Our Guides but More Like Our Teachers of the Wild

Written by: Viviana Sanchez

IMG_9868Throughout our visit to Costa Rica, the team progressively learned innovative sustainable practices and about the importance and innocence of wildlife. Without the insight of each of our tour guides –  Marcos, Ryan, Carlos, Rigo, Mila, and Javier, I do not believe we would have learned as much as we truly did. Each time we were introduced to a new tour guide, I assumed this was just another tour for them. But during each tour, the guides always managed to introduce a deeper, more sentimental and passionate story along with their wilderness talks, allowing me to see that their jobs truly make a difference.

One example was when Amy asked Mila what she thought was a good way for students to get involved in helping out sustainability. Mila instantly began to tell us a story about a troop of monkeys having difficulty when trying to explore beyond their small living parameter because of the newly built street. She described how a ten-year-old girl brightly suggested tying a rope from one tree to another above the street as a mini freeway for monkeys to climb across.  Mila continued to describe how the easiest and most important way for us to help is by simply speaking up about our innovative and new ideas.

During our bird watching tour, zip lining and the night at the jungle experience at Hacienda Baru, Carlos, Rigo, Ryan and Marcos never failed to identify a bird, insect or even a tree. As we all played a small game of follow the leader while hiking in the jungle, Rigo would go ahead of the group and find a new animal for us to view through his telescope. The guides would then bury themselves into their wildlife books so that they can further explain about the specific animal. I came to realize that they try their hardest to give us the best possible experience with hundreds of facts about Costa Rica’s biodiversity.

Each guide was unique in their way of teaching but when you think of them together, they all contributed to making our trip special. Carlos with his funny stories about baby sloths, Rigo with his eye for finding wild animals, Ryan with his genius insight into each animals background and Marcos personal tours through the jungle.

I don’t know if the people I mentioned on here will read this. Either way I would like to thank you all. Thank you for welcoming us, for accepting our Spanish skills, for showing us your passions and for introducing your beautiful Costa Rica in the way that you all did! Plus everyone’s sense of humor only adds on to the many reasons why I cannot get over the experiences I had in Costa Rica.

Sweet as sugar.


Written by: Melissa Quoinez

I have always thought that I was pretty in touch with my food since I like to read the nutrition label on the back of the packaging, but I was wrong. During our trip in Costa Rica, I had the privilege to see sugar cane, or kaña, be processed into a block of sugar and it changed my perspective about the types of food I eat and how they are actually made.

As we were traveling to Mastatal, the second destination during our trip, we decided to stop at a trapiche or sugar mill/press. I had never heard of a trapiche and I was curious about its functions. It was a simple structure with a roof and support columns over the grinding mill and the cooking and cooling troughs and tables but the people and tIMG_1263heir liveliness was what made it so much fun. The trapiche is a family owned business. Paco owns the trapiche with his brother Juan and their 5 other brothers and sisters. As I was talking to Paco, he was telling me that the trapiche has been in his family for two generations and he would like to keep it that way in the future. The first thing I take notice of were the two large oxen. I had never seen an ox so close. I was a little afraid but I soon got over it as I began to take pictures of them. They were connected to the trapiche grinding mechanish by a “yugo”, which is a wooden device that sits on the backs of the oxen. This yugo was connected to a huge wood beam made out of buena maste wood, that was made by Paco’s grandfather. This beam, with the help of the oxen, is what rotates the trapiche and starts the process of making dulce.

As the oxen are going around the trapiche, they put the kaña (sugar cane) into the metal trapiche that squeezes tIMG_0794he kana juice and deposits it into a metal container. From here they  pour the kaña juice into the paila, which is big metal pan, that is resting on kiln-like stove that is fueled by the husks of the dried up kana plants.

Once they put in as much kaña juice as they want, they put it in a concoction made out of a plant named mozote that lets out a sticky substance that helps clean the kaña. They stir it very well and once the mozote is done cleaning the juice, it floats to the top and they strain the dirt off the juice. They cook this cleaned kaña juice for about four hours until it starts to bubble and caramelize. Once the kaña juice is cooked, they hand pour it  into a wooden trough where Paco starts to move the caramelized kaña with a wooden oar. Once the caramelized kaña is thick, they start to put it into the tandas or molds. Each tanta has about 32 molds which is a lot. They wait and once the molds are cool enough, they take the dulce  out of the molds and start to wrap them with the kaña leaves and then you finally have dulce. They repeated this process about 3 to 4 times depending on the demand.

 My favorite part was the people who were in the trapiche. It was so lively in there with the kids playing with the oxen and people talking to people randomly. It was so awesome not only seeing but feeling the concept of community in Costa Rica and I fell in love with the carefree attitude that they portrayed. I really do hope that I go back and have some dulce one more time.

Resilience Design vs. Sustainability

  DSC08033Written by: Katherine Chin

In Costa Rica, we visited four farms in the town of Mastatal — Siempre Verde, La Iguana Chocolate, Rancho Mastatal, and Villas Mastatal. During our visit to each of the farms, we were given a tour and the speakers would describe each of their missions and purposes.  One of the tours that I remember distinctly was the tour at Villas Mastatal. During the tour, our guide Javier, referred to the term “Resilience Design” in place of the word that is more commonly recognized, “Sustainability.”

This really caught my interest because it was the first time I had ever heard of this concept. The idea of resilience design is a relatively new term that Villas Mastatal was beginning to incorporate into their farm in order to convey that their mission is more than to be sustainable in their farming, building, and lifestyle but as a philosophy in practice. Javier talked about how he believed that sustainability meant to simply maintain and live within our means whereas resilience is having the ability to respond, recover, and be regenerative. To him, resilience design is to take a step further than sustainability.DSC08017

 At Rancho Mastatal, I was able to speak to the founder of the farm, Tim O’ Hara, in regards to sustainable agriculture.  He too mentioned the word ‘resilience’.

Tim talked about how there needs to be a system to respond to the “redundancy on systems that don’t rely on things that we have no control over.” Tim stressed the importance of having resilience, being flexible, and having the ability to adapt to events that are unpredictable.

_SuIj1NNxd80TPc3-4Qg5jzI-C0xIe3sjD5Br1OorjM,MnqX5LTLurYEDsCpfAjofVP0jGx0PL-Awv7Eyw-tz9g (1)After returning from Costa Rica, the idea of resilience design continued to spark my interest. I researched the internet and discovered that sustainability is suggested to be inherently static in which there is a point of stability and when we reach that point, we tend to remain there. Resilience, on the other hand, ‘is open to, embraces, and accepts change and diversity, promoting evolution as a result’. It focuses on the need to endure the unexpected, and to use the unexpected events to grow. Ultimately, resilience is about thriving while sustainability is about survival.

It is truly amazing and inspiring to me of how focused these farms in Mastatal were in terms of their impact on the land, nature, and the community and how they are advancing their mission.



Written by: Amy Huang

I had my first exposure to mangroves in high school when I took an AP Environmental Science class, but it was amazing to finally see how big they were in real life. It was such an interesting experience because we got to see the different types of seeds of each species of mangroves.

While in Costa Rica, we explored a mangrove swamp by boat to see the mangroves up close and personal. During the boat ride, we had a tour guide named Mila. Through her, wem learned about the different species of mangroves and how each one plays a role in the environment. I know what you’re thinking, “What? There’s different SPECIES of mangroves?! What’s the difference between one mangrove and another?”

mangrove seedMila informed us that mangrove seeds can float in water for a long time before actually taking root and growing. We also learned about the difference between red and black mangroves. The red mangrove grows more closely to the muddy soil and uses the nutrients from the soil to grow. The black mangrove grows on land and serves similar purposes to the white mangrove.

 What’s the white mangrove? White mangroves help decrease soil erosion and keep small islands from crumbling and falling into the ocean or river. Mila explained there used to be an island on the site that we were visiting, however, due to erosion it was slowly sinking into the water. The locals and tour guides started planting mangrove saplings by slicing a PVC tube in half and placing the small mangrove sapling into the tube to help it grow tall and strong. Once the mangrove has grown big enough to support itself without being uplifted by the weather or water, the locals go back and remove the PVC tube. pipeThrough this technique, they have been able to plant more mangroves around the shore of the island and keep the island from sinking. These mangroves have big, long, roots that extend into the water and provide areas for small water creatures to live. These small water creatures, such as the tiny blue crab, are important for the ecosystem because bigger fish prey on them and those fish are then preyed upon by the birds that inhabit the environment.

I believe the best part of the tour was when our guide spotted a silky anteater on one of the mangroves. As a student of UCI, spotting a real life anteater is a big deal and probably one of the highlights of our trip!

Witnessing the different forms of wildlife that resided in the mangroves and seeing the size of the mangroves as well as learning about the multi functions they served was an unforgettable experience.


What living truly means

IMG_1766 Written by: Maggie Wu

Roughing through the wildlife refuge, slipping through rocks and climbing down a forest, all proved to be less challenging than staying with a host-family during my time in Costa Rica. Growing up for 18 years of my life in the hustle and bustle of the second largest city in the United States, I was greeted with a rural life in Villa, Mastatal.

The house is stationed on an organic farm with wildlife dominating most of the landscape. As I walked into my host-family’s house, I was astonished by the sheer open layout. No windows, no bulky walls, no segregation of diffIMG_1196erent rooms. Green leafy plants were lined against the window sill and an aroma of frijoles con arroz(rice) was brewing in two pots in the kitchen. The colorful tiles of the floor complimented the wooden panels of the house and the sound of chirping birds filled the room with a homey feel. The backyard of their house contained 3 stations: one for housing animals, a trapiche(a sugar-cane producer), and a blacksmith.

The family was going about their daily musings. Lucia was cooking dinner, Mario was organic farming, and Rachel was taking care of her son. I found myself quickly out of place, as the simplicity shocked me.  Their daily life consisted of working for what they consumed. This idea was so foreign to me.


The first night was definitely enriching. After dinner, the family simply sat to watch the news and spent time talking. No one was interrupted by the sound of a beeping cell-phone. Although my Spanish was minimal, the family was deeply respectful of the differences. Welcoming and warm, the food was also simple, but amazingly fresh.  As I ate, I constantly struggled to keep insects from falling into my food while still trying to stay respectful of the lifestyle. The rest of the night consisted of conversing with one another and embracing the beauty of the night. The family went to bed at 8:30pm, while I stayed up until 12 midnight.IMG_1190

The next morning, I woke up to freshly brewed coffee made from a special strainer. The family wakes up to the sound of a rooster, bright and early, 5am. Their day, as explained by the locals, starts before the sun rises. Mario continues to work on his projects as Lucia takes care of the house. She finds joy in maintaining her garden, taking care of the animals, and making sure the house is in good condition. For me, I was given the freedom just to explore the territory.

IMG_1780During my stay, I struggled to find conversation topics to connect with. I realized the differences in culture, language, and education. However, that didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. They truly embrace the phrase “Pura Vida” as I have never experienced such tranquility. I was at ease, simply looking at the multiple fruits in the farm, playing with the animals, and attempting to converse. Compared to a day in America, I must say that Costa Rica offered me a new perspective of what it means to live.

Building from the Ground Up!

Cement 5 (1)

Written by: Bernard Beronio

Pouring a concrete slab was one of the community service projects that we undertook at Siempre Verde Lodge in Mastatal.  I took interest in the concrete floor making because I wanted to learn the process of it, what materials are needed, and how long it usually takes to finish concrete flooring.  I did not have prior knowledge or experience in this type of work, so I wanted to try something out of my comfort zone.  Overall, I enjoyed the experience and I learned that mixing and pourting a concrete slab/floor was truly hard work.

The main ingredients to make concrete are water, aggregate (sand, rocks, and gravel), and cement mix.  Felicia, Tim, Rodrigo, Gil the Mastatal volunteer, and I had to transport gravel approximately 75 yards to the mixing site.  We put the gravel in bags and used a wheelbarrow to carry them to the site.  We needed thirty bags of gravel and 100 pounds of cement.  Then we had to mix the gravel and the cement thoroughly by a method called “stick and flip.”  Stick the shovel in the mix and flip it on the other side of the original pile to make a new pile.  This was done three times until the gravel and cement were mixed properly.  Next, the pile was made into a “volcano” and it was filled with water.  Then, we dug up from the sides of the mix and placed it around the brim of the volcano hole.  This was part of the process, so the mix can absorb the water.  After the water was covered by the mix, we had to stick and flip again.  The previous step was done again.Cement 4 (1)

The concrete was placed in the wheelbarrow and more water was added.  It was mixed until the concrete was really thick.  The concrete was placed on the ground and we started layering it.  We took note that the upper part of the flooring should be sloped, so if it rains the water will drain properly.  The measurements had to be exact and precise.  I found out that it took two and a half hours just to create a patch of flooring.  At this point my back was aching, but at the end of the day each of us had a smile on our face.  We are fortunate to have experts who are passionate this type of work, and I fully appreciate it because people who take things for granted think flooring appears out of nowhere.  In reality, there are people who dedicate their time, effort, and work hard to provide us with flooring, walls, homes, etc.


picadillos_de_palma Written by: Abraham Sosa

During my stay in Costa Rica, I have to admit that at one point I was getting tired of rice and beans, yet I can’t say the same about picadillos. Diverse in color, flavor, and texture, picadillos were my favorite side dish during those warm and humid lunch breaks. The nice lady that prepared our food during our visit to “Gerardo el curandero” explained to me that picadillos developed in the region from the necessity of dealing with monotony, and eating better. A picadillo is way of preparing a simple filling ingredient into something more appetizing and rich. The name Picadillo comes from the Spanish word “picar” which translates “to mince”.

Picadillos are very simple to prepare.  Here is a simple recipe on how to prepare my favorite picadillo made from “palmito” or palm hearth.


  1. Place 500 grams of palm hearth in boiling water for 30 minutes

  2. Let the palm heart cool

  3. Mince the palm heart

  4. Mince an onion & one or two garlic cloves

  5. Add palm oil to a pan and heat the oil

  6. Add the minced palmito, onion, and garlic to the pan and stir

  7. Add salt and cumin powder to the picadillo

  8. Stir for 15 minutes

  9. Serve and enjoy

Other types of picadillos can be prepared the same way, and its only necessary to change the main ingredient. Moreover, feel free to add minced bell peppers, cilantro, and celery to the picadillo if you wish. I got to enjoy picadillos made of Frijol rojo (red beans), ayote tierno (young ayote), and papaya verde (green papaya).

chilesA great way to accompany your picadillo is with some pickled chiles Tico style.

First, slice some Aji and Abanero chiles, cauliflower, onion, garlic, cilantro, and carrot. There is no determined amount of any ingredient in the mix, so the ratio is purely based on personal preference. Put all these slices and a little bit of cumin in a glass container. Fill, the container ¾ Limón Mandarina / Rangpur Lime juice and ¼ with vinegar. Mix and close the glass container. Finally, let it sit for two days before serving.

Costa Rica Alternatives

Solar Cooker Mark

Written by: Mark Wang

Being in America, you become accustomed to things that you view as a part of everyday life. Toilets, stoves, and kitchen appliances are all typical household items that one expects to see when they enter a house. But how is it different in Costa Rica? Americans might wander into a Costa Rican household and be puzzled at different items they might find. Here are a few!

 Although seldom used and typically found in more sustainable households, this simple looking, wooden box is actually a solar cooker. It serves the same function as a stove, but uses solar power instead of gas. This is an inexpensive and useful alternative for gas stoves as it does not use up any fossil fuel and almost requires no labor to operate.  The concept is very simple; you place the food you want cooked inside the box, angle the cooker so that the sun shines on the mirror, the mirror reflects the sun’s rays into the box heating up your meal. One drawback to this contraption is that it takes a longer time to cook than your average gas stove. It would take about 3 hours to cook a meal, whereas a gas stove would cook the same meal in less than 10 minutes.

 IMG_0980This next appliance (the one that looks like a dirty sock on display) is actually a coffee strainer. It consists of two parts: a strainer and a stand. The ground coffee beans are place into the strainer and a cup is placed underneath it. Hot water is then poured into the strainer, which drips into the cup. And there’s your coffee! If you want your coffee to be stronger, simply pour the contents of the cup back into the strainer once, twice, or three times, depending on how strong you want it to be. In America, we have coffee makers that can cost up to $200 dollars, while this strainer can be made for only $10 dollars. American coffee makers require electricity and may need to be repaired. The Costa Rican coffee strainer is a lot more practical, simple and FUN!

composttoilet (1) As Americans, we’re used to seeing shiny porcelain thrones in our bathrooms inviting us to sit on them. But in Costa Rica, wooden boxes in the middle of the forest are everywhere. They are not as bad as one would think and they serve a very functional purpose. “Compost toilets”, as they are called, save the human waste for fertilizer that is later used on farms. The toilet is surrounded by 3 walls and is usually placed in such a way that the user can enjoy a nice view. You can add a half-cup of sawdust to cover the waste to assist in breaking down the process.  While it may smell stinky and a few bugs may be seen lurking around, the compost toilet is sustainable in that it uses everything and leaves nothing to waste, literally.

 One thing that I learned while being in Costa Rica and seeing these different “appliances” is that everything is built in its simplest form and serves its purpose. Nothing fancy is needed; if it gets the job done, then it’s used. Being on this trip has really showed me the excess of things that I have and how much of it isn’t necessary.

Wood Design- Siempre Verde Style

Wood Design

Written by: Carmelisa Morales

Aside from construction and building, wood is also used as an art medium. From traditional Wood Design Editedto the modern styles, wood has been used since the first human-like species started leaving their mark on Earth. Wood may be used for sculpture, craft, and decoration (chip carving, wood burning, marquetry, etc.). While in Costa Rica, we saw other forms of wood art like basket weaving and furniture making. For most of our trip, our group stayed at Siempre Verde in Mastatal. Siempre Verde is an organic farm with lodge accommodations owned by Marcos Garcia Guzman, who also acted as one of our tour guides. Marcos designed and built Siempre Verde. His talent and creativity in wood art are displayed in his structures and furniture.  When you arrive at the farm, there is the sign “Siempre Verde Lodge” welcoming you to this amazing place. This sign is made entirely out of donated wood and scraps from previous projects.  Below the main sign, it describes a few of the amenities that make this farm unique and fun. This goes with the overall theme of the lodge: sustainable and eco-friendly. It is important to note the title of the lodge in English translates into “simply green.” Marcos hopes to keep the place as natural as possible and to avoid harming nature and the wildlife as little as he can.wood sign

His largest project thus far is the lodge structure that contains the yoga deck and guest sleeping accommodations. The entire building was made from donated wood (various types of wood are used like Purple Heart, Brazilian wood, and Teak).  With the help of volunteers, visiting interns, and family, Marcos was able to build the lodge structure, furniture, and decorations out of wood. From bunk beds and chairs to bookshelves and candleholders, his team designed and created it all from scratch. LauWood Design Part 2ren, Vivi, and I were fortunate enough to be a part of Marcos’ wood making team. During one morning of the week, he showed us all of his wooden creations around the farm and taught us how to make a cutting board, mirror, and table. For the cutting board, he showed us how to make it with leftover wood, a table saw, and glue. We were able to put a crafty design on the top surface by adding different colored wood (Purple Heart and Brazilian).  For the mirror, we used leftover Teak wood and a scrap mirror. We used the table saw again to make little slits on the wood to create an off-center, two-sided frame. IMG_4821The table was the most complex out of the three projects. It involved three pieces of teak wood, a “tree cookie” (thin cut out of a tree trunk), scrap Purple Heart and Brazilian wood, an electric sander, machete, sanding paper, electric screwdriver, glue, table saw and varnish. First, we sanded the three teak wood pieces. Then we used the screwdriver to make two holes in both the tree cookie and teak wood for each piece. We used the machete to sharpen the Purple Heart and Brazilian wood pieces so they would act as nails and hold together the table. We placed those pieces into the teak wood pieces (they formed the legs) and made holes in the tree cookie. After securing the pieces with glue, the table was held together perfectly! Although it wasn’t geometrically perfect, it was beautiful because of its natural look and handmade appeal. Wood design is so crafty and unique. This type of art is almost always made by a wood craftsperson. It adds to the art piece’s value and gives it a personal touch. A few of us ordered animal wood carvings from the local wood craftsman of Mastatal. It will be arriving in a few weeks. When it arrives, it will be a reminder of our wonderful wood crafting experience.

Ants in your pants

Ants Photo part 1

Written by: Banni Behniwal 

A couple of weeks ago, if you asked me what my absolute least favorite bug was, I would have rushed to say “ANTS! ANTS! MOBS OF ANTS!” before you finished asking your question. I used to think of ants (especially in groups of 4 or more) as annoying little pests whose sole purpose was to attack any and every crumb I might have in my kitchen, or worse, my dorm room. Our first hike in Costa Rica changed all of that.

On our second day in Costa Rica, we decided to explore a little hiking trail next to our lodge through the Teak Tree forest in Hacienda Baru. As we were walking, Ryan (one of our tour guides) came to a sudden halt and directed our attention to the ground. We looked down and saw a trail of tiny bits of dancing green leaves cutting across the trail only to realize that there were little ants beneath the leaves carrying them to their nearby underground colony. As Ryan explained to us more about these small critters, the more I became absolutely fascinated by these creatures that I normally would have wanted nothing to do with.

Leafcutter ants, as I learned they were called, are known to be the most complex animal societies next to humans. With an entire caste system intact within each colony, these ants are able to function like a well-oiled machine so to say, as they are technically a farming

Ants Edited

society. As each caste does its individual job, the ultimate goal is to feed the growing colony by harvesting fresh leaves that are used as compost for fungus food to grow on. Besides the queen ant, whose responsibility is being the sole reproducer for the colony, there are three different castes—the workers, the soldiers, and the minima. The workers, also known as mediae, travel long distances in the jungle to find the perfect leaves for their farm. It seems peculiar and even dangerous to travel such a long way but they do so because they are smart enough to know that they need the foliage around their colony to protect it from the rain. Once the medias find suitable leaves, they leave a chemical scent trail for other workers to follow. As they cut and carry the leaves back to their colony, other smaller ants, the minimas, ride on top and clean the leaves before they are allowed underground for the farm. These minimas also do a majority of their work underground, tending to the growing fungus inside of the colony. The soldiers are the largest subcaste and weigh about 7 times more than medias and 30 times more than minimas. Their primary responsibility is to protect the colony from intruders and do so by using their massive jaws and stings. They also clear the trail by moving things the medias and minimas cannot carry. When all three castes work together, they can maintain a colony the size of a small car inhabited by about 5 million ants. The level of organization and sheer size of these leafcutter ant colonies is truly fascinating.

While we were in Costa Rica, we also ran into another kind of ant species—army ants. While we were working on the greenhouse behind the elementary school in Mastatal, we heard a sudden flock of birds flying out of the trees and a rush of bugs zooming past us, as if they were running for their lives. Within a couple of seconds, we saw a sea wave of ants storming up over a small hill out of the jungle. They swarmed on such a massive scale, it was as if the ground was painted black. It was clear that this colony of army ants was on the hunt. Although they are incredibly smaller than other bugs, they worked as a team to trap and kill bugs as big as cockroaches and spiders. After doing more research, I found out that they kill about 100,000 animals a day—mostly insects but they are also capable of killing lizards, snakes, chickens, and other small mammals. One of the most fascinating things about these critters is that the majority of them (all besides the queen and males) are blind and rely solely on chemical trails to find their way around and execute massive raids. As a nomadic species, these ants are almost always on the move except for when they create nests out of their own bodies to shelter growing larvae. Army ants, although seen as extreme pests, actually serve as natural pesticides as they clear out any unwanted bugs in farms and even human homes.

Getting the chance to watch an army ant raid in person was an incredible as well as humbling experience. While back in the States we are used to forcing nature to work around us, this time we were the ones being forced to stop our own work in order for nature to proceed in its intended course. Knowing what I know now about leafcutter ants and army ants, it’s hard to believe that I once loathed such mesmerizing creatures.