"Come for a tour of the caves" they suggested and with nothing else planned for that particular moment we thought why not?
Silly o’clock in the morning when our array of alarms spring to life announcing time to depart the land of Nod and prepare to embark on our latest adventure beginning with the assent of a Mayan pyramid where we’ll watch the sun rise over the Tikal ruins in Guatemala.
Preconceptions of Mexico tend to tread along the lines of Spicy food, sombreros, gang warfare, bad boy moustaches, tequila and cactus. Have I missed any stereotypes?
Every now and then something special happens on the board that provides us with our weekly schedule, and rather than seeing your initials scrawled underneath ‘Shady Lane - bird survey’, or ‘Luna Ridge – primate survey’, you’ll see them written under something wonderfully rare, and for those who know the deal, your heart may even flutter with excitement. Before I came to Costa Rica I didn’t realise that two seemingly ordinary words could combine to create an extraordinary rush of exhilaration. I naively thought that this kind of thrill is reserved only for Formula One drivers, or those who hold a special love for adrenaline. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Behold – trail maintenance.
Sure, on the face of it trail maintenance seems like nothing special, in fact if anything it might seem like hard work, a laborious day spent sweating as the Central American sun beats down on your sweaty back. This, however, only tells half the story, and while it would be unwise to suggest that trail maintenance is easy work, it would be equally unwise for you to assume that a day spent shovelling dirt and shifting rocks is any less fun than hunting Howler Monkeys or tracking turtles.
And so it was that our motley crew of eight set out towards Rio Carate to meet our temporary boss for the day, Adrian, owner of La Leona eco-lodge, unsure of what ‘trail maintenance’ would entail this time (for it is different almost every time). When he did arrive he hopped off his quadbike, turned his eyes to the sky, swivelled back to face us, and with the wisdom of a man who has lived in this part of Costa Rica for many, many years, said to us ‘we have around an hour till the sun gets too hot, so let’s move some rocks’. And so we did, without not a single one of us doubting that the rocks we were shifting would serve a great purpose (it turns out we were helping to build stone steps to make the trail more accessible), and to do so we created a human conveyer belt, passing the rocks along until a huge and glorious pile had built up. And then we continued.
The second part of trail maintenance saw us split into two groups – the shovellers and the rakers. Adrian had decided that the trail path needed to be cleared of the fallen leaves and rotting mangoes, and that also some steps needed to be built into what had become a rather steep path. We set about our work with bags of enthusiasm, glad to have escaped from the sun and into the shady trail before the sun had become too unbearable, just as Adrian had prophesised. It was hard work, but after a few hours the trail was as clean as a whistle, and twice as easy to navigate as it had been previously. This is one of two moments which make trail maintenance so special, as it is these trails which we use for surveys, and that others use to travel around the peninsula, so to look back on it and appreciate that your hard work makes life easier for others is rewarding in the most simple of ways.
However it is the third and final part of trail maintenance which really makes it stand out so splendidly when you see it on the board. Tired and sweaty, we take our shovels and rakes and trudge towards Adrian’s kingdom – La Leona eco-lodge. Here we are met with clean towels, and ushered towards the showers. Once fresh, we then move over towards the dining area, our minds whirring in anticipation, thinking feverishly about what is soon to follow. To begin with, we are treated with a seemingly endless supply of iced tea and coffee, which is much needed after the days work. Then what we are all waiting for happens. A pair of waiters appear, and deliver to us the finest lunch that Carate can offer, courtesy of Adrian and eco-lodge. A salad of vegetables, egg and olives, chunky slices of warm, crisp bread, and a huge, steaming portion of pasta in the sweetest, most delicious tomato sauce. Oh Adrian, you’ve done it again you sly dog.
There is no kick-out time, so we spend our day lounging in La Leona’s hammocks, listening to the sound of the sea which is not even 20 meters from us, and day-dreaming of the glorious lunch we’ve just devoured. A round of desserts come out for us, more coffee is drunk, and eventually we decide it’s time to leave this life behind and head back to camp, where we are hounded for the details of the food we were treated to this time.
In this day and age a true hero is hard to come by, but for us, Adrian will always be a knight in shining armour.
By Alistair Ross - Field Communications Officer
Find out more about Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates & Turtles Conservation.
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Having never been to Central America before, Frontier's Ethical Adventure Trail in the region was the perfect opportunity for Sophie to experience whole new cultures, food and landscapes for 10 whole weeks!
1) Why did you choose to go on the trail?
Central America was always a place I had an interest in, the culture, language and scenery were so different to England. It was somewhere I had never been before and Frontier offered the chance to do an adventure trail there so it was perfect!
2) What kind of work and activities did you do during your time on the trail?
The trail was jam-packed with activities everyday ranging from sight seeing, exploring new cultures by getting to know the locals and trying amazing food. We also did a week teaching at a Red Cross Foundation in Honduras, it was exhausting but rewarding as the teenagers we taught knew very little English but were able to hold a conversation with us by the end. There was also the animal conservation project in Costa Rica, which was amazing! We saw so many diverse animals on the surveys including turtles, snakes, monkeys and literally hundreds of birds!
3) How did the culture and people differ to home, and what were the locals like?
The people were so laid back and extremely friendly. I was always comfortable, using my best Spanish (which has improved greatly since travelling!), to ask locals directions or prices etc. They were always willing to help and sometimes even knew a little English which was great for a group of tourists who didn’t know much Spanish at all! The culture is so diverse in Central America too; every country had unique aspects which made the trip all the more exciting. Expect to see lots of colours, dancing and amazing street food!
4) What was the accommodation like throughout your journey?
For the most part we were staying in hostels. They were all well equipped with kitchens and bunk beds; occasionally a bar or even a swimming pool! It was nice staying in hostels and sharing rooms with other backpackers because you get to know them which made you feel comfortable and safe.
5) What were the staff and other trail volunteers like?
There were 4 other volunteers in my trail group and we all got along really well. Everyone was so friendly and easygoing. As we were all from different parts of the UK and around the world it was great getting to know about them and their life at home. The trail leader and staff on the project were brilliant; they gave us independence to head out on our own or choose which activities to do whilst also looking after us and making sure the trip was as enjoyable as possible.
6) What was your most amazing moment or your best memory?
I couldn’t possibly pick one memory that was amazing as the entire trip was unforgettable! Although, one moment which sticks out for me was in Guatemala. We had just spent 2 hours climbing to the top of Volcano Pacaya in Antigua and after roasting marshmallows on hot lava rocks and riding a horse up particularly steep parts we arrived at the top of a very high, very steep hill consisting entirely of volcanic ash and small rocks. Our guide proceeded to explain to us we had to “ski” down it! Following his demonstration, we ran/slid/fell down this mountain getting dust and stones absolutely everywhere, resulting in us all being covered from head to toe in black ash! Now it doesn’t sound particularly fun, but it was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
7) Do you feel the work you were doing on your project placement was worthwhile?
Definitely. We did 2 beach cleans which were extremely satisfying as we could see an instant difference. It was crazy how much litter we managed to collect in such a small area. We were also given presentations at the beginning of the project telling us exactly what we would be doing during our stay on the project and how it was going to help in the future.
8) What sort of adventure activities did you get up to?
I’ve lost track of all the adventures we went on during the trail! Some stand out memories include climbing up the tallest Mayan temple in Tikal, Flores at 4am to watch the amazing sunrise, Semuc Champey which included caving by candle light, tubing and jumping off waterfalls, bridges and rope swings, getting our Open Water Diving PADI’s in Utila, Honduras and finally volcano boarding in Nicaragua! Leon is the only place in the world where you can volcano board so I would absolutely recommend it, it’s so much fun too!
9) What were you hoping to learn from this experience, and have you achieved those goals?
I wanted to challenge myself by travelling independently without my parents to become more responsible and being able to look after myself, make decisions and face challenges. I also learnt a bit of Spanish too which I’m positive will come in useful in the future.
10) Any tips and advice you might like to pass on to future trail volunteers?
Make the most of each place you visit, if you’re unsure whether to spend money on an activity, definitely do it because it’s a once in a lifetime experience that you’ll probably never get to do anywhere else. Make sure you chat with the locals as much as possible as they are such interesting people and have really fascinating stories to tell, and they are so friendly!
11) What do you have planned next?
I am planning to go on the South East Asia Trial that Frontier offer as well. I am so excited to experience completely different cultures and lifestyles compared to Central America!
12) Anything else you would like to add?
I would highly recommend this trail – it is not somewhere you’d instantly think to travel to but it was absolutely worth it. I had the best time in the world, met some lifelong friends and made memories that I will never forget!
By Sophie Marriott - Ethical Adventure Trail Volunteer
Find out more about Central America Ethical Adventure Trail.