Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Category: Costa Rica (page 2 of 10)

The US Presence in Panama

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Panama City, Panama

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

When we first drove into Panama City I was impressed by the skyscrapers that line the horizon. As we got closer, I loved seeing the modern landscapes and urban setting. I thought to myself, “This could be the place for me.” It had a seemingly perfect combo of Latin American culture, but also a Western influence. From the infrastructure to the recognizable restaurant chains, it was very obvious how much the city mirrored an American metropolitan city.

I was initially impressed by these features that so closely resemble my home. I enjoyed the feeling of being in a Western atmosphere because it represented something familiar to me, but I soon realized how this reality represents an unpleasant history between Panama and the US. At first sight, it demonstrates how the US has been a major influencer in the history and culture of the country. However, once you study the country’s history closer, you learn that Panama’s culture was essentially stripped away and dominated by US politics.

The wealth that is evident in Panama’s infrastructure is a direct consequence of the construction of the Panama Canal. With the profits of the Canal, Panama has established itself as the richest country in Central America. However, not all of its history is glamorous. Since its conception, the Canal was never a project Panamanians and the Panamanian government consented to begin. Yet, the United States overstepped the government to execute the plan for a canal and, in doing so, exploited the country’s lands and people to create a profitable trade route.

Moreover, the domestic and foreign workers were initially excluded from the profits of the Canal. Often times they were cheated out of better wages on the basis of being “unskilled” workers. Additionally, they were prohibited from entering an area known as the Canal Zone, as the name implies, the area immediately around the canal. This section of land was dominated by white “gringos,” who imposed their cultural norms of segregation in the country.

However, the relationship between Panama and the United States is glorified because of the Carter-Trijos treaties, in which the USA ceded control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. This portion of history is etched in people’s memories in Panama. Both US President Jimmy Carter and Panama President Omar Torrijo are remembered as good men that sought to advance the conditions of Panamanians. In one interview, an individual shared how he remembered that these great diplomats had interest in progressing remote areas of the country, like in indigenous communities.

Thus, to my astonishment, I never encountered anyone in Panama that expressed animosity against the USA, despite their authoritarian presence in the past. Perhaps this is because the US invaded Panama in 1989 to remove the dictator Manuel Noriega. Some believe that Panamanians could have done this independently, but presumably, not as swiftly without the support of the US. I was disappointed that I did not know about these circumstances prior to visiting Panama, especially because it relates to my own history. One thing I have taken away from this trip is to study some of the significant events that have shaped the country’s cultures and current conditions before visiting. It does not need to be extensive, but enough to understand and relate with its citizens.

While in Panama, the cohort did an excursion to the Miraflores Locks to witness cargo ships passing through the Canal.

Ocean View of Panama

Panama Skyline

Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

#ProhibidoOlvidar A Mural Remembering the 1989 Invasion of the US

Time-Lapse of Ship Passing Through

Cohort Photo at the Panama Canal

I Spy: Costa Rican Edition

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Cahuita, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

One of the top attractions of Costa Rica is the wildlife. Many visitors look forward to seeing all the tropical species that are home to the country. The most recognizable include sloths, monkeys, iguanas, toucans, and more. You won’t find these animals easily in San José, but will definitely have the opportunity to see these creatures in their natural habitat during excursions. The best areas, in fact, are the national parks, which offer shelter for the animals to roam freely.

National parks are protected areas that prohibit the destruction of wildlife in all forms. Commonly, you will see signs that warn against feeding or touching wild animals and littering in nature. These precautions protect the natural environment and ecosystem. In Costa Rica, the regulations of national parks can be even more stringent. For example, Cahuita National Park, along the Caribbean coast, closes daily at 4pm, a relatively early hour. This allows the animals to have a break from human interaction, and still enjoy the daylight hours. For Manuel Antonio National Park, this same standard applies, and the park goes even farther to be closed all-day on Mondays.

While visiting these parks, there will be some animals that you can spot easily. However, most hide clandestinely in the vegetation of their habitat. With this in mind, it is worth considering hiring a guide to help you in your scavenger hunt for all the wild animals. Many animals hide in plain sight, and you need a trained eye to be able to spot them. Otherwise, you may end up looking at the same animal over and over again (like the white-faced monkey).

Additionally, some areas offer day tours, as well as night tours. During the night tours you may spot insects, spiders, frogs, and bats. In Cahuita, Heidi solicited the help of her friend Fernando to give us both a day tour and night tour. An extra benefit of a hired guide is that they have the proper instruments to see the animals, such as telescopes and special lighting during the night. Check out some of the pictures we took, with the help of Fernando.

Iguana at Manuel Antonio National Park

Congo Monkey at Cahuita National Park

Three-Toed Sloth at Cahuita National Park

Two Frogs at Fernando’s Place

White-Faced Monkey Video

Me at Manuel Antonio using a telescope to view the animals in the trees

Everything You Need to Know About The Costa Rica Study Program: Culture and Recreation (Part 2)

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Santo Domingo, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Here is the second piece of everything you need to know about Costa Rica. In this part, I will review some cultural aspects of the Pura Vida country and provide an overview of recreational activities in Costa Rica that are tuanis.

Where am I going exactly? How do I get around?

If you want to scope out in advance what area of Costa Rica you are heading to, the exact location is Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo de Heredia. Santa Rosa is the smaller neighborhood, Santo Domingo is the city, and Heredia is the province (but there is also the city of Heredia). It is a pretty good location because you are about 20 minutes from San Jose, in one direction, and 20 minutes from Heredia, in the other direction. Santa Rosa has a train stop right in the neighborhood, and there are plenty of bus stops nearby, too, that can get you around easily. The routes can be intimidating to navigate at first, but don’t be afraid to learn by trial and error. Worst comes to worst, you can always call an Uber or taxi, (or DiDi! — a new app similar to Uber) to come to your rescue.

What do I do with all my time in Costa Rica?

Aside from classwork and internship, you will have plenty of time to experience the culture of Costa Rica by engaging with your host families, being involved with activities hosted by Casa Adobe, and travelling! I recommend creating a bucket list of all the places you want to see and things you want to do in Costa Rica early on so you can adequately plan for each item. If you start feeling restless, branch out and visit local activities in Santo Domingo’s park, like bailles (P.S. everyone dances in Costa Rica) or conciertos. You can also venture out to San Jose or Heredia. San Jose has a larger nightlife, but the city isn’t really all that pretty, let’s say. Some locals prefer traveling to Heredia, which is more recently developed and has a cleaner look. Keep an eye out for cultural activities going on locally and nationally. The advantage of being so close to San Jose is that you can go to sporting events or concerts for famous Latin American artists (think Marc Anthony)!

During Fall break, my brother visited me and we visited several landmarks in Costa Rica, one of them being the Irazu Volcano, which features a lagoon inside the crater.

Where do you get to visit while you’re in Costa Rica?

There are a ton of websites and blogs online that give recommendations about the top places to visit in Costa Rica. For transportation, this website was very useful for getting around. Truthfully, there’s so much to see but you can really make the most of your time if you plan properly. Here is a comprehensive list of all the places I travelled to for my own leisure:

In San Jose/Heredia Provinces:

1. Barva Volcano

2. Irazu Volcano

3. San Jose Central Market

4. Oxigeno (This is just a mall, but it has a very cool mirador of the Central Valley)

5. Zoológico y Jardín Botánico Nacional Simón Bolívar Park

6. Jade Museum

7. Museums of the Central Bank (Pre-Colombian Gold Museum/The Numismatic Museum/Other Temporary Exhibits)

I found this from the website. “Admission is 2,000 Colones for citizens and residents, and 5,500 Colones for foreigners. Admission is free on Wednesdays. Admission is 2-for-1 on Sundays for citizens and residents with Costa Rican I.D. Admission is free for children under 12, students wearing their uniform or with school I.D. and retired citizens.”

8. Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in Cartago

9. National Theater of Costa Rica — Guided Tour and a show (1001 Noches)

10. Estado Nacional // La Sabana Park

Tip: Have the UCR issue you a student ID, and you can get student discounts at certain locations.

In Other Provinces:

1. La Fortuna, Alajuela — Arenal Volcano

2. Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas — Manuel Antonio National Park

3. Jaco, Puntarenas

4. Santa Cruz, Guanacaste

5. Puerto Viejo, Limon

The National Theater is one of the many gems of Costa Rica. In the guided tour you learn that the theater is used for many important, national events, like the President’s inauguration.

It is also ranked as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

As a cohort, the group goes sightseeing. Here are the places we went in Fall 2019 in Costa Rica:

  1. National Museum
      5. Cahuita, Limon       
      2. National Monument (and more)      6. Bri Bri, Limon
      3. Contemporary Art Museum       7. Tortuguero, Limon
      4. Guayabo National Monument        8. Tacares Waterfall

With Heidi, students also visit untraditional tourists locations like indigenous communities and refugee communities. They may not be glamorous areas, but they are very eye-opening and experiences for personal growth. (Bolded items are my favorite locations.)

At this site, visitors can enjoy walking across hanging bridges in the National Park, bathing in hot thermal pools, or zipline through the jungle.

At this site, visitors can enjoy walking across hanging bridges in the National Park, bathing in hot thermal pools, or zipline through the jungle.

Random pieces of advice for those planning on going abroad?

While I would like to say that everything about studying abroad in Costa Rica was perfect, the reality is that you experience some growing pains while here. The best way to maneuver any uncomfortable situation is to ask for help and open up to someone you trust, whether it be Heidi, a fellow peer, someone in your host family, etc. Some lessons are bigger than others, but here’s some tidbits that may be useful.


In the Central Valley, it gets chilly at night. If you are traveling to Costa Rica in the fall semester, make sure to bring some sweaters or light jackets. Even during the day, you won’t want to wear summer clothes, like flip flops or shorts because it is not beach weather in San Jose. The fall semester coincides with the rainy season, so ALWAYS have an umbrella with you, that’s the number one rule before leaving your house in the rainy season. You may also want to bring other attire that is water-resistant.


You will do a lot of walking throughout the semester, so bring walking shoes that are supportive, and it may be smart to leave behind any shoes you don’t want to get dirty or ruin. The sidewalks and streets are not that great here, so the most important element is functionality. Also, if you wear sandals on a cold, rainy day, you will stick out as a foreigner. Most people wear closed-toed shoes here, which is also good to keep in mind when you go to your internship.

Host Families

One major culture shock may be living with a host family. Not only is it a family that is not your own, the “parenting” of parents in Costa Rica is very different than US parenting. Some people love the experience, whereas others may find it difficult. In some ways, it is like being in highschool again, where you have to be conscious of how frequently you go in and out of the house, what time you come home at night, eating all the food on your plate, etc. The best way to prevent any uncomfortability in a homestay is to, first, be clear in your application what your hobbies are, what kind of food do you like and don’t like, what kind of environment do you prefer, all the details that will help Heidi pair you with the right family. Second, open communication is best, especially with Heidi. She will always help you navigate any situation relating to cultural cues, to arranging a doctors visit, to handling difficult conversations… with anything you need help with.

Costs of Living

In relation to other neighboring Central American countries, Costa Rica is very expensive. I love going to the malls but I never buy anything because everything is overpriced. Be smart and save money where you can. Opt to make lunch at home, don’t buy things in touristy spots where things are overpriced, use the bus versus Uber; this will help you save money to spend on experiences like going out with friends or travelling. Beware that some tourist activities are pricey and foreigners often get upcharged a ton versus residents.

Manuel Antonio is known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.

he National Park is extensive and has many breathtaking views.

Everything You Need to Know About The Costa Rica Study Program: Classes and Internship

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Santo Domingo, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

If you are thinking about studying abroad at Valparaiso’s Study Center in Costa Rica, here’s a detailed guide that outlines everything from class structures, internship options, housing accommodations, and other notes that may help you in your decision to study abroad in Costa Rica. Originally, I wanted to answer these questions all in one document, but I realized there’s just so much that it would be better to split up the topic into two parts — academics and recreation.

What is a study center?

A Valpo study center provides more resources to students during their time abroad. A defining characteristic is a local, on-sight Valpo director who works one-on-one with students to provide classroom instruction, group excursions, local directions, etc. If there is anything else you may need help with, you will always have someone easily accessible to ask. Included with the cost of the study center fee are housing arrangements, whether it be in a homestay or residence hall. For Costa Rica, students do live with a host family, and typically there are other students from Valpo that will form your entire cohort. More information about the different study abroad programs available at Valpo can be found here.

What classes do you take in Costa Rica?

Everyone is automatically enrolled in three classes:

  • Spanish Grammar class
  • Spanish Conversation class
  • Ethnology and History of Costa Rica

Before you enroll for your Spanish classes you will complete a placement exam to determine your level of Spanish. The levels are assessed as A, B, or C; A being the beginner level and C being the most advanced level. From there, each section is split into section 1 and section 2, the latter being the more advanced course. Truthfully, your performance on the placement exam does matter, but the number of students available for each class session plays an important role for the university. I say this because, for our group, we were all placed either in B1 or B2 and no C level classes were offered, initially. This also means that you may be in a course where each students’ Spanish-speaking capabilities vary, but regardless we were all placed in the same class for the sake of class availability. Once you start classes you will realize that the class size is very small, approximately 10 students or less, so it is a good environment to ask a lot of questions.

The structure of the classes is designed to be an intensive course. You will take both Spanish classes at the same time, starting at 8 am and finishing just before 1pm, for four weeks. Between classes you have a 30-minute break. This may not sound too bad, but you may find yourself waking up as early as 5:30 am so you can catch the 6:40 am bus to UCR. But, after just four weeks you will have earned 6 credits of Spanish! Another unique thing is that this Spanish class is exclusive to foreign students, so you have the chance to meet people from different parts of the world and even form friendships.

For the other course, you study with Heidi Michelsen at Casa Adobe, Valparaiso’s Study Center (also known as the Praxis Center). You begin this course as soon as you arrive to Costa Rica, and it lasts for 9 weeks. The first four weeks are intense because you meet almost everyday for almost the whole day. The good thing is that the topics of the course are interesting, Heidi frequently invites guest speakers, and group excursions are built into the curriculum. Then, on the fifth week the cohort does a study tour. This year we went to Panama, in previous years students travelled to Nicaragua, but, since last year, it has been too dangerous to travel there. Heidi intentionally designs the program so that students are exposed to various walks of life — from urban life, to rural life, to indigenous life. So, just as you will do in Costa Rica, you will experience different lifestyles in Panama. Once you return to Santa Rosa, you will start your Spanish classes. At this time, you will meet less frequently for Heidi’s class, typically just once a week. After the first 9 weeks, students typically begin an internship, but there are other options available, as well.

Interested in other miscellaneous class work? Heidi does her best to arrange whatever classes you may need to take abroad, and each member of my cohort has taken various elective courses. Two of my classmates enrolled in a Theology course about ethics at La Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana, which is a theology course purely in Spanish. The course lasts 15 weeks, spanning the entire length of our program, and ends in December. They meet for a few hours in the evening only once a week. My other classmate decided to forfeit doing an internship and continue taking classes at UCR. He was initially placed in B1 and has progressed into the C1 course. He is also taking another class with Heidi about the Sociology of Healthcare in the evenings once a week. As for me, after classes at UCR I began a 3-week course on Central American literature with Latin American Studies Program, a study abroad program for various Christian colleges in the US. I am also completing an independent study course on Liberation Theology with Heidi, and an independent study for my International Economics and Cultural Affairs Senior Seminar with my professor at VU. Don’t worry about buying any textbooks for any of these classes. As far as I could tell, all the materials are provided for students.

What are the internships like?

After the first 9 weeks, students typically begin working with an internship of their choice. Most are business related or medical related. I’ve included a link to the list of internships available as of August 2019. If you have a clear idea of where you would like to work, talk to Heidi so she can help you. We always joke around that Heidi has connections everywhere, and it’s true.

Veronica Campell has worked in the neighborhood of La Carpio, a marginalized community of predominantly Nicaraguan refugees and migrants, translating locals’ stories into a book that recounts monumental moments of community members.

In general, I would say your internship is what you make out of it. The work culture is very different here, so it probably won’t match your expectations of a typical internship, based on US standards. For one, ticos (Costa Ricans) have a different concept of an internship than we do, that is to say, they don’t often employ interns. So when you arrive, you will have more personal responsibility and liberty to outline what projects you choose to participate in at your internship. While there, you may also realize that the work environment is more relaxed, and it may feel like you have a lot of down time. Use this time to talk with your peers and/or supervisors and learn more about the company culture and Costa Rican culture, in general.

Veronica works alongside The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, which offers a variety of community enrichment programs.

A lot of this information will be explained by the Study Abroad Office and/or Heidi Michelsen, the Costa Rica program director. However, I hope it helps having the details provided here for you to read thoroughly. I based these questions on some things I had wondered before going to Costa Rica, so hopefully this clears up any doubts! If you ever have a question in the future, I’d be happy to answer any of your questions via email at

The international Spanish students took a field trip with their UCR Spanish professors to breakfast and the Jade Museum.

Veronica and I befriended students from the Netherlands and Norway, and have enjoyed going out for dinner, going to the theater, and getting to know Costa Rica together.

The Bongic Community and Naso People

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Bocas del Toro, Panama

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

The next destination of our study tour, following our stop in Panama City was an indigenous community near Bocas del Toro, Panama. Although we slept most of the day when we initially arrived, this trip was by far one of my favorite adventures. We arrived at the Bongic indigenous community early in the morning, after an exhausting 12-hour bus ride from Panama City. Even after we arrived at the bus stop in Bocas del Toro, we still had to drive an additional thirty minutes (maybe even more) to this community. I expected to be in a remote location, very far and distinct from the city life.

Students crossed the Teribe River to the Parque Internacional La Amistad.

My expectations were partially true. The Bongic community was once very secluded from the rest of the country. Up until recently, there was no road from Bocas del Toro to the indigenous people. Before the only way to access the community was by boat. Given this limited accessibility, the community is strongly characterized as self-reliant. For food, the community raises its own plants and modest livestock. It is very normal to see roosters and hens roaming throughout their neighborhood. They also constructed their own homes and other living spaces. Although these buildings were by no means luxurious, they were beautiful. The gardens, the landscape, and the livestock all created a harmonious living space. 

Bienvenidos. A warm welcome to the Bongic Community.

Our hosts prepared a total of four meals for us, which featured typical foods such as yuca or heart of palm. There were certainly some other things that I was not familiar with. Curiously, all of our meals were served on a plate or bowl, but also with a piece of leaf in between the plate and our food. The meals they prepared us demonstrated the generosity of the people. I could see how limited their supply of meat was, for example, yet they still chose to serve us meat. 

You can observe a typical meal prepared by the host, with small portions of hearty food served atop a piece of banana leaf.

Following our dinner, the children prepared a number of songs and dances for us. Then, the women told us stories about the community. I was particularly impressed with their story regarding how they founded a local indigenous women’s organization in 2010 called Organización de Mujeres Unidas Bonyic, which consists of 13 women and one male. Their organization is primarily responsible for the educational tourism that the Naso people have begun. This group of women petitioned funds from the government, affording them access to building materials to begin their project. Ultimately they constructed the Hostal Posada Media Luna, where we lodged.

The Hostal Posada Media Luna can house up to 12 visitors at a time.

This group of women shared an impressive story of empowerment and triumph. Although they lacked formal education, they composed a compelling grant superior to other applicants. In this grant, they needed to articulate their business plan to develop their community through mediums of tourism, ethnobotany, and other indigenous traditions and knowledge. Upon receiving the grant, their next step was to design and architect dormitories and another area to host events. Finally, they realized their plan and worked laboriously to construct these buildings by hand, with very little help from their spouses. This feat highlights their abilities to overcome economic and educational barriers, in addition to personal struggles. They shared that on multiple occasions their homes and livestock had been completely wiped away due to heavy rains and flooding.

Students listened to the women leaders expound on the establishment of their organization Organización de Mujeres Unidas Bonyic.

Due to the hardships the community has faced, the women feel pressed to secure forms of preserving and edifying the livelihood of their community, as they have done with their initial project with Hostal Posada Media Luna. Their organization continues other projects that enriches the lives of its community members on group and individual levels. One organizer had the opportunity to travel to Cuba to attend a business-related workshop. The organization sponsors such events because they aspire to provide better services to their guest, with the aim of benefitting their community, as well. I would have never guessed the accomplishments of these humble women, but now I admire them more than they know. They are full of knowledge and wisdom, and I wish I could have spent more time listening to all of their experiences.

Landscapes of Parque Internacional La Amistad

The Panamanian Color Spectrum

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Panama City, Panama

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

On Saturday, September 14, our cohort embarked on a trip to Panama City. Not knowing much about Panama, I did not know what to expect from the country. At dinner, one of our guides, Jorge, asked me what I knew about Panama previously. I looked at him with embarrassment, and admitted that I did not know much besides (1) it is home to the Panama Canal, and (2) it was once occupied by the United States. So, he asked me what I thought about Panama, so far. Truthfully, I told him I was surprised to see so many Afro-Latinos in Panama. (Both of our guides that day were Afro-Latinos). Previously, I was under the impression that most Afro-Latinos come from Caribbean countries, like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Jorge understood my misconception and shared that he experienced this in the United States before. Once, he lived in the US for about 2 years. He said that many African Americans would look at him crazy when they heard him speak Spanish, and give him a look that said, “How do you know how to speak Spanish?” Meanwhile, fellow Latinos were also astonished and said things to him like, “Who taught you how to speak Spanish?” So, although many, even other Latinos, are surprised by Afro-Latinos, Panamanians seem completely accustomed to the mixture of color that exists within their country.

Jonathan Davis served as one of our tour guides for four days in Panama City. Here he is pictured at Biomuseo, a museum of biodiversity at Panama.

Although within the United States exists a multitude of different cultures and ethnicities, certain environments are not always representative of this diversity. I was surprised to see every color of Panamanians eating at the restaurant. Similar to the United States, Panama has also had a history of racism towards Afro-descendants. We had the opportunity to visit the Afro-Antillean Canal Workers Museum, a place that honors the contributions and hardships of African descendants in the country. As the name of the museum implies, many Afro-descendants, particularly from Jamaica and Barbados, traveled to Panama to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. However, Afro-descendants and other minority groups commonly faced racial discrimination that manifested itself in segregational practices and wage inequalities between black and white workers.

This mural is found right outside the Afro-Antillean Canal Workers Museum, and pays homage to the Afro ancestry of the country.

Many of the Panama Canal laborers stayed in Panama, despite the hardships, due to the lack of employment in their home countries. The museum recognizes individuals’ contributions in the fields of politics, entrepreneurship, sports, civic engagement, arts, and education.  In present day, roughly 15% of Panama’s population are Afro-Panamanian. Some have even become popular figures in United Statesian media. For example, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali is remembered most for her role as Ashley Banks, a principal family member in the household of Will Smith. Another upcoming star, Tessa Thompson, also has Afro-Panamanian heritage, and is known for her performance as the Valkyrie in the Marvel Comic Universe and earlier performances in the Creed series.

These exhibits highlight Afro-Antillean culture in Panama.

An Unorthodox Study Abroad Experience

Author: Mia Casas

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

For my senior year at Valparaiso University, I planned to study abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica. Truthfully, the semester prior, I waited til the last minute to decide that this was an experience I wanted to commit myself to doing. I was unsure if it was possible, given that I needed to fulfill certain requirements in order to maintain my May 2020 graduation date. Still, I worked diligently to meet with my academic advisors, talk with my study abroad advisor, complete application forms, apply for scholarships, etc. all within a limited timeframe. I am proud to say that I did it. I met all the deadlines and was accepted into the program, and even earned a scholarship from the Study Abroad office. For the rest of the summer, I worked to save up money for my study abroad experience, and looked forward to the payoffs, come Fall Semester.

Sadly, exactly two weeks prior to my scheduled departure, I was in an accident that left me with several severe injuries. I fractured my nose, my orbital socket, two fingers, my shoulder, and four ribs. In the process, I punctured my lung, causing it to partially collapse. So I was hospitalized for 5 days, and advised not to fly for at least a month. I was devastated, and couldn’t bear the thought of not going to Costa Rica and trying to register for classes at the main campus. Nonetheless, I needed to inform the Study Abroad office of my change in circumstances and told them I could not participate in the program any longer.

To my surprise, I received an email back from Heidi Michelsen, the Director for the Costa Rica study abroad program, pitching the idea of arriving to Costa Rica at a later date. She wrote to me saying, “We are willing to work with you on other configurations of classes and timelines,” in addition to sending prayers for a speedy recovery. I was overwhelmed by the amount of love and support I received from her to help fulfill my dream of studying in Costa Rica. She offered me support in every way possible, from modified class schedules, homestay accommodations, learning accommodations, and even healthcare accommodations — more help than I ever could have imagined. 

This building is commonly known as Casa Adobe, but also serves as the Praxis Center and Valparaiso Study Center.

Ultimately, we made arrangements for me to arrive about a month into the program, September12 to be exact. I was able to complete online coursework with Heidi and the rest of the cohort for the first four weeks, and arrived just in time to travel with the rest of the cohort for our study tour to Panama and the Caribbean coast. Heidi even helped make arrangements for my mom to travel with me for the first few days. Although I certainly did miss out on some experiences (the cohort has already participated in several other excursions),  Heidi and the rest of my peers went above and beyond to make the most of my situation. I participated in class lectures via video calls, I even attended sessions with guest speakers via video calls, and the group took pictures and recordings of their excursions to share with me. 

Outside the wall enclosing Casa Adobe you will find a number of poetic verses painted for the public.

When we arrive back to San Jose, we will all begin Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica, and I will resume the rest of the Costa Rica program as normal. I salute the Study Abroad office and Heidi Michelsen for their efforts and concentration in accommodating each student’s specific needs. The level of service Heidi and other staff have demonstrated is not found in every college campus, nor in every office at Valparaiso University. I am grateful for my experience, thus far, and look forward to continuing this experience in Costa Rica.

(left to right) Director Heidi Michelson, student Madeline Brown, Casa Adobe Resident and Valparaiso alumna Hannah Purkey, student Veronica Campbell, student Tate Elie, student Mia Casas, and Praxis Staff Roland Harris enjoy dinner as a cohort.

Back to Santa Rosa

Author: Sarah Germann

Location: Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo de Heredia, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

After staying in Limón for a month I returned to my original host family in Santa Rosa for a few weeks before the end of the semester. The culture in Limón and that in Santa Rosa are a little different. The family I was staying with in Limón was a rural family, they did not socialize as much as my family in Santa Rosa, and they used the Spanish language differently. This made it harder for me to communicate, and take longer for me to feel at home in Limón than I had expected.

I had assumed I would feel relief once I returned from rural Limón to the more familiar and suburban Santa Rosa because I would be in a more urban environment. But, what really stuck out to me was the amount of affection I received the first few days of being back. I felt welcomed back into the entire community, first by my host family, and then many others; friends from Frisbee, the other Valpo students, families and young adults who live at Casa Adobe (the house where we take classes), and the other students in the Field Biology program with ICADS. After returning from Limón, it became clear just how many different groups of people I had gotten to know and become a part of in the San Jose and Santa Rosa area during the first couple of months of my semester.

During my last couple weeks staying in Santa Rosa I became much more comfortable in the area. I am not sure if I felt more comfortable because I had grown more use to the culture of Costa Rica during the month of April when I was in Limón, or if I had missed Santa Rosa while I was away. For whatever reason, I felt as if there was a click in those last couple of weeks, as if I had taken on the country’s culture and it had become more natural to me. I greeted people in a typical Costa Rican manner without thinking too hard about it, I rode the train and traveled around with much more ease, and I found the rhythm of life to be more comfortably familiar. It became my home, because I had adjusted. Speaking Spanish also became much easier in the last couple of weeks in Costa Rica. Again, it was as if there was a click in my brain and I could understand much more and speak more fluidly so that I could more easily enjoy conversations and social gatherings. I was greatly pleased with this change in myself particularly because of how far I had come since the beginning of the semester, when I had been shy and uncertain of almost every action I took and had found it very difficult to understand or speak the language.

My integration into the community of Santa Rosa made leaving harder. The people there are very warm and friendly, and have a life style centered around family and friends. However, it was proven to me that it is possible to become a part of another community and make friends rather quickly, even when there is a language barrier. I am encouraged to lean into my community, by getting to know and spend time with people as well as paying attention to the needs of others living in the area around me, when I return to my home in Valparaiso.

Some women of Santa Rosa, from left to right; Erin (Casa Adobe, Ivannia’s former host student), Lydia (Valpo student), Ivannia (Lydia’s host mom), Iva (my host mom), myself, and Teresa (sitting in front, Casa Adobe)

Nicole (left), Paul (right) and myself (center). The three of us all lived in Santa Rosa and played Ultimate Frisbee. We would ride to practice and team gatherings together in Paul’s car, and they became some really close friends of mine.

Panama Trip

Author: Sarah Germann

Location: Changuinola, Panama and Nazo Indigenous Community, Panama

Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

The other Valpo student and I traveled to Costa Rica under tourist status, meaning that after 90 days in the country we needed to leave Costa Rica to renew our visas. Thus, in mid-April, we went on a trip to Panama!

There were a couple subtle differences I noticed between Costa Rica and Panama. First, after two days, I noticed that handshakes were normal. At first I thought I was receiving handshakes because the people there knew I was from the United States, trying to be welcoming. But, I received only handshakes and was never offered a kiss on the cheek. I may have imagined it, but the handshakes did seem a little firmer and more practiced than the ones I have received in Costa Rica. A clarifying question to our guide confirmed that handshakes are the normal form of greeting in Panama. The handshake is probably due to the influence of the United States in their country.

Another thing I saw in Panama which may have been influenced by the United States was the military base near the Nazo indigenous community. The buildings in the base were painted with the same brown and green army pattern as I have seen used in the United States. We were told that the soldiers in training were brought to that point, where they learn jungle survival in order to outlive their opponents. There was a platform where the soldiers could face a flag and salute. Embarrassingly, when I first saw the painted buildings I thought the camp was originally a US training camp. It very much resembled a United States style military training camp. I cannot help but think there must have been some really heavy US influence there. By contrast, Costa Rica is a very peaceful country, and basically lacks a military.

In a way, the similarities between the US and Panama made me feel just a little more at home in Panama than I did in Costa Rica. Though there were only very minor differences, having more cultural similarities can make a person more comfortable in an area though they are very far from their original country. This, obviously, applies even when there is a language barrier, as I had the same challenge of understanding Spanish in both Costa Rica and Panama. The realization that even small similarities between a foreign culture and home country can facilitate ease during transition and comfort brings up a number of questions. I would be interested to see if I would be more comfortable in a different culture which speaks English.

My experience in Panama compared to that in Costa Rica serves to highlight the fact that our cultural norms, such as common greetings, is instilled in us so that when our norms are followed we feel “normal” and when we are not used to the norms, we feel strange. From now on I should have a greater appreciation and awareness for people who are new to my own country.

Our boat ride to the military base in the Nazo Indigenous Community

A boat on the beach in the Nazo Indigenous Community.

Surviving Jumanji

Author: Sarah Germann

Location: Limón, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

OK, so it’s not Jumanji. It’s an agroforestry system in the Costa Rican lowlands of Limón, a tropical region, with many more bugs and critters than I am used to, found all over the area, and a heat and humidity that does not change or abate. But, to this US mid-western girl who’s never been this close to the equator, bumbling around this pathless farm inside a tropical forest, where hardly anyone else ventures, felt a bit like falling into Jumanji.

For the month of April, I am staying with José Moore and his family in his house on the front part of his property. He lives on his farm, where they grow banana and cacao, the plant used to make chocolate, and a few mango trees. My purpose here is to gather data for my independent research project for the field biology program with ICADS (Institute for Central American Studies), in which I am participating for the second half of my semester apart from the rest of my Valpo Cohort, while they work at internships (see my 5th Blog, So Much Traveling!, for more information about my the Environmental/Biology program with ICADSJ). My research is focused on vegetation measurements and bird species analysis. I am comparing two sections of the farm to see if a difference in basal area, canopy cover, and/or groundcover (vegetation measurements) results in more habitat for more biodiversity indicated by the number of bird species found in the area.

Metal trays located at the front of the farm to the side of the house where cacao is dried before it is sold.

A pile of cacao shells, one of many found all over the farm

One day during the first week, I prepared to explore the back half of the farm on my own. No one had taken me into this section of the farm, but I needed to check it out in order to start my research. After staying on the path to bird watch, I tried to walk around the border of the farm along a road and nearly got attacked by a dog which was bigger than the mastiff my family had growing up with. I tried to go down a slope instead, but was unsuccessful. It was so steep I could not walk on it. So, I decided to walk along the creek, which goes straight into the bottom of part 2 along its border. I stepped in a wasps’ nest and ran away screaming and swatting myself. I walked back to the house, my shoulder, chest and back stinging where the wasps had flown into my shirt. After this little adventure I was not too keen on going out into the second part of the farm another time. Indeed, I was afraid of the farm. Aside from these things, I also encountered many other things which deterred me from going into the farm alone; spiders nearly the size of my palm which wove huge golden webs, plants which when walked into, leave stinging red dots in an arching row across my legs, trees with thorns longer than my thumb, very many insects and ants of different kinds, and above all the fear of stepping or falling on a poisonous snake whose bite would be lethal.

A part of the trail running from the house at the front of the farm to the back of the farm. This is the clearest, easiest area to walk on the farm

A view of banana and ground cover

Despite these things I got back out into the farm to do my research. After a few weeks of spending 7-10 hours out walking around each day, I realized that I had become comfortable on the farm. The path has become so familiar that, when in a hurry have jogged the steps it takes to leap upon the concrete blocks and iron bars in order to get across the creek where I had originally gone slowly with caution. I learned by heart the trail and many areas off the trail, and became confident that I knew where I was going. Although I have only been in Limón 3-4 weeks, it has become like a home, and I have learned to love this farm that I originally feared. I am honestly impressed at how quickly I was able to become accustomed to this place.

The Moore family puppy, Mia, following me around during my early morning bird watching

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