SSM Visits Costa Rica

February 27, 2018

Vibrant culture, delicious food, and enriching educational experiences highlight an SSM spring break trip to Costa Rica.

by ESL Teacher Laura Stelter

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On Saturday, February 24, 10 Shattuck-St. Mary’s students departed with ESL Instructor Laura Stelter and Spanish Instructor Leita Gjersvig for a spring break excursion to Costa Rica. Here is an account of their trip.

Day One: Departure

We started out early in the morning, loading the bus at 6:30 a.m. and flew out at 10:40 a.m. to Liberia, Costa Rica! Conveniently, we escaped between the two Minnesota snow storms.

After arriving in Costa Rica and making it through the airport, we loaded up a van and drove about two and a half hours from the airport in Liberia to Finca La Anita Rainforest Ranch in Aguas Claras de Upala. After a delicious (fresh, local, organic) dinner, we went to our cabins to get some sleep!

Day Two: Chocolate Tour and Cooking with Aracely

Living the Eco Life! After a delicious breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, and fruit, we learned a lot about chocolate! We learned about three types of cacao plants, including criollo, the type of cacao grown on the farm where we are staying and in this region. La Anita Rainforest Ranch is an organic farm focusing on cacao, but they also grow many other things, including the herbs and fruits that we ate as part of our delicious meals. Other ingredients they purchase locally. As part of the chocolate tour, we learned about the history of the cacao plant and how it is farmed. We tasted cacao beans and learned how they are roasted and processed. We learned to make a cacao drink close to what Cortez experienced with the Aztecs. Then we ate a LOT of chocolate! We got a little wet in a sudden rain shower while walking around the farm to see the cacao plants, but it was worth it. Pablo, our tour guide, also opened a cacao fruit and we sucked on the unfermented, unprocessed beans. They were delicious! Then you spit them out…

After another excellent meal, we had a break for a couple of hours, then hopped in the van to drive into the village. Aracely welcomed us into her kitchen where we made a Caribbean-style meal together over a wood-fired stove. We ate an enormous, delicious meal, then ended with a dance party!

Day Three: Escuela Liceo Valle Verde, “Señoras Las Pochotonas”

We made new friends today! We visited a small, rural, community school in Colonia Libertad that is currently meeting in a community center with temporary walls until their new school building is ready. Of the sixty students, we spent the morning with twelve sophomores in their English class. After introductions in English and Spanish, we split into small groups where we shared photos and exchanged stories. Then we went out to the soccer field behind the building to play fútbol (soccer)!

After another delicious meal at La Anita, we went back into the “village” to do a community service project with a group of local women who are building a butterfly garden that will be used as a research lab by the University of Costa Rica. To raise funds for their project, they sell beaded bracelets and necklaces and welcome tourists to their small farm. We helped to weed the inside of the netted area where the butterflies will be and donated a large number of beads to be used in their projects. We paused for a surprise rainstorm (we are in the rainforest…) to have cookies and juice, then continued weeding in the mud! It was messy, but we got a lot done and enjoyed meeting the women and helping them with their project.

We played one more game of soccer with local students, then headed back to La Anita for dinner…including an AMAZING dessert!

Day Four: Santa María Lodge

We checked out of La Anita Rainforest Ranch and went to Santa María Lodge in the morning for an incredible horseback riding experience. We rode for nearly three hours through this rainforest area. From one vista, we could see two volcanos and look back at La Anita in the distance.  After riding, we enjoyed a typical Costa Rican lunch called casado(s), which refers to the beans, salad, and patacones (fried green plantain) that are served together with an optional meat (chicken, beef, or fish, in our case).

Then it was onward to Fortuna de San Carlos–a long drive around the volcanos! We stopped along the way for pineapple, and an impromptu lesson from one of our guides in how to properly cut one…with a machete (if you don’t have a knife around). Finally, we made it to our new home for a few days, Hotel Lavas Tacotal, with an amazing view of the Arenal volcano from the opposite side from where we started! To relax after the long ride, our guides brought us to a hot spring next door. We ended the day with one more delicious meal, then headed back to our cabins at Hotel Lavas Tacotal, ready to get some sleep!

Day Five: Maleku Culture

Did I mention the amazing view from the hotel? When we arrived, it was already getting dark. We saw a volcano when we woke up! Arenal is an active volcano–while there are clouds around the top, the white spot on the top left of the volcano is actually steam.

After breakfast, we traveled to the “reserve” of the Maleku people, a (now) small indigenous tribe from the northern region of Costa Rica. We went fishing in a river that runs through their land, learned more about Maleku culture and history, and ate a traditional meal.

Day Six: Adventure Day!

We started with a zipline tour, rappelled down a cliff, then tubed through the rapids on the Arenal River, followed by a horseback ride to get a closer view of the volcano and to meet some adorable two-day-old piglets on a farm. In the afternoon, we went back to the hot springs for a second round of relaxation.

Day Seven: Playa Hermosa

We started out early with a guided hike through Campo Verde. Our naturalist and guide, Karina, pointed out birds, monkeys, plants, and let us up a ridge of volcanic rock for a spectacular view of the Arenal volcano.

After our hike, we said goodbye to the volcano and Hotel Lavas Tacotal, jumped in the van, and stopped to get some ice cream at Pops before heading to our next destination! We had stopped at Pops our first night in Fortuna when we got out of the van to stretch our legs at the park, and it became our go-to place on the trip for delicious, delicious ice cream.

On our way to Hotel Villa Acacia in Playa Hermosa, we stopped for lunch at a cafe along the Pan-American Highway with a spectacular view of Lake Arenal, a major source of hydroelectric power in the country.

When we arrived in Playa Hermosa, we were only a short walk away from the beach, which we walked down to under the light of a full moon and a sky full of stars.

Day Eight: A Diverse Day in Nature

After a long drive down a gravel road surrounded by fields of sugarcane and melons, we came to Palo Verde National Park, where we boarded a boat to travel down a river observing a number of bird species, iguanas, bats, white-faced (capuchin) monkeys, and crocodiles. One of the crocodiles was so close it was actually touching our boat. Curious white-faced monkeys nearly climbed in!

When the tour ended, we loaded the van and went to a ranch and restaurant called Rancho Los Coyotes for yet another delicious meal. We also watched a pottery demonstration, held a parrot, and tried mango straight off the tree (real mango, not what Costa Ricans would call manga: the rounder, larger fruit we have available in most places in the U.S.). Then it was back to the beach for the afternoon.

While at the beach, our tour guide ran into a friend with a boat and a banana tube, so a few members of the group went banana tubing in the ocean! Others built a sandcastle. We stayed out on the beach for a while and enjoyed a beautiful sunset, then another moonlit, star-filled evening.

Day Nine: A Traditional Festival

We started with breakfast at the hotel, then drove into Liberia, the capital of the Guanacaste province, for a traditional festival. People come from everywhere–from around the country and even the world–to participate. The festival starts with a “tope” at noon: a parade of horses and their riders. Many of the horses dance down the street, picking up their hooves in a precise way in a steady rhythm, some also tossing their heads in time. Following the tope, there is bull riding in an arena constructed just for this purpose.

We ended up in the perfect spot to watch the tope. Hundreds of horses passed by us. The horses were beautiful, many decorated with leather tassels and other adornments.

Day Ten: Beach All Day!

We got to sleep in and enjoy a lazy day on the beach. Breakfast was available all morning, so there was no rush. A few of us did yoga on the beach at 10:30am, others took the opportunity to just relax in the sunshine. The sun was strong, so a lot of people napped in the afternoon, or spent some time in the hotel’s pool. After a week and a half of non-stop adventure, it was wonderful to have some time to decompress. In the late afternoon, we were back at the beach for our last sunset. When it was time to head back for dinner, the hotel set up a special meal next to the pool. After dinner, we had homemade ice cream and brainstormed ways that we could just stay in Costa Rica and not come back for a few more days. (After all, it was snowing pretty heavily in Minnesota, maybe the airport would close?) Finally, we accepted that this was our last night and went back to our rooms to pack.

Day Eleven: Closing Thoughts

It’s hard to believe that eleven days passed–it went by so quickly! The van was loaded and ready to go by 8am. Before heading to the airport, we stopped at a primary school in Liberia, where the SSM students played and colored with the kids for a couple of hours. We brought the school some Montessori materials–they are expensive in the U.S., but even more so in Costa Rica. One of the teachers is related to Señora Gjersvig, so we asked her what she would like us to bring. The kids gave us drawings and hugs, the school fed us a delicious snack–chicken quesadillas and juice–and we continued on. We made one last stop at an historic church in Liberia, one last ice cream run to the Pops by the airport, and then it was time to go. We said goodbye to our amazing guides, Felix and Eddie, and boarded the plane for home.

We had the most phenomenal experience–I’m so glad we could share some of it with you!