Costa Rica is a country of near endless green, dense jungles, incredible biodiversity, volcanoes, white sand beaches; a perfect place to relax, unwind and soak up some vitamin D. While thousands come here for these reasons, each year a group of Sandpoint students make the flight down for a far more intense visit.
“I’m actually surprised we get anyone to sign-up!” laughed Perky Smith-Hagadone. Perky is the principal at Northside Elementary. Along with friend and recently retired teacher Marcea Marine, they formed Ecoteach, a yearly trip for a few lucky seventh and eighth graders. While they don’t promise surf lessons or lazy days poolside, they can provide one of the most memorable trips imaginable—if you come prepared to work.
Perky and Marcea took their first group of students in 2005 and have been taking around 15 students to Costa Rica nearly every year since. The trip is typically about 12 days long, and kids are active each and every day. While not affiliated directly with the school district, the pair presents the trip each fall at assemblies in each of the middle schools in hopes of gathering enough interest to keep it going. This year 25 students applied with an essay, which included their environmental interests and how they deal with hardship. Fourteen were chosen, mostly eighth graders, so current seventh graders who missed out this year would have another opportunity in their eighth-grade year. About 160 local students have gone over the years, each coming back a changed person.
“You will probably never have an experience like this. You will be a different and stronger person when you get back,” said Marcea.
This June, the 14 students will fly into San Juan and will quickly move from the city to much more isolated locations. One of the major focuses of the trip is helping preserve and study the leatherback turtle population in the area. Predators, poaching and human encroachment have had a massive impact on the species, but these kids will get to do their part to help ensure the turtles will continue to call the area home. Participants will gather turtle eggs from the beach to be brought to a hatchery where they are safe and can be studied. This is done so by students combing the beach at night without a flashlight as to not spook the turtles, and often until 2am. Students then work with a Greek biologist, taking measurements of hatchlings before returning them to the beach and setting them in the sand so they can crawl their way back to the ocean. While the work is hard, and the accommodations are rustic bungalows without air conditioning, the experience is one not easily forgotten.
“It’s pitch dark, and you see more stars than you’ll ever see, distant lighting across the Caribbean Sea, and fireflies in the palm trees,” said Marcea. “It’s incredible.”
There are no parental chaperones on this tour. Outside of Perky and Marcea, there are two Costa Rican guides and a bus driver transporting the group. There are also no cell phones allowed, which surprising to some, has never been an issue according to Perky and Marcea.
When their work with the turtles is complete, the group heads north to see how an organic coffee plantation is run while also planting trees. During their travels, students stay with native Costa Rican families, most of whom speak little to no English. It’s just one of the many lessons students learn in overcoming barriers during the trip.
A trip into the Monteverde Cloud Forest is a highlight. The group also takes the annual ‘death march,’ dubbed by Perky and Marcea, to visit a forest people. It’s a 6-mile trek through dense forest, which includes a wet crossing of a swift river and challenging hike to meet up with the isolated community. “They get to learn about medicines from the forest, their plate of food is served on banana leaves, and the local kids always want to play soccer with them, and they can be pretty rough,” said Perky.
To take part in the trip, kids have to have hearty souls. You will get wet, hike a lot of miles, perform manual labor but also get to see and experience one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. “We’ve seen 200 bird species, sloths, frogs, lizards, crabs, monkeys, toucans,” said Perky. “Kids who love animals will have their minds blown.”
Toward the end of the trip, the focus shifts a bit more to the fun side, with visits to swimming holes, whitewater rafting, and zip lining across the jungle canopy. When they arrive back home, they are exhausted, covered in bug bites and scrapes, and parents say they often sleep most of the next day. The impact of the trip, however, leaves a lasting impression.
“Many say it’s the most amazing thing that’s happened in their lives. We’ve had many kids end up going into the science field or traveling abroad once they leave high school,” said Marcea.
This year’s group is currently meeting twice a month in preparation for the trip. They are learning Costa Rican culture and a bit of Spanish and studying the local plants and animals. They depart on June 9 and will be ready to work hard while also being able to enjoy one of the most unique opportunities available to them.