A kibbutz environment in Costa Rica

Baltimore native Paul Siegel is using his farm near San Jose to give visitors a hands-on, back-to-nature experience.

Costa Rica kibbutz 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Costa Rica kibbutz 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Paul Siegel was growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, he was watched over by the eyes of his great-grandparents, agricultural pioneers in Israel, from a picture hanging on the living-room wall.
Siegel knew that farming was part of the family history, and when he had a chance to visit Israel as a teenager one summer, he headed straight for a kibbutz.
“I fell in love with farm life and just the simplicity compared to what I was familiar with in America,” recalls Siegel, 57, now living in Washington, his goatee gray and an earring protruding from his left ear. “I knew that’s where I wanted to be and that’s what I wanted to be doing.”
He ended up leaving college to join a kibbutz in the 1970s and became an expert in advanced farming techniques and agricultural economics.
He ultimately went back and forth between the US and Israel and got two degrees. But for the years he experienced joy and fulfillment working the land in Israel, he never achieved his ultimate desire: to own his own farm.
“It’s not easy to get land in Israel; and because of the conflict, I usually feel that I’m taking something from somebody,” he says of the obstacles to buying a farm, both external and internal. “It’s not that I don’t feel that we’re justified in having a state, but I also empathize with the other.”
Instead, Siegel’s peregrinations led to Third World countries like Zambia, where he helped out farmers, and included stints working for the Agriculture Ministry and heading the Economics and Management Department at Tel Hai College. He’s now based out of Washington, working as a rural development consultant for the World Bank.
And then his travels took him to Central America on a fairly routine business trip. Until, that is, his boss at the World Bank mentioned that he had a farm a couple of hours east of San Jose in Costa Rica that he was trying to sell and suggested that perhaps Siegel would like to check it out.
“A friend started taunting me, ‘Buy the farm, buy the farm. I’ve known you for 15 years and that’s all you’ve said – you want a farm,’” he recollects.
Then he found out the farm’s name. “I nearly fell off my seat,” he says.
The farm was called Perla, or “pearl” in Spanish, for the Pearl River that cuts through it.
Pearl was the name of the aunt that Paul Siegel is named for, a sister of his grandmother’s who perished in the Holocaust. There was no local or even logical explanation for the name being used at that spot in rural Costa Rica.
And, to top it off, one of the farm’s major crops was a form of macadamia nut cultivated in Israel.
“I just felt it was fate. Here the place is my namesake. It’s got Israeli macadamias. It’s perfect,” he explains.
This was where Siegel would establish his farm and give visitors the kibbutz experience.
In addition to maintaining traditional farming activities like milking cows, corralling cattle, making cheese and harvesting nuts, Siegel also added a comfortable wooden guest house so that “volunteers” could come check out life on Finca Rio Perla.
“I try to give people what I experienced at the kibbutz, a back-to-nature, hands-on experience,” he explains. That means having a chance to milk the cows, fish at the ponds of tilapia (the Israeli fish that is also called St.
Peter’s fish), ride the horses, dig up yucca root and plant beans in the garden, all for a modest fee.
And he has added a few Jewish touches.
Though his effort to call the place Meshek Perla (meshek is Hebrew for “farm”) didn’t work out because the local workers and their neighbors couldn’t pronounce the name, he did succeed in banishing pigs from the property and now stables 18 horses, the lucky number hai.
Perhaps more importantly for visitors, most days at Finca Rio Perla evoke the relaxation of Shabbat. The remote farm rolls over peaceful green hills, amidst fresh dew-heavy air and the buzz of cicadas. While Vivian Cruz and Efrain Castro, the local family Siegel employs to run the place for the long stretches he’s away, do the heavy work – tending the animals and the crops, cleaning and cooking in the guest house – volunteers who come for two days to two months can decide what pace to work at.
If their hands are tired from trying to squeeze milk out of a sagging udder, farm manager Efrain will take over and fill a silver bucket in under 10 minutes. If the fish have succeeded in eating all the fresh bait without being snared by the hooks, his wife Vivian will dig out more worms from the moist earth.
Visitors are also invited to check out the staggering waterfalls that cut through the landscape, creating cool swimming holes at the bottom of their course. After a dip, there are horses to ride and hammocks to loll in.
So far, a handful of Israeli volunteers has shown up, as have a trickle of Americans and others. But most nights, the guest beds remain empty.
Ami Greener is hoping to change that. Greener, 37, a Sabra who now lives in DC, met Siegel at a local Hebrew conversation group and mentioned his interest in leading eco-tours to Israel.
Siegel suggested that Greener consider taking on a similar project but bringing travelers to Costa Rica to experience his farm.
Greener went to check it out and liked what he saw, though he characterized it as “a work in progress.”
In addition to shorter stays at the farm, Greener designed a week-long trip aimed at young Jewish professionals that includes half a week on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.
For Greener, the fact that Finca Rio Perla is organic and the locals who work there benefit from what’s produced encouraged him to join with Siegel to offer a unique tour that would mesh with his environmental values.
“We’re trying to provide in Costa Rica an experience where we know the tourist experience is helping the local community deal with environmental issues,” he says.
He also wants to expand the Jewish component of the trip by including a visit to the San Jose Jewish community and add programming like Havdala if Jewish groups come at the appropriate time of the week.
Still, it’s not the same as an authentic kibbutz, for better or worse.
On the plus side are the tremendously more impressive natural resources Siegel presides over.
“I’ve got the most amazing waterfalls. I’ve got more and bigger waterfalls than all of Israel, and they’re not even known. In Israel, you’d have the whole country there in my backyard,” he maintains. “In Israel they talk about 10 or 20 dunams. I have 1,000.”
But still, in the end it’s not the same.
“Would I trade my 100 hectares in Costa Rica for one hectare in Israel?” he muses.
“Yeah, I would.”