Sophie – Costa Rica

Sophie (Ellon Academy) was supported by a SAGT Fieldwork & Expedition Grant.

A Month in Costa Rica

I have had an amazing experience in Costa Rica, and whilst enjoying the scenery and way of life there I also learned a lot about the country itself, and how geography plays a part in just about everything.

Arriving in San Jose, the difference in development compared to Scotland was immediately clear – there was a higher abundance of homeless people in the city than in those in Scotland, an example of rural urban migration and its most common outcome. The people have less material goods than us in the UK, but I noticed everybody in Costa Rica seemed much happier and more relaxed than at home – they also seem to value their environment more than we do, as I didn’t notice much litter or vandalism outside of San Jose. The locals place a high value on their natural environment and native wildlife, and are very knowledgeable about how to live in harmony with it. Whilst staying in a rural village near Puerto Jimenez, we were given lunches wrapped in banana leaves which were a great plastic free alternative to sandwich bags, as they are biodegradable, leakproof, and grow just about everywhere in the country.

We were immersed into the culture during our stay in the village, eating local food, washing our clothes in rivers and being cut off from the world for a while. This time away from the comforts of a washing machine and a warm shower toughened me up a bit. We played football barefoot in the rain with the village kids, we had splash fights in the river, we slept on the floor, got eaten alive by ants, and we all smelled terrible but I had the most fun I have ever had in my life. This made me realise why the Costa Ricans are so happy: they are not attached to material items, but to living life itself, to the fullest. Despite it being a developing country, in many respects it is more developed than richer parts of the world simply because of the population’s attitude to life.

Seeing and experiencing things first hand made it so much easier to understand and remember geographical processes. Swimming in a river, I could feel the power of the water at the outer bend of the meander, and the slower, less powerful flow at the inner bend, where we rested on a river beach. We swam in the plunge pool of a waterfall, and got close enough to feel the pounding of the falls and see rocks being tumbled beneath the water, abrading the bottom. It was easy to understand how the water could erode the rock when you were standing under it, feeling the force, and is pretty unforgettable.

Deep in the rainforest we saw giant buttress roots trapping leaves and mud, holding the forest together, as the rains saturated the floor. Even though it rained an immense amount almost every day, it never actually flooded, which proved to me how effective vegetation is at preventing sheetwash and keeping everything in place.

All over Costa Rica there are plants – in the rainforest, on the beaches, lining every verge and roadside, in all the villages and even in the capital. There were very few pastures for animals, and the vast tree cover over the country made it feel much greener and fresher than it does at home. It was obvious how the trees could act as a carbon sponge, allowing Costa Rica to be the first carbon neutral country in the next few years, with that many trees. It made me realise just how bare countryside of Scotland is – just endless fields with only a few fragments of habitat left for the wildlife. But Costa Rica hasn’t always been so lush and green – it was only in the past few decades that almost all deforestation in the country was abolished and the forests were replanted and renewed. I think this shows that if the right laws and attitude to the environment are put in place, we can reverse the damage we have caused the planet, to some extent anyway. It sparked some hope in me that maybe the rainforests can be saved.

I really enjoyed experiencing such a different climate – the heat and humidity was so different to what we are used to, but it added an extra level of challenge as it was impossible to move without sweating buckets. The wildlife was beautiful – giant blue shimmering butterflies and emerald green hummingbirds flitting around sweet smelling flowers, while toucans dropped fruit stones on us from the canopies and howler monkeys hollered in the distance. Leaf cutter ants covered the forest floors and golden orb spiders clung to webs strung across the path.

In the rainforest, after the rains, the steam lifting from the canopy was amazing – showing evapo-transpiration in action. It helped me visualize what we had learned over the higher course about how vegetation cover transfers water and really does help protect against flooding – the amount of rain that could fall within a few minutes was unbelievable. We may have drowned if it weren’t for the trees!

The jungle was full of fungus and layers and layers of decomposing leaf litter and natural material, which made me wonder what the soil profile of the rainforest would look like. I imagined it would have a very thick litter and humus layer, with abundant soil biota due to the warm and moist conditions, helping everything to decay quickly, producing fertile soils. Maybe this nutrient-rich soil is why the pineapples are so golden and sweet in Costa Rica?

A few days into the trip, I had to take a trip to the doctors in La Fortuna and managed to book an appointment within the next two hours. It really highlighted the contrast between private doctors and the free health service at home, and the pros and cons of both. The surgery was empty, as appointments were expensive and most locals probably couldn’t afford medical care, but it was a much better service for people who could afford it – I was seen almost immediately and there was no time limit on the appointment as nobody else was waiting in queue.

The locals we met in the village on the project knew a lot about primary healthcare as they had to do a lot of it themselves. This made me realise how much we take the NHS for granted in the UK. I only needed a few antibiotic pills and a rehydration drink, but overall it cost over a hundred dollars, so I cannot imagine how much we would all be spending at home if we had to pay for healthcare. I think we would tough out our ailments for a bit longer before giving in and getting medical help, which would release the strain on doctors.

Although there is a low risk of malaria in Costa Rica, we took precautions – covering ourselves in Deet and Smidge, and sleeping under canopy mosquito nets at night… but to no avail. The mozzies got us, but we survived okay. It was eye opening though – despite the Deet and long clothing in the evenings, we still managed to get bitten, so I can imagine how easy it must be for people living in developing countries to pick up malaria, especially if they don’t have access to nets and repellents.

Backpacking was tough, smelly and tiring, but strangely I absolutely loved living out of a bag with next to know valuables or possessions. It was freeing. I didn’t feel tied down to anything and all that mattered was we were having a good time, instead of worrying about what we looked like or what was for dinner etc. We just went with the flow and I feel like I am generally a more chilled out person now. It has made me realise what really matters in life.

One thing I did miss about Scotland was the gorgeous orange-pink sunrise and sunsets. It was strange in Costa Rica – at the same time every night (about 6pm) the sun would just disappear in about 10 minutes and suddenly it was dark. No flamboyant colours or pretty views. But the night moths and crazy animal calls echoing from the depths of the jungle made up for it.

The main thing I noticed during my time in Costa Rica was that nothing goes to waste there. Everything has some kind of use – food scraps were thrown into the sea to feed the fish, old scrap metal was used to build new houses, mattresses were placed over unwanted crates to create beds and cracked jars and glasses became pots growing all kinds of plants. The Costa Ricans know how to look after their environment, and I think they provide a role model for the rest for us to follow.

I have had the funniest, craziest, most breath-taking month of my life and I feel like my eyes have been opened to the world a little wider and I care a little less for things that don’t really matter. I was welling up as I got on the plane to go home. The thing I miss most is the pura vida way of life (and the free hostel coffee, of course) and just the way anything goes – there are no worries. Everyone we met was so kind and welcoming, and proud to show us their country and culture. I will definitely be coming back to Costa Rica, hopefully very soon. Thank you so much for the grant which helped get me there – I have learned so much and am already looking for another expedition!