Mount Abe students study in Costa Rica

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School students traveled to Costa Rica this spring to participate in cultural exchange and conservation efforts. It was an amazing educational and cultural experience for our students.
Again travelling with EcoTeach, we ventured to all new destinations while participating in a wide variety of activities and cultural events. We first helped with a sea turtle research project with the organization LAST ­ Latin American Sea Turtles,a division of WIDECAST. We were fortunate to net and health process a hawksbill turtle; a rare sighting. While half of the group was waiting for turtles to swim into our nets, the other half was planting mangrove trees to reforest the low lands and beaches. These trees are home to sea turtles, piranha, young sharks and a multitude of fish species. We learned to salsa and merengue at the turtle station, too. The puppies were pretty cute, too.
A visit to the native culture of the Boruca’s was next on the itinerary. These people are known for their artistic painted masks, originally used for fighting against other tribes and eventually the Spaniards when they were attempting to settle Costa Rica. Each participant had an opportunity to create their own mask.
From Boruca, we traveled into the highland cloud forest to the small town Providencia de Dota. This steep, mountainous community is a paradise of deep cloud forest, waterfalls, tropical birds and wildlife (we saw two wild tapirs — extremely rare) that presented many of us with quite a physical challenge.
We stayed at Armonia Ambiental, a lodge owned by the lovely Mora family on 98 hectares, raising children, vegetables, animals and coffee. We milked cows by hand, made cheese and hiked deep in the cloud forest to a spectacular 300-footwaterfall. Hiking out, well that was a challenge but we all made it! Our evening found us celebrating our excellent bus driver Gerardo’s birthday followed by a bonfire and Costa Rican s’mores. Our dreams were interrupted by a puma attack in the night. (No human was hurt, but a local dog turned up missing.) On our way out we spotted a pair of the elusive quetzal, a gorgeous bird of Central America.
An afternoon on the Sarapiqui River, whitewater rafting in Class II and III rapids kept us excited, refreshed and having fun. The howler monkeys spotted along the river were a highlight, only after a blind­side attack on Peter Etka by Adrian (one of our guides), which then turned into a melee of retaliation. Most of us ended up swimming a bit!
As our bathing suits dried on our host family clothing lines in Santa Elena, Pital, we dined on traditional, home-cooked meals: casona with gallo pinto, fried plantains, chicken stew, hand­made tortillas and a wide variety of desserts. We spent the following day with our families planting mountain almond trees along the edge of their pineapple fields. This reforestation project reestablishes habitat for clean water and the highly endangered great green macaw.
This event was followed by a deep rainforest hike where we observed exotic species of plants, trees and even giant cockroaches. Our efforts were rewarded with hours at the hot springs of Arenal at Hotel Los Lagos and a Costa Rican feast.
Our next stop was La Fortuna at the base of the mighty Vulcan Arenal. We stayed in a historic country home built by former President Iglesias over 100 years ago. Overlooking the Rio Fortuna, we were treated to a grand volcanic mountain view and a perfect scene for spotting birds. We spent a morning at Project Asis, a refuge for wild animals either confiscated or turned in to be rehabilitated. The afternoon found us at the Wooden Leg Farm, planting sweet potatoes and cassava (yucca) which became part of our evening meal. That evening we learned about the traditional way Costa Ricans process sugar cane (with the help of a team of oxen, aptly named Costa and Rica) and creating tapas de dulce, abrown sugar block used for aqua dulce and other culinary delights. A feast of the sugar cane followed with post­dinner entertainment provided by our host Mitch and our own Peter Etka and Finn Brokaw. It was a great way to end a fantastic stay in Fortuna.
Our last big adventure found us at the base of Volcan Arenal, climbing into ziplining gear to fly above the canopy for 2 hours. This day of high adventure capped our trip on a very high note and left us with a real sense of connectedness and celebration for spending such a glorious time together. This carried us into our final activity, a cultural exchange with elementary school students in La Fortuna at the Escuela Juuari. They performed traditional Costa Rican dances for us and in turn we shared our state song and taught them the Electric Slide. This was cited as one of the favorite activities by many!
Samantha Kayhart and Caroline Camara are grateful for being able to travel with such an adventurous and engaged group of Mount Abraham community members. We are so fortunate to have this opportunity and be allowed to share in such adventures of self­discovery, experiencing nature and wildlife in a different land, and living in a different culture. We love working with EcoTeach, as they consistently provide us with the best guides who challenge our travelers to get the most out of their experiences. Thank you to all of those in the community who assisted in making this happen for these young people.
For those interested in participating in our next trip, it is open to Mount Abraham Union High School juniors and seniors, and is not associated with a particular class or program. We intend to take a new group of interested students in April 2017. For more information, contact Caroline Camara ([email protected])or Samantha Kayhart ([email protected]).
Editor’s note: This article was contributed by Samantha Kayhart.

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