For the past five years, Professor John Marzluff has led a group of 15-20 students on a month-long exploration seminar to Costa Rica. The course, “Natural and Cultural History of Costa Rica,” is equal parts expedition and cultural immersion, and students get to learn about everything from local history and ecology to language and tourism.
The day-to-day itineraries often vary slightly from year to year, but the trip generally begins in central Costa Rica around the city of San Jose. From there, the class heads south to higher-elevation oak ecosystems, then back down to low elevations and the rich tropical rainforests of south-central Costa Rica.
The next destination is the far southern Pacific coast along the border with Panama, including Corcovado National Park. “It’s quite a wild area,” says Marzluff, “and it involves a full-day hike along the beach to get into it. All the big cats are there.” They haven’t seen one yet, but the chance to spot an ocelot or puma is always there. This year, though, they did come face to face with several rare Baird’s tapirs on the trail. “There aren’t many places left in the wild to see them,” he says.
After a few days in and around the park, they start working their way back up the coast while exploring sea turtle breeding and other sorts of coastal recreational development (students and instructors also find time to fit in a bit of fishing, waterfall hiking and surfing here and there).
Marzluff’s co-instructors for the course are Professor Marc Miller from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and SEFS doctoral student Jack DeLap. Marzluff focuses on the birds, natural history and tropical ecology of the region. Miller approaches the social dimensions of the area, including sustainable tourism along the Pacific coast, and DeLap works with the students on scientific illustration techniques—paying special attention to field characteristics while drawing the plants, animals and habitats they’re seeing and studying. Marcos Garcia, a local Costa Rican, attends to language lessons for the students and provides unique color commentary. (One other fun SEFS connection is that Robert Tournay, a grad student in Professor Sharon Doty’s lab, is the travel coordinator for the trip. He works with Tropical Adventures in Education, and he helps arrange local contacts and set up accommodations.)
While traveling the country, students get thorough exposure to tropical ecosystems, learning firsthand how they function and the incredible diversity within them. In terms of wildlife, you’ll have a chance to see close to 300 species of birds, all sorts of snakes, sea turtles laying eggs on the beach, maybe even another tapir. You’ll gain experience identifying a wide range of plants and animals, including close observations of hummingbirds, and a day following one of four monkey species. “You never know what you’re going to see,” he says.
Central to the course, as well, is cultural immersion, and students spend a lot of time learning how people live in different parts of Costa Rica, including the use of sustainable, low-tech operations (human- and animal-powered machines), composting toilets and other creative innovations. “There’s a lot of ingenuity as an everyday part of Costa Rican life,” says Marzluff.
Spanish language education is another component, and Garcia travels with the group to provide general language support and Spanish lessons every day. You don’t need to have Spanish language experience coming into the program; the lessons are flexible to suit beginners up through fluent speakers looking to hone their skills.
What It Takes
“It’s a great class, no doubt about that,” says Marzluff, but it definitely requires a serious commitment. It can be seriously hot and humid in Costa Rica, and you’ll be doing a lot of walking, so you need to be in pretty good physical condition—or at least be willing to get in shape in the months before the class begins. You’ll be engaged full-time from early in the morning until late in the evening, from longer treks and night hikes to other tours and projects. You won’t be camping, but your lodging will vary from fairly high-end to rustic, as well as a homestay with a local Costa Rican family for up to a week. You should expect periodic heavy rains and unpredictable floods, and even a possible earthquake. All of which is to say, if you’re willing to live and travel with a group of students in these conditions, and you have a bit of an adventuresome spirit, you’ll be all set—and have one sensational experience to recall at the end of it!
How to Sign Up
Organized through the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and the UW Study Abroad office, the field seminar runs from the August 28 to September 19, just before the start of the fall quarter. Most participants are undergrads, but occasionally graduate students come along as well.
Registration is open now, and the deadline to apply is March 1. The course cost is about $4,000, which is essentially all-inclusive when you’re there, but students are responsible for airfare to and from Costa Rica. You can check out a more detailed description of activities and sites you’ll visit, as well as the overall application process and schedule.
So take a closer look, and sign up for an unforgettable month in Costa Rica!
Photos © John Marzluff.