Friday, May 24, 2013

Day 12: Returning to America

We woke up just a few hours later, and had one last Costa Rican breakfast before heading out to the airport at 3am. After we got through security, we spent some time sitting and chatting as a group about our journey in Costa Rica. Its hard to believe that the day to leave was already here. So much has happened since the last time we were at this airport, but it still seems weird that 12 days have already passed. This trip has been one of the most amazing and awarding things I have ever done!

We were all very sad to be leaving Costa Rica. It has been such an amazing 12 days and we had grown very close as a group. It was to the point were it was getting hard to imagine living a life other than the relaxed, stress free, easy going life we had been living for the past 12 days.

This is a view of the mountains surrounding San Jose. In the distance is a volcano that erupted while we were in Costa Rica. The Volcano erupted a few days after we arrived. Luckily, no one was injured by it. Our pilot pointed it out to us.

One of our last views of the amazing country where we had just spent the last 12 days!

Our first view of America.

Pretty cloudscape we flew past on our flight from Miami to Nashville. I spent most of the flight reflecting on the amazing 2 weeks that have just passed. I had studied abroad before, and I was worried that this shorter trip would not live up to my expectations. I had nothing to be worried about! This trip exceeded all of my expectations.

 We were all tired from our journey, but that didn’t stop us from continuing a tradition we had started on the trip. Anytime someone fell asleep, we took a picture of him or her. This was the last picture on my phone from the trip and it makes me laugh!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Day 11: Coffee Tour, Return to Alajuela, and Life of Luxury

We woke up on the final day to beautiful sunny day. It is definitely a bitter sweet feeling knowing that at this time tomorrow, we will be on a plane back to the US. By the way, this is the hostel we have been staying at for the past two nights!

As we left Quepos heading towards Alajuela, we crossed Crocodile Bridge. As the name suggests, this is the view from the bridge. We took a pit stop and walked down to admire these creatures. Some of the locals even capitalized on this opportunity, by selling raw chicken to be thrown down to the crocs. It was pretty cool to see the alligators attack the meat.

After arriving back in Alajuela, we went on a Coffee Plantation tour. Our guide, a Guatemalan Native, like most of the coffee workers, walked us through the process. It was very eye opening to learn everything that goes into producing a cup of coffee.

This machine is still used to separate the beans from the cherries. They have been using this same machine since the 1800s, and it is powered by an underground river. It was very interesting to learn that the plant uses no electricity and produces almost no waste! Even on the industrial level, Costa Ricans look for ways to minimize their impact on the environment.

A direct comparison between the different coffee bean grades. The closest bag contains the highest quality beans. The Costa Rican government does not allow these Peaberry beans to be exported. Instead, international consumers must buy online directly from the plantation or visit Costa Rica to buy these coffee beans. This helps drive tourism and allows for better quality control. The furthest bag contains the lowest quality bean, which is sold to instant coffee companies like Folgers and Maxwell House.

A look at the final product. These are all the different roasts that Doka Estate sells.

After the Coffee Tour, we arrived at Hotel 1915. None of us expected to be staying in a place of luxury on the final night. This hotel has an open aired Spanish Courtyard and balconies in the room.

We explored Alajuela, which turned out to be a very cool city. Murals and statues commemorate the Costa Rican fight for independence, while beautiful churches line the town plazas.

A beautiful sunset in Alajuela to symbolize the ending of a perfect trip.

One last hurrah. Ron and Luke treated all of us to dinner. We went to a nice restaurant and relived some of the most memorable moments of the trip. I live for moments like this and would give anything to go back to this night. It was by far the best way to end a fantastic study abroad experience.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Day 10: A day at the beach at Manuel Antonio

Today was the day all of us were really looking forward to. Today we were going to Manuel Antonio National Park. This park is located on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and is known for its abundant wildlife and spectacular beaches. We began our day with a short hike through the forest to the beach.

As I said before, Manuel Antonio is full of wildlife. On just our short hike, we saw nearly 2-dozen howler monkeys, numerous frogs, and the three-toed sloth pictured above. It was neat to see these animals in their actual habitats.

Our short hike ended with this view. Today we would be spending most of the day at this spectacular beach!

We spent most of the day swimming in the water and playing Frisbee. It was a very relaxing and fun day!

After about 1.5 hours in the water, we decided to go hike one of the other trails in the park. We didn’t see much wildlife, but it had some spectacular views.

This is a view of the beach we spent the day on from an overlook. One of many beautiful views our hike provided.

When we came back, we decided to eat our lunch we brought. The animals in the park know that bags have food. As a result, the animals steal the bags if you don’t have someone constantly sitting by them. We had 2-foot iguanas, raccoons, and monkeys try to steal our food. This shows how close the monkeys got to us trying to get our bags. At one point we had 6 monkeys within 10 feet of us!

It was such a fun day at Manuel Antonio with this amazing group of people.

On our way back from Manuel Antonio, we stopped by a restaurant called El Avion. It features a AC-130 that the U.S. sold to Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra Crisis. It never made it to Nicaragua and is now a restaurant. You can sit in the cockpit, and the actual body of the plane is now a bar. I have no idea how the airplane was transported here. The roads in this area are steep and extremely narrow! We ended the day by going out for dinner in Quepos. After walking around for awhile, we found a restaurant with live music. We thought it would be neat to listen to a Costa Rican band. Turns out, the band was from Alabama and played country music. Today was another incredible day in Costa Rica!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day 9: "Cloud" Forest and Arriving in Quepos

We started the day by driving to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. However, we met our first obstacle when the van got stuck trying to go up this steep and muddy hill. Despite trying to maintain speed as we rounded the corner leading to this hill and shifting more weight (students) to the back of the van, we could not get up.

Leaving the van behind, we hiked the remaining trip up to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Luckily, it was literally right around the corner!

We started our tour with our guide by hiking through the cloud forest…well what’s supposed to be a cloud forest. Unfortunately the weather was too warm for the clouds to form. It was still a beautiful hike either way.

Our guide tries to draw a tarantula out of its hole. The guide saw a tarantula the size of a human fist enter the hole as we approached. Unfortunately, the tarantula never came out.

The tour lasted for several hours, and we learned a lot about the wildlife, terrain, and climate of this area. It is also worth noting that the money tourists pay to enter this park benefit a local school. This helps tie the ecotourism and the local community together, which is one of the major topics we explored in this class.

Definitely my favorite picture from the day. On the tour, we came across a newly hatched bird egg.

Unfortunately, we didn’t spot too many birds on the tour, but this is one that we did come across. We were able to watch it for several minutes before it flew away. We all would have loved to see the Quetzal, but it is fairly rare to come across one of these. Despite not seeing many birds, we did hear a lot of cool birds. We heard a bird known as the Squeaky Gate, because its call literally sounds like a squeaky gate rocking back and forth. There was a second who’s call sounds like a basketball buzzer. It was surreal to be in this forest and to hear these exotic noises.

After we left the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, we stopped at a grocery store in Santa Elena to grab lunch. As we were checking out, we saw the pictures and headlines from the Oklahoma Tornadoes. We had absolutely no idea what was happening back in the US. Wifi was very limited and many of us chose to enjoy Costa Rica and stay off of our phones. It was very shocking to see this, and we knew it was bad news if it made the front page of the Costa Rican newspapers. 

The beautiful drive out of Santa Elena. None of us could get enough of this breathtaking view as we snapped picture after picture.

The coconut oil plantation outside of Quepos. This plantation covered both sides of the road and the last 30 miles heading into Quepos. Right in the middle, there was a plant bellowing black smoke from the processing of the coconut oil. It was a harsh contrast from the environment consciousness exhibited by the rest of the country, which plans to be carbon neutral by 2020.

The beautiful Oceanside city of Quepos, which is our home for the next few nights.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Day 8: Goodbye Tenorio; Hello Santa Elena

We woke up and it was time to leave Tenorio National Park. It was going to be sad leaving Tenorio. Although we had only been here 4 days, it felt like our home in Costa Rica. I was going to miss all of the rangers and workers we have met at Tenorio. As a sign of their appreciation for our hard work, they gave us a piece of wood yesterday. Ethan carved it and we all signed it. It is now hanging on the ranger station at Tenorio with signs from many other groups from across the US and around the world.

Our next destination was Santa Elena, Costa Rica. It is a couple of hours away from Tenorio, but we made several stops along the way. Our first stop was just a few miles down the road at a giant tree called “The Peace Tree.” The tree was absolutely massive and has been growing for like 300 years. We spent about 15 minutes just walking around the tree and admiring its size. The photo on the bottom left is me in front of it to put its size into perspective. 

This was the last day we were going to be with Ricardo. We would be dropping him off at a bus station along our way so he could go to a different National Park. In just the 4 days we have known him, Ricardo has grown close to our group. We were all sad to see him leave. As a sign of our thanks, Ali gave him a WKU intramural champions shirt and Scott gave him a Red Towel that we all signed.

The journey to Santa Elena exposed us another unique part of Costa Rica. In this picture we are driving through the part of Costa Rica that is in a rain shadow. It is very dry and desert like, receiving only a few inches of rain a year. It is crazy how drastic the landscape and climate is in this small country.

Our second stop along the way was at Las Pumas Animal Rescue Preserve. This place takes in animals that have been rescued from poachers. Poaching is a huge problem in Costa Rica. We enjoyed our time here as we got to see the wildlife you expect to see when you come to Costa Rica!

Our third and final stop was at a gas station. Our vans needed to get some more fuel for the rest of the trip. This is also where we were dropping off Ricardo. We were all sad to see him have to leave. In just the four days that we have known him, our group had grown very close to Ricardo. He was our translator, group leader, protector, and friend over the past four days. The man of few words, many animal sounds, and many sarcastic comments would be greatly missed. As we were driving away, he waved his Red Towel for us!

We now drove back up into the mountains to get to Santa Elena. The drive up was pretty dangerous with skinny, gravel roads and huge drop offs. We have gotten used to roads like this in Costa Rica! Although we only had to drive like 30 miles from the animal preserve, it took around 2 hours. It was a beautiful drive though.

Our first adventure in Santa Elena was zip-lining. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever done. We did probably about 15 zips, but nothing compared to the final zip. This zip-line was 1 km or 2/3 of a mile long and we reached speeds of nearly 45 miles an hour. Words can’t really describe it; you just have to see it. To watch the final zip, click on the link:

After zip-lining, we went back to our hotel. Our hotel was fittingly named The Sunset Inn. Scott gave his presentation over cloud forests and then we all relaxed until sunset. It was beautiful! It really is just the little things that are truly amazing. I never have time to just sit and watch the sun set back in America. I was really glad I got this opportunity.

For dinner, we went into the small town of Santa Elena. It is a really small town that relies on tourism. Since we have been here, we have always tried to pick local, not very touristy places to eat. However, after being here for 8 days, we caved and went to the Tree House CafĂ©. I mean, we couldn’t really pass up the chance to eat in a restaurant that has a tree growing in it! All of the tables and chairs were made of tree stumps to add to the idea of eating in a tree. The food was great, but the best thing was the fresh pineapple juice. It was a great dinner out with the group!