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News Education FHS Students Escape to Costa Rica

Joan Willis’ class rests at the base of the Arenal Volcano, snapping shots of the scenery, while their guide Lalo takes a sip from his water bottle. Photo by Joan WillisFHS biology class experiences biodiversity, culture of Costa Rica

In the early morning hours of April 18, Franklin High School students from Joan Willis’ advanced biology class loaded a motor coach and began their field trip to the Central American nation of Costa Rica. After more than a year of planning and holding 16 fundraisers, the group of 17 students and six adults made their way to the Atlanta Airport, their point of departure for Costa Rica.

Once the class arrived at their destination, they were met by a guide who quickly shuttled them through security and to their hotel, where they were fed a traditional Costa Rican meal by the wait staff.

“We soon learned that our guide for the trip, Abelardo Denaeidea Murillo — shortened to Lalo — was a young man who had received all the education the Costa Rican educational system could offer him,” said Willis.

Jessica Mallonee holds a tropical butterfly.According to Willis, Lalo had furthered his education as well as his command of the English language through a great deal of self-study. “Most of his knowledge had come from growing up in the area and learning about the flora and fauna firsthand,” she said. “Our motor coach driver, Alex, was also a former guide. However, his skills as a driver were amazing and necessary as driving in Costa Rica is slightly less treacherous than a Sunday afternoon on a NASCAR track.”

At the beginning of their adventure, the class arrived at the Tirimbina Rainforest Center, where they stayed in a thatched roof cabin with eight rooms and a central meeting area. Despite the hot temperatures, sometimes exceeding 85 degrees, the class found that there was no air conditioning.


“We were fed three meals each day consisting of traditional Costa Rican cuisine. Over the next two days we were introduced to the dynamics of the rainforest ecosystem,” said Willis of their time spent in the Tirimbina Rainforest. “After crossing a 1,200 foot suspension bridge over the Sarapiqui River, we hiked through a protected rain forest area and viewed amazing tropical plants, sloths, insects, and tropical birds.”

Working with a local bat expert, students formulated their own hypotheses regarding the feeding habits of local bats and then set up seed traps to collect seed data which was used the next morning to determine if their hypotheses was indeed supported by the data.

“I held a baby bat!” said FHS Junior Lori Morgan, who said that she, along with her whole class had never had such an experience.

“An early morning bird hike gave us the opportunity to listen and try to identify a variety of tropical bird species using sight and song characteristics,” said Willis. “Our afternoon was spent on the Sarapiqui River rafting seven miles through many category three rapid sections. We were amazed that this river would quadruple in volume during the rainy season, making it more than 40 feet deep in and 300 feet wide in sections.”

That evening the class set up mist nets, catching and collecting bat species that were responsible for the distribution of seeds they had collected throughout the night.

“Our visit to the Tirimbina Rainforest was concluded with an evening of dancing with local experts who instructed us in the true tradition of Costa Rican dancing,” remarked Willis.


The class traveled to the Arenal Volcano National Park on its third day of staying in Costa Rica. The centerpiece of the park, a once-thought inactive volcano, erupted in 1968 destroying an area of more than ten square miles, she explained.

“This provided us with the opportunity to observe the process of succession first-hand, as pioneer plant species reestablished themselves over the next 43 years following the eruption,” said Willis. The volcanic soil, she explained, has made the area rich for farming. The class observed the types of cash crops cultivated by the people in the region.

“We hiked the round trip distance of more than four miles to the base of the volcano,” she said. “The heat was oppressive but we were impressed with the plants, rock formations and the awe inspiring mountain rising to an altitude of almost 5,000 feet above our heads.”

“It was a view for forever,” said FHS Senior Kaitlyn Sutton, of the moment her class had reached the summit of Arenal. “It was the most intense climb of my life.” At the base, the students described, there were large black lava rocks, and at the summit was a large artificial lake.

The students learned about the formation of volcanic rock, how plants reestablished themselves following volcanic activity and even tasted termites along the way. “If you can get enough water and eat 45 termites a day, you can survive in the wilderness,” Willis recalled Lalo saying. “Once again, we were totally impressed with the knowledge of our guide,” she said.


The trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest from Arenal National Park was a six hour drive, but the class’ trip was shortened in half as they traveled across Arenal Lake, the largest artificial lake in Costa Rica, Willis noted.

On the other side of the lake, the class boarded a variety of vans to travel gravel roads to the village of Rio Chicquito. The roads, Willis recalled, were in all ways comparable to Franklin’s own steep, curvy mountain roads, with the addition of no pavement, guard rails and no shoulders. She said that in the village, everyone drove much faster than what Americans would consider safe.

“Lalo often pointed out what were called ‘Oh My God’ bridges along the way, but we all agreed that the road itself was best described with that phrase,” said Willis. “Along the way we were able to see the consequences of forest clearing in order to cultivate coffee. At one time this cash crop was a major exported product of Costa Rica.”

Competition with other countries has reduced the profit of the coffee, Willis said. In addition, a worker is paid only one dollar for picking a bushel basket of coffee beans, one bean at a time as they ripen. Large areas of the cloud forest have still not recovered from the clearing done for patches of coffee plants. The local fauna made a lasting impression on the class, the teacher maintained.

“A brief stop at a mountain store allowed us to get up close and personal with a 2,500 pound Brahma bull,” Willis said. “He was gentle as a kitten and we all enjoyed posing with him for pictures.”

The true uniqueness of the country was seen at the Iguana sanctuary the class visited, Willis said, though it was not an actual sanctuary, but an establishment started by a local family who started rescuing and caring for injured iguanas. All of the iguanas, she explained, were fed, protected and “very willing to pose for pictures in exchange for a fruit snack.”

“It was truly amazing to see dozens of these exotic animals freely gathered in one spot,” she said. “We also visited the Monteverde Butterfly Garden. This enclosure contained 6,000 individual butterflies,” she said. “They reproduce within the enclosure and freely land on hands and faces making for amazing photographs. We were able to view all stages of butterfly metamorphosis, from egg to adult within the confines of this garden.”

After leaving the butterfly garden, the class then arrived at a beautiful mountain village and checked into a hotel located on the side of the mountain, which overlooked the village below. “Our afternoon was spent hiking through the Cloud Forest where we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of a male and female Imperial Kestrel,” said Willis of the two foot long endangered tropical bird. Most of the bird’s girth is comprised of a long purple and red tail.

Lalo tried to impress the class on how lucky they were to see the Imperial Kestrel, as he had spent his entire life in the forest and had only seen this bird four times before that day.

“We were impressed with how different the cloud forest is from the tropical rain forest,” said Willis. “The temperature was 20 degrees cooler, but the humidity was equally as intense. Except for the fact that the plants were entirely different, it felt very similar to our own often times humid and cool mountain forests,” she said.

Following dinner, the class traveled to the Monteverte Frog Pond where they received a guided tour featuring many poisonous dart frogs.

Pura Vida

“Our Costa Rican trip was everything we had anticipated during the first five days,” said Willis. “We had visited totally unique places, tasted unique foods and met some wonderful people.”

However on Friday evening several trip members felt ill and for the next 12 hours, eight students and one chaperone experienced the agony of food poisoning, Willis said. “When our instructor decided we needed medical assistance, we were quickly taken care of as the owner of the hotel where we were staying called and sent a physician to our hotel.”

“We don’t know what it was from, it was pretty rough but we got over it,” said Sutton. “It lasted about 12 hours, from Friday night into Saturday.” The unfortunate incident cost the students a zip lining adventure, though they maintain the food poisoning did not ruin their vacation. Their food-borne plight was met by calls from concerned parents and prayer chains made in their name, said Sutton.

The doctor stayed with the class for six hours and returned once more the following morning, triaging and treating each of the food poisoned as needed. By early afternoon the next day, we had recovered enough to travel and boarded the motor coach for the five hour ride back to San Jose.

“For many of us, this was our first time on an airplane, our first time out of the country, and our first opportunity to learn about tropical flora and fauna,” said Willis. “We all know we were given an amazing opportunity. But, the best part of our adventure was the people of Costa Rica. They are a friendly, gentle people who are willing to offer help when needed. Language barriers disappear and we saw first-hand how the actual people live, not what you would see at a coastal resort. When we needed help, they were willing and resourceful. We all agree that the people of Costa Rica are their most important resource.”

Back in Macon County

It was hard for the students to pin down what was the highlight of their trip to Costa Rica, because as they maintained, every day was packed full of adventure. “It was science, but it was fun,” said Morgan. “It was definitely something that I won’t forget.” Morgan also proudly ate live termites with her classmates, though they maintained that termites had little taste, save a hint of peanut butter.

“I think the rafting was probably the most fun that I’ve had,” said Senior Erich Baker. “What stands out to me is all the different eco systems we saw, like the cloud forest, the volcano forest, and the regular rain forest. I can now say I know what they look like, what lives there, what it’s like to be there.” He added that the fish the class had eaten throughout their trip was delicious. “It was so fresh.”

For Sutton, what etched a mark in her memories was the wildlife of Costa Rica. “Honestly, just seeing so many different animals, and so many different plants that we could never hope to see here was great,” she said.

“We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the citizens of Macon County who make this trip possible for us by buying our cakes, pies, flower bulbs, and Christmas wreaths,” said the class in a statement. “Also, for the many, many donations we received from people who just felt like this was an educational opportunity worth supporting. We are all better world citizens because of this trip.”

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