UGA Costa Rica Blog

¡Pura vida!

Student Reflection

UGA Maymester student Emily Schoone reflects on her study abroad experience in Costa Rica. Thanks for taking the time to share, Em! :)

On a scenic walk back to campus after getting ice cream, my friend told me that she liked being “sustainable”. I asked her to clarify what she meant by that, and in summary, she told me that the general Costa Rican lifestyle of being mindful of waste and of the earth was something she could support. I agreed and asked her if this was something she was just now thinking about.

After all, UGA (where we both go to school) has been making small steps towards sustainability with a new bike program, a strong recycling emphasis, and the announcement that the coal burner will be taken down.

She then said that she knows about the benefits of living a “greener” lifestyle, but honestly, she didn’t really care to live it. This was surprising to me in the sense that the physical evidence of a rapidly disintegrating and unhealthy earth is visible, the evidence of which is apparent on both small and large scales.

However, I wasn’t completely surprised because I know how difficult it is to become a torchbearer in a “cause” such as this one. I don’t want to come across as another voice drowning in the sea of commands to use fewer paper towels or to live off the produce from your own garden. Life is about balance, as everyone always reminds me, and this teeter-totter of life includes the choices that we make with our time and money. My friend balances her own life in a way different from mine, and I greatly respect that.

That being said, the number of causes that exist in the world is vast, but is presumably related to the number of corresponding problems in this world, which is also vast. My friend’s honesty with herself and with me about her efforts towards sustainability put the reality about this “balance” into perspective for me. The efforts I personally put into raising awareness about current environmental issues (on and off campus) is parallel to the efforts that another individual may put into raising awareness about cyber-bullying or sexism.

You may think, “These issues aren’t on the same level,” which is the thought I believe my friend had. There are problems and their respective movements that resonate with us more than others, and this subjectivity does not mean that there should be “levels” of causes. The truth is that we don’t have the time or resources to contribute to all of the causes that we think matter.

But here is my case for tacking sustainability onto your list of lifestyle changes and onto my friend’s: the earth touches every living being and any small effort or lifestyle change that acknowledges that will move us as people in the right direction.

That’s all I’m saying—what you do with that is out of my hands. It’s a broad case, but bringing your own bags to the grocery store is a change in habit that has visible effects, just like an encouraging comment on social media. So, let my case matter to you or don’t, but just let something matter.

What’s the bottom line, you ask? There are things we care about and there are things we do something about. What I took from my time in Costa Rica may be a little different than expected. I have since returned from my study abroad and have thought about what I care about enough to do something about. Whether those actions are deed based, time based, financially based or something else, I want to consciously make an effort to identify the steps I can take towards the health of this planet and its people.

Blog post contribution by Emily Schoone, UGA Costa Rica Maymester study abroad student.

Indigenous Brunka community member speaks on campus

On Saturday, June 20th, UGA Costa Rica welcomed Cristhian González Gomez to campus to speak about the indigenous people of Costa Rica. A big thank you to the UGA Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute (LACSI) for sponsoring González’s lecture!


Cristhian González Gomez is a member of the native Brunka tribe of Costa Rica.

González, a university student, speaks to correct indigenous untruths and to preserve his fragile culture. For example, there’s a sizable misconception that the aboriginal population in Costa Rica is non-existent. On the contrary, there are in fact pockets of native populations throughout Costa Rica. However, as the struggle with dwindling numbers continues, so does the battle of including indigenous ancestral history in Costa Rican education, national identity, and cultural representation.

No, the Brunka don’t frolic around the jungle wearing loincloths, González explains in good humor, air-drawing a triangular flap over his jeans. Although their cultural lifestyle may be simpler, the majority of Brunka people wear modern clothing, have healthcare, education, and basic amenities like phones and Internet.

To right another wrong, González’s native tribe is traditionally called Brunka. When the Spaniards arrived in 1502, their mispronunciation of the tribal name haphazardly christened this indigenous group the Boruca people.

During the 150 years that the indigenous people warred with the Spaniards, the count of the misnamed and maltreated tribes tapered as a result of disease and religious conversion. This partial destruction of González’s ancestors made safeguarding language, traditions, and lifestyles strenuous.

“What really surprised and scared me was the attitude of the government…[the indigenous] don’t have a strong representation,” LACSI student Benjamin Colclough noted. “I feel as though the apathy of the state could cost these people their culture someday.”

Today, 2.4 percent of the current Costa Rican population is indigenous.

Only 10 members that speak the Brunka language fluently remain.

“It was hard to listen to the ways his people struggled to maintain their true identity because they were told by someone else to change it,” LACSI student Bryant Anthony reflected on the cultural repression suffered by the Brunka people.

Although the Spaniard conquistadors have gone, in recent years new problems have encroached. Unplanned tourism has been leading to commercialization and modernization. With that comes an advance in infrastructure, impinging on indigenous territories. Education is a plus; however, often the educational systems don’t benefit or include Brunka culture. This conglomeration ultimately affects indigenous consciousness, as it fades into western thinking.

But González’s message comes with a positive twist: even with these modern obstacles, the culture persists.

What moved student Shannon Griffiths the most was learning that “some of the younger generation wants to help preserve their traditional art techniques by learning form elders.”

Reflecting on the opportunity, as part of their time in Costa Rica, to listen to a university student and Brunka community member share his story, LACSI student Collin Partain said, “It’s not everyday that you get to learn about indigenous cultures. So often cultures that fit outside the mainstream culture go unnoticed, yet these cultures often have some of the most interesting tales to tell.”

“Cristhian´s visit adds diversity to the students´ experience with Costa Rican culture,”
professor Sarah Lowman said. “We found it very important that the students have an opportunity to learn about indigenous cultures of Costa Rica, especially since we have heard ourselves the myth that there are basically no more indigenous people in Costa Rica. By sharing about his Boruca culture and language, Cristhian is actively working to dispel that myth.”


Cristhian González Gomez studied at the Instituto Tecnologico de Costa Rica and is currently studying International Relations at the National University. He has given many other talks on the Brunka people in diverse settings.

What is LACSI?

The LACS program with UGA in CR allows students to complete 3 courses related to Latin American and Caribbean studies while experiencing Costa Rican culture and language outside of the classroom in homestays, activities in the local community of San Luis, and on excursions to other cities. We encourage students to make connections between content discussed in the classroom with their experiences outside of the classroom in hopes of achieving a multifaceted and authentic learning experience.

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Pop Quiz #7

Test your knowledge on the flora and fauna growing along UGACR campus trails and throughout the Monteverde Cloud Forest here in Costa Rica. You never know when a trivia night will call for tropical ecology facts…

Q: How many species of wild orchids are there in Costa Rica?

A. 30,000               B. 1,600                C. 600

Answer: B. 1,600 wild orchids decorate Costa Rican canopies!

Step aside all other flora: With 30,000 wild species in the world, orchids, family Orchidaceae, are the largest plant species worldwide. In Costa Rica alone, 1,600 have been identified.

Orchids are bilaterally symmetric, meaning they can be divided into two equal parts, similar to a human face or body. They can be found growing terrestrially, as epiphytically (on other plants and trees), and even in subterranean environments.

There are typically six parts to an orchid flower. The outer three are called sepals, and the inner three, which tend to have an ornate coloration, are petals. Each orchid has a main petal, a landing strip so to speak, for the insect meant to pollinate it.

Although not visible to the human eye, the petal resembles a female insect’s color and shape. It’s a slightly cruel trick on behalf of Mother Nature, but it fools the male insect into thinking it is seeing a female of its kind, therefore helping to pollinate the orchid.

This also serves as an example of the interconnectedness in nature; if a particular orchid’s pollinating insect numbers are dwindling or disappear, that species of orchid will be threatened by extinction as well, as there are no other insects in the wild capable of pollinating the flower.

Another interesting structural part of the orchid is the part of the stem that looks like a snake after it has swallowed a mouse. That’s called the pseudobulb, and no there’s no mouse inside, but it is full of water. Plants, like epiphytic orchids, whose root structures are above ground, use pseudobulbs for water storage.

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My favorite fact of all: Orchids live harmoniously without attempting to outcompete one another. Like my garden guide mentioned, humans can certainly learn a thing or two from orchids.


If you take a picturesque 25-minute cab ride from our UGACR campus to Santa Elena, you can visit the Orchid Garden, and see up to 600 species of orchids lining, winding, and threading their roots around trees along a thin stone garden path.

Sources: Rainforest Alliance, the Orchid Garden, and resident naturalists!

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Naturalist Finds

On their daily outings, naturalists hike with the sharpest of senses. Eyes peeled and ears open, they help spot the cloud forest’s hidden treasures, sharing its flora and fauna with students and guests.

And sometimes they’re lucky enough to snap some pictures, too! These images are from George Lin, a resident naturalist. Enjoy his great shots, and the fun facts that come with. It’s just like being on a guided hike with him.

A Tarantula’s first instinct is to run away when confronted by a predator or a human.  If cornered, the second line of defense would be to releasing irritating hairs from the abdomen that are barbed and serve to irritate the skin. The third line of defense would be administer a venomous bite.

The elusive Three-wattled Bellbird are in the area now.  Their mating call, which can be heard more than 2km away, is probably the loudest call in the bird world.  It took me a month to finally see this bird last week and I managed to get a passable photo today.

Curled up into a size of a softball, this green mottled morph of the Eyelash Palm Pit Viper uses its heat-sensing pits located between the eyes and nostril to “see” their prey in the dark.  They usually hang out next to the trails to strike at unsuspecting passing birds, bats, and students.

Photos and captions contributed by George Lin, UGACR Natural Resident

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGACR Photojournalism Intern

Humans of UGACR

Having a passion for something is wonderful. But what’s even better is sharing that same passion with others. During the month of May, I spent numerous hours sharing my creative space with the UGACR Advanced Spanish and Photodocumentary Maymester program.

Let me start with this: I could have easily confused my workspace with that of a bustling news room. Not only were the students’ pieces constantly expanding, undergoing edits and reshoots, but also the students themselves maintained an amount of motivation and energy throughout the course that could be applauded. Better yet, as their interviews and stories came together, capturing the inexplicable inner beauty of the people who make UGACR the unforgettable community that it is, it became clear that their final products would wonderfully reflect the goals of the Humans of UGACR project.

Thanks to the students’ inventive spirits, Humans of UGACR has grown a little more. Enjoy today’s addition!


Video contribution by Katherine Green, UGACR Maymester student
Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGACR Photojournalism Intern

Habitat for Humanity: Costa Rica, Part III

As part of UGA Costa Rica’s Housing and Household Economics Maymester program, a group of eight UGA students and two faculty members traveled to Puntarenas, Costa Rica to participate in an international Habitat for Humanity build as a service-learning component of the experience. During the four-day build, students chronicled their experiences via journal, detailing feelings and experiences related to the build.

Join us for a three-part series summarizing their endeavors. Make sure to read Part I and Part II also!


The fourth and final day brought feelings of accomplishment and reflection.

In four days, the group had dug holes for sewage and the frame of the house, and erected the walls that would eventually house a family. Students felt the impact of their work, with one saying:

“We started off with a flat land of dirt and throughout the course of four days built a house that will be able to provide not only shelter, but a place where a family will be able to create memories.”


Final reflections drew comparisons between Habitat work abroad vs. in the States.

The differences between Habitat for Humanity builds in Costa Rica and the United States are immense in the details, yet similar in a broad sense. In Costa Rica, the work was much more labor intensive, with less volunteers and more physically exhausting work. This is most likely due to the lack of heavy machinery available in rural Costa Rican areas, whereas tasks such as digging holes would not be done manually in the United States. In addition, the basic materials used in Costa Rica, mainly cement, differ vastly from the wood and nails used in U.S. Habitat for Humanity builds. This is likely due to the cost and availability of materials. Also, natural factors, such as increased rainfall and natural disasters such as earthquakes, affect the type of materials that should be used in building homes. While there are many differences, there are still similarities among builds in the two countries. The impact of Habitat for Humanity on both the family and community are large, as made apparent when talking with the family. Also, the experience of building a house for a family in need is one that everyone benefits from, as they gain perspective on how difficult some of these people’s lives can be.

Hear about and see the project from the team’s point of view!

Thanks to Federico (Ricky) Saltalamacchia (UGACR Maymester student) for putting together this video interview!

Blog post contribution by Andrew T. Carswell, Jorge Ruiz-Menjevar, Ben Jacobs, Blake Bolton, Raymond Chau, Sarah Ernst, Will Johnson, Dilreet Kaur, Jessica Tante, & Amanda Vargas, UGACR HACE program members. Edited by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern.

Habitat for Humanity: Costa Rica, Part II

As part of UGA Costa Rica’s Housing and Household Economics Maymester program, a group of eight UGA students and two faculty members traveled to Puntarenas, Costa Rica to participate in an international Habitat for Humanity build as a service-learning component of the experience. During the four-day build, students chronicled their experiences via journal, detailing feelings and experiences related to the build.

Join us for a three-part series summarizing their endeavors. Read Part I here!


Day three brought with it both difficulties as well as positive experiences.

Fatigue had really set in for the group, and there was a sense of frustration that much of the digging had not yet been completed.

The group was treated to a cultural experience at the end of the day, however. The students made empanadas with the extended family and future homeowners. The group was grateful to spend time with the family, learning more about the Costa Rican culture.

One student noted however, that “[t]he language barrier has been a challenge the whole trip, but it was taken to another level as I couldn’t freely talk to the family I had a personal connection with.” Another student took a unique perspective on the cultural differences, commenting “even though we came from complete opposite upbringings and ways of life, we came together as human beings.”

One more day to go! Stay tuned for the time-lapse video of the team’s hard work and success.

Blog post contribution by Andrew T. Carswell, Jorge Ruiz-Menjevar, Ben Jacobs, Blake Bolton, Raymond Chau, Sarah Ernst, Will Johnson, Dilreet Kaur, Jessica Tante, & Amanda Vargas, UGACR HACE program members. Edited by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern.

Habitat for Humanity: Costa Rica, Part I

As part of UGA Costa Rica’s Housing and Household Economics Maymester program, a group of eight UGA students and two faculty members traveled to Puntarenas, Costa Rica to participate in an international Habitat for Humanity build as a service-learning component of the experience. During the four-day build, students chronicled their experiences via journal, detailing feelings and experiences related to the build.

Join us for a three-part series summarizing their endeavors.


The first day’s task could be summed up in a single word: dig.

To put up the walls required digging 37 2′ holes for reinforcement posts. Immediately, the students realized how tiring the day would be; however, the work was rewarding. Many students had comments such as “the builds at the Habitat for Humanity site was excruciating, however it was an incredible experience.”

“Knowing that the hard work we are putting in as a team will become this little family’s sanctuary is all worth it.” – HACE student

Some were in awe of the minimalistic living situation that the family would live in. Taking note of the small size of the planned house, some even had remarks such as “It’s really humbling to see people live such a simple life.” One even questioned if people in the U.S. “really need[ed] an extra bedroom, study room, two car garage, etc.”

After the first day on the build site, it was clear that the students were already grateful for the experience of building this family’s home.

With a 5′ x 5′ deep hole for a septic tank to dig, along with a 15’ long, 3’ deep trench, digging was a common activity the second day as well.

The walls of the house began to go up, put together like Legos, as one student described, with cement used to keep the frame in place. With everyone sore from the previous day’s work, students indicated relief as the day ended early with the coming of rain. Yet even with a shorter day, students were still gaining appreciation and understanding for the lifestyle of those in Costa Rica. When discussing American Families, one indicated “I do not believe a family of four like this would be totally comfortable in such a quaint house.”

Blog post contribution by Andrew T. Carswell, Jorge Ruiz-Menjevar, Ben Jacobs, Blake Bolton, Raymond Chau, Sarah Ernst, Will Johnson, Dilreet Kaur, Jessica Tante, & Amanda Vargas, UGACR HACE program members. Edited by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern.

Weekend Snapshot: Promoción de la Salud en San Luis

Forget Men in Black, today’s post is all about women in blue.

On Saturday, June 6th, nursing students from Georgia Highlands University Health Science program geared up in their royal blue nursing attire and transformed the nearby San Luis community center into an educational health fair, complete with face painting and give-a-ways.


The event’s main objective was to increase awareness about causes and effects of both mental and physical health – and better yet – how to address them. Posters and pamphlets provided information, both in Spanish and English, about topics including mental health, dental hygiene, and nutrition.

Costa Rica is advertised as the land of pura vida, a light-hearted phrase commonly used as a greeting, meaning “life is good,” or “no worries”. However, although generally a cheerful crowd, not all Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they’re called, are necessarily stress-free.

“Here in San Luis many people suffer from stress and tensions,” community member Margot Fuentes said, in addition to admitting feeling stressed herself.

Stress has a number of physical effects including sleep disturbance and digestive problems. “It also causes people to come to the ER with anxiety and panic attacks,” Misty McClelland, GHU student, practicing nurse and paramedic, explained from behind her mental health poster.

The mental health posters not only described the symptoms of stress, but more importantly suggested how to cope with and overcome them.

“They show you exercises on how to manage stress. This is important for us mothers,” community member Edith Salazar said, cradling a child in her arms.

A number of the suggested tension-relievers included: enjoying the environment, listening to music, stretching, and deep breathing. Salazar said she will certainly try these tips when she feels her tension escalating.

Next to the mental health display, a jovial stuffed-animal lion drew attention to dental hygiene. As the lion opened wide, nurses demonstrated proper brushing techniques, letting parents and children scrub the pearly chompers, too.

“Many times we think we know how to brush our teeth but we don’t really know how, so here one learns a lot,” Fuentes pointed out.

Community members learned about the risks of plaque and poor brushing, eagerly taking the give-a-away toothbrushes and toothpaste. (One excited brusher was so enthralled by dental hygiene that she wanted to adopt the lion as the new family pet!)

The nutrition booth called for some interactive meal making. Ticos used cutouts of typical Costa Rican foods to assemble what they would consider to be a typical meal. The nurses then provided each family with healthy feedback, suggesting what could be added or subtracted from the meal to increase health benefits.

The event turnout was larger than expected! Special thanks to Georgia Highlands University for sharing your knowledge with us and the San Luis community and a special thanks to the UGA Costa Rica interns, who volunteered to attend the event as translators.

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Humans of UGACR

As it is with a number of developing projects, Humans of San Luis is undergoing some changes – and we want to keep you updated.  Because the objective of this photo series is to focus on a range of subjects, from tourists to students to locals, we believe a more appropriate, all-encompassing name for the project would be Humans of UGACR. The intention of Humans of UGACR was, and continues to be, to share the thoughts (epiphanies even), that come from people visiting, working, and living within the community surrounding the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus here in San Luis, Monteverde.


Today, we meet Elisa Mata Leitón, a local coffee farmer who takes time from her gardening and craft-making to weave tour groups through her hillside of coffee plants, banana trees, and root vegetables, informing them of her organic coffee and sugarcane growing processes.

How do you feel about your farm being organic?

I feel good because we know that what we are eating and producing isn’t contaminated, for us and for other people.

Why do you enjoy giving tours?

I like to communicate with people even though I don’t speak English, but I like to share with others. It is also a way to provide a bit of income for my family. When Alvaro was well he also used to help me with the tours, but lately it’s almost always me. But I like it.

Do you remember your favorite things that tourists have said to you?

People say that I give a very nice tour and they enjoy being here and extracting [the juice from] the sugar cane. Also [they say] that I am very fortunate to live in such a place with a beautiful view. I like San Luis, I like it here because we have peace and tranquility. If we live in the cities there are many people, a lot of noise and I don’t like this. I like living here.

~ Elisa Mata Leitón

Blog post contributed by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

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