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Giant ferns and beach sunsets: Costa Rica interterm spans climate zones

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by Tyler Doerksen

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – An unaccented, gringo-style “¡Gracias!” fumbled out of our mouths, followed by a muffled “¡Mucho gusto!” from the kitchen crew after a much-enjoyed meal during the 2008 interterm class to Costa Rica.

Our 15-member (counting Professor of Biology Jon Piper) Tropical Biology class had flown out of Wichita on a cold morning at the beginning of January, excited, nervous and full of expectations. With an experienced and knowledgeable professor at the helm, we were sure hopes wouldn’t be left wanting.

Our trip started and ended in the populous capital of San José, where the group segmented to scour the city. As we were first greeted by abundant parks, crowded streets and noisy vendors, our image of Costa Rica was still in its infant stage. After the short crash course in directions and Spanish skills, we headed to Las Cruces, a biological field station near the Panama border.

The Garden of Eden-like ambience of the botanical gardens of Las Cruces proved a great start to our three-week adventure. Days usually consisted of tours with our spunky Costa Rican guide and directed field studies where we the measured plant and animal populations of the gardens. There was also free time that we filled up with hikes to waterfalls, occasional birdwatching and late-night card games.

Although Las Cruces is considered a rain forest, it couldn’t compare with La Selva’s thick foliage and seemingly unending rain, where we went next. Located slightly east of central Costa Rica, La Selva (“the jungle”) sprawls with massive, buttress-supported trees, ferns with leaves that could used for hammocks and animals up the wazoo.

Our time was well spent, with independent studies that, most of the time, involved evading anything that could potentially sting you and cause hours of pain, night hikes and spitting off a suspended drawbridge into the river where the fish apparently thought saliva looked a lot like food.

With such great perks, we had mixed feelings about leaving La Selva but these were immediately forgotten when we hiked into Cabo Blanco. We were apprehensive at first because of its simplistic setup, but Cabo soon won the group over with midday snorkeling and beachfront sunsets. I don’t think anyone would have been opposed to spending the rest of our trip there but unfortunately the days that seemed to pass so slowly deceived us into an already nostalgic hike out.

Not as isolated as Cabo Blanco and definitely not as wet as La Selva, Palo Verde was our last field station. It had the least moisture of the four and was definitely the hottest. Palo Verde seemed not to be the Costa Rica we expected, but time would prove otherwise. We soon discovered the picturesque peaks that boasted both sunsets and sunrises, started naming the giant lizards that lived outside our rooms and got to play a pick-up soccer game with some of the Costa Rican workers.

As our last day at Palo came to a close, we were faced with the sobering fact that soon we would be back at college. We spent a few more days in San José taking memorable strolls down the same streets we walked on our first days and absorbing what had happened in the last three weeks. Our thoughts bounced from misty mornings, exciting first sightings, moonlit beaches and sunset cliffs, all of which made it easier to realize we would never forget this trip.

Other students in the Tropical Biology class were Bradley Baker, senior from Wetmore, Kaitlin Claassen, sophomore from Elmira, Ore., Rebecca Claassen, junior from Moses Lake, Wash., Annette Gingerich, freshman from Parnell, Iowa, Omar Hasan, junior from Halstead, Matthew Hershberger, sophomore from Clay Center, Christian Loeffler, freshman from North Newton, Blaire Mayhue, sophomore from North Newton, Emily Piper, junior from North Newton, Sam Piper, freshman from North Newton, Chelsea Reimer, sophomore from Leavenworth, Wash., Matthew Root, junior from Topeka, and Michael Unruh, senior from Peabody.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

Tyler Doerksen is a senior from Prescott Valley, Ariz., majoring in biology.

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View photos from the trip.

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