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Exploring Costa Rica

Gabe poses on a bridge in the Sarapiqui rain forest during his school trip to Costa Rica, where his days were packed with science and outdoor adventure.
Photo by Toni DeVito (Gabe's mom)

Being from Los Angeles, I never thought I’d be rushing down a river or dangling high up in trees.

Last year, my school organized an eight-day trip to Costa Rica, a country in Central America. We were told we would get half a year of science credits. When I told my parents about the trip, which cost $2,000, they said, “You can go but you have to raise your own money to spend.” I started a dog-walking business and earned $700 by the time the trip came in June. (Costa Rica is actually pretty cheap and I spent only $160.)

The night before I left, I was so excited that it was hard to fall asleep. I was wondering what the trip would be like. It turns out that the days were long and some of the academics were boring, but it was worth it for the fun outdoor activities that I would never get the chance to do in L.A.

After the seven-hour flight, we drove to our hotel in San Jose, the capital. As we stepped outside the airport, the oppressive heat and humidity almost made me turn around and walk right back in. (Throughout the trip, whenever I went outside I turned sticky and began sweating. And taking showers did nothing to get rid of the stickiness.)

The second day, we traveled over the mountains that divide Costa Rica in half. The tour guides said we were going to a hotel, but it didn’t look like one at all. We stayed in large tiki huts that let all the heat and humidity in. That night we learned about bats at a research center. We were told that bats are often misconceived as evil creatures that follow Dracula’s will. It turns out that bats are good-natured and people think they’re bad because sometimes bats get caught in people’s hair. They showed us a bat that had long, evil-looking fangs.

We didn’t just learn about bats, some lived in the roof of the hotel. That night, I came into the hotel lobby and out of nowhere, whoosh, a bat flew past me. I screamed, slammed the door and stayed in my room until it left. The information we had been told about bats made it less scary, but I still freaked out because it wasn’t expected.

Since we were there during the rainy season, it at least drizzled every day. The next morning it was pouring rain while we did a science experiment in an orange grove, writing down our guess of how much the trees were being choked by other plants. The whole time, we were talking about wanting to go white-water rafting. It was the third day—wasn’t Costa Rica supposed to be more adventurous? Luckily, we still had the rest of the trip.

I had the best time riding the rapids

That afternoon we finally got to take a break from all the learning and went white-water rafting. On every turn the raft almost hit the riverbank, but at the last second it would turn away, turning fear into excitement. The rapids were the best; you get that dropping feeling, like when you go over a hill in a car. My clothes got sopping wet, and never dried even when I hung them up. At one point I got so desperate, I tried to use the hair dryer in the hotel but it didn’t work and I was stuck with a pile of wet clothes.

Later we took a hike and the tour guides pointed out a tree with leaves that had evolved from flat to gutter-like so it wouldn’t drown in the rain. I preferred learning about science on the hike rather than doing boring experiments.

But then a storm came up and I was behind everyone else. I tried to rush across a river to catch up to them, but I lost my balance on the slippery rocks and fell in. The river was waist high, fast-running and rocky. I was scared. I grabbed a big rock and the tour guide pulled me to shore. I was safe but my clothes were soaked and covered in dirt. Walking back to the bus, barefoot on the gravel path, I was hot, wet and tired.

I just wanted to sleep but that night they took us to Mount Arenal, an active volcano that is dangerous on one side but safe on the other because the lava flows too slowly to reach the bottom, and most of the ashes and gases from eruptions are blown away by the wind. All that was between the volcano and us was a four-lane road and a patch of land. We could hear it rumble and see the bright orange lava flow down the mountainside and cool.

The next day, we hiked a trail in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a rain forest in the mountains. It was cool and moist, a nice change from the heat. I learned that Costa Rica is more biologically diverse than North America or Europe, although it’s much smaller. That made me realize that animals always surrounded us, even the ones we didn’t see. Like when we were walking to our hotel and heard a deep howling noise, which we later found out were howler monkeys.

After yet another rice and beans lunch, we zip-lined across the tree canopy in the cloud forest. We wore harnesses that attached to a wire above us and we zipped across the line. Going from platform to platform, I screamed my lungs out, terrified but also excited because I felt like was going to fall 80 feet to the forest floor. It was like a really fun roller coaster.

I liked that Costa Rica was different and tourist-centered, and tourism there means showing off the country’s natural beauty. Wow, the trip was worth it, but being a city person, by the end I was ready to leave. I missed my dogs, my bed and most of all, my clothes dryer.