Costa Rica service learning trip

Costa Rica – The Real Thing: What I Thought vs. What I Now Know

Not too long ago, I came back from a study abroad experience in Costa Rica that I quite honestly underestimated. When I say this, I mean it in the subtlest way possible. With the classes we took that led up to the trip including the varying presentations and interactions with other peers, I figured we would go in, see some things, impact some lives, and then just come back to go on with our own lives. As I said, I underestimated it… big time. We didn’t just go in and see some things – we saw a LOT of things. We also learned a tremendous amount from just about everyone we encountered, even if they weren’t from Costa Rica. Everyone on the trip was very intelligent and offered some piece of knowledge whether it be a fun fact, educational, or just a life experience. I would go on to say that not only did we possibly impact some lives over in Costa Rica, I think our own lives were impacted the most.  In my opinion, cultural shock is something that I truly experienced on both ways of the trip. Heading into Costa Rica and coming back to the United States, I was amazed at the differences I experienced culturally, environmentally, ethically, you name it. Lastly, the people I met and the relationships I developed were unpredictable but very impactful.

Getting into Costa Rica was very surreal. Looking back at it, it was kind of a blur. After getting through TSA and customs, and all the sudden we are here, in Costa Rica, something we have been looking forward to for some odd weeks. The first couple days were spent at EARTH University which is hard for me to say because when I think of University, I don’t think of EARTH, that is for certain. EARTH was well over eight thousand acres in land and specializes in agricultural and environmental topics of education. Just to name a few things, we visited a farm, garden, banana plantation, banana packaging facility, and more. These were some of the tours that really stuck out to me. We were accompanied by three Earth students who were all from Africa and in their third of fourth year. They were incredibly friendly people who were out going and welcoming. One of the nights we were there for instance, a guy name Claude who took us on the tour invited some of us to play volleyball and arcade games with him and some of his friends. Even in the cafeteria when we were eating either breakfast, lunch, or dinner, students were not afraid to come sit by us and talk. Going off the cafeteria, all of the food that Earth University serves is grown or raised on their campus. All their fruits and vegetables are fresh and their animals are raised under very loose conditions allowing them to grow stress free and making the meat much better. The tours of the periurban agriculture was eye opening as for I have no experience with gardening or really any agriculture for that matter so learning about how plants are grown small scale instead of large scale which is ideal for semi-urban settings that don’t have the acreage a rural area would have. There were many different kinds of beds that they grew the flowers in including raised beds, hanging, hydroponic, gardens with discarded material as a border, there were and are many to be developed. All crops are organically produced which limits the use of chemicals and pesticides on the crop. In fact, soil isn’t traditionally used in this garden. Instead, the organic approach of rice hulls, coconut shells, and charcoal bits were used. The idea behind this use is that its inexpensive, good for water and nutrients retention, and allows for good drainage and air-filled pore space. It was a very cool to learn that even when you are provided with large amounts of land or proper equipment for farming, you can still do so with minimal space and recyclable waste.

Within that first day of arrival we also visited the Doka Estate coffee plantation and received a tour of the plantation as well as the processing plant. The plantation is the largest in Costa Rica and is the oldest wet mill processing plant in the country. We were walked through the whole process from harvesting the bean to roasting it with some taste tests along the way. As this was actually the first thing we did when we arrived to Costa Rica, it was relatively close (about an 1) from our airport in San Jose. The plant was located along the central valley in the valleys of Alajuela which apparently has the ideal conditions for coffee growth since they are the oldest plantation running for longer that 70 years. What makes this location ideal is the elevation of about 1000 meters above sea level. Here, they have great altitude along with temperatures of 60-78 oF which are again, ideal for the growth of coffee beans. When were there, we could feel the cooler weather come as the sun was starting to set. We also noticed that the cooler weather wasn’t prone to humidity which is not ideal for the growth of coffee. Back to EARTH University, we made it to the banana plantation which was very large and a lot was learned from how bananas are harvested and then packaged in an packaging facility nearby. The climate here was significantly different compared the the climate back at the Doka Estates. It was significantly warmer and very humid. The fact that it was barely 100 meters above sea level contributed to the humidty and moisture level there. Clearly the Caribbean side of the country is more so where bananas will be grown. The tropical region that this Caribbean side applies to, is ideal for the growth, with temperatures averaging around 80 oF a year. In addition, the rainfall in this area is frequent and unpredictable. There needs to be an average of about 100 inches of rain fall a year. When Cellimo was giving us a tour of the plantation, it would periodically down pour out of nowhere. Luckily, the leaves on the banana plants were large enough to temporarily serve as an umbrella. In fact, the weather here was extremely humid I remember that I wouldn’t use my covers to sleep at night and needed a cold shower prior to bed in order to get a better night’s rest. A few times we would be out and get caught in rain unexpectedly. Towards the end of the week, we ended up experiencing the last kind of elevation, the highest. A we drove quite a while from the lowest elevation of EARTH at 100 meters to some of the highest elevations in the country going across the Cordillera central through Zarcero which had beautiful views at the city park where we then went to eat lunch that also had beautiful views. When we were driving, we noticed not a whole lot of plantation farms but rather farms with a lot of cattle. McDonalds cleared out and purchased a lot of land back in the 80s so that they could raise a ton of cattle for ground beef production so that they could mainly get it imported for very cheap. Supposedly the ticos are trying to bring back the biodiversity in this area but it is a work in progress. There was a lot of rural area at this elevation more so than other elevations. Also, it was a lot cooler here maybe in the low to mid 60’s with absolutely no humidity. The girls loved this probably because they were sweating and sticky but personally I was a little cold and would have rather been in the humidity down at earth. Regardless, it was still breathtaking at how high we were and the views that we could see. Throughout the whole week, we were able to see low to high elevations ranging from just over 100 meters to almost 2,000 meters. The humidity decreased along with the temperature as we increased in elevation with either Doka or Earth University being my favorite location since its warmer. Also, each elevation had its own unique agriculture whether it be bananas at low, coffee at mid, or cattle at high elevation.

I would say one of my favorite experiences in the whole trip was in La Argentina community experience. More specifically, the home-stay was a lot better than I expected it to be. On the third day or so, we ventured over to La Argentina community where I think the heart of the trip was. I truly don’t think I experiend the Costa Rican culture until we went to this community. Monday we started off by building a biodigestor for a farmer who previously had one but after a lot of ware and tare, it needed to be replaced. He had a very unique farm that had all kinds of barnyard animals and a stream that contained all the fecal matter from the animals. After an engineer taught us the basic principles of a biodigestor, we all helped install it. This helped the farmer take some of that contaminated water and turn it into fuel to run his appliances helping him cook. Here we also experienced our first home cooked meal of arroz con pollo for lunch. The home style meal was truly amazing as the chicken was raised in the family’s farm and used for the meal. The farmer helped us to install the biodigestor and it was amusing to see how much of us didn’t know how to work and even a young boy who was also out there was directing college students on what to do shows that in that culture you must work to get what you need. I’m sure they started working at a young age and continue to work because it sure showed. Some of us don’t even experience labor intensive chores which explains our lack of ability to work. That evening, after getting rained on and becoming very muddy, we were dropped off at our home-stay. I stayed with Joe and Qi. Together we stayed in Douglass’s place with his wife Mariah. Thankfully, Douglass was able to speak some English since he worked in the United States for 4 years. This made things a little easier and less stressful. I didn’t realize how lucky we were for him to be able to speak a bit of Engilsh until we had to talk to his wife Mariah who didn’t speak any English. It was very difficult and frustrating at times because she seemed like such a sincere lady who I would have loved to have a conversation with but my little bit of Spanish was no help. This language barrier played a bigger role than I anticipated it to. Talking to some of the other people on the trip and their experience with their home stays seemed a lot more challenging then ours because they no English. I almost thought of it as disrespectful at times because I am coming into their country and can’t speak their language. It really made me appreciate Qi’s ability to speak mandarin and English! Douglass had a whole separate guest housing that he built for people like us and it was a really nice place. It was also a different lifestyle. Since it was so humid, the windows were open, bathroom, everything was open. It was like camping in a super nice shelter, very unique experience. The sun would rise and set very early so the days started early and ended early. Douglass’s property was beautiful as for it was a primary rainforest that he had made a small trail and over the years the trees grew back over top. One night around 5, before the sun was getting ready to set, he took us on the trail with his huge machete and pet dog named Tigre, and pointed out many of the different plants and things that we could see along the way. He also gave us some very impactful life advice that really changed my perspective and got me thinking about a lot of things. He started the “tour” out by pointing out a rock with a bunch of plants growing all over it and he asked what’s the purpose of this or what do these supply us with? We answered with food, energy, and most importantly, oxygen. He went on to explain that we survive off the plants as for they produce oxygen for us and if it weren’t for plants, then we wouldn’t be here. Why are we trying to travel and inhabit Mars when we literally have everything we need right here? We need to stop and focus on bettering what we have because we have it all, we just aren’t utilizing it. Douglass loves Costa Rica and thinks it’s a wonderful country not only for its culture but also because it contains roughly 5.2% of the worlds biodiversity. Costa Rica is a country smaller than the state of West Virginia and it contains a relatively large percentage compared to its size. As we walked along the trail he explained how he went over to the US to try and live the American dream but it was very hard for him and he ended up coming back to Costa Rica and has retired but still actively participates in La Argentina community by having a say in some of the community choices they make. For instance, I believe he helped coordinate the painting of the medical facility. Anyways, he is retired and not rich but he is happy. As money can buy a lot of things it doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, its more so about the perspective of life and what perspective you choose to look at it through. He lives a simple life with barely any electronics and no car with the closest supermarket about 3 miles from where he lives. He really cherishes the small things in life like taking walks on his trail and enjoying the sounds and sights of nature or spending his time with his son while building the guest house. Douglass also seemed to enjoy cooking and was a grade A chef if you ask me. After dinner each night we played dominos and socialized about anything that came to mind. He truly made me think more about my life and future goals after what he talked about. Again, as money can buy nice things, you may not end up with the most money to buy you the flashiest things but you really need to live a simple life in which you make your own happiness. No matter what job you work or who you work with, you may not be guaranteed the best situation but you need to make the best out of what you have. Only you can guarantee your own happiness so surround yourself with things you enjoy and people who make you happy.


As I learned about sustainability and the cultural aspects of Costa Rica, I don’t think anything can compare to staying with a family as they offer you the most insight on their experience and how they like their country. The trip was something I never would have expected. I got so much out of it including learning new things, understanding myself as well others a little better, meeting new people and making new friends. Paul and Joe, I want to thank you for supervising this trip as I don’t think we could have had a cooler, more laid back set of advisors on a college study abroad trip. You guys are very intelligent and I learned a lot from you. Thanks for everything and it was a pleasure to go on this trip with such a great group of people. Made the trip very enjoyable and is something I will always look back on. Pura Vida!

One thought on “Costa Rica service learning trip

  1. It sounds like you not only had some transformational experiences related to your understanding of biodiversity abroad but also in how you learned to engage with others different from yourself.

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