By Kelly Galaski
Have you ever experienced a vacation that stayed not only in your memories, but in your heart?Â Have you had the chance to interact with people, to get to know locals and feel a part of their family – an authentic cultural experience?Â I had this opportunity last year in Costa Rica and my life is forever changed. I have more than friends there now, I have a home, with a family that cares for me like their own.
When I first arrived in Costa Rica in January 2008 I found myself in a kitchen surrounded by rapidly-speaking Spanish family members and felt pretty lost and a little scared. But from day 1 I was treated like a special guest. And each day I was able to communicate more, and meet more people – neighbors and friends that made me feel welcome in these small communities of Santa Elena and Quizarra, in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor.
The Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor is named for the famous ornithologist, Alexander Skutch (a bird biologist) that lived in the area on a private farm-turned-nature-preserve for 60 years studying the diverse bird and wildlife of the area.Â The “corridor” is the area between two nature preserves, the Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary – where Skutch lived, and the Las Nubes Forest Preserve – a cloud forest donated to York University for conservation and research. There are several small farming communities all connected by coffee and sugar cane farms, small community centers, soccer fields, churches and schools.Â The people here love to host volunteers, students and birdwatchers, and anyone interested in preserving their beautiful environment and learning about their culture.
I was fortunate to stay with two families, the Hidalgo-Blanco family and the Valverde-Godinez family, as well as spend lots of time with Luis Angel Rojas at La Escondida “the hidden farm.” All in all I had 4 sisters, 3 brothers, 2 nieces, 2 nephews and two sets of parents/friends!Â They filled me up with yummy breakfasts of eggs and “gallo pinto” – Costa Rica’s native dish of rice & beans, Lizano sauce, cilantro, celery & red pepper all mixed together. I had lots of lunches of garlic fish fillets (my favorite), pastas, fried plantains and “frescos” – fresh blended juices. There was also no shortage of fresh avocados from the tree outside and other fruits and vegetables from the farm. And I certainly can’t forget the “cafecitos” (pronounced cafe-sitos), which means literally little coffees, which are afternoon coffee breaks that I had almost every day around 3 o’clock chatting with my “mom” and friends.
Walking along there were always offers of rides from neighbors, and invitations to community meetings, festivals, and dances. The communities are small and friendly, everyone knowing each other, so it is one of the safest parts of the country.
Till this day I keep in touch with the friends I made there, who helped me learn Spanish, and made me feel like a part of their world in rural Costa Rica.Â Since being back I have wanted to help more people experience this special place, as well as give back to these wonderful people. So I helped create an itinerary that brings people to the area for a couple of days, to stay in a small cabin on a private sustainable coffee farm,Â “La Escondida,” where toucans and monkeys come to play in the mornings and evenings, among tons of other colorful bird species.Â Travelers can meet the “mom” I lived with, Sidey, and have a traditional food cooking lesson learning how to make tortillas or another dish. They can go with a local guide through the Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary and spot white-faced capuchin monkeys as well as see Alexander Skutch’s home and ancient mysterious petroglyphs. They can also visit another good friend Pablo, on his farm “Santuario Filaverde” where he gives a tour of his primary forest that he is trying to protect from encroaching pineapple plantations. See the full description of the trip, Costa Rica Cultural Experience, here which can be modified to suit individual tastes.
Another opportunity for those that are looking to volunteer for a longer period of time, for the summer between years of school or just for an international experience, a “Teaching English and Environmental Conservation” voluntour was set up with uVolunteer.org. Students or other volunteers can stay with a family and help out the schools and community groups who are trying to learn English by providing lessons as well as work with a tree nursery group on conservation activities – all while learning Spanish and experiencing the real heart of Costa Rica.
For further information on visiting the area, contact us at GreenSpot.travel, we would be happy to help you contribute to this special community.