The Costa Rica Chronicles: Part 1

During winter break, I had the exciting chance to go on one of my dream trips. Shortly after I applied to University of Illinois last year, I also applied to the WIE-GFX Global Sustainability Scholars program. This class was run by the Women in Engineering and Grainger First-Year Experience programs, and it gave me the opportunity to spend a semester learning about Costa Rican culture, global service, and sustainability issues alongside 14 other freshman women in engineering. This all led up to a 10-day trip to Costa Rica over winter break, where we volunteered for sustainability projects and experienced some of the local culture.

The Projects

The main purpose of this trip was to learn about different sustainability initiatives in Costa Rica. One of the ways we did this was by working on two different projects in the San Jose area. On the first day, we met a local woman who runs her very own recycling program. Each day she wakes up before the sunrise, walks around town, picks up trash from the street, and then either disposes of it properly or upcycles it into something new. We joined her on a walk around the city to collect recyclables, then helped with a few of her projects. We turned old wipe containers into a collection bin for cigarettes, which we placed around the city to hopefully reduce cigarette litter, and stuffed plastic bottles full of wrappers, which are used to create garden beds like the one in the picture below.

Placing wrappers inside the plastic bottles makes them strong enough to support raised garden beds like this one.

Over the next two days, we spent our time at Parque La Libertad. This park in the heart of San Jose blends nature, recreation, and art in order to provide a safe place where people in the surrounding city can come to learn about and connect with nature. The park also constitutes an important habitat restoration initiative, as the site was once a concrete manufacturing plant, but is now filled with native plants and animals. During these two days, we helped to build a new greenhouse by moving and organizing hundreds of plants.

Some of our team members worked on moving plants from one greenhouse to another and classifying them.
A few team members moved this huge mountain of sand to make room for the new greenhouse.

While our work was not easy and we constantly had to contend with a hot sun and gigantic spiders, it was incredibly rewarding to see the impacts of our efforts. Not only do these projects help to advance sustainability by reducing waste and restoring natural habitats, but they also mean a great deal to the people of the community. It became clear over these three days that the people of Costa Rica are very passionate about preserving their environment, and sustainability efforts like these help to bring them together.

The Academics

After our three days of project work, we started visiting different sites and labs to learn about sustainability initiatives around the city. Our first stop was to the University of Costa Rica, where we visited their road safety lab and learned about some of the tools and materials used in designing roads. There, we discovered that they are developing a type of asphalt that incorporates recycled plastic water bottles as one of the components, which was a really cool way to repurpose plastic waste into something new.

The next day, we visited a water treatment plant. This plant was a bit unconventional, as it was almost completely natural. The owners of the plant aimed to use natural water filtration processes by restoring the forest around the water source. This means that the only treatment required is a chemical process to make the water drinkable to foreigners. Our tour of the plant ended up being a very nice hike through the rain forest where we learned about different plants and their functions in water purification.

We hiked through the rain forest to reach the water treatment plant.

One of our assignments in the course leading up to the trip was to read sections from the book Monkeys are Made of Chocolate by Jack Ewing. This was a collection of stories about Hacienda Barú Wildlife Refuge, a former cattle plantation turned into a restored rain forest by Ewing himself. We had the privilege of meeting Ewing and learning more about his work at the Wildlife Refuge and saw some of the beautiful animals and plants up close.

During his lecture, Ewing explained that the best way to restore nature is to simply leave it alone. While he and his team often had thoughts of reintroducing certain species of plants or animals to the forest, they found that those same species would return naturally after a period of time. During our visit, we saw massive leaf-cutter ant colonies, agoutis in the backyards of our cabins, and iguanas sunning themselves on every path. All of this goes to show how much nature really can thrive when left untouched.

Fun fact: Jack Ewing used to hold the world record for being the oldest man to climb a tree!

I have so many more cool experiences from this trip that I’ll be talking about in Part 2! Stay tuned to find out how I navigated a language barrier with my host family, climbed to the top of an active volcano crater, and had the coolest birthday ever!



Class of 2023
I'm a Civil and Environmental Engineering major in the Grainger College of Engineering, and I hope to one day work to lessen society's impact on the environment. I am a major nerd, have a passion for all things outdoors, and love exploring all the different opportunities that the University of Illinois has to offer!

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