Julie Hohenstein - Tropical Dry Forest Conservation & Community in Costa Rica
I was introduced to Projects Abroad by my cousin Ashley. Though hearing about her upcoming adventure made me jealous, I had no intention of embarking upon one of my own until she returned to the United States and met me with the words “Julie, you have to go somewhere with Projects Abroad”.
I found every project enticing, and realised that I would be perfectly happy doing anything from medical placements to care work. Costa Rica seemed like the perfect destination. Not only did it provide me the opportunity to test my Spanish skills, but it also pleased my mother, as it was not one million miles from home and had a reputation for being a safe country.
Flying alone, with my limited knowledge of airport protocol, should have scared me, but I was too excited to realise that I was utterly clueless. I managed to make it onto the plane, which I now realise was an easy feat considering everyone spoke English. However, the nerves hit as the plane rolled into San Jose Airport.
Arriving in San Jose
San Jose Airport proved much easier to navigate than I had expected. I followed the flow of travellers to baggage claim, where thankfully I retrieved my suitcase, and then made my way outside. To my great relief, I was immediately met by a woman wearing a Projects Abroad t-shirt. Andrea, as I would later learn to be her name, took my bag, loaded it into a bus, and away we went.
One of my favourite parts of the trip was the initial bus ride from the airport to the hotel. The drive was an introduction to Costa Rica, and Andrea was my first tour guide. My eyes remained glued to the window the entire ride. I could not get over how green everything was. The hills that lined the highway, lush with vegetation, were truly breath-taking.
The tour continued once we arrived at the Hotel Santamaria. For my first Costa Rican lunch I tried Casado, a dish composed of chicken, rice, beans and beets. I washed the huge serving down with Horchata, a drink Andrea urged us all to order. I hardly tasted my lunch though. I was so busy absorbing my surroundings that before I knew it my plate was empty.
The entire group of volunteers attended a welcome barbeque hosted in Heredia that night. There was a buffet of food to be enjoyed followed by music and dancing. The barbeque was the perfect way to start the trip. Not only was it the perfect way to meet the rest of volunteers with whom we would spend the next two weeks, but we were also introduced to the host families that would house us during our care work.
Our tour of Costa Rica continued with a four-hour bus ride to Barra Honda National Park the next morning. I began to see signs of poverty, the reason for which I had come to volunteer. The roads were poorly paved and some even turned to dirt, making travel difficult. The homes were small and worn. It was my first cultural shock. Costa Rica’s natural elements were so beautiful that the poverty was hardly noticeable.
Conservation in Costa Rica
Our work in Barra Honda was strenuous. On our first day there we went on an uphill hike that left everyone sweating in the hot morning sun. Despite the difficulty of the climb, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Being surrounded by nature left me overwhelmed as to where to look. I wanted to see everything, to experience everything. I wanted to find monkeys, snakes, birds and all of the animals that I had read about in biology books.
Though the hike disappointed me in that sense, the opportunity to see the animals of the forest arrived soon enough. Later that night a group of girls encountered a tarantula the size of my hand and the next morning we were woken up not by birds, but monkeys. Watching them jump from tree to tree was the best breakfast entertainment I could have imagined.
I loved my week in Barra Honda. While visiting we participated in multiple service projects, including reforestation work and bio garden creation. We also studied bats while helping to collect data for a bat conservation project led by one of the workers named Coco. During those late nights the stars shone so bright. It’s amazing how clear the sky can be at night when there’s no pollution to mask the beauty. Our time was not all work and no play however.
Fun times in Bara Honda
During our breaks in the afternoon we took advantage of the swimming pool down the road from our camp. It was $3 each day to use it but well worth the money. There was no better feeling than jumping in after a long morning of work. We also spent a day on an Adventure Tour where we went zip lining, rode horses, survived the rapids, and relaxed in the Guanacaste hot springs. The staff did an excellent job always keeping us busy. It was the perfect balance of volunteer work, tourist activities, and touring the country.
Helpful staff in Costa Rica
There is one story that demonstrates just how helpful the staff was. During our time at Barra Honda all of the volunteers liked to stay up late. We would sit at the picnic tables until midnight or later just talking and unwinding from the day’s events. So one night another volunteer, Lara, and I were returning to our room around midnight. As she opened her suitcase to change into pyjamas she saw something crawl under her clothes. Thankfully no one was sleeping yet, or else she would have woken them up with her scream.
We were warned in the beginning that scorpions were a possible threat, but we had dismissed the idea as unlikely. Yet here we were, in the middle of the night, forced to deal with the fact that a very dangerous creature was lurking in Lara’s suitcase.
We grabbed a flashlight and made our way up to the house of two staff members. As we stood outside the door we realised how late it was and went to return to think of another plan. As we were walking away one of the guys heard us and came outside. After explaining what was waiting for us back in our room, Eduardo (a staff member) insisted on handling it and he did.
That was the thing with the Projects Abroad employees; they were always there to help. Whether it was noon or midnight, one hundred degrees or eighty, they never hesitated to assist us. Whether the problem was something as serious as an unwanted scorpion or even just a request for an afternoon snack, every staff member tried his or her best to aid us.
Volunteering in Costa Rica was an experience to say the least. Through Projects Abroad I was able to become acquainted with a country in a unique way. The trip allowed me to meet many lifelong friends, strengthen my Spanish comprehension, and actually see progress made in different poverty-stricken areas. Although I missed friends and family in my quiet little beach town, I would not have wanted to spend two weeks anywhere else. Once I got home my first words to them were not “I missed you!” but instead “Guys, you have to go somewhere with Projects Abroad”.