Thursday, January 27, 2011

Destiny Calvano - Costa Rica

Destiny is a University of Utah graduate with an Honors degree in Environmental Studies. She traveled to Costa Rica in summer 2010 with the Environmental Studies Program.
They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  I think sometimes its starts with the flicker of a dream.  From the moment I started taking classes in the Environmental Studies program, I knew I wanted to go on the annual trip to Costa Rica.  I never actually imagined I’d go.  I applied for the program almost on a whim, and when I was accepted, I suddenly found myself investing in airline tickets and scrambling around looking for funding so I didn’t have to blow my savings paying for the trip. A scholarship from the Honors College sealed the deal, and I soon found myself on a plane headed for San Jose, Costa Rica.
Costa Rica… a tropical paradise.  I couldn’t believe I was on my way to spend a month with the ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves).  The view of the Caribbean below me sparked my imagination and made me imagine a place full of beautiful trees, fragrant air, and abundant wildlife mingled seamlessly with culture.  It’s funny sometimes how we forget the road to paradise has to start somewhere in an unpleasant reality.  What I failed to remember is that I was flying into an airport in an area with 4 million people, and all the cars and pollution that come along with them.  Consequently, I DID NOT imagine that I would find my nose crinkling at the smell of ozone and car exhaust as I stepped out of the airplane into one of the ugliest cities I’ve ever seen in my life.  The sun had set and in the darkness, the Latin American, enclave-style properties with all their metal barriers seemed menacing.  It was very late by the time we arrived in the San Jose suburb.  I had just enough time to meet my host family before I was shuttled off to their house to spend my first restless night in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home, and a million miles away from the life I knew.     

San Jose

When I woke up at six the next morning, it was to a friendly family and a delicious breakfast with the best juice I have ever tasted in my entire life.  My mama tica was very friendly, and despite being very, very out of practice speaking Spanish, we managed to have many conversations about our differing cultures and Costa Rica.  I didn’t have class until nine, and I spent many mornings watching tv with her, commenting on the news, asking questions as best I could, and then sighing silently in relief when reruns of CSI New York came on in English with Spanish subtitles, because I could actually understand everything that was being said.  When it came time to have class at La Conversa, I would walk the two blocks over to La Iglesia Vieja (The Old Church) where I would meet my classmates at the bus stop to go to class. 
We stayed in the San Jose area for a week, spending the first few days in lectures about what we would see and what we should keep in mind as we traveled the country.  We traveled into downtown San Jose on one day, visiting the National Museum and the National Theater in order to learn about the development of Costa Rica’s government and culture.  As one of the few stable democracies in Latin America, Costa Rica is an anomaly, and we learned all about the innovative history that led to its current success.  I stand by my previous statement that San Jose is ugly.  Downtown was just as ugly and just as dirty as any other major city, but it completely lacked any urban charm.  Needless to say,  I was very happy when we went on our first excursion to Volcan Poas and the Doca Coffee plantation.  For the first time, I caught a glimpse of the paradise I was yearning for, and I was excited when our first week ended and we piled onto the little bus that would take us around the country for the next couple of weeks.
Hanging out at La Conversa
Packed onto the little bus

The view down my street in Santa Maria

Manuel Antonio
As we left San Jose, we settled in for a long trip to the Pacific coast.  Within a few hours, we had peaked over the central mountains, and I immediately understood why Manuel Antonio is the most popular tourist destination in Costa Rica.  The view of the ocean was gorgeous, and as we made our way to the hotel, I fell in love with the blue ocean, the hilly mountainside, and the charm of the streets winding their way to the beach.  Then I stepped outside… At 90+ degrees and 90% humidity, Manuel Antonio was almost unbearably humid.  The good news was that our rooms were air conditioned, there were two pools at our hotel, and we were a 5 minute walk from the beach, so it turned out not to be too much of a hardship.  Even despite the ridiculously over-inflated prices of the tourist town,  Manuel Antonio turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of my trip.   For the first time since we had arrived in Costa Rica, we were staying together as a group.  I started becoming close friends with my roommate and several other students, and we frequently went out to eat, grabbed some drinks, or went to the beach together.  In addition, we saw some of the best wildlife that I would see on the entire trip.  During the tour of Manuel Antonio National Park, we were fortunate enough to see 3 of the 4 species of monkeys native to Costa Rica, both types of sloths, several iguanas, a “Jesus Christ” lizard, a mischievous pair of raccoons, and a hawk--not to mention one of the most beautiful beaches I’d ever seen. 
The group after a day playing in the water
Me on the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park


The cool mountain air of Monteverde was a welcome change from the stifling humidity of Manuel Antonio.  Situated on the continental divide, the Monteverde region receives wind and cool air coming from both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, which gives it a “cloud forest” climate.  This results in beautiful, deep green plant life that reminded me of an enchanted forest with a tropical spin.  For the next few days we stayed in an eco-lodge with a tico family who taught us about sustainable living.  We even got a tour of a nearby nature preserve.  During our hike, we learned not only about the native species of the region, but the history of use and abuse of Monteverde’s resources.  We learned that the preservation that began in Monteverde started as a student initiative in the local Santa Elena high school.  The seniors opted to use funds for a final project to set aside land for preservation and from the point on, the community made preserving and restoring the land its largest asset.  This was an poignant reminder of why we had made the journey, and gave me hope that even a young idealist can make a difference. During our time there, we also visited a butterfly garden and went on treetop zip-line tour, which was on the highlights of my trip. 
From the top of a look-out tower at the nature preserve
Our lodge in Monteverde

La Fortuna and Volcan Arenal

Next we stayed in La Fortuna, a town located outside Costa Rica’s famous Volcan Arenal.  Our hotel was a high-class eco lodge.  We had fun taking a tour of the property and seeing how the gardens were grown, the soap made, and the water heated.  As it turns out, water was filtered through long coils of wire underneath stalls where manure was being transformed into fertilizer.  This created enough heat to not only supply all the showers in our bungaloes, but a hot pool as well.  Strangely enough, it was actually really nice! I loved my room and the beautiful views, and the food was delicious.  I was a little sad that we were only staying for one night.
 The highlight of our two days, however, was our trip to Volcan Arenal National Park.  Arenal is famous, because it is an active volcano—the big, spewing cone you think about when a person describes a volcano.   On the day we visited, the volcano was especially active.  We hiked as close to it as you can go, seated on lava rock from some past eruption, watching in awe as it spewed giant chunks of rock and ash.  We sat there, for about a half an hour before learned that officials were evacuating the park because it was getting too dangerous.  We were heading out that day anyway, so we packed ourselves back on to the bus and left La Fortuna on our way to La Selva.
The view from my bungalo at La Fortuna
Watching an eruption at Arenal right before the park was evacuated

La Selva

La Selva was different than any other place we visited on our trip, because it is a biological research station run by one of the largest tropical research institutes in the world.  I have heard that in years past students have listened to research presentations from scientists who have presented their research to intergovernmental panels, including the UN.  I was hoping we would get a chance to listen to their research as well, but unfortunately, there weren’t any presentations that week. Still, I had a great time staying in our bunkhouse and touring the area.  La Selva, which means “jungle” is a true rainforest climate with a lot of wildlife in the area.  It was hot and sticky, and we were warned to wear boots because snakes are often found in the area.  I came across one as I was walking back to my room from the computer lab one night.  Not knowing if it was one of the highly poisonous ones, I didn’t dare to move forward, so I quickly walked back to the computer lab until I could regain my courage and move forward.   He wasn’t there on my second attempt, but from the point on, I watched the paths like a hawk for anything that looked like it might be even remotely alive and moving.  I especially liked the wild peccaries (a Latin American pig), the big fat brown toad that lived near our bunkhouse, and the leaf-cutter ants outside the central plaza, which I could watch for hours as they left worn-out tracks in the grass on the way to their favorite tree. 
View of the river just outside our bunkhouse

The herd of peccaries that lived outside the complex


As we made our way from La Selva to the final destination on our journey, Tortuguero, I grew very excited.  Tortuguero, meaning “place of the turtle,” was a city we had learned a lot about on our trip.  Archie Carr, a famous herpetologist from the 1950’s, had written a book called the Windward Road that was our required reading for the trip, and I couldn’t wait to see that park that he had founded for the protection of wild sea turtles, which happen to be one of my favorite animals. 
Unlike the other places we visited, you can’t get to Tortuguero by car.  You can take a plane, or you can boat up the canal, like we did.  The two hour journey was very fun and absolutely gorgeous, and when we finally reached the Caribbean coastal town, the excitement I had turned into absolute delight.  I couldn’t wait to go on our tour of the park that night, and I was crossing my fingers hoping that we would see a turtle.  It was the start of mating season, and although there wouldn’t be as many turtles as later in the summer, I was hopeful that we might see at least one as she came up to lay her eggs in the sand.  Until then, we spent the day in the turtle pool, touring the town built around turtles, and waiting in anticipation for what would come that night. 
That night turned out to be my only disappointment for the entire trip.  We didn’t see a turtle, only some tracks from one that had come earlier that night.  Despite that, I still enjoyed tortuguero, and I got to see many unique animals and the beautiful scenery of the canal.  I did see a river turtle, if not the hulking giants I had hoped to see the night before, and I got up close and personal with a cayman (a crocodile relative) as he swam by our boat.  I could have touched him, but I decided I liked my hand attached to my arm, and so I restrained myself.  Now, months later, I wish I could go back.  I miss it—the Caribbean vibe, the rhythmic way of speaking, and the friendly people who live there.

The cayman

Tortuguero, from the canal
Taking a tour of the canal

Going home

In fact, that’s the way I feel about all of Costa Rica.  I’m so glad that first impressions are so often wrong.  Costa Rica turned out to be everything I’d imagined it would be and then some.   Since then, I have encouraged everyone who has an opportunity to study abroad or to visit a forgein country to do it!  You won’t regret it!  My college career is over,  but my journeys are just beginning.   I think I’ll go to Macchu Pichu next, or maybe the Great Wall of China.  Maybe I’ll take my family back to Costa Rica to see it for themselves.  I don’t know yet, but I’m excited to figure it out.

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