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Students get up close and personal in Costa Rica

April 21, 2014

For Kevin Monson, being in Costa Rica was like living in Jurassic Park – without the dinosaurs.

“We were on the river and came into a canyon. There was a waterfall coming through a break in the trees, the sun was shining through. It was unreal. Perfect.”

Further down the Pacuare River, a kingfisher dived right in front of their raft and returned to the surface with lunch in beak. “Another National Geographic moment,” said Monson, who spent the entire trip taking mental snapshots of his surroundings.

The third-year ecotourism and outdoor leadership student travelled for two weeks in the Central American country as part of an experiential-based exploration last February. In addition to river rafting, Monson, along with his instructor Russel Krasnuik and three other MHC students, spent the field study learning about the advanced tourism industry of Costa Rica, exploring the biodiversity of the Sarapiqui Rainforest, and touring a Planeterra coffee cooperative. The group also had their share of once in a lifetime experiences – swimming in a dormant volcanic crater, zip lining through the rainforest canopy, and sharing the local culture.

According to Krasnuik, the learning opportunities for students were significant.

“We dealt so much with nature,” he said. “What we learn in two years of class, they experienced in two weeks. It was so intense.”

The group hiked through Sarapiqui Rainforest and spent the night at an eco-lodge. From there, they explored the forest and observed its diversity at all hours of the day. Some of the species were centuries old in evolution and can only be found in Costa Rica, added Krasnuik.

Monson was amazed by the amount of life in the rainforest. “At night, it was never quiet, always bustling. We saw all sorts of cool stuff – butterflies, stick bugs, lethal frogs. I’ll never be scared of spiders here again,” he joked.

In addition to observing the wildlife, students witnessed first-hand the healing power of nature. To deal with an illness in Canada, we typically make an appointment with our doctor or hop in a car and drive to the pharmacy. In Costa Rica, they walk into the forest, bring back some canopy leaves and brew an awful, yet effective remedy called jackass bitters. According to the sick student, it tasted worse than Buckley’s but it worked!

“It was amazing to see how close they are to nature there. It’s tough to find that here,” said Monson about life in North America.

In an effort to protect their delicate ecology, Costa Rica has many government initiatives and policies in place to protect to prevent exploitation. For example, as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, 25 per cent of the land is protected as a national park or reserve and hunting for sport is now illegal.

Monson was particularly impressed by the country’s position as a world leader in sustainable travel and conservation. He noted the Blue Flag program and Green Leaf Initiative are active in Costa Rica and encourage businesses to be ecofriendly.

Tourism development, which is Costa Rica’s third largest industry behind intel chips and farming, is very advanced, he added. Monson, who works at Cypress Hills Eco-Adventures Ltd., found it interesting to compare aspects of tourism between the two countries and watch how guides operate at home and abroad. National certification is required to be a guide in Costa Rica, similar to national parks staff in Canada.

Students also had the opportunity to visit a sustainable coffee co-op and bring a taste of Costa Rica back to Canada. They toured the Coopesarapiqui plantation, an enterprise project funded by Planeterra Foundation, and learned about the production and economy of the coffee industry. With the knowledge and relationships they gained from the experience, students are now launching a fundraising project here at home that will support coffee bean growers in Costa Rica as well as organizations in Medicine Hat.

“The whole experience was unexpected. It was way more in-depth than what I anticipated. We were right in there, experiencing the local economy and culture,” said Monson.

With all of the experiences that were gained in Costa Rica, students were asked to answer the following exam question: “How do you want to live with nature now?”

Monson answered it by simply saying “This trip helped me understand how we are not above nature by any means, we are just a part of it.”