Sunday, January 22, 2012

Days 10, 11 and 12 - The Beach and Goodbyes

The final days of the trip were all spent at the beach. Because of high pickpocketing rates in touristy areas, we couldn't bring our cameras to the beach. However, the beaches in Costa Rica were beautiful.

Advice: Don't be shy with the sun screen. I've never had a worse sunburn in my life. (Though the accompanying tan was pretty nice ;] )

The beaches were filled with lots of surfers, and you could easily rent a surfboard for around $10 a day. If not, swimming and body surfing are a lot of fun too.

Advice: If you go to the beach, make sure you bring a towel you don't mind throwing away, or have enough time to let it dry thoroughly. I was amazed by how heavy my towel was after the beach, when it was soaking wet and covered in sand. This adds a lot of weight to a suitcase, and international flights usually have a 50 pound limit with a hefty overweight fee (I've heard it's around $200).

On these last days I took maybe my favorite picture from the trip during our ocean-side dinner.

I couldn't believe how beautiful this place was.
It looked like something out of a movie.

Sunset at the beachside restaurant was stunning.

 Our final dinner in Costa Rica was wonderful also. We each went around the group and told our favorite parts, and at the end we all received a superlative from our counselors.

After that we all traveled home, some vowing to return to Costa Rica, all knowing we'll never forget this trip.

One of the wonderful things about this trip is the Alumni Network that we all sign up for. It's an online social network specifically for GREEN, and lets everyone keep in touch after the trip. It's one of the things that makes the trip last past its twelve day duration.

On this last post I wanted to give out my final pieces of advice for the trip. 

1. One thing to be aware of is how high the wind speeds get, especially noticeable at night. I thought there was a hurricane outside the first night I stayed because of how loudly the wind was howling. It's nothing to be afraid of, just something to be aware of. It's also one of the reasons wind power is so prevalent in Costa Rica. 

2. There are animals everywhere. There are a lot of stray dogs running around, and also a lot of geckos that like to hang out in the hotels. I also found a handful of spiders in my room, and there are ants everywhere. If you're afraid of insects, this might not be the trip for you. 

3. Bundle up at night. The nights in Costa Rica were surprisingly cold for the nice weather. Be aware that is does get cold at night and the hotels usually don't provide comforters like they do in the U.S.

4. The currency in Costa Rica is Colonas, but don't worry about converting your money. Almost all places take U.S. dollars.

5. The electrical outlets work just the like ones in the U.S., so you don't need to bring a converter. 

I highly, highly recommend this trip. It was fun, adventurous and educational. You meet a group of smart, talented, motivated and exciting people whom you will never forget. 

Wherever your travels take you, have fun! 

Day 9 - A lake and Capstone Projects

Day 9 started out with some adventure - kayaking , swimming, and a sunset boat ride on the lake in front of our newest hotel. Everything was beautiful.

Me kayaking on the lake

That afternoon we also had our final plant visit - a wind energy plant. GREEN not only teaches about renewable energies, but also offers opportunities to students after the trip. At the wind plant we met a GREEN alum who was returning to Costa Rica to earn his certification in wind turbine management. GREEN emphasizes the "Network" component of its name, meaning that they want to stay connected with their students after the trip and help them find opportunities to excel and learn in their fields. All of the attendees of GREEN are students, the majority studying engineering, who want to learn about alternative energies in one of the places where its most prevalent in the world.

In previous days on the trip we had learned about wind power in class, in addition to the classes we had on solar power, geothermal energy, biodiesel, biogas, biomass and hydroelectric power. This trip gave an overview of myriad different ways to be sustainable. Additionally, we toured sustainable housing that J.P. himself had designed that encompassed smarter and more efficient uses of natural lighting, electricity and water management.

We also learned about the overall structure of Costa Rica's energy systems. Costa Rica has one main, government-owned power supplier called I.C.E. All the different plants that we visited created energy and sold it to ICE, who distributed the energy to its customers. This means that even if one plant wasn't functioning, all of its customers would still have power since no plant gives energy directly to users.

All of these sunset pictures are from the boat

The wind plant we visited
After all of the day's adventures, we returned to the hotel for our Capstone project presentations. My group presented on the sustainable futures of three different methods of powering automobiles: hydrocars, electric cars and traditional fossil-fuel powered cars. Concluding the project, and considering that we had already finished all of the trip's plant tours and classes, we had officially concluded the educational portion of the trip.

Day 8 - Virgin Forest and Volcano Mud

On day 8, we had our most raw adventure day of them all. It started out with a hike through virgin forest. We slid down paths slippery with mud, and helped each other out until we arrived at our destination - a pit filled with mud from a volcano. Never in my life have I seen such a variety of mud (I know it doesn't sound impressive, but it was pretty cool). There were muds in shades of brown, red, purple, blue and pink. The mud was surrounded by water, boiling from the heat of the nearby volcano. The mud was good for your skin, so during our time there, we covered our skin in it and after ward felt refreshed. After cleaning off in a nearby river, we hiked back to the bus.

Another GREEN colleague and me after the mud

The rest of the afternoon was spent preparing the final touches on our Capstone projects, which were to be presented the next day.

Advice: Wifi is spotty and often hard to find in Costa Rica. If you need internet, make sure you plan carefully ahead. This aspect of Costa Rica added some challenges to our Capstone projects.

Day 7 - Adventure and Relaxation

On the seventh day, we rested.

This day consisted of a change of hotel and adventure. Though most of the day was traveling, we definitely had a lot of fun, too.

That afternoon we ziplined. This was the first time I had ever gone ziplining, and it was a little scary at first. The adventure started out with a hike up through a rainforest to reach the platforms where our ziplining began. Ziplining started out up high, and involved sliding down through various platforms. We were sliding over the tops of trees and had beautiful views of the lands we were staying on. We even had the chance to hang upside down in our harnesses while we ziplined!

The ziplining was super fun, but with a group 25 people large, it took longer than expected. As I was one of the last people to participate, I was up there as the sun set, and got to zipline through a foggy rainforest at night. Though visibility was low, it was a ton of fun. The only problem was that the hike started out as a hot afternoon, and as the evening set in, it started raining, and by the end most of the people coming off of the zipline were freezing.

To warm up, that night we stayed in a hotel where there were, luckily, a bunch of natural and artificial hot springs. We swam and rested all night in the hot water, enjoying and basking in our stay in Costa Rica. 

All these pictures are of the natural hot springs

Day 6 - A whole lot of learning

Us with the family we helped with community service
On day 6 we visited another type of renewable energy plant - Hydroelectric. This type of energy uses water movement and currents to produce electricity. Like the other forms of electricity, we had studied this one  previously with J.P. in a classroom setting.

This day we also practiced community service. As a group we traveled down to a village within Costa Rica. Since its inception, GREEN has begun installing rain water collection systems into houses in Costa Rica. Most of the people in the village we visited in Costa Rica live without running water. For our community service, we installed a system in two houses where water is collected during rain storms so that if the village has trouble accessing water, the people we have helped have supplementary supplies of water. We were greeted warmly by the people we were helping - they offered us food and drink for our service, as well as many thank you's. It was very rewarding, and I'm grateful that this trip had an opportunity for us to help out and give back.

Day 5 - Costa Rican Culture

Day 5 was the first day that I really experienced Costa Rican culture and learned what it was like to live in Costa Rica. When I was in kindergarten, I started a Spanish immersion program, meaning that instead of learning in a traditional classroom, all of my classes were taught in Spanish. I've continued studying Spanish throughout college and am pursuing a Hispanic studies minor. Costa Rica is my first time traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, and I was very excited to practice my Spanish outside of a classroom.

The day began with a wildlife boat tour along a river. Our guide only spoke Spanish, and since the group was split up without our usual translators, I got to practice my Spanish as translator of the boat. For travelers looking to practice their language skills, there are ample opportunities to do so on this trip. Additionally, a couple of the students on the trip were from Venezuela and Ecuador, and we also had a translator from Costa Rica, so practicing the language is easy to do. For those not looking for that, Costa Rica is also very easy to navigate in English.

On the tour we saw a bunch of different types of wildlife, the most notable being herons, iguanas and alligators. We saw bats hanging on the underside of trees, and a species of spider that glided on water.
Yup, that was crawling on my leg.

Following the tour we visited a wildlife reserve that was very zoo-like. We saw monkeys, otters and a bunch of varieties of big cats. Most of the animals were injured and had been rescued by the reserve.

Excess plant material used for biomass
After lunch at the reserve, we visited a rice factory that used plant waste as electricity in a process called biomass.

Day 4 - More Sustainability

Day 4 started out with a tour of the hotel grounds, where we saw how the hotel implements its own sustainability practices, including its own system of collecting water for the hotel. We also saw the livestock contained on the hotel grounds, with animals like pigs and cows, and how the methane from the excrement of the animals was captured and used to produce energy for the hotel in a process called biogas.
A piglet from the farm in Hotel Tilawa

Following the tour we visited a wildlife conservation site. The conservation location had previously been farm land, but was later donated to help save the environment in Costa Rica. We toured the area, and saw the incredible wildlife that lived there. We even saw the tree that was the inspiration for Home Tree in James Cameron's Avatar.

It's hard to believe, but that's a porcupine in that tree

The tree that was inspiration for James Cameron's Avatar

Howler monkeys: a common site in Costa Rica
After our tour we picked out trees to plant back at Tilawa in an effort to create a monkey bridge. In Costa Rica, there is an abundance of howler monkeys. These monkeys cross streets and are often killed by passing cars. In an effort to prevent these deaths, we were creating a monkey bridge, or planting trees along roadways so that the monkeys can swing over the road instead of crossing it.

Day 3 - The Geothermal Plant

On the third day of the trip we had our first plant visit - a geothermal energy plant. Geothermal energy is taking the heat stored within the earth and harvesting it as steam to create energy. We were invited into the plant and saw the different components of the energy production.

That night we visited another hotel where a previous GREEN group was staying. This group was a couple days ahead of us on the program, and that night we learned about our final project - the Capstone project. The Capstone project is a research project where we pick a topic related to sustainability, research it during our stay in Costa Rica, and present it toward the end of our trip. While at the other hotel, we watched the Capstone presentations of the previous group, hoping to glean some inspiration for our own projects. The presentations we saw were definitely inspiring - we watched students who had researched how to effect change and bring resources to less privileged people in Africa, and a group who wanted to install turbines under water to use the ocean currents to generate electricity. 

Following the presentations we were given Merengue and Salsa dance lessons, and we danced the night away, one group basking in the end of their studies in Costa Rica, the other celebrating in the beginning of theirs. 

Day 2 - Hello Costa Rica

Day 2 is where the trip really started. The group woke up early and ate breakfast at Tilawa, with food prepared by the hotel staff members.

Advice: Be prepared to eat a lot of rice and beans; it's served with almost every meal.

After breakfast, we got our first taste of what the GREEN program was: a mix of education and adventure in Costa Rica. At the hotel, we had our first class given by J.P., one of the founders of the GREEN program. J.P.'s aim was to not only teach the GREEN students about alternative energy, but to "inoculate" us with a GREEN bug, meaning that we would leave wanting and knowing how to make every aspect of our lives more sustainable. During our first class, we learned about geothermal energy, to be elaborated on in the following post.

Following class, we went on our first hike. We trekked through jungle to a natural lake at the base of a waterfall. This was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. As soon as we arrived, we swam underneath the beautiful falls and slid on natural water slides. 

Advice: Be prepared for a lot of hiking. Bring multiple pairs of shoes, as they will most likely get wet, multiple pairs of long socks and plenty of bug spray.

Day 1 - Arriving

My first day in Costa Rica involved a lot of traveling. Most of the people traveling in the group didn't find a direct flight to Costa Rica, which meant a lot of time in the air and in layovers. For me, I left from the Pittsburgh International Airport, had a two-hour layover in Houston, Texas, and landed a total of nine hours later in the San Jose International Airport. After all the air travel, the group had a four hour bus ride back to our hotel.

My advice for the first day: Dress comfortably and wear shoes that are easy to take off for all of the security checks you have to go through. 

During the trip, we stayed at four separate hotels, but the majority of our time was spent at the first one: Volcano Brewing Company, or Tilawa. The view from the hotel was stunning: 

We saw rainbows almost every day of the trip, and even saw a couple of double rainbows. The hotel was family run, by some of the nicest people I've ever met.

From left to right, baby Olivia, Andrina, me and Nikki. 

The hotel's dogs, Mila (top) and Bobby (bottom)

The first day was mostly spent getting to know each other, resting after traveling and getting accustomed to our new surroundings. The hotel also had a couple of domestic dogs and cats that added to the character of the hotel. All the members of the GREEN program - 23 students and 3 counselors - spent the first day bonding over conversation, billiards and the hotel's hot tub.  

Advice: Costa Rica is extremely humid. This trip involved a lot days with swimming or days where we got rained on, and it took close to a week for clothes to hang dry. Be prepared for this extended amount of time when planning out days you want to spend in the water and when you have to repack your bags. Believe me, packing and wearing wet clothes is not pleasant. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Hi, my name is Beth Anne and this is my travel blog. This winter, I will be traveling to Costa Rica with a group called Global Renewable Energy Education Network (GREEN). The trip will be a 12-day summit to study renewable energy. More to come!