The Future of Ecotourism

Written by Olivia Carbonaro

Our trip to Costa Rica was many things for me. It was especially serendipitous in the sense that I found more inspiration than I could have ever bargained for in many unexpected places.  When thinking of all of the things that happened on our trip, there were a few people and moments that really resonate in my mind.

Manuel introducing his fellow classmates from La Gloria Secondary School.

Among these people include Manuel, a 15-year-old student from a secondary school called La Gloria. La Gloria is about a 40-minute bus ride from where we stayed for most of our trip in Mastatal (or 2 hours away when walking, which many of the locals do). The secondary school would be similar to what the United States considers to be middle school and high school combined—teaching students from ages 12 through 18 years old. La Gloria is known as a technical school, specializing in teaching students how to become eco tour guides.  As visitors, we could see that tourism is an essential part of the economy in Costa Rica and we were excited to get the chance to meet the future of ecotourism. Surrounded by lush flora and a diversity of fauna, La Gloria serves as a truly great place for students to learn how to become eco tour guides.

Manuel leading us on our tour through the trails behind the school.
Manuel leading us on our tour through the trails behind the school.

I was so excited when we were told that the students at La Gloria would be practicing their newly acquired tour guide skills on us. It ended up being such a fun and exciting experience to have our presence be beneficial in helping achieve their school’s learning outcomes. It was satisfying to be able to give them the practice they will need to be able to pursue careers in the field of ecotourism. I think the biggest source of help we could give was providing the students a chance to practice their English speaking skills with us.

When we first arrived to La Gloria, Manuel took the lead and introduced the group of his fellow students, welcoming us all to their school. Our group was soon split up into several smaller groups of 2-3 people, and we were led by 2-3 of La Gloria’s future eco tour guides. My group was lead by Manuel and 2 other students from their school accompanied us. Not all of the students we met at the school spoke English fluently, but Manuel spoke English so clearly and elegantly. It became very apparent to me that he really took it upon himself as his own personal initiative to learn English. An unexpected fact I learned was that Manuel was among one of the youngest in the group of students, which made him all the more impressive to me. I was really happy that he was leading our small group because it gave me a chance to talk to him one-on-one and get to know him better.

Manuel led our group and introduced us to the projects they had going at the school, including some that had plans for improvement. Among these projects included a pig pen holding little pink pings that reminded me of the pig from the movie Babe. He also showed us their chickens, which were all babies and still had their yellow fur.  He led us to an area which he said used to be the home of horses and bulls, but the school couldn’t continue to afford to keep those animals there. We talked through the woods on trails that seemed a bit off the beaten path, but Manuel always checked to make sure we were okay, warning us when we needed to watch our step while holding branches out of the way for us as we walked by. Then we walked to the Soda, which is a Costa Rican-style bar/restaurant where we all got juices and sodas. As we walked, Manuel and I got to talking and I learned that one of his favorite television shows is Friends, and he particularly likes the characters Joey and Phoebe. He also told me that two of his favorite American movies are Donnie Darko and Clockwork Orange.  It surprised me when he told me this, because La Gloria seemed so far away from the United States, and yet there we were discussing popular American TV shows and movies. This all just showed me how globalized we have become on this Earth—that even in a rural town in Costa Rica, American sitcoms can still be found.

Richard, Diana & I taking a photo with our ecotour guides for the day!
Richard, Diana & I taking a photo with our ecotour guides for the day!

As we walked back from the Soda to return to the school to meet the rest of the groups, I asked Manuel if we could all take a picture together. He replied saying “We will do anything that makes you happy, that is what we are here for” (or maybe he said we will do anything that brings me pleasure- I don’t remember exactly now), but he replied in such way that almost startled me. I was taken aback by his genuine desire to serve us while we were there, which wasn’t something I went in expecting. I went in thinking we would get a tour of the school and maybe practice English with the students- but we got so much more than that. It humbled me that Manuel and his fellow students really went above and beyond to give us a fulfilling experience at the school and put so much care into making us feel welcome and happy. When we returned to the school, we were further humbled by a delicious meal and a showcase of dances performed by the students. After this, we went to the schools indoor soccer field, where Manuel popped up in a green wig. It was so great to see him in a less formal setting, joking with everyone and running around playing soccer. He even ran up to me and called me his “BFF” (which stands for best friend forever) and we went on to take some silly photos together.

Manuel entertaining the group with his unique dance moves!
Manuel entertaining the group with his unique dance moves!
Manuel rocking his green wig with me on his left!
Manuel rocking his green wig with me on his left!

Manuel reminded me what dedication looks like. He reminded me in just one day what being a wholesome person looks like—someone who works hard, but also knows how to make time to play and be silly. Despite whether or not others were practicing becoming fluent English speakers, he went on practicing diligently and was able to hold great conversations with us. Manuel, despite being only 15-years-old, shined with potential and personality. In my eyes, Manuel is the future of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and I am honored I got the chance to meet him.

Tranquil Costa Rica- A Video Compilation

By Olivia Carbonaro

Even though it has been over a month since we have returned from our adventurous journey to rural Costa Rica, the impacts it made on me still carry on. It is difficult to articulate in a short conversation how this 10 day trip changed my life and left footprints in my heart and mind. And since it isn’t quite practical for me to attempt to express to everyone through daily conversation how much I enjoyed this trip, I attempted to compile my thoughts and feelings towards the trip in a short 5 minute video. I hope you will take the time to watch this video and indulge in the pure simplicity and tranquility that my fellow participants & I got to enjoy while on our Spring Break trip. Please feel free to share this video. GRACIAS! 🙂


Open Living

Written by Lytia Lai

The open air houses scattered throughout the rural areas of Costa Rica made me realize how separated the inhabitants of first world countries are from nature. Growing up in a metropolitan city and currently living in Irvine, the thought of a house with no walls sitting in the middle of a rainforest had never crossed my mind.

Open air houses are built through precision-based timber frame construction, where wood is used as the primary material. The people who build these glorious structures have not had any formal education in architecture or construction; however, they have learned through other people’s experience and trust their intuition. This reminded me that there are many different forms of learning aside from that which takes place in a lecture hall—the main form of education which I, as a biology major, have participated in thus far. College education is still essential for my career path (pharmacy), but now I fully appreciate hands-on experience-based learning and find value in alternative forms of education. Not everyone is suited for traditional classroom style learning, nor is it available to everyone, and being able to recite equations or answer textbook problems is only a fraction of what is required in real life scenarios.


To build open air houses, carpenters in Costa Rica collect unwanted wood scraps (those that do not meet the minimum size requirement from companies that export Costa Rican wood), and by doing so they are reducing the negative environmental impact of deforestation projects, as well as their cost of building. Often, small cylindrical wooden dowels are used instead of metal screws to keep the structures together—a perfect example of people making-do with what they have.

As a society, we don’t need flashy extravagant marble floors, glittery wallpaper, or large flat screen plasma televisions to build a comfortable home. To me, open air houses symbolize the simplicity of happiness, and the importance of being non-disruptive to nature. Swinging in a hammock while gazing out the magnificent mountains of La Cangreja National Park, being softly cradled by the warm humid tropical air, and listening to the sounds of nature has brought me more internal peace and happiness than any of my other traveling experiences, which I now find are excessive and selfish.


I am ashamed to have been that tourist, who had the privilege to travel to many different countries, only to live in 5-star hotels, eat, shop, and then leave the country without having made any positive impact on the local community or learned anything. I strongly believe that traveling is the only thing we can buy that makes us richer, but the way I traveled with my family in the past just showed me that money buys good food, convenience, and service, which had absolutely no impact on my self-development and appreciation for everything I have. Seeing how minimal, simple, and clever open houses are definitely changed the way I want to travel and live life: no more expensive hotels, no more dream-yacht, no more trading social responsibility for convenience.

The owner of Rancho Mastatal shared that his motivation for building open air houses is being able to apply his love and passion for sustainability to a project that will do the greater good, and having that tangible result that will house volunteers and other tourists for many years to come. The first step in building an open air house is to “site the building;” you need to determine where to put the structure, figure out draining, consider landslide risks, how the sun moves to maximize natural lighting, which is used to power solar panels and substitute for light bulbs. Next, the house needs to be designed around the information from the siting process; factors such as air circulation and how the rain falls are accounted for. To build the structure, a foundation is laid down first, and then the wood is soaked in termite repellent, varnished and sanded down before being used. The measurements have to be exact in order for the structure to fit and for the “raising” process to go smoothly. Everything is built on the ground first, then “raised” or assembled afterwards. There is a lot of attention to detail, which I believe is more admirable, fascinating and impressive than using computer software to do all the calculation and planning. Open air houses are works of art; the builder incorporates their personality and life perspective into the structure. For example, one of the houses was called “Sea Port,” and there were mosaics of sharks, boats, and turtles made of recycled glass, and there were boat paddles and buoys hanging on the exterior walls of the house.

Walls of homes are used to separate nature from humans, to keep the animals out; however, we often forget that we are animals too, and just because we are at the top of the food chain it doesn’t mean that we get to disrespectfully exploit other ecosystems by demolishing their habitats to build our own. Insects do not infest our homes, but rather we are living in their territories and killing them with bug spray when they are trying to co-exist with us. Ant infestations are good because they clean out food crumbs and dead bugs, and once nothing is left they will leave. Since the residents of open air houses do not store any packaged processed food, they don’t need to worry about bugs consuming their food.


Open air houses caught my attention during the trip because they symbolized how humans and nature can coexist comfortably, safely, and sustainably. They showed me a completely new perspective of simple living and making-do with what you have, which unfortunately the first world is unable to do. We heavily rely on third world countries for natural resources because we have depleted our own sources, and instead of curbing our own usage we exploit other countries’ sources.