learn to read. We would like to help them overcome the stigma, to be able to help their children with school work, and to give them the skills to have a better paying job. One of the first challenges is to publicize the class in a way that makes them or family members aware while preserving their dignity.

We are working with groups of women who are learning a craft or a trade (or another language!) to prepare them for a job or career. I will have more to report on these groups the next time I write.

My Costa Rican synod is led by Presidente Gilberto Quesada Mora, our bishop, who is very caring and supportive.  Since I’ve been here the synod has participated in marches in downtown San José calling for an end to violence against women, for supporting workers and migrant workers, and for embracing the LGBTQ community.        


I am blessed to serve in Sarapiquí with Pastor Jonathan Jarquín. He lives close by and serves two congregations an hour from here. I have included a mural from his congregation in San Julian. Notice that Noah’s ark has tropical animals and the ‘dove’ is actually a toucan holding a branch! Context is very important here. An ark full of elephants and giraffes would not reflect their experience!

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Pastor Jonathan with a member’s pet parrot and the Sarapiquí  River.  It looks very innocent but it is home to crocodiles and currently is flooding nearby towns.

Costa Ricans are very proud of their country and culture, which actually is a blend of many. This is reflected in the variety of races and nationalities that make up the population, and in the different accents from the various regions. People listen to music from all over Latin America and the US and foods from many countries find their way to restaurants and kitchens.

I am very blessed for the support of my synod, family, and friends in the US while I am serving here. A special thanks to Bishop Ray Tiemann, who has been so supportive of this partnership and who is retiring this summer. Muchísimas gracias to Rev. Sue Briner, our new bishop elect, and Rev. Judith Spindt, our new bishop’s assistant, and the Southwest Texas Synod staff for their help and enthusiasm, and for helping to make this year of accompaniment a reality.20180223_080113


In closing I would like to share my first impressions of this adventure.

To hear “Pura vida” as a greeting and to describe a good or nice person. It literally means ‘pure life’ but down here it translates loosely as ‘the good life’ or ‘the best in life’.

Parents holding hands with children, shading them with their parasols on their way to school…

A mother carrying a pipa-a green coconut with the top removed and a straw sticking out, to refresh her child with ice cold coconut water for the walk home from school…

A father carrying two toddlers because the heat is crushing, and it speeds up the walk home…

The many little confident voices singing “Hi Ticher,” “I am fine,” and the occasional shy parent offering “Good morning” as they walk past our semi-enclosed terrace (fancy for former garage)…

The tear in the eye of a woman who is moved that there are female pastors, and humbly accepting her blessing…

The morning and Sunday bells of the Catholic church on the corner, and hearing the Mass over a loudspeaker as I walk to the taxi stand Sunday mornings…

The bright colors of Costa Rica in the landscapes and in the houses.  Even the soccer field remains a beautiful emerald green all the time, thanks to the rain.

The gigantic toad that scares me some evenings, hopping alongside the garden…

Forgetting dry laundry on the clothesline until the downpour is underway…

Incredible birdsongs and flashes of color as they fly by…

Two mothers who cannot read or write bringing their little ones to learn English…

Shaded by a tall avocado tree…

Hearing “con mucho gusto” (“with much pleasure”) as a response to “gracias,” instead of “de nada” (“it’s nothing–don’t mention it”). It think it sounds more polite.

Standing in the blinding sun with 20 people waiting to use the only ATM in town, eyes stinging with sweat, thinking ‘this is a first world problem’…

Cool showers…

Asking for directions and no longer being surprised to be led by the arm down the street to find the service needed…

No mail carriers or mail delivery to homes; mail can be collected at the post office.

Without street names or house numbers, locating by how many hundred meters away places are… and realizing that I never did learn the metric system!

Thrilled to have seen two toucans up close, too fast for the camera…

Still feels strange to keep eggs in the cabinet rather than the fridge…

The nightly show of thunder and lightening to remind us that we have no power over nature…

Someone dropping off a horse to eat the grass in the vacant lot between our house and the school…


Eating the freshest fruit ever!

Living without a car, walking around town or taking taxis and buses, meeting more people that way…

Leaving my cats in a loving home in Harlingen, Texas, and to my joy finding an affectionate cat in my new home… Thank you Celia and Marlene for caring for Mica and Chulo!

Walking outside to teach English classes several times a week in our enclosed terrace…closest commute ever!

Meeting new neighbors who greet me with a pipa – freshly cut green coconut filled with water, or a pineapple….

Showing up early to set the table for the 5 pm service, putting out liturgy and song books, and the skies open and I am jumping with every clap of thunder. No one else is here, not even the stray dogs who usually show up. We could not hear each other anyway because the roofs here are corrugated metal and it is impossible to hear when there is a wonderful thunderstorm. I have some challenges but even more joy!


Rosemarie Doucette, pastor and missionary



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