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Costa Rica - Student Blog


Welcome to Costa Rica!

Hello and welcome to the Costa Rica Summer Program of 2011!  Every other summer since 1997, Mount St. Mary’s students have traveled to Costa Rica for a month-long Spanish immersion program.  This year’s adventure began on Tuesday, May 24 when nine Mount students landed in the capital city of San José.

~ Forester Institute ~

Every afternoon on Mondays thru Thursdays, we took Spanish classes at Forester, a San José institute dedicated to teaching Spanish to foreigners.  We were divided into two small classes so that each lesson would be more personal.

But we also took a very different type of class here – Latin dance!  Forester offers them free to students.  We all went once a week to learn some Salsa, Meringue, and Swing.  Here we are smiling with our talented instructor, Sylvia.  

This video shows some highlights from our dance lessons:

~  San José ~

Forester even organizes daily cultural excursions for the students.  Every morning before Spanish class, we would set out to see and learn about a new sight in the country.  The first of these excursions was a tour of San José. 

As we walked around the city, we immediately took notice of the unique plants and trees.  Even in the middle of the busy capital, it is common to see beautiful rainforest vegetation.

San José is also marked by some unique buildings, such as this school constructed completely
of metal.

At the city center is the National Park, distinguishable by this statue. The statue is reminiscent of a campaign in the 1800s that played a significant role in giving Costa Rica its national identity.


From there, it’s just a short walk to the National Museum.  This museum features many artifacts from the pre-Columbian civilizations of Costa Rica.  But the building itself is of historical importance as well.  It used to be the army headquarters before the Costa Rican government abolished its military in 1948.

Inside the museum are several stone spheres in all different sizes.  One of the larger ones, shown above, was the first artifact we saw.  Discovered in the southern region of the country, these nearly perfect spheres are perhaps Costa Rica’s greatest mystery.   No one quite knows how they were made or what they were used for.

~ Cartago Basilica ~

Our next excursion with Forester was to the city Cartago.  Cartago is one of the country’s oldest cities and was the original capital before San José.  However, it is mostly famous for this beautiful church, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels.  

It was at this site that the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared several centuries ago.  As the story goes, a small figure of the Holy Mother carrying the Baby Jesus appeared on a rock in the woods.  Multiple times it was removed from the rock, only to reappear there.  It was determined that the Virgin wanted a church built in that spot, and the basilica was constructed.  The original figure is housed in a shrine at the altar.  The Costa Ricans are extremely devoted to the Virgin of the Angels, and many of them walk from the entrance of the church to the altar on their knees. 

Above the main church are several small charms on display.  These show different body parts, such as hands, feet, legs, and arms.  These are brought to the Basilica by people who have been healed through the intercession of the Virgin of the Angels.  The charms they bring represent the healed parts of their bodies.

~ Britt Coffee Plant ~

Costa Rica is famous for its delicious coffee.  Thus, it is only fitting that we learned about this important product.  Another excursion with Forester took us to the Britt Coffee Plant.  Britt is one of the country’s biggest brand names.  At this plantation, we learned everything there is to know about coffee processing.

First, we were taken to the area where the coffee plants are grown.  The coffee plants are the short green trees at the front of the picture. 

During the harvesting season, coffee pickers go from plant to plant selecting by hand the best coffee fruits.  Workers tie a small basket around their waste to collect the fruit.  One of us was called up by our guides to demonstrate this process.

After the fruit is harvested, the skin is removed and the seeds inside are collected and roasted.  They can then be brewed into delicious cups of coffee.  Pictured above is the traditional Costa Rican coffee maker.  Ground coffee is placed into the bag at the top and hot water is poured in.  The water passes through the bag and into the cup, extracting the coffee flavor. 

Finally, we learned about the “coffee cuppers,” or the coffee tasters.  Just as there are experts to taste wine, there are experts to taste coffee.  Another of our students was called up to help demonstrate the proper coffee-tasting technique. 

~ Sarchi ~

Our next short excursion was to a city called Sarchí.  Sarchí is known for its wooden handicrafts, especially the hand painted ox-carts.  Long ago, ox-carts were commonly used all around Costa Rica.  People began to paint them in order to distinguish them.  Over time, this practice turned into an art.  Our first stop in Sarchí was to see the sight shown above – the world’s largest oxcart!

We had the opportunity to visit one of the families that makes the typical ox-carts.  We went to the Chaverri family business where we could watch the artists do some of the painting.  Amazingly, every intricate design is done free-hand. 

Before leaving the area, we stopped at another nearby town, Grecia, to see this church.  This church is particularly interesting because it, like the famous school in San José, is made entirely
of metal.

~ Butterfly Farm ~

The next morning we took a trip to a nearby butterfly farm.  There, we saw a variety of stunning butterflies, such as the one shown above.   Its beautiful green wings made it a favorite among our group.  

The owl butterfly is famous for its camouflage.  When it opens its wings, it resembles the face of an owl.  Unsurprisingly, this is a very effective means of scaring away predators.

Making the visit even more fun, these butterflies were very friendly.  They would casually fly up to us and land on our notebooks. 

Some of them would even land on our backs or arms!

~ Volcanoes ~

Forester also took us to see two stunning, and active, volcanoes.  First, we visited Irazú.  This particular volcano has three craters, the most impressive of which is the principle crater shown above.  A common fun fact among the Costa Ricans is that Irazú began to erupt in 1963 on the exact day that John F. Kennedy came to visit their country.

We also had an unexpected visitor during this trip.  This little guy, called a white-nosed coati, or a pizote in Spanish, wandered close by us.  None of us had ever seen an animal quite like him. 

The second volcano we visited is called Poás.  Poás is highly active now, and it is not uncommon for tourists to see small eruptions while visiting.  Although we didn’t see any eruptions, the crater was smoking sulfur.  It was without a doubt a memorable sight.

~ Tayutic ~

In addition to our morning excursions with Forester, we went on several excursions organized by our professor, Dr. Rodriguez-Lozano.  The first of these was a day trip to Tayutic, an estate where sugar cane and macadamia nuts are harvested and prepared for sale.  We first learned about the sugar cane.  Here, our guide is demonstrating the harvesting process, which includes cutting down the sugar cane and removing the sharp leaves.  It’s one of Costa Rica’s most difficult jobs.

After the sugar cane is harvested, the sugar cane juice, which is used to make different sweets, can be extracted.  The machine shown above, called a trapiche, is used for that job.  Two oxen are attached to it.  As they circle the machine, the three wheels in the center turn.  Two of our students helped in the demonstration by feeding the sugar cane through these wheels.  This squeezes out the sugar cane juice, which is collected in a small trough.

The juice is then boiled until it turns into a brown, sticky liquid. 

Finally, the sugar cane liquid is made into snacks, such as the one shown above.  Called a “tapa,” it is made by pouring the liquid into a mold and leaving it to harden.

After learning about and even sampling some of the sugar cane snacks, we went to see how the macadamia nuts are prepared.  Our guides showed us how to sort the macadamias based on their color.

~ Ram Luna ~

Another of our cultural trips was to a restaurant up on a mountain called Ram Luna.  Here, we enjoyed delicious food and a show of typical dances. 

We were even able to participate at the end of the show.  Some crazy characters came out and got everyone up to dance!  The costumes they wore, which are called mascaradas, are famous in small town celebrations, especially the celebration of the town’s saint.  

~ Tortuguero ~

We even had excursions planned for each weekend.  The first of these was to a humid forest called Tortuguero.  On the way there, we stopped at a banana plantation to see how bananas are prepared for export. 

The plantation was interesting to see, but the main attraction was a vender that had some giant beetles with him!  Although they look frightening, these Godzilla bugs are completely harmless.  Some of us were even brave enough to hold them. 

We weren’t back on the road for long until another interesting sight caught our eye.  Our driver happened to spot this sloth nestled among the trees.  Costa Rica’s wildlife is without a doubt one of its greatest charms.

After an exciting journey, we arrived at Tortugero.  This jungle is unique because of the many canals weaving through it.  In fact, we had another journey ahead of us, this time by boat, before we would be at the hotel. 

Our hotel was situated just where the rainforest meets the beach.  Unfortunately, this particular stretch of the Caribbean Ocean is not safe to swim in due to strong undercurrents.  Nonetheless, we were still able to enjoy the scenery.  The town of Tortuguero was just a short walk down the beach.  Here we are returning after a quick visit there.

One morning, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. to go out on the canals in search of rainforest animals.  This picture shows us making our way through the trees, eyes alert and cameras constantly at the ready. 

Fortunately, our bright and early start to the day was well worth it.  We saw a variety of amazing animals.  Some were familiar to us, like this toucan. 

Others, however, were unlike anything we had ever seen before.  The “Jesus Christ” lizard, for example, is known for his unique ability to run across the surface of water, just as though he was performing Jesus’ famous miracle. 

We also saw this Tiger Heron, so named for its striped feathers. 

The adventure continued when we visited a small frog reserve on our hotel grounds.  There, we met the amazing frog shown here.  We all took turns holding him, and he even hopped onto our heads! 

Besides being a place of incredible wildlife, Tortugero is of particular importance for the Mount community.  Elizabeth DiNunzio was a Mount student who went on the Costa Rica trip of 2007.  She loved the country very much and had hopes of returning.  After she passed away in May 2009, a service trip to the town Tortugero was organized in her honor.  Several Mount students helped to build a sidewalk at the school there.  They also constructed this plaque in memory of Elizabeth.    

~ Arenal Volcano ~

Our second weekend in Costa Rica was spent at the stunning Arenal Volcano.  But we made a few stops on the drive there.  The first was to see the main plaza in the town Zarcero, which is filled with incredible topiaries. 

This was probably the most original design – a monkey on a motorcycle!

We were even able to meet the man who created it all. 

Our next stop was at a small restaurant.  However, we didn’t go there to eat.  We went to see iguanas!  The restaurant, appropriately named Las Iguanas, cares for a large community of them.  It was the most memorable restaurant any of us had ever been to!  

We drove a little longer and finally arrived at our hotel in Arenal.  From there, we had a breathtaking view of the volcano.  The sight before us looked like something out of a painting or a movie, but it was completely real. 

Our hotel was also gorgeous, a true tropical paradise.  It had several hot springs that were naturally heated by the volcano, and the grounds were filled with tropical flowers and trees.  But before we could dive into the pools, we had a brief vocabulary quiz to take for our culture class.  We all took our papers and settled into lounge chairs.  It was certainly a luxurious way to take a quiz!

One morning we took a brief trip to visit a nearby indigenous community.  Although a significant part of Costa Rican indigenous culture has been lost over the years, the Maleku Indians have been able to maintain many of their traditional customs.  We sat in one of their typical houses and learned about their people, language, government, and lifestyle.

The Maleku also prepared a short presentation for us involving a duel between two of the men. 

Before leaving, we took a minute to snap a group picture. 

Our most memorable adventure of the weekend, and possibly of our entire Costa Rica trip, came on our last day in Arenal.  We went on the famous zip-lining canopy tour!  Here we are after getting our harnesses and helmets.  

The course was long, with 12 different platforms and 11 lines.  And we were very high in the air. Naturally, we were scared at first.  But all of that fear vanished after the first line.  By the end of the course, we were professionals!  

Some of us even went in pairs in order to pick up more speed!

On the very last line, which was relatively short and close to the ground, we were permitted to be even more daring.  If we wanted, we could go upside-down!  All of us took this opportunity without hesitation!  It was an unforgettable end to our time in Arenal.

Video of the zip-lining tour:

~ Manuel Antonio ~

Our third weekend was spent at Manuel Antonio, a famous rainforest beach.  Our drive there led us over the only river in Costa Rica that has crocodiles.  Of course, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to stop and sightsee.  We walked out onto a bridge, looked down into a river, and saw about 10 crocodiles resting in the water.  It was a little scary, but awesome nonetheless.

Our hotel was situated right in the rainforest.  In fact, we woke up one morning to the sound of monkeys passing through the trees! 

We also had a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean.  The water was perfectly clear and surrounded by bright green jungle. 

We set out early one morning for the beach.  However, getting there proved to be quite the adventure.  Right in our path was this small river that fills up during high tide.  Our only option was to hold on to all of our beach bags and trek across.  It was actually a lot of fun! 

And the gorgeous Manuel Antonio National Park was well worth the river hike.  We were so excited to spend the day relaxing at such an amazing place. 

Of course, one of the first things we did was jump into the water. 

Later on, a group of monkeys like the ones we saw at our hotel made an appearance.  They came very close, passing through the trees right by the beach.  Some of them even seemed to be posing for our cameras!

Since the monkeys come within such close proximity to the beach-goers, they have been known to steal things, particularly food.  We had all been warned to watch our lunches closely.  As it turned out, we did almost lose some of our food.  But this time, the monkeys weren’t the culprits.  As a matter of fact, it was a raccoon that ran off with one of our lunches.  Just when we thought it was gone for good, another tourist saved our stolen bag.  Even so, the same raccoon kept staking out our spot.  We did everything we could to keep him away!

~ Doubletree ~

Our final weekend excursion was to an all-inclusive Doubletree resort in Puntarenas.  Doubletree is a famous US chain that belongs to the Hilton.  It was a perfect place to unwind after a few very busy weeks.  The picture above shows just one of the resort’s gorgeous pools. 

We were also right on the ocean, and there was even had a pier that we could walk out on.  

In addition to amazing facilities, the resort offered a variety of fun activities.  We were each given a large schedule of events so we could pick and choose which ones we wanted to go to.  A few of us decided to go to the water aerobics class that was offered one afternoon.  

Many of us also went to play bingo!  Here we are with the staff member who ran the game. 

In the evenings, there were shows that we could go to.  This particular one featured fire dancers!   

~ Farewell at Marriott ~

As we approached the last few days of our Costa Rica adventure, we had one final excursion ahead of us.  This was a one night stay at a five star hotel, the Marriott Los Sueños Resort.  We went there to simply enjoy one of our last nights abroad.  It was the perfect way to close the program. 

~ Thank You! ~

Costa Rica has been an incredible experience for all of us.  I hope that you have enjoyed following our adventures and have learned a lot about the beautiful country we visited.  I would like to extend a big thank you to our Mount professor Dr. Rodriguez-Lozano who coordinated this entire trip.  She has worked very hard to give us a great experience.  Thank you also to her husband Alberto who accompanied us on the trip and provided me with many of the pictures featured in this blog.

I think it’s safe to say that we have all been changed by our study abroad experience.  As we settle back into our day-to-day activities, we will always remember the wonderful sights we saw and the kind people we met.

Chau, Costa Rica.  Espero que nos veamos de nuevo en el futuro.
Goodbye, Costa Rica.  I hope we meet again in the future.

Emily Wells (Class of 2013), Costa Rica 2011


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