Through the Eyes of an Educator: Costa Rica

Stacey Ebert's picture

Central America is a hop, skip and a jump away from the United States. It’s that kind of access I want my students to know. It’s that possibility and ability of choice that can help make travel happen. Places become more than dots on a map - they become memories. Accents are not solely other languages or sounds fumbled through in high school - they become conversations with new friends. Customs are not only cultural artifacts in a classroom or answers to a standardized test - they are embraced, honoured and learned in an adventure-filled afternoon. These few experiences don’t even break the surface of the magic of travel. As an educator trying to expose students to international entities to become better global citizens, it’s a perfect start.

Costa Rica connected worlds for me. My neighbor in Long Beach, New York, spends weeks there each winter enjoying the sun, sea, and surf. For him, it’s a second home and he relishes the time, food, and friends he has there. All summer long, it’s what we would hear about...and soon we couldn’t imagine not experiencing it ourselves. That’s the type of connections I wished for my students. For something to mean so much that it creates an unquenchable spark and yearning for more – they’d be hooked. After setting foot in that Central American country, I can understand why our neighbors continue to return each year.

Through the Eyes of an Educator: Costa Rica

On site, hands-on learning anywhere you look, Costa Rica entices visitors with eco-tourism and green friendly environments. People are kind, food is flavourful, and the environment matters. Dr. Seuss’ Lorax would be happy here. With a laid back attitude, we were met with kindness, teachable moments, and greentique experiences different than those we’ve had anywhere else in the world. Travel provides that extra dimension that makes learning fun and lures even the most unyielding student. This allergic asthmatic with an affinity for beaches and aversion to pollen filled trees was astounded by the beauty, love for the environment, and tropical tree lined island habitat. 

Iguana in Jaco, Costa Rica - the abundant wildlife is just one of the many reasons why I love this country!

A visit to Costa Rica is not filled with architectural buildings or grand religious structures. It doesn’t provide centuries old historical lessons or ancient ruins. It does bring out the scientist, botanist, zoologist, environmentalist, and sociologist in many of us. Nature reigns supreme here. Environmentally conscious tourism, animal habitats, Lizano sauce, and sweet spots in waves and coffee will somehow make their way into each part of a visit here. 

Los Angeles Cloud Forest - an educator explores Costa Rica

In ten days, we were lucky to visit a variety of different spots in Costa Rica. Our first stop was the Los Angeles Cloud Forest. Smaller and less crowded than others in the region, it provided a glimpse into sustainable tourism and a chance to commune with a very different natural wonder. A walk through the cloud forest felt like stepping into a storybook. Greeted by hummingbirds, butterflies, birds, and specialty ants, we made our way through a magical array of Epiphytes, Elephant Ears, and Strangler trees. For the girl who went to sleep away camp and couldn’t stand spiders, I was astounded by one of the critters with which we shared a path…the Carrier Ant. Between the brilliantly coloured butterflies, delicately swift hummingbirds, and these guys, I was hooked. This is informal education at its best. Within minutes, we learned that the Carrier Ants have a system. Most in the family go out in search of leaves and march in their signature single-file line back home. But a few in the pack are the travelers of the bunch, or better yet, hitchhikers. They’re not lazy, sick, or uninterested…these are the cleaners. These little guys spend their journey cleaning the leaf on which they’re riding to ready it for the rest of the bunch upon their arrival. Nature is awesome! 

Hummingbird in the Los Angeles Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

In San Jose, we stayed at an out of the way property that made you feel as if you couldn’t possibly be smack in the center of a capital city. In chatting with the owners, we discovered that they used to be in the business of exporting tropical flowers to the United States, but when the recession hit, their business plummeted. Today, they’ve reinvented themselves as a unique accommodation and have their very own vineyard. ‘Can’t’ and ‘won’t’ were not part of their vocabulary. Regardless of location, this is a wonderful life lesson to impart. Again, there’s that informal education at its finest. We learned something else about ourselves here, too. At 5pm each night, hundreds of gorgeous white Egrets come to rest for the evening in the trees beside a small pond, complete with a Caiman (aquatic reptile) on the property. Staff, owners, and travelers welcome this nightly roosting ritual. We sat, we watched, we listened as guests whipped out bird books to check on the identity of some of the Egret’s mates and listened to the sounds of nature. Before the first evening show was over, we were already planning for the next day’s events. There was something peaceful, natural, and ritual-like in this nightly sighting. Again, we were captivated. If only these were the things we focused on with students. The more we can excite, fascinate, or enthrall our students, the more they will be enticed to pursue their own education further. Perhaps they’ll pick up hobbies, perhaps they’ll independently delve further into a topic they enjoy, perhaps they’ll look to continue a career in a particular interest – this is what education could be.

Somehow or another, coffee and Gallo Pinto make their way into almost every Costa Rican journey. Gallo Pinto is the traditional rice and beans dish of the nation. Complete only with the addition of cilantro and Lizano sauce, this tasteful dish is one we continued to create upon our return home. On one plate or another you’re bound to also find delicious, fried plantains and ripe, green avocado. Cooking lessons help bring out budding culinary artists trying their hand at new cuisines. Happily ensconced in the top six most powerful coffee countries the world over (along with: Brazil, Indonesia, Columbia, Mexico, & Vietnam), Costa Rica is also exceptionally proud of its coffee. A visit to a coffee plantation tastes delicious (even for this non-coffee drinker) and teaches far more.

Typical breakfast in Costa Rica - yum!

We spent a morning at the Doka Coffee plantation. There’s coffee to taste and chocolate covered coffee beans on which to munch. Touring the working plantation provides a first hand account of the farm to table movement. Smacked with the aroma instantly, visitors know: this is a land of coffee. You meet pickers, sifters, roasters, baggers, and everyone involved in the process that manages to get beans off the plants and into your mug. First, there are the different planting stages yielding beans complete with many outer layers before getting to the actual coffee bean. Then there’s the basic laundry basket sized bucket used by pickers. According to Omar, our tour guide, owners traditionally pay $1.50 (US Dollars) per basket and a ‘good’ picker might get up to twelve baskets picked per day. There’s your maths and economics lesson. Imagine trying to sustain your entire family on backbreaking work for twelve dollars a day. A sociology lesson in the making, this financial piece of information leads to conversations of poverty, getting ahead, hard work, and so much more. After the beans are sorted, the process continues through sun drying, roasting, sorting, packing, and eventually ends up on shelves in supermarkets and in coffee shop cups around the world. This experience is one that visitors won’t soon forget.

Coffee stations at the Doka Coffee Plantation, Costa Rica

Learning about coffee at the Doka Coffee Plantation, Costa Rica

Costa Rica excites all senses. From the aromas of coffee to the feeling of steam on your face coming off the Arenal and Poas volcanoes, to the herbaceous flavours of Lizano sauce, to the sight of monkeys enjoying life in Manuel Antonio National Park, there’s something for everyone. Feel the sweet spot as the waves crest, hear the call of the hundreds of bird species as they message each other in flight, and interact with all of the natural life around you.

There’s more to see, more to experience, and more to enjoy each time you return. Each hike left us wanting more. Tree-lined passageways, the island lifestyle, aromatic dishes, and lots and lots of monkeys were part of our travels. While educators mix with unexpected students of life, here, natural learning is ever present. Aside from endless conversations on the philosophy of life had by hikers around the world when ensconced in natural settings, Costa Rica shares its love of life through its island philosophy, Pura Vida, or pure life. Hardworking native Ticos blend with expats who’ve chosen Costa Rica as a place to stay. If that alone doesn’t show the positive benefits of a place, I don’t know what does. Embracing Costa Rica’s version of Hakuna Matata - this is what students need to see. This is what needs to be celebrated in classrooms around the world. Diversity, choice, possibilities, learning by doing, helping others, positive attitudes, work ethics, environmental respect, kindness to animals and a friendly nature are all here. Costa Rica teaches about life and its wish for each student and every traveler…Pura Vida.

Pura Vida in Costa Rica


Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand. Check out her website at for more of her travel musings.
All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert