Group explores Costa Rica, pura vida

Students explore Costa Rica, pura vida in travel-study trip

Aug. 16, 2018

Surfing, sea turtles, yoga, volcanoes and cloud forests were all part of a Maryville College travel-study trip to Costa Rica in May. Led by Dr. Jerilyn Swann, professor of biology, and Bruce Guillaume ’76, director of Mountain Challenge, the trip also was a course entitled “Biological Conservation and Ecotourism in Costa Rica” that awarded academic credit to 14 students enrolled in either Biology 149 or Outdoor Studies and Tourism 149.

Biological conservation, outdoor fitness and sustainable ecotourism were the focus of the 12-day trip that started in San José and traversed the Central American country located between Nicaragua and Panama.

While Maryville College has organized several trips to Costa Rica over the past 15 years, this was the second trip to focus on conservation and ecotourism. Swann and Guillaume agree that Costa Rica lends itself to these fields. Not only does Costa Rica lead the world in ecotourism, it also has rich biodiversity, dense wildlife and unique outdoor adventure opportunities, they said.

Swann said her goal was for students to appreciate the diversity of another country and reflect upon Costa Ricans’ attitudes toward the environment.

“Hopefully, they came away with an appreciation for the thoughtfulness the Costa Rican government has toward people and the environment,” she said. “They have a very intentional plan for conserving, preserving and managing their spaces.”

By percentage, Costa Rica has more protected land than any other country in the world. The government encourages individuals to preserve private land, and many of them do. In addition to its preserved land, Costa Rica uses 100 percent renewable energy, making it an excellent place to learn about sustainability.

“Sustainability means that you consume exactly what the world can replenish, so if the world consumed resources like Costa Ricans, then the Earth could naturally replenish,” said Guillaume, adding that in many ways, the country is both 15 years ahead and 15 years behind most developed countries – 15 years ahead when considering environmental initiatives and 15 years behind when considering way of life.

Costa Rica is famous for its pura vida – or “pure life” – lifestyle. Guillaume described it as “an emphasis on direct experiences, the importance of friends and family, simple living, happiness for the success of others, being outside, etc. And fun – definitely fun.”

He remembers one conversation with a native Costa Rican who believed the pura vida lifestyle was the very thing that allowed the country to be so far ahead in terms of sustainability.

Up close and hands on

While on their trip, students and faculty members were careful to practice sustainable tourism by traveling with a local company, staying in local hotels and eating at local restaurants.

“We went to independently owned coffee plantations to learn how coffee was roasted and independently owned chocolate farms to see how chocolate was made,” said Maryville College senior Beau Branton ’19. “We ate at family owned restaurants. Everything was family owned. We supported local businesses.”

The importance of travel-study trips is the hands-on experience that students cannot get elsewhere. In Costa Rica, students participated in biological conservation firsthand. For example, they spent two days with Vida Verdiazul, a sea turtle conservation group. They helped analyze nests and create safe homes for new eggs. Branton recalls dropping everything one night to rush over and watch the baby turtles take to sea.

“It was cool to understand the efforts that they’re putting into preserving the population of the sea turtles,” Branton said.

In addition to studying conservation, the group participated in a variety of outdoor fitness activities that included hiking, white water rafting, yoga and surfing. As the founder and director of Mountain Challenge, the outdoor recreation and adventure program that operates on the MC campus, Guillaume said he believes in the benefits of outdoor physical activity.

“When you combine the benefits of fitness and of being outside, you’d think you could add the benefits together, but it’s really a multiplier effect,” he said.

Both faculty members said they loved watching the students take on surfing. Despite varied surfing experience and physical abilities, all of the students got up on the surfboards with encouragement from their peers.

“They just really supported each other and helped each other,” Swann said. “They seemed to enjoy being out in the water, learning something new and appreciating each other’s efforts and abilities.”

The trip was filled with fun adventures, but there were sobering moments, also.

Swann remembers visiting a beautiful protected beach. Alongside the beautiful backdrop were toys, plastic bags, cans, water bottles and more littering the shore. She pointed out to students that they’re used to beaches where trash disappears in the night; however, this beach demonstrated what can happen when someone isn’t consistently cleaning up.

New perspectives

After it all, Swann and Guillaume hope that students came away with a fresh perspective, respect and understanding for the world and its resources.

“It takes minutes to destroy something that may have taken eons to evolve, so we have to be cautious and mindful of our resources to not waste them,” Swann said.

Branton said that the trip had a positive impact on him. He’s now being more environmentally conscious in his day-to-day life.

“I’m recycling more,” he said. “I’m being more conscious about my water usage. I’m being more conscious of a lot of things I wasn’t before.”

A similar version of this trip will be offered again in the future, but it will likely be a couple of years from now since the College rotates short-term study-abroad offerings. Branton said he would absolutely recommend the trip to future students and encourages them to keep an open mind to learn about and appreciate the culture.

In the meantime, Branton emphasizes that there are ways you can live the pura vida lifestyle at home.

“Instead of going to [the mountains] and riding go carts, we should go to the mountains and take a hike,” Branton said. “You learn more that way, and you exemplify the pura vida lifestyle more when you do that.”

Written by Evy Linkous '16, Freelance Writer for the Office of Marketing & Communications


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.