Waterfall hike before we left Atenas
The green mountains of the Central Valley of Costa Rica are no longer the backdrop of beautiful sunsets at precisely 5:50 every day. Instead, I now look at beautiful sunsets on the green mountains of Vermont, where I am greatly confused by the fact that the sun does not set until 8:20. The amount of light in the day here has been my greatest form of reverse culture shock, but I’ve also found myself still tempted to order rice and beans, wondering why a piece of fruit costs more than a couple cents, in amazement that Wifi can load videos, unsure how to dress for weather 20 degrees colder than what I’m used to, amazed that hot showers and beds with no mosquito nets exist, and strangely excited to see signs written in Spanish at CVS.
I can look back at this past semester with SFS knowing that it was an experience that will stay with me for many years to come. I met so many great people, engaged in in-depth discussions about sustainability in Costa Rica, received a behind the scenes look at the life and systems within national parks, attempted to learn the rules of fútbol, admired the beauty of many volcanoes, challenged myself mentally and physically, and was able to call a beautiful, diverse, and rich country my home for almost four months.
Late night photo of our mural at the Center!
Volcan Arenal in all its glory
After our final papers were turned in, our research presented to our peers, our dorms all packed away, and our mural of Monte Verde and leaf cutter ants (zampopas) complete, three-quarters of the Skidmore crew left for a week at Arenal Volcano. Lifted from the normal constraints of time and inability to participate in high risk activities, we immediately ventured out to finish off my Costa Rican bucket list and go zip-lining. I wanted to get it over with as I had spent all semester debating whether or not I had a fear of heights. We did a course of 11 zip lines, as high as 80 meters and as far as 250 meters and were amazed by how safe we felt, how much of the green canopy was rushing by underneath us, and the fact that this trip signaled that we would be returning to the States very soon.
I don’t think I’ll miss the spiders…
Our trip to La Fortuna/Arenal also involved a visit to Rio Celeste, a hike around Arenal National Park, and finally white water rafting down the Balsa River. Rio Celeste is known for its stunning blue color as it winds through the rainforest. The Costa Rican fable is that when God finished painting the sky, he returned to Rio Celeste to wash his brushes. The science though, is that it just happens to be the result of two rivers, both with volcanic minerals, that mix together, resulting in a change in pH and the resulting opaque blue appearance.
Paint brushes or cool science?
The Arenal Volcano was consistently emitting lava up until 2010, so as a consequence most of the Arenal trails simply circle the base of the volcano and lead to perfect, up-close viewpoints of the towering volcano. The microclimate created by the volcano means that the area is consistently cloudy and overcast so as we could not see the full outline of the volcano. We could, however, see the various lava pathways that have been carved down the side of the volcano and hike over some charcoal lava rocks.
Our final Costa Rican adventure was white water rafting. It took us a while to decide what level rapids we wanted to tackle, as two of us had gone rafting before, but at no higher than class three and our other traveler had never gone rafting. We decided that when in Costa Rica, we should live it up and signed up for Class III & IV-“The Best or Nothing” as our tour company claimed on their t-shirts. After much rallying and safety instructions from our enthusiastic guides, the three of us hopped in a raft with a couple from Anchorage and our guide and we hit the rapids. The rapids were one right after another and the calm sections of the river were just large enough for all the rafts to congregate before heading out towards the next section of rapids. Miraculously, we all stayed inside the boat and no one had to be rescued! It was a perfect way to spend our last days in Costa Rica.
Class IV Experts
So here I am, back in the States, still trying to figure out my elevator speech about Costa Rica, happy to be home, and am finally able to reflect on all the great experiences and knowledge that I gained this semester. Now I’m getting ready for my next adventure with Overland Summers, co-leading a cycling trip through Nova Scotia and Arcadia National Park for incoming 9th and 10th graders. I’m excited for another summer of travel and bike touring and I greatly look forward to seeing how much our group can grow together as leaders, as friends, and as adventurers.
Skidmore -> Costa Rica -> Skidmore
Our final class with SFS is a three week directed research project, with a week of site-specific study. I chose to join five of my classmates on a week long investigation of coastal erosion and waste/water management in Santa Teresa in the Nicoya Peninsula. Santa Teresa is a textbook example of a surfer town. Everyone in the town was either carrying a surfboard, biking with the surfboard, waxing their surfboards, thinking about their surfboard, or actually surfing on their surfboard. Well, everyone except us because it is a “high risk activity,” which for the record included not being able to swim in the ocean due to the potential hazards of waves… So before you get too jealous of our week at the beach, remember that we were burning in 90+ degree weather in clear view of beautiful waves but we couldn’t join in on the fun.
Santa Teresa is home to just 6,000 people but receives thousands of visitors per year who put tremendous stress on fragile water supplies. Actually, so fragile that there is no water for six months of the year during the dry season, which corresponds not-so-conveniently with the peak tourist season. This means that everyday dozens of water trucks drive three hours over unpaved, pothole-ridden streets to deliver potable water to the surfers. Getting enough water is only half the battle, figuring out what to do with the waste water is a whole other story, which most often ends with illegal dumping of waste water into stream beds that are breeding grounds from dengue-carrying mosquitos.
We collaborated with the nonprofit Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper, an awesome local chapter of Waterkeeper Alliance, that is working to improve both water and waste management within the Santa Teresa area. We met with Jepo and Carolina who, in addition to being awesome individuals, have established a biodigester to process grease from local restaurants, educate the community about recycling practices, conduct research about water quality, host beach cleanups, and are aiding in the development of a plan for waste management (1 in 6 municipalities that doesn’t have one out of 81) because the current open dump outside of Santa Teresa is condemned and an alternative solution needs to be found…now. The coolest project that they are working on is partnering with Bionic, a company that is up-cycling low grade plastics into thread (which is backed by Pharrell btw), which is then turned into clothing!
With Carolina outside Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper
Our research was divided into two sections- conducting a survey of local residents about their perception of water laws in the area and the level of development in Santa Teresa and using GIS to map the coastline for erosion and the 50m public use buffer zone. For our first day of surveying, we headed to a beach at the outskirts of town where they were hosting their annual sandcastle competition. We unfortunately were there too early for most of the building to begin, but we did get to see an awesome dolphin and sea turtle sculpture!
Recording a violation of the buffer zone with the GPS
Researchers just casually stretching our calves, all day, everyday #beachproblems
The next two days we spent walking on the beach. Well, technically we were researching coastal erosion, but really what we were doing was going for a particularly long walk on the beach. Two members of our group walked on the beach identifying areas of erosion and two of us walked 50m from the shoreline, tracking the buffer zone and any encroachment of development. I have come to take for granted that the first 50m from all 1,376km of coastline in Costa Rica is open and accessible to the public and I forget that in many areas that is simply not the case. 50m is far enough from mid-tide that we found ourselves often trekking through low brush, though it is hard to complain because our view was absolutely gorgeous. We also tracked the beaches of Mal País, which is named the bad country for its bad prospects for agriculture, but most definitely not for its coastline as the rocky beaches were beautiful- and perfect for some photoshoots.
Rose: Just turned in my final paper of Junior year
Thorn: Now I’m a senior?!?
Rosebud: Did someone say zip-lining?
Future life goal: Take a surfing lesson
Here’s what we collected from a 5 Minute Beach Clean Up #5minbeachcleanup
We originally wanted to hike Costa Rica’s tallest peak at 12,533 feet but due to much difficulty contacting the park for necessary hiking permits, we sought higher adventures. In order to do so, we had to turn to Guatemala, home of the highest peak in Central America, Volcán Tajumulco (13,845ft). We quickly booked through Quetzaltrekkers and then started to piece together the rest of the details for our trip. Quetzaltrekkers is a non-profit one-of-a-kind trekking company founded in 1995 that leads hikes through Guatemala. It operates solely through dedicated volunteers and all the profits are given to La Associación Escuela de la Calle, a school in Quetzaltenago that is dedicated to educating children who live and work on the streets. Proceeds are also dedicated to Hogar Abierto, a dormitory for street-kids founded by Quetzaltrekkers. What’s better than hiking for a cause?
Summit of Tajumulco in the distance
Our trip up Tajumulco took two days, the first to climb to base camp and the second to ascend to the summit before sunrise. In addition to us four from SFS, our trek included a German couple, a solo Swedish traveler, and two tour guides, Ryan from Tennessee and Sam from the UK. The night before our trek we met up at headquarters to divide up group camping gear into our packs and to grab thick winter jackets to prepare us for the freezing temperatures at the summit. After a short ride in a back of a pick up truck and then two, two-hour long chicken buses, we arrived at the trailhead of Tajumulco (See previous post about the chicken bus experience).
We strapped on our heavy packs and started walking up the dirt road, ready for our day of hiking with our goal looming over us. We quickly learned that the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall was a common favorite, which I am coincidentally reading now. As it turns out, our tour guide Ryan was so inspired by the book, he has walked at least 1-2 hours of the trail barefoot during the 8 times he has hiked the mountain.
At our next water stop an hour later, we turned off the gravel road to a sandy path and both of our tour guides, Dale, Jakob, and the other Jakob, took off their hiking boots, rejecting the perception that shoes are necessary for injury protection and instead embracing the fact that traditionally, humans ran without shoes and were great, injury-less runners. They all miraculously made it an hour in the hot sun and consequently scorching sand barefoot but they all desperately reached for their boots at the next break stop. Dale and Jakob2 did not have the calluses to protect them from the hot sand and rocks and found painful blisters on the soles of their feet. Our guides, though, were unscathed and Sam casually strapped his Teva sandals back on.
Who needs hiking boots anyway?
From the beginning, we had incredible views of the surrounding Guatemalan countryside. We could see farms for miles and volcanoes in the distance. We had a clear view of Volcán Tacaná, the second highest peak in Central America, which is located half in Guatemala and half in Mexico! The terrain of the hike was nothing too complicated, mostly just an open sandy path but the challenge was our heavy packs and the decreasing amout of oxygen. For most visitors, Tajumulco is done in two days, but for local Guatemalans, who are better acclimated to the altitude, it is a day hike. Three-quarters of the way to base camp we encountered a group of locals bounding down the mountain at full speed carrying just a water bottle, if that. Knowing that they had scaled the mountain in a much shorter time frame than we had, made my heavy pack weigh down painfully on my shoulders.
First scrambling section complete!
After a particularly difficult last scramble up, having to use our arm strength to pull us up rocks, we finally reached base camp in the early afternoon. Our camp was nestled into pine trees, which provided welcome shade and cooler temperatures. After a delicious lunch of guacamole sandwiches, setting up our tents, inspecting the mass accumulation of dust on our calves, and powernaps, we headed up to watch the sunset from Tajumulco’s second summit, Cerro Concepcion. The afternoon clouds had started to roll in as we climbed up towards the summit, our feet still dragging from the altitude and cooler weather was starting to settle in, but our backs were finally free from our packs. When we reached the summit, it felt like we were at the end of the world. To the north, we had a beautiful view of the rolling Guatemalan country side and the East and South were completely coated with fluffy, white clouds. Since we’ve been in sunny, blue-sky Costa Rica for so long, it was refreshing to finally see clouds again! Finally, to the West, we had a perfect view of the summit of Tajumulco, with the sun setting over its slope, still towering a 100 vertical meters above us. It was a great way to end the day.
Oh hey there Guatemala
SFS Crew at Cerro Concepcion
We woke up at 3:45am to hike/scramble the final 200m up so that we could watch the sunrise at 13,845 feet. The crisp morning air forced us to bundle as many layers as we could on, knowing that the summit was going to be at least twenty degrees colder, plus wind chill. Our headlamps guided our way for a short time through a steeply slanted dirt path, but it quickly turned rocky. We progressed slowly, having to carefully watch our footing in order to avoid sending loose rocks spiraling back at the hiker behind us. The stars shone extremely bright above us in the completely free from light pollution night sky (I even think I saw a shooting star). Way off in the distance we could see a glowing red dot, Volcán Fuego erupting in the distance! An hour in, my headlamp light mostly died out and I could just barely see hikers behind me and towering ahead of me, but I couldn’t find the path. There seemed to be no logical way to catch up to the guys ahead of me other than embrace my limited experience with rock climbing gyms and just head straight up the rock face (which is as it turned out the actual path). Having packed my bag in a hurry, the weight was not evenly distributed and a couldn’t lean my head back to look up, or look down, for fear of offsetting my balance so I just worked my way up one bolder at a time, resting often to try and capture some oxygen. It additionally was probably great that it was still dark out and I couldn’t see the steep slopes that fell to either side of me. My body was exhausted and I was starting to consider if it was actually easier to bike over the Tetons than ascend these last 200 meters. Thinking that the top of the rock face had been the summit, I was greeted at the top with a view of the summit, still at least another 30 meters up. The colors of the sky were starting to change and the brilliant stars were being replaced by strokes of orange so we had to hurry.
The final push to the top was a bit more scrambling up rocks, my gloved fingers chilled from the cold rocks. Finally, we ascended a small pile of rocks at the top of Tajumulco and stood on top of Central America. The sunrise was imminent and the cold wind was picking up so we rushed over towards the eastern section of the summit to set up our sleeping pads and bags. It was crazy to think that here in Central America, a place people go for warm-climate vacations, I was bundled in two shirt layers, my Patagonia, a ski jacket, thermal running leggings, a hat, and gloves and I was shivering when I crawled into my sleeping bag. I don’t know the exact temperatures, but I’m assuming it was hovering around 32 degrees F with about 15 degrees of wind-chill. Thanks to the warmest winter ever in Vermont, it was the coldest I had felt since riding out of West Yellowstone in 28 degree weather in July.
Our sleeping bags were situated behind a wind block so that when the wind got too much for our cold noses, we could lie down and immediately warm up by at least ten degrees. We laughed at how ridiculous we all looked bundled up and ate banana bread as the sun rose far off in the distance. When the sun finally was up enough to send some much needed heat in our direction, we nervously shed our sleeping bags (securing them with rocks so they wouldn’t blow away) and got up to take some pictures of the complete 360 degree view we had of Guatemala and Mexico way off in the distance.
Trekking crew at 4220 meters!
Standing on top of that shadow on the left!
As we descended down to base camp, we followed the ridge of the crater at the top of the volcano. I have no pictures of it as we were keeping a good pace descending and the wind was so strong it probably would have ripped my camera right out of my hands, but it was just about the most beautiful thing. To our left, the crater itself was more or less what you would picture a crater being at the top of a dormant volcano, with some carefully placed rocks at the bottom spelling out various words I couldn’t quite make out, but to our right, the Guatemalan country side glimmered in the new daylight and the volcanoes off in the distance were framed by clouds, Volcán Fuego was no longer lit up, but emitted a large cloud of smoke.
Back at base camp, we packed up our tents, boiled some water for coffee, and then headed down off the mountain, taking a different, more forested path down. It was extremely pretty but my consistent tripping and sliding down the steep path forced me to focus all of my attention on my footing and loose rocks. My klutziness was clear and both our guide and one of the trekkers offered me their hiking poles so that I maybe would stop falling, it kind of worked. It took us only 2 and a half hours to descend the mountain, stopping only for a water break and a look out point.
After a lively victory lunch at the mountain side town, we stood on the side of the road to wait for a chicken bus to come screaming around the curve to pick us up. Since there is no schedule, you just wait, hoping that one comes within a reasonable amount of time. Twenty minutes later, we heard our bus from a half mile away screaming its horn, announcing its arrival. Like pros, we threw our bags up to the top of the chicken bus and boarded for our four hour ride back to Quetzaltenago. Of course there is no direct way, so we had to change busses two more times. The last of which, they didn’t hand us our bags to switch over to the next bus, but rather we pulled up next to our old bus and they threw our bags from one roof to the next, counting each thud we heard from inside the bus, making sure all nine bags were thrown across. Finished with chicken busses for a while, we splurged on a shuttle to take us the last three hours to Antigua where we knew hot pizza and showers would be waiting for us at our hostel. It had been a pretty amazing and memorable spring break that was 100% worth all the crammed busses, dusty, dusty legs, sore backs, and returning to campus with no voice for two days, but hey, it’s all in the name of a grand ole’ adventure.
Question: How many Guatemalans does it take to drive a Chicken Bus?
A: Two. One to drive the old school bus around windy mountain roads like a NASCAR driver and one to stand half way out the door calling “Xela, Xela, Xela” and then grabbing your backpack and climbing up to the roof with it before you can even comprehend that now you have no choice but to cram yourself into the fullest bus you can possibly imagine.
And that is only just the beginning of Guatemala.
So let’s backtrack a little. We had originally planned to hike Cerro Chirripó, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. However, in order to hike it you have to reserve months in advance. We called and called but to no avail and we knew we had to find something else to do over spring break. So if we couldn’t hike CR’s tallest peak, why not hike the tallest peak in Central America?
I could write pages about our time in Guatemala so I’m going to split this into two blog posts:: one about our trek itself to the top of Volcán Tajumulco and one about chicken busses. So let’s start with chicken busses. Eight busses, three days, four backpacking Americans.
We knew three things about chicken busses before we arrived in Guatemala. 1) Sometimes chickens actually are on the busses. 2) They pack people in. 3) They will throw your bags on top and strap them down…usually. By the time we left Guatemala, we had survived 8 chicken busses and knew a heck of a lot more about chicken busses.
Chicken Bus Time
Our first chicken bus(es) adventure was from Antigua to Xela. So what is a chicken bus anyway? They are retired school buses, probably from the 80s and 90s, from the United States that have been sent down to Guatemala to be chromed out, named, painted bright colors, and topped with a luggage rack. They are the main form of transportation in Guatemala (and many other countries) and are the cheapest transportation you can possibly imagine (an hour bus ride is less than a dollar). Despite taking eight different busses, we never encountered anyone who was not a Guatemalan, we had found an authentic piece of Guatemalan life.
The Antigua bus station is made up of a parking lot filled to the brim with brightly colored school busses where drivers stand outside their busses calling the city name that they are headed to. We knew we couldn’t get a direct bus, so we had to ask drivers to see if their bus crossed at some point with a bus headed for Xela. The first bus in the parking lot luckily did and we quickly got on, taking our backpacks with us. We were surprised by how the bus was nothing like what we had been warned of. We all got a whole bench to ourselves, we were able to put our backpacking packs above our heads, and the bus was relatively quiet. It cost only 70 cents.
About a half an hour into our ride, just as we were settling in, the man in charge of collecting fares signaled for us to stand up and started yelling “Xela Xela Xela”to us and to collect our stuff and get off the bus. We did what he said as quickly as possible and stepped off the bus, finding ourselves on a busy sidewalk, our initial bus driving away as the assistant motioned for us to get on board the bus that was parked behind it. Completely frazzled by our earlier than expected transfer, two of us jumped on the bus with our huge backpacks and it immediately started moving. My first reaction was panicking that our other two friends were not on the bus. Luckily they jumped on and then I realized we had a different situation on our hands. The bus was full.
So a typical school bus has 32 seats that hold two small school children a piece. That’s four school children across each row. Now switch those four children into full grown adults. Then add one more person to each seat. But this can’t be done because adults are bigger than school children so only half of that person’s behind is on the seat and the other half is in the aisle. That makes six people per row. But the bus is still not full. You have to add one more person standing sideways between those two people that are half in the seats to serve as a wedge so that neither person falls out. That’s a grand total of seven full grown adults in a row that fits four school children.
So back to us with our backpacks confused at the front of the bus. At this time, the bus only had six people per row but where the heck were we going to put our backpacks? The assistant at the back of the bus was yelling for me to pass my backpack back to him. Seeing no other choice, I sent my backpack crowd surfing over the entire bus and then the man at the back disappeared out the back with it. I crossed my fingers and hoped that he had climbed up on top of the roof of the moving bus to secure my bag that had all my supplies to get me up the mountain. But I had no way of knowing. The man returned, grabbed my travel companions bags and then shouted at us to move ourselves to the back of the bus. I stood there in bewilderment. How the heck were we going to move to the back of the bus with the aisle completely full with people? We started the hike to the back and miraculously made it where there were amazingly two half seats left.
I took one half seat and then one of my friends stood in the aisle between the next guy on the other half seat and me. Every turn the bus took on the windy Guatemalan road I either gained valuable inches on the seat or lost them as I slid more into the aisle. But again, the bus was not full by chicken bus standards. The assistant driver, in addition to collecting fares and climbing up to the roof of the bus to secure various backpacks and crates of produce, continued to stand halfway out the open front door calling, “Xela, Xela Xela,” recruiting people to jump onto the bus. And I do mean jump on as the bus rarely ever actually came to a stop. The bus kept filling until there truly was seven people in every row. A claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.
Eventually my friends in the aisle were able to grab seats, leaving me to hold tightly to the seat in front of me, trying not to collapse onto my neighbors with every curve the bus sped around. We made friends with the guy in front of us who agreed to help us find the central park in Xela near our hostel. About two hours later he motioned that this was our stop. We again hurriedly jumped off the back of the bus (why use the front doors) and the assistant threw my three friends’ bags down off the roof. But where was my bag? I knew I had passed it to the back of the bus and I thought he brought it to the roof. The bus started moving but my grey backpack was not on the top of the bus. In a lucky moment of panic, I noticed it had been crammed under the last seat inside the bus and I pulled it out just in time as the bus sped away. That was close. Wait where were we? We were in the middle of a busy intersection, not a city park. The man motioned for us to cross the busy street with him and after a quick confirmation from another bus driver, we hopped onto another bus for the last fifteen minutes of our journey to Xela. This one was just as packed but we were ready this time and confidently handed our bags to the guy already climbing on the bus roof. Fifteen minutes later we were dropped off at a gas station two blocks from the central park and the bus was off again. We had survived our first three chicken busses.
4am Pickup Truck Ride
Throwing bags onto the roof of our chicken bus
Our next chicken bus experience would start the next morning at 4am with our trekking group, QuetzalTrekkers. But before we could take the bus, an old pick up truck rolled up in front of our trekking company’s office. The nine of us carefully climbed into the low truck bed with our heavy packs and held onto the rickety metal grate to keep from tumbling out of the truck as it navigated the empty cobblestone streets towards the bus station. Ten minutes later, we were reaching our backpacks yet again towards the roof of a chicken bus, hoping that they would get strapped down as they literally had all our gear necessary for the hike. At 4am, the bus was pretty quiet but we still paired up just in case it filled. As expected, the bus soon accumulated a full bus load off the side of the road, never fully stopping for any of the passengers, no matter their age. Some where along the way we hit a bump in the road and we all froze, thinking that we must have gotten a flat. The bus driver slowed, peered out the door and got the okay signal from the guy up on the roof that by some miracle we had not gotten a flat. Crisis averted.
Two hours later we approached the town of San Marcos and one of the guys on our trek noticed out the corner of his eye a small orange bag fall from the top of the roof. Our guide yelled to the driver to stop the bus, unsure of the significance of the bag and the assistant ran back down the road to collect the bag. It was the rain fly for our tent, probably a good thing to have considering hail is not a stranger to the mountain. We finally understood the “they strap your bags to the top of the bus…usually…” quote. We switched to a slightly less crowded bus that would take us to the trailhead and by 9:30am, full on rice, beans and tortillas, we were ready to begin ascending Volcán Tajumulco.
That’s good for now, more on the hike tomorrow!
It seems slightly impossible that we have finals this week considering how it seems like we just arrived in Atenas! Luckily though, we still have about a month left! We finish classes so early because, after spring break, we transition into our Directed Research projects, which take the rest of the semester to complete.
Our final week of classes was busy as usual. On Monday, we visited an organic coffee farm, El Toledo, here in Atenas. Like many coffee farmers in the Central Valley, El Toledo grows shade-grown coffee through agroforestry practices. This basically means that they grow a mixture of native trees that serve to sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, serve as a source of shade, prevent soil erosion, and provide habitat for helpful pests. We also got a tutorial on sorting, roasting, and brewing coffee, which confirmed the methods of my dad’s years of research into the perfect cup of coffee.
The next day we hosted students from El Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (INA), a government school that provides free intensive courses, such as English. Throughout the morning we played a series of ice breaker games with them talking to us in English and us responding in Spanish. My name kept being difficult for them to grasp so, as it often does, it just evolved into Tia. That night, we played futból with a couple guys from the neighborhood again. I’m slowly getting better at playing- I was really close to scoring a goal too, but alas I have yet to meet this one of my Costa Rican semester goals.
The soccer squad!
At the end of the week, we embarked on our final field trip of the semester, a trip to Monteverde. I had been anticipating this trip from the beginning because when I think of a stereotypical image of Costa Rican forest, I think of cloud forests like Monteverde.
We first visited El Bosque Eterno de Los Niños (The Children’s Eternal Rainforest), a private reserve run by the Monteverde Conservation League. The forest started as a fundraising project of a Swedish elementary school in the 1980s and has since served as a perfect location for environmental education to students globally of all ages. The coolest thing about the forest are the strangler figs. The fig vines start climbing around their host tree, forming almost a perfect ladder. Eventually the fig strangles their host tree and the tall, complex fig completely takes over.
We also stopped at Finca Life, a sustainable farm that specializes in coffee. In addition to a farm tour and a discussion about the different mechanisms the farm is implementing to become more sustainable, we each were able to plant a tree along a new wind break to help further reduce erosion in the fields and then we climbed a perfect 80-year old Guava tree.
Hiding in the coffee plants
Climbing in the Guava Tree
Finally, we headed to Monteverde and I had one goal- to see a quetzal. Upon entering the forest, we immediately spotted a sloth, though not a quetzal, an equally cool animal. Cloud forests receive less rain than rainforests, as most of their moisture is simply mist from the low-lying clouds. Monteverde also lies on the continental divide making the Caribbean side which is more exposed to wind low-lying elfin forests (basically the wind prevents the trees from growing over 10 ft) and the Pacific side, which we were on, full of life, tall trees, and living organisms on every living surface. Our professor picked up a fallen branch and there were five different types of species of Orchids on just that one branch, not to mention all the moss, bromeliads, and insects crawling all over it! So full of life! Our hike at Monteverde took us to the continental divide (crossing it so many times this year!), where we could see the Pacific coast to our right and a more lush Caribbean side (though we weren’t high enough to see the coast).
Inspecting a single-cell layer leaf
“This is not a jaguar!” **we were running late so we were only supposed to stop if we saw a jaguar but this exploding plant was the next best thing.
A cool, but very poisonous caterpillar
Continental Divide View
If you don’t know what a Quetzal is, most don’t, it’s the coolest bird in existence. Their top feathers are long and bright blue, with a touch of green, while their stomach is fiery red. They are also easily recognized by their funny crown/Mohawk. They are listed as a near-threatened species and are rare to begin with, so the chances of seeing one are not incredibly high. Near the end of our hike we were about to cross a suspended bridge when we noticed a bunch of tourists looking at something bright blue high in the trees- we finally found my quetzal! On the bridge we could see the quetzal clearly in all its glory. I did my best to snap pictures with my camera, but my view through the binoculars was much better. Satisfied that we had finally seen such a cool bird, we returned to Atenas for a fun week of studying for finals!
Blurry, but its a quetzal!
Rose: Today I lead our morning meeting and taught the group Breakbeats’ dance to “Ignition” and it went really well! Also our hotel in Monteverde had fast(ish) wifi so I was able to watch some of World’s! Check out Javier Fernandez’s free skate and Ashley Wagner’s short program!
Thorn: I have recently rediscovered my love for free reading and I cannot put down The Lost Symbol, which means that studying for finals is difficult…
Rosebud: We couldn’t get reservations to hike the highest peak in Costa Rica, so we naturally decided we would seek out a greater (higher) adventure… more next week!
Also, we have been studying the implications of the Nicaraguan Canal and the New York Times posted an interesting article on it today that I thought I’d share. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/04/world/americas/nicaragua-canal-chinese-tycoon.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20160404&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=70183248&ref=world&_r=0
There was a military camp as soon as we crossed the border into Nicaragua, making it clear we were no longer in Costa Rica. Every semester, SFS CR takes a six day trip across the border to compare ecology and levels of development, but really it is a great excuse to renew our passports and explore more of Central America. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America (only behind Haiti) with a per capita GDP of approximately $3,700 a year (US is $53,000). The unemployment rate is 7.2% but with 48% living on less than $2 a day. The low advancement of infrastructure, condition of the houses, burning piles of trash, and widespread subsistence agriculture clearly indicated the economic level of Nicaragua.
Propaganda along the pier
Our first destination in Nicaragua was Ometepe, a large volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. While waiting around for the ferry to take us across, we took in the bright colors of Daniel Ortega’s campaign for president. The propaganda along the pier shouted out at us “Christiana, Socialista, Solidaria,” “Seguimos Cambiando Nicaragua,” “Amor, Pez y Vida!,” “Nicaragua la alegria de vivir en paz!,” and “Daniel Presidente 2016.”
Ferry to Ometepe (Complete with Propaganda)
Ometepe is home to 40,000 people and is made up of two volcanoes (‘Ome’ means two and ‘tepetl’ means mountains in Nahuatl). The main volcano, Concepción, is active and commonly sends debris into the nearby towns. On the other side of the island, Maderas Volcano sits dormant. In 2010 the island was classified as a Biosphere Reserve through UNESCO in an attempt to ensure that people can live sustainably on the island.
Concepción and Maderas
The port town of Moyogalpa was bustling with tourists and locals alike and full of colorful buildings. We stayed in Altagracia alongside the lake and could look out and see the windmills of the Nicaraguan coast in the far distance. We conducted two major assignments in Ometepe, mapping the trails of the local reserve with GIS and interviewing tourists in town about sustainable tourism options.
Waiting for tourists to fill out our survey
While I’m not allowed to ride bikes, no one said I can’t admire their color coordination
The second day we joined with la Fundación Entre Volcanes for a tortilla making workshop. The foundation is a coalition of local women who have been advocating for the last twenty-five years for rural tourism, human rights, and protection of the island’s ecosystems. Rather than relying on international investors, the organization is trying to sustain itself through hosting workshops and trainings, selling homemade tortillas, and establishing their own rural hotel. It was a great chance to engage with Nicaraguans and learn a thing or two about tortilla making! Check the out at http://www.fundacionentrevolcanes.org
We went on two hikes in Ometepe, both on Madreas. The first was at Finca Magdalena and was a tour of the petroglyphs. Very little is known about the meaning, purpose, or timeline of the petroglyphs, leaving them a true mystery of the island. Fairly simple in design, we could identify turtles, monkeys, people, and circles carved into the rocks that have clearly withstood time. Our second hike was further up the mountain to a waterfall. While no water ran down the stream, we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful waterfall at the top. Also, the Nicaraguan sunsets were stunningly beautiful every night.
After four days in Ometepe, we re-boarded the ferry to Granada. Granada was bursting with color and the building’s facades gave a false impression of being remains from Spanish colonization, however, William Walker burned the city in 1857 leaving little behind. The main street and central square were bustling with vendors, beggars, locals, tourists- basically what one might expect from a port town in a Central American country. Here, we also conducted our questioners of sustainable tourism and luckily had a lot of responders.
Semana Santa means everyone flocks to the beach
The volcano we were supposed to hike was closed to visitors due to high levels of gas emissions so instead we hiked Mombacho, which towers over the city of Granada. The cool thing about Mombacho is that it exploded thousands of years ago leaving a zig-zag summit rather than a typical cone shape. The debris from the explosion spread into Lake Nicaragua, creating 365 islets. Four other major tectonic shifts have lead to the creation of four craters off the slopes of Mombacho- think of massive landslides that have the potential to burry towns. We would walk up a steep part of the trail and then from a lookout there would be a steep drop where the mountain just caved in on itself. Mombacho is still active so it was spewing sulfuric gasses in certain areas, creating small dead zones where the acid has burnt all the vegetation. In the distance we could also see another active volcano and a crater lake that was created when a volcano collapsed into itself deep into the ground.
Crater of Volcan Mombacho and Acid-burnt vegetation
Isles of Granada
Rose: I got a henna tattoo of the Zia Sun Symbol on my arm and I absolutely love it.
Thorn: In a 24-hour period, I got stung by a bee, pooped on by a bird, and tripped while running and skinned my knee. Luckily, these were just small prices to pay for an otherwise amazing trip.
Bud: Hopefully catching a futbol game in San Jose this weekend!
Location: Granada, Nicaragua -> Atenas -> San Jose
**Diakachimba is the Nicaraguan phrase for “Pura Vida” **
Old Meets New
What a week it has been! Last week was solely devoted to studying for midterm exams, so while we were happy to finally have unscheduled time, it was absorbed pretty quickly by dividing our study time between Economics, Natural Resource Management, and Tropical Ecology. Luckily all the exams went well and we were rewarded with our second weekend away to La Fortuna de San Carlos and a talent show/dinner with our host families.
La Fortuna Squad
The town of La Fortuna sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano in North Central Costa Rica. When we arrived it was overcast so we couldn’t even tell what direction the volcano was in until our taxi driver pointed to a cloud in its direction. Upon arriving, we went to La Catarata La Fortuna, a beautiful waterfall just outside the town. It was so mesmerizing to watch the water rush over the top ledge and cascade down at top speeds. The water is too powerful to swim under the fall so we moved a little down the river and waded across to the other side of the bank to find a hiking trail. The trail took us up along side the river and was vibrantly green with moss. Right before we were getting to turn around as to make it back before sunset, we encountered a hanging bridge and had to make a trip across the slightly questionable, super high bridge.
Then on a whim, thanks to a recommendation by our awesome taxi driver, we drove to the hot springs. I’ve been to hot springs in Israel and in Thermopolis, WY but both were built up pools and not my favorite places. However, due to the geothermal energy from the volcano, this hot springs looked like your average river but when you stepped in it, you are greeted by wonderfully hot water. It was still light out when we found a section of the river to claim as our own, but the sun quickly set and people started lighting candles along the river bank. It was a perfect, relaxing way to end midterms week!
The next morning, Stefanie and I set off on the adventure that took us to La Fortuna in the first place, the Ultra Trail Costa Rica (UTCR) 6k race. The race started at El Castillo, the huge crater at the base of Arenal and beyond that we knew little of what we had gotten ourselves into, as neither of us had ever run a trail race. UTCR is made up of five races- an 80k, 51k, 21k, 10k, and 6k. Most of the racers were Costa Rican and only a few tourists here and there. The crazy 80k and 51k racers had raced the previous day but the winners of both races were introduced before we started running, talk about athleticism! The race started in true Tico time (30 minutes late) and started out with a moderately hilly gravel road along the crater. The course initially reminded me a lot of the Moonlight in Vermont race and Stef and I made decent time for the first two miles. Then the course took a sharp left turn and up we went. We made it a couple hundred meters and passed a whole bunch of people hiking up before we realized that we too would have to hike and not run up the trail.
Just when we thought the trail would clear to reveal a summit, another steep hill was revealed. After about a mile of steep climbing and questioning what we had gotten ourselves into, we reached a GORGEOUS viewpoint. We stopped to take a picture and admire the breathtaking panoramic view of the entire volcano (finally!), the entire lake crater, and the surrounding mountains in the volcanic range. The view was well worth the tough trek up the mountain. What we didn’t realize was that we still had about another half mile up hill before we actually hit the summit. When we finally did, we took a moment to take in the stunning mountainous landscape, how crazy it was that we were looking at such a cool geologic feat before us, and how the GPS told us we had already hit a 6k, yet we were still at the top of the mountain. I could feel the adrenaline as we rushed down the mountain side, fearful of falling on my face but also feeling on top of the world from this adventure. Halfway down, we encountered a Tico herding his cattle up the mountain road and it couldn’t have been more picturesque.
Surprisingly still full of energy, Stef and I kept a brisk pace all the way to the finish line. We ended up running 8km, or 5 miles, in an 1:03—obviously a slow pace for a road race but pretty fast for a trail race! Stef and I placed 10th and 11th respectively, out of 60 females in the “6k” (8k)! Not bad for our first trail race!
Will, Stef, and I after the race!
Before the race began, we struck up a conversation with fellow GoPro wearing, Will from France. You might think he was an average runner but we quickly learned that he actually is running for a greater reason than endorphins. On New Years Eve, Will started his year long project of “Yes Will Can,” which consists of 52 half-marathons across 52 weeks on 5 continents to raise money for Le Fondation Du Souffle, an organization working to research/prevent lung cancer. Will explained that he recently lost a friend to lung cancer and chose to dedicate his year towards promoting overall health across the globe. On his 11th week, he had already raced countries such as Germany, Switzerland, U.S. (San Francisco), Cuba, Jamaica, and Panama. UTCR was his first trail race half marathon, but when we saw him after he said that despite the hiking he still made good time in just about two hours! Check out his page at: https://www.facebook.com/yeswillcan2016/
Our final day in La Fortuna we went to a smaller waterfall to check out the rope swing before making our insanely long trip back to Atenas.
Our host dinner took place at the local community center and was quite the team effort to put on for the more than a hundred guests. After dinner, the SFS students put on a mini talent show for our host families. Jagger played the guitar for Dale and Stefanie to sing, three girls sang the Cup Song, four of us danced to “Problem,” and then Trent and I danced to “Beat It.” Since midterms limited the amount of rehearsal time, we used choreography from Skidmore’s Breakbeats for the first half of the song and then collaborated to come up with new choreography for the second half. It’s been since September since I’ve danced hip hop/pop so it felt great to revisit Bbeats days! Trent was initially going to dance “Beat It” alone, but he came up with the ingenious idea to make it a dance off, so I happily learned the choreography relatively at the last minute. I don’t know if it ended up being more of a comedy or a dance, but either way it was super fun to perform and the audience loved it! (Videos on FB)
Okay, off to finish getting ready for a week in Nicaragua!
Just Beat It
Rose: The AWESOME race shirts we got from UTCR
Bud: We are going to Nicaragua tomorrow for a week and we get to visit another volcano!!!!
Thorn: We are leaving at 2am tonight for Nicaragua
Location: La Fortuna-> Atenas-> Ometepe, Nicaragua-> Granada, Nicaragua
Girls night out in Jaco
This week was a definitely a reminder that I am not on vacation and am in fact attending classes. On Thursday we attended La Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR) for the day for two guest lectures. It was starting to seem ridiculous that we had not yet gone to San Jose, especially because if we are in downtown Atenas at night, we are so close you can see the lights from the city.
Reflections vs. reality
UCR has about 40,000 students in its system and is the major and premier university of Costa Rica. The mascot of the university is a sunflower that is looking back at the sun and their student’s center represents this with a huge mosaic of a sunflower on its facade. We had one class with a Geography professor about Costa Rica’s hydrology and another with a professor from the biology department that added on to our week long investigation of the pros and cons of GMOs.
Students Center at UCR
GMOs are widely distributed in the United States’s food system but there is tighter regulation in Costa Rica. GMOs can only be grown for export and designated not for domestic consumption. However, there is a major loophole in that processed food can be imported into Costa Rica with unlabeled GMOs. As for the investigation into the benefits and harms of GMOs, CR is basically where everyone else is–unable to make progress. Monsanto dominates the system here as well so in order for scientists to research GMOs legally, they have to go through the multinational corporation itself for permission to investigate and then again for approval of their papers.
I chose to study in Atenas for many reasons, but one was that it was a compromise between learning Spanish and learning more about field studies. However, it definitely has been more concentrated on the environmental side and my Spanish has improved only a little bit. Since we are living at the Center with other English speakers and not in a host family, our opportunities to practice Spanish and interact with Ticos is pretty limited to just those who work at the Center. In a small attempt to compromise, the Center has set aside two days for us to spend with a host family (one yesterday and one next week).
Hannah and I joined Jaixa and Dale Franklin’s family for host day. It was fun, but not quite a full culture/ language immersion because Dale was actually from Seattle and the rest of the family members had pretty high levels of English. Though, Hannah and I did our best to keep the conversation in Spanish, as we really wanted the practice. Our family had four children: Ana (21), Alonso (15- who slept most of the time we were there), Carlos (5), and Lea (2) and they were also hosting an exchange student from Germany for the past month. It was Carlos’s fifth birthday party so the house was full of family members speaking Spanish, English, German, and a little French. A global family! We spent the day walking around the neighborhood, preparing lunch, talking with family members, and then driving to the top of a mountain that overlooks Atenas to water the family’s small orange grove and to watch the beautiful sunset.
Mi hermano Carlos
Trampoline all day
Homemade Superman Cake
The whole family
Sunset at the top of a mountain
Rose: It was great to finally get to go to San Jose and be back on a college campus!
Thorn: The amount of work and papers I had to write this week!
Rosebud: Next weekend a group of us are headed to Volcano Arenal/ La Fortuna to run a trail race!
Tropical Ecology Class
Last week we took a field trip to Playa Azul, which is named for the bright blue sand the beach used to have and the surrounding impoverished neighborhood greatly contrasted from the well developed beach at Manuel Antonio. When we stepped onto the beach, it was clear why there was no development here. Since the Rio Tarcoles empties into the river just a few hundred meters down the shore, plastic trash from Latin America’s most polluted river accumulates on the beach.
The things that get washed up on the beach…
Costa Rica is known for its stellar environmental stewardship and on many levels is a developed country. However, its waste and water management practices are that of a third world country and Playa Azul was clear evidence of that. Costa Rica only has three sealed landfills and the rest of its trash is either left on the side of the road in burn piles or set to open dumps. 16% of all the CR trash ends up in the oceans where it can have a devastating effect on wildlife when it is mistaken for food and consumed. The U.S. can claim that they are making progress in decreasing the amount of plastics consumed by wildlife by banning microbeads, however, this major victory fails to take into consideration the fact that other plastics will degrade in the blistering sunlight and also turn into micro pieces that slowly accumulate in the stomachs of animals. In Marine Biology in the fall, we read an article called “99% of the Ocean’s Plastic is Missing” in which argues that most of the ocean’s plastic has been consumed and slowly killing organisms. Most famously, there is a picture of a seabird washed up on shore with the contents of its stomach showing, most of which is brightly colored plastic. As we sat for a field lecture, we could smell the burning plastic of a fire that had been set a few kilometers down to the beach- an ineffective and highly polluting mechanism to counter the plastic accumulation.
New York receives 40 inches of rain a year. Seattle receives 38 inches. Poas Volcano receives 148 inches of rain a year. That’s a lot of rain, especially considering the fact that Atenas has not seen any rain since December. Poas Volcano is recognized as one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica. At roughly 9,000, Poas is an active volcano that has erupted (minorly) as recently as August and whose last major eruption was in 1951. Sitting atop the volcano is an active crater that bubbles gasses into the surrounding atmosphere, leaving the top of the volcano devoid of any life. Adjacent to Poas is supposedly a beautiful blue green lagoon that looks across the landscape. All we saw were clouds. At the look out points, visibility was only a few feet and all we could do was be happy that we satisfied our childhood dreams of being able to stand in a cloud. The hike itself though was extremely pretty through what is known as an Elfin forest. The vegetation is all low to the ground, dense, dark, full of vines, and really we all expected a little gnome to appear. Back at the visitor’s center, we attempted to conduct a survey of waste management practices among visitors, however, due to the dreary, rainy, and cold temperatures we had very little data to collect.
A beautiful view of clouds
Knowing that we now officially were better adjusted to warm temperatures eight of us successfully navigated public transportation for our first weekend away to Jaco. Jaco is a surfer beach town that closely resembles a California surf town. After hummus and falafel at Café Namaste, we decided we wanted to be at a beach with Ticos, not Americans so we took a taxi out to Playa Herradura for a much quieter and less developed beach. The UV index was off the charts at 11, tying with our hottest day in Nebraska. The following day we decided since we were in Jaco, we should go to Playa Jaco so we walked the 500 meters from our hostel. Here, the waves were even more powerful and few times we found ourselves out a little too far and borderline surf-able waves crashed over our heads but luckily no signs of rip tides.
Sunset at Jaco
Our traveling packed week continued when in less than 12 hours after returning from Jaco, we boarded the bus to head north to Palo Verde, yet another extremely hot part of the country. When we got off the bus in the park we immediately felt like we were in a sauna. Palo Verde is a tropical dry forest that is lush for six months of the year and desert dry for the other six months. In the center of the park is a beautiful wetland that is home to a huge variety of birds that people travel far to observe.
The Spaniards raised cattle at Palo Verde for 400-500 years because it reminded them of the climate of their home country. When the ranch was donated to the government as a national park, the rangers adapted their normal strategies of removing all the livestock from the land. However, since the land had been pasture for so many years the native species failed to regrow and invasive cattails and grasses took over. The wetlands disappeared and the birds stopped flocking to Palo Verde. I should mention that Palo Verde is itself an invasive tree species. The park decided to rethink their management practices and tried to manually remove the invasive species before they decided to bring back a percentage of the cattle. Slowly, the wetland came back and birds started coming to the park once again. We watched a picturesque sunset over the water and the flocks of birds. The next morning, we hiked up the limestone lined path behind the ranger station. It was our best hike to date with a stunning lookout miles away across the park.
**Sorry that this is such a long post
Even though everyday is different at the center and each week has a field trip, community service, and/or farm activity integrated into it, I wanted to provide brief insight into what a typical day at the center looks like:
6am: I go for my morning run through our neighborhood of La Presa to the Boyero Monument. It is great to run here because it is a perfect opportunity to people watch and observe a little bit of the normal morning routine of Ticos (or Costa Ricans).
7 am: Breakfast of arroz y frijoles, huevos revueltos, y plátanos (rice and beans, scrambled eggs, and plantains).
8 am: We have our morning meeting, or RAP, run by the Student of the Day, which consists for Reflections, Announcements, and Physicality. Typically, the student will share a quote about sustainability, the professors will make any announcements about class location, field trips, etc., and then we do a group activity/game such as the human knot, a swing dance lesson, or Birdie on a Perch.
8:30-10: Natural Resource Management with Aheim in the outdoor classroom
10-11:30: The Economics of Sustainable Development with Mary
12-1pm: Lunch at la mesa de español by the pool
1:30-3pm: Tropical Ecology with Edguardo
3-5pm: A group vocab game in Spanish and then Spanish Class.
5-6pm: Read for class by the pool or in a hammock (I know, it’s a difficult life)
6-7 pm: Dinner of rice and beans, salad, tortillas or soup, and if we’re lucky, avocados.
7pm+: After we’ve finished reading for class the next day we either watch a movie, read, or play soccer.
Sunset at Manuel Antonio
Nights at the center can range from being extremely calm and studious to high energy sports or activities.
Friday night, a group of nine locals about our age came to the center and challenged us in a game of fútbol. Since us Americans would have instantly been creamed by their soccer skills, we tried to divide the teams equally with a mix of Ticos and SFS students. My soccer skills are pretty limited, but the Ticos on my team oddly had enough confidence in me to pass to me and let me be goalie for one game (though that didn’t turn out too well). My semester goal is to actually score a goal in one of our games so we’ll see how that goes! The games are really fun to play because fútbol is a universal language and a great way to interact with locals without having to worry about being grammatically correct. Plus, we get to learn Costa Rican slang like “tuanis, mae,” which more or less means, “cool, dude.”
On Thursday nights we go to the local community center for Zumba classes. The classes are pretty similar to the ones that I have taken in the U.S., however, here the dances are a little bit more repetitive but they have a little bit more of a salsa flair, which I love. Similar to soccer, dance is a universal language so it is great to be able to dance among locals and feel like a part of a community of all ages. I’m trying to find more dance classes in Atenas, however, none yet fit in with our busy schedules.
Saturday it was John’s birthday so we all went to a great restaurant called La Finca for wood-fired pizza. Granted the pizza was not as great as the Bare Hill Bread Farm, but alas the weather is much better here and we can sit outside in the open restaurant, completely forgetting how cold it is back in VT.
After a busy day of classes yesterday, we were treated to a Netflix movie and got to watch Cowspiracy. It was a great movie that corresponded well with my official declaration of vegetarianism earlier this month (on and off for five years, it’s about time). Granted, like most environmental documentaries, its primary purpose is to scare the viewer into making a drastic life change, often making the viewer feel guiltier than necessary. The movie was continuously entertaining as the narrator is a super chill surfer “mae” from California. I highly recommend checking it out!
Okay, off to sleep for our next few busy days in two different national parks plus our first weekend off in the Nicoya Peninsula!
Rose: I had feared the cold showers but it turns out they are super refreshing (most of the time)
Thorn: Due to water rationing, we cannot shower between 8pm-4am and since the pool closes at 9 we couldn’t shower until the morning after playing soccer!
Bud:Visiting an active crater tomorrow!
Word of the Day: Camote (sweet potato, or weird person)