In late July, as the summer break began to wind down, middle school Spanish students, chaperoned by Spanish teachers Julie Pinzás and Susan Moling, took a trip to Costa Rica that extended into mid-August.
The students arrived in the Costa Rican capital city of San José on July 31, and were soon taken to the town of Grecia, where they ate at a restaurant tucked away in a bamboo forest in the mountains. “The open-air restaurant served us a delicious classic Costa Rican dish called ‘casado’ which literally means ‘married’ since the locals always eat rice and black beans together,” Pinzás wrote in one of several email dispatches.
Afterwards, they got settled into their living quarters for some rest. Students passed time chatting, playing volleyball and hanging out in a nearby courtyard and garden. “Beautiful exotic butterflies could be seen everywhere,” Pinzás said.
The group then ventured out to explore a local grocery store, and enjoyed dinner before heading back to their “casitas” (little houses) for the night.
The next day, the group headed to San Luis for an exciting day of zip lining through the lush treetops. “Mid-way through we tried the Tarzan swing, and then ended our tour using the new ‘Superman’ harness in which you lay face down overlooking the canyon for nearly a mile,” Pinzás wrote. “It was a blast! A definite highlight of the trip.” The day was capped off with some sampling of Costa Rican ice cream.
The day after their zip lining adventure, the students began their first day of classes at the Academia Centroamericana de Español (ACCE), known in English as the Central American Spanish Academy. Students took a diagnostic test and were placed in small groups of three to four students per teacher. “As usual, they impressed the director and their Costa Rican teachers with their Spanish!” Pinzás said. The students also experienced their first Costa Rican thunderstorm during their classes. “They were fascinated by the intensity of the lightning, thunder and downpour,” Pinzás wrote. “The powerful thunder was truly startling at times!”
That night, the students ate fajitas and enjoyed a viewing of Disney’s “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which was shown in Spanish, of course!
On Aug. 2, the students and chaperones rose early to partake in the celebration of Costa Rica’s last patron saint, La Virgen de Los Angeles (la Negrita), also known as the “black virgin.” Local legend says that in 1635, a young girl discovered a small, black doll in the image of the Virgin Mary on top of a stone in the forest, and took it home with her. When the doll went missing the next morning, the young girl went back to the forest to find it resting upon the same stone on which she found it the previous day. She took the doll home again, only for it to disappear a second time. She decided to leave the doll where it stood, and the town built a church around it, which in Cartago today they call the Basilica.
The group headed to Grecia’s beautiful red church for the celebration, where most of the citizens of Grecia had already gathered. “We were fortunate enough to enter the church to observe some of the religious service and to see a replica of the ‘black virgin’ on the altar,” Pinzás reported. Following a church service, the replica was carried in a procession for several blocks. The rest of the day was spent exploring a local market and experiencing another thunderstorm.
The next day, everyone visited Centro Educativo Nuevo Milenio, a private K-12 school, and after meeting some of the students they attended a special assembly for Science and Technology Day. Harker students then shadowed CENM students in grades 7-9 during their chemistry, math, computer, English and Spanish classes. “They had such a good time that students from both schools are hoping to meet again,” Pinzás said.
Continuing their visit to various schools in Costa Rica, on Aug. 4 the students toured a local public school with more than 1,400 students in grades 7-11. “Interestingly enough, those students who do not pass any given subject must repeat that subject until they pass it. There are no advanced classes, and teachers, not students, move between classes,” Pinzás observed.
Later, at a local woman’s home, the students took part in a cooking class and enjoyed a home-cooked meal. “The students helped Sra. Lavinia prepare a sumptuous arroz con pollo (chicken in rice), a traditional Costa Rican dish which features several local vegetables, special seasonings and chicken,” Pinzás wrote. “There was also a delectable vegetarian version for those who preferred it meat-free, and both were served with fried bananas (plátanos maduros), salad and refreshing fruit smoothies.” Best of all, the students all received the recipe so they could make the delicious dish themselves once they returned home.
The group’s next stop was the neighborhood of La Carpio, located just outside San Jose. Home to about 34,000 people, mostly Nicaraguan immigrants, La Carpio is known for the extreme poverty of most of its inhabitants. The Harker students took a private bus to a park just outside the neighborhood, where they played with some local children at a daycare center. “Our students thoroughly enjoyed playing with the 25 or so children, whose ages ranged from three months to four years old,” Pinzás said. “It was touching to see the instantaneous bonding that transcended cultures and language.”
Early the next morning, the students began heading north to Manuel Antonio National Park. Along the way, they stopped at the Tárcoles River to see the crocodiles that lived along its shores and also saw several macaws flying around the area. They also hiked through Rainmaker Park, a beautiful remnant rainforest, and observed the various plant and animal life there, such as poison dart frogs and centipedes. Upon reaching a waterfall, the students took the opportunity to step inside the natural pool below it. After another hour of driving, the group arrived at the hotel to rest up for the next day’s trek through Manuel Antonio National Park.
Pinzás reported “perfect weather” on the day of the visit to “one of the country’s smallest but most spectacular national parks.” They took a leisurely hike through the rainforest, and their guide identified many different insects, plants and animals. “We enjoyed seeing two- and three-toed sloths and many Congo monkeys, among others,” Pinzás wrote.
When they got to the beach (“which looked like it was from a movie set with majestic palm trees surrounding a turquoise bay,” Pinzás said), the students jumped into the pristine water almost immediately. A few hours later, everyone headed back to the hotel before they were beset by the afternoon rain.
The morning of Aug. 9, the group headed to the town of Sarchi. “The town is very historic because it lies along the old Pan American highway which connects Central and South America,” Pinzás said. Sarchi is famous for its painted oxcart wheels and hand-carved furniture and crafts. The students attended a painting class to learn the fundamentals of painting wheels. Don William, a local artist, invited the students into his house, where each student was given a small white wheel to paint.
Later, at the Eloy Alfaro factory, founded in 1920, the students learned about the making of the wheels and saw the artisans at work. “One of the most fascinating aspects of the factory is the fact that the machinery is still powered by water, not electricity, exactly as it was in 1920,” Pinzás said.
Near the end of the trip, the group went to a local sports complex to enjoy some fun athletic activities, and later that evening, they enjoyed dinner at the Mirador Ram Luna Restaurant. “This restaurant is located on the slopes of the Escazú hills in the city of Asserí, which is about 90 minutes away from Grecia,” Pinzás wrote. The restaurant offers a “breathtaking” view of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, she added. The students were treated to an entertaining music and dance show there. “Both the dinner and show were fantastic!” Pinzás said. Alyssa Amick, grade 8, was even called up to dance. “She made it look so effortless,” said Pinzás. “It was a memorable evening for all!”
The previous night’s fun actually served as a precursor to the students’ first activity on Aug. 11, a trip to a local dance studio for a Latin dance class. “The whole class was taught in Spanish! Our instructor, Jonathan, taught us how to do the Bachata, Cumbia, Salsa and a popular dance to a song called ‘Qué te pica’ by Notch,” Pinzás said. That evening, the students played an indoor soccer match with some local youths before heading back to the casitas for pizza and chatting.
On the final day of their trip, the group visited downtown Grecia for a scavenger hunt. “This activity was developed by one of our wonderful local contacts here, Amy Paschal,” Pinzás explained. “Students were divided up into groups of three or four and then had to follow the steps on their individualized scavenger hunts in both Spanish and English.” Certain tasks required conversing with the local townspeople, giving the students opportunity to practice their Spanish skills with native speakers. One such task involved asking a local to snap a photo of a group in front of a landmark. “Everyone laughed a lot and had a great time,” Pinzás recalled.
That evening after classes, the students and teachers had tremendous fun (and great food!) during a special farewell barbecue party. The Harker students were each presented with a group photo of the ACCE students they had befriended during the trip. The night concluded with the Harker students dancing to Yingo’s “Culikitaca” with some of the friends they had made during their stay.