Written by Carolyn C. of Head Royce School
Day 1 – Arrival in Costa Rica
After an exhausting two flights from San Francisco to Houston, then on to San Jose, we exited the plane bleary-eyed, but excited for the adventure ahead of us! Once we claimed our bags and went through customs, we finally emerged from the airport and were immediately struck by two things: the heat, and the humidity. Both hit us with intensity, and we peeled off our sweatshirts and corralled our luggage. Our van pulled up shortly after. We left our backpacks in the blissfully air-conditioned interior and watched in awe as our baggage was hoisted up and latched onto the top of the van for the voyage.
We headed to a cafe near the airport for lunch. Our first meal in Costa Rica consisted of rice, beans, meat, salad, and sweet tropical fruit juice. While we all tucked into our lunch, one of our guides told us stories of sharks and gave us tips on drinking water and currency. Soon, we’re on the road in our van again, with another guide, Humberto, informing us about Costa Rica: he told us about the provinces and Costa Rican geography, pointing out signs and mountains and even volcanoes (!) in the distance. While we tried to pronounce the province names correctly, the van drove further from the airport and into the surrounding city. This was when the fact that we’re in Costa Rica really started to sink in. We passed numerous houses and buildings: made from corrugated metal and painted wood. They come in all sizes and shapes, decorated with colorful graffiti and various kinds of metal gates and barred windows. These colorful, well-fortified homes are so different from the buildings back home, yet so many things feel familiar: the billboards advertising services and stores, and people chatting behind their gated porch.
While we chatted, slept, read or simply admired the scenery, the van wound its way out of the city and into the countryside. We gaped in awe as the advertisements and paved roads made way for gravel and palm trees. Our guide pointed out a coffee plantation on our right side. Walls of tropical green vegetation on a canvas of bright moss and damp brown earth rose up on both sides of the road. There were all varieties of plants: huge, glossy fronds, wisps of green tendrils, and every size and shape in-between clung to the hillsides. In between gaps in the vivid green walls, we glimpsed sweeping valleys, dramatically shrouded in fog. After a few hours on the road, we pulled aside to a huge superstore to replenish our food supply with Costa Rican sweets and snacks! Once we all made our purchases, we piled back into the van to compare the unfamiliar candies and chips and their chirpy names. Plus, we received Costa Rican currency as change, so we examined the intricate colones coins and bills.
On the road again, and we flashed past palm trees and plantations in disbelief. Only a few hours ago we were in an American airport lounge, replete with food chains and florescent lighting, making this lush green landscape seem like a dream.
After hours of driving, we pulled to a stop at the end of a gravel road, where the path narrows and our van can no longer follow it. Filing out into the heat and humidity once more, we liberally sprayed on insect repellent as we were bitten for the first time. The air was thick with moisture and the murmur of the insects in the rainforest beyond the road. Another classmate beckoned us away from the road to hear the noise better. We picked our way among the moss-covered rocks intertwined with tree roots towards a small field and the trees beyond. Soon, we were enveloped in the sound of life, the vibration and buzz of the chirping and clicking from a thousand insects and animals. Adding to the awe, two boats awaited us to whisk us away to Pacuare beach, where we will work with the staff at the Widecast station in their turtle preservation efforts. Forming a line, we passed down each piece of luggage to the boats. Before we boarded, our guide for the first portion of our journey gave us a speech. He reminded us to cherish each moment here, each ‘up and down’, because sooner than we knew it, we would be back at the airport. Our time here is precious, he told us, and will stay with us throughout our lives.
With his words in mind, we boarded the boats and strapped on life jackets, and our small, bright blue motorboat pulled away from the dock. We zoomed into the waterway and everything around us turned surreally beautiful: the green trees and vegetation bent towards the waterway like a tunnel, their roots half-exposed by the eroded dirt, and their long branches trailed along the surface of the water. The muddy brown water, which failed to betray what lurked beneath its depths, was still, which created a mirror image of the beautiful jungle that surrounded us. The palm leaves and moss-covered tree trunks that speckled the river bank created pretty symmetrical patterns. As our boat churned the reflections into white spray and long ripples, the only sound was the hum of its engine and the noise of the animal life that lurks among the trees and plants. We are speechless with admiration.
Once, our guide stopped the boat to point out two howler monkeys in the trees above us. “They’re usually loud,” she explained, “but now they are quiet.” Their soft, dark silhouettes moved silently in the branches over us, as we drank in the scene with our eyes (and cameras). As the palm trees on the shore increased in number and the waterway widened, we ducked under branches and even a downed tree’s trunk as we floated further. The reflection of the jungle is a whole other world that we skimmed the surface of, and the swells from the wake of the boat distorted the flipped landscape around us, adding to its phantasmagorical beauty. It really felt as if we’d sped away on this bright blue motorboat, away from our cluttered lives of buildings and schedules and waste. It felt as if we were in some photo spread in a nature magazine, the kind people read to escape their everyday lives, but this time we’d managed to switch positions with the subject, no longer just a wistful onlooker.
As the light died behind the overcast sky, the waterway expanded ever further and the shores drew farther away from us, as we neared the mouth of the river and the ocean. Other boats passed us going in the other direction, and we raised our hands in genial greeting towards them as they sped by, and we lurched and dipped in their wake. Birds skirted the water, dove and swirled above us, and grasses and other plants seemed to hover on the surface of the leaf-speckled water. Our guide pointed out the houses and school and coast guard station that make up the community. Soon, the waterway narrowed again and we slipped through the gaps in the grass-choked river. As our guide maneuvered our boat, the sky darkened even more until it was difficult to distinguish the plants from the buildings. Finally, our boat hit sand, and flashlights danced along the shore as the Widecast staff approached us and helped guide us in, splashing in the river in sandals to pull us toward them.
Soon, we stepped off the boat with wobbly steps toward lights coming from their kitchen. They welcomed us, and their dog sniffed at our feet. We were advised to take out our flashlights to avoid accidentally stepping on any venomous creatures, and shortly after, we shined our lights on three toads, which hopped away upon being discovered.
The other boat arrived with our luggage, and as a group we made our way past the green buildings, painted brightly enough to be recognized in the now completely black night. We happened upon the common area, a large slab of concrete with long tables to sit at surrounded by tall palm trees, and then jumped in surprise at the large crab which had scuttled under the red corrugated metal roof. The staff member showed us around, pointing out our cabins and bathroom, and the kitchen, which are all powered by their solar panels and supplied with water drawn from a well.
Once we claimed our luggage and settled into our cabins, wary of bugs that threatened to penetrate our mosquito-net protected bunk beds, we gathered around the common area to sit down for dinner. The rice, beans, shredded cabbage, and savory, crispy plantain was delicious, and we ate with fervor before we embarked on our turtle patrol shifts. It began to rain, and lightning flashed on the horizon over the turbulent ocean while thunder rumbled overhead. I was too tired to follow them on their four-hour-long walks along the beach to check for mother turtles laying their eggs, so instead I tried to sleep in the cabin, as my cabinmates trickled in and out at odd hours in the night and the next morning. Overcome with tiredness and the unfamiliar weather and landscape, we all eventually fell asleep after the shifts, dreaming of more adventures and new experiences to come in the following days.