Moab and Costa Rican students together at the school in Turrialba. (Photo courtesy Maren Larsen/Moab Sun News)

For 12 days, eight Grand County High School students got to experience what it’s like not only outside of Moab but outside of the United States.

Thanks to the high school’s “research trip,” the students and two chaperones spent nearly two weeks in tropical Costa Rica.

“Experiencing a whole different country, climate, ecology, wildlife and customs was an amazing experience,” said Ed Defrancia, Grand County High School math teacher and one of the chaperones. “The students were wonderful guests of a very warm culture. Their willingness to try new things made us all proud.”

National Park Service employee Sharon Brussell attended as the other chaperone.

The group left Moab on June 9 ready for adventure. Over the course of the trip, the students learned to adapt to their new rainforest environment, while studying the biodiversity and culture of Costa Rica.

The travelers spent their first day in Costa Rica at INBio, the National Institute for Biodiversity, located in the capitol city of San Jose. There, they got a taste of some of Costa Rica’s diverse flora and fauna, including sloths, iguanas, caimans, cecropia trees, birds of paradise flowers, and, somewhat inexplicably, cacti.

They also visited an exhibit on climate change and viewed various sculptures made out of recycled materials, including a tunnel made entirely out of strung-together bottle caps.

The next four days were spent on the Pacuare Reserve, a private nature reserve located on the Caribbean coast and only accessible by boat.

During the days, the group went on rainforest and beach hikes and attended lessons taught by their instructors, Mica and Allan. The topics ranged from different types of sea turtles to sustainable development and climate change. Mica and Allan made all of the lessons both relevant and action-oriented, making sure the students would take home what they had learned and put it to good use.

The students also created their own research projects based on the data they gathered during night patrols over the course of their stay. The patrols went out at odd hours because both nesting sea turtles and poachers, they learned, are most active at night. Each patrol group consisted of an EPI instructor, a research assistant from the reserve and four of the Moab students.

The patrols went out every night, one from 8 p.m. to midnight and one from midnight to 4 a.m. The patrol groups would record data from the turtles they encountered nesting on the beach, including shell size, number of eggs, tag numbers and injuries on the turtle, but the students’ presence also served another purpose.

Before student groups started visiting the reserve, the poaching rate of turtle eggs on the beach was near 90 percent. Now, thanks to EPI groups, the poaching rate is less than 1 percent, and this trend continues even for a short ways outside of the reserve.

Over the course of the four nights, the group saw nine adult turtles (eight leatherbacks and one green turtle) and 33 hatchlings. They counted almost 300 eggs.

Most of the students agreed that the days they spent at Pacuare were the toughest. The lack of sleep coupled with more rain than most Moabites will see in their lifetime made for quite the culture shock, they said. By the end of their stay at the reserve, however, the group was reluctant to leave their newfound tropical turtle paradise.

The next three days were spent at La Suerte, a privately owned rainforest preserve to the North and West of Pacuare. At La Suerte, the students went on three rainforest hikes, one in an established forest, one in a relatively new-growth forest, and one at night to see all the nocturnal wildlife.

On the hikes, the students saw poison dart frogs, howler monkeys, toucans, butterflies, strangler figs, walking palms, mushrooms, bats, bullet ants, mimosa ferns, leaf cutter ants, and many other kinds of unique rainforest-dwelling plants and animals.

As at Pacuare, the students participated in lessons. They studied biodiversity, adaptations, ecology, and, on one particularly entertaining night, salsa dancing.

Each student also chose a species that they had seen while out hiking to do a short research project on. Among some of the species picked were the basilisk lizard, the three-toed sloth, the giant toad and the naked Indian tree.

After La Suerte, it was on to the next adventure. This time, it took them to Turrialba, a small mountain town located just west of San Jose. Here, the Moab group visited a Costa Rican high school to present their leatherback sea turtle research project and to get to know a little bit about the culture there. A few of the Costa Rican students were just about to go on their own adventure to the Pacuare reserve, and they were excited to hear what the other group had to say about the experience.

At the school, the Moab students also had their second encounter with salsa dancing when the Costa Rican students decided to give them a taste of their culture.

The students spent that night at an organic coffee plantation nearby, where the instructors set up a bonfire and helped the students discuss all of the amazing things the trip had taught them.

The general sentiment was expressed clearly by Jessica Valdes, who said that the trip to Costa Rica was “the most amazing and life-changing experience I have had.”

For some, it was being so utterly immersed in the Costa Rican ecosystems that struck them. For others, it was the lessons they participated in and the research they conducted.

Still others were influenced greatly by the Costa Rican lifestyle in general: “We have so much, but care so little,” one student said. “Whereas, (the Costa Ricans) have so little, but care so much.”

Everyone agreed that from the food to the instructors to the people they came with, the trip was an incredible and priceless experience.

The students spent their last day in Costa Rica on the Pacuare River. The Pacuare is considered one of the top whitewater rivers in the world, with nearly constant rapids of up to class four and out-of-this world scenery.

Jackson Knowles captured the strangeness of the scenery when he compared it to Jurassic Park, which was filmed close by. By the end of the day, the group was soaked to the skin and sunburned, but almost everyone agreed that that day was the most fun of the entire trip.

On June 20, the students and their chaperones sadly said goodbye to their instructors and to Costa Rica. They promised to keep in touch and take what they had learned back to Moab with them–and to come back to Costa Rica as soon as possible.

Most of the group was excited to go home and see their families and friends, but everyone knew they would miss not only Costa Rica but also the people they met along the way.